Category Archives: Pakistan

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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Kabul Attacks: Who is behind the suicide bombing?

Tarana, girl in the green robe, cries after the blast that killed over 80 people. She lost 7 family members, including a 7-year-old brother. Photo by Massoud Hossaini/ AFP

I wrote a piece on Guardian about the sectarian attack in Kabul last week. It was slightly edited for word limit. Below is full version.

The sectarian attack in Kabul on Tuesday was first of its kind in Afghanistan. Though the Taliban quickly disowned the attack, it doesn’t mean involvement by elements from different Taliban groups can be ruled out. Previously they have committed sectarian-oriented war crimes, such as the Mazar and Yakawlang massacres during their rule in Afghanistan.

In his notorious speech in Mazar in October 1998, Taliban leader Mullah Manan Niazi warned the Hazaras, who make up majority of Shias in Afghanistan, to either convert to Hanafi Sunnism or face the consequences. Following that infamous sermon, thousands of Hazara Shias were killed in a few days in Mazar. However, in the current war and insurgency during the last 10 years, militants have avoided sectarian attacks.

Whether such incidents can provoke sustained sectarian violence depends on who exactly is behind the attack. However, it will not cause larger Sunni-Shia violent conflict in Afghanistan for the time being. Even if such attacks increase, it will not be tit-for-tat violence since we don’t have trained militant groups from both Sunni and Shia sides – unlike Pakistan where sectarian violence has decades of history.

While militants from Pakistan with a sectarian background are in the rank and file of Taliban insurgents in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is no single militant Shia group in Afghanistan known to be involved in any previous act of violence.

Traces of Tuesday’s carnage in Kabul also apparently point to sectarian militants in Pakistan. An al-Qaida affiliated, Pakistan-based militant outfit called Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-alami (LeJ-Al-Alami) has claimed responsibility and previously it has been mentioned in media reports in connection with sectarian attacks in Pakistan.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami is a splinter of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which is the militant wing of Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) that has 17 international branches outside Pakistan including in UK and Canada.

It is possible that such groups are now focusing on Afghanistan under the patronage of some elements in Pakistan who want to open a new front. SSP and LeJ were banned in Pakistan in 2002 but the outfits soon resumed operations under new names, first as Millat Islamia Pakistan and later Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ).

Recently Pakistani Interior Ministry issued a latest list of banned outfits, and surprisingly ASWJ was not included.

These sectarian militant groups have a history of connections with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Qari Hussain, the notorious suicide bombing trainer of Tehreek Taliban Pakistan, has strong links with LeJ and SSP leadership. During the Taliban regime, LeJ militants were trained in camps such as Badr, Muawiyeh and Waleed in eastern Afghanistan.

SSP is an offshoot of Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), a religious political party in Pakistan, who provided the bulk of Jihadi recruits for Taliban in the 1990s. SSP founder Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi – to whose name the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (Forces of Jhangvi) refers – was vice-chairman of JUI-Punjab.

Prominent Pakistani journalist Amir Mir in his book True Faces of Jihadis says the entire LeJ leadership is made up of veterans who have fought in Afghanistan in 1990s. There is no detailed information about LeJ-Al-Alami and its leadership based in North Waziristan. These militant outfits have been changing names to avoid ban in Pakistan. Amir Mir says some experts believe SSP and LeJ are two faces of the same coin. And possibly LeJ-Al-Alami is not any different from LeJ.

LeJ is also involved in many attacks on westerners in Pakistan. According to intelligence reports, LeJ was behind an attack on a church in Islamabad in March 2002 killing five foreigners, including two Americans. In May 2002, 11 Frenchmen were blown up in Karachi. In January 2003, the US State Department added LeJ to its List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. State Dept. spokesman Richard Boucher said LeJ was behind the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl and 1997 killing of 4 American oil workers in Karachi.

The roots of these militant groups date back to the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan and the religious revolution in Iran. Pakistani academic Hassan Abbas in his book, Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America’s War on Terror, says the 1979 Iranian revolution changed the character and magnitude of sectarian politics in Pakistan.

The zealous emissaries of the Iranian revolutionary regime started financing their outfit Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqa-e-Jafria, a Shia group in Pakistan. To counter this, the military dictatorship of Zia, says Hassan Abbas, “through intelligence agencies selected Haq Nawaz Jhangvi“, and Saudi funds started pouring in. Saudi-Iran sectarian rivalry reached a peak in the 1990s when the Tehran regime increased support for its Shia outfits in Pakistan and tit-for-tat attacks started. Iranian Council General in Lahore Sadeq Ganji was killed in Dec 1990 in retribution for Haq Nawaz Jhangvi’s assassination in Feb 1990. Later Iranian diplomat Ghulam Raza was killed in 1997.

The FTO listing of LeJ by the US has been symbolic without any practical actions against the terrorist organization involved in murder of many American citizens. Recently the Pakistani Supreme Court released Malik Ishaq, one of the founders and current leader of LeJ on July 14 because of “insufficient evidence produced by the prosecution”. He is charged for 44 cases of murders. Despite being in jail, he continued terror plots against Shias in Pakistan.

Following 9/11 attacks, SSP joined the Pakistan-based pro-Taliban Council for Defense of Afghanistan and condemned ouster of Taliban by the US. In an interview later with BBC, Azam Tariq, the then SSP leader said to support Taliban in resistance. Azam Tariq was also a frequent visitor of Afghanistan under Taliban rule, where he had set up the training camps for SSP/LeJ militants.

After the ousting of the Taliban, these sectarian terrorists fled back to Pakistan from the training camps in Afghanistan. In the following years, LeJ found new patrons and supporters in north Waziristan among al-Qaida operatives, who used the group to launch attacks in Pakistan.

Tuesday’s attacks in Kabul, claimed by LeJ-Al-alami, could not be carried out without some help from elements within the Taliban in Afghanistan, or the Haqqani network. But the question is whether this will lead to sustained sectarian violence. If targeted sectarian attacks increase, it might provoke retaliatory actions and the birth of Shia militant groups in Afghanistan. With the history of Iranian involvement behind creating such groups in Pakistan in the past, it will not be hard for them to grow such outfits in Afghanistan. But it will take time.

We have already seen increasing Iranianisation of Shia religious festivities in Afghanistan during the last couple of years. According to my former journalist colleague and a university professor Ali Amiri, Ashura has been a cultural commemoration observed both by Shia and Sunnis of Afghanistan equally. But it is increasingly gaining a political colour with monopolisation of pro-Iran clerics.

Amiri notes that the leading Iranian newspaper Kayhan supervised by their supreme leader reported the attack in Kabul as an “American revenge from Islamic awakening”. Ali Akbar Walayeti, former foreign minister of Iran, heads a commission that supports regional religious outfits, and influential Afghan Shia cleric Sheikh Asif Mohsini, who runs a TV and grand Madrassah in Kabul, is reportedly member of that commission.

Afghan leaders have to make all efforts to stop the rise of sectarianism, which started in Pakistan with similar attacks causing an extreme religious polarisation and plaguing sectarian harmony for more than three decades now.

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Their Denials and Propagandists

My Outlook Afghanistan op-ed Nov 01

The BBC documentary Secret Pakistan was not the first such reporting to ‘reveal’ how Taliban regrouped and made a comeback launching a sophisticated insurgency by the help of their Al-Qaeda mentors and supporters hiding and training in the safe havens of Pakistani tribal areas, under the eyes of Pakistani intelligence agencies. Such a documentary might depict the untold and unseen pictures behind the smoke in Afghanistan for people around the world, but the governments of the US and NATO countries know it more than Afghans do.

But one doesn’t understand the reason why international forces have been ignoring the fact and choosing to always be the first in making attempts to mend relations with the so-called ally of the war on terror, latest of which was seen in the Islamabad visit by US Secretary of State Clinton.

What will it take the US and NATO to change the counterinsurgency strategy with the reality that unless Taliban are denied the support and sanctuary across the border in Pakistan, a military success is impossible in Afghanistan? Militants killed 13 Americans in Kabul the other day. They have launched successful attacks targeting the ISAF Headquarters and the US Embassy in the most secure parts of Kabul. Will a militant takeover of the Presidential Palace or the US Embassy take them to respond?

As usual, there always come the denials, which we are used to since the last 10 years. The latest of it was about ISI spying on German officers training Afghan Police. The ISAF spokesman made a hilarious remark yesterday when asked whether the information spied by the ISI could be passed to the Taliban. He said, “It’s good that the Taliban know how well police are being trained“.

As expected, there was a denial of the BBC documentary by none other than Mr. Ejaz Haider, a Pakistani analyst writing on defense and security issues. It’s the worst of irony when someone like Mr. Haider teaches tests of reporting to the BBC. But wait. He is not naïve, nor his piece “Journalism or Jabberwocky?” published on Pakistan Today on Oct 27 is an emotional reaction. He is playing with different audiences. Mr. Haider lists several fact-checks about the BBC documentary.

He says “the BBC has embedded with the National Directorate of Security, interviewed ‘alleged’ Taliban commanders and talked to ‘impartial’ actors like Amrullah Saleh, former CIA officer Bruce Riedel and former British officer Col Richard Kemp“. But actually Mr. Haider is feeding propaganda to his readers.

He simply twists the facts by saying that the BBC “embedded” with NDS or interviewed Taliban commanders in their custody. Those Taliban commanders are active insurgents now. What does Ijaz Haider mean by asking the BBC to have interviewed ‘impartial’ people, an insurgent commander fighting on payroll? The documentary interviews several Pakistani military officials in that documentary including former ISI Chief General Hamid Gul, Army Chief Mirza Aslam Beg and former officials who commanded military operations in Waziristan.

It’s ironic when someone like Mr. Haider questions tests of reporting by BBC, while he is a well known mouthpiece of the military establishment in Pakistan’s supposedly liberal English media. It’s not just the BBC or NYTimes doing such reports about the support behind Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Recently there was an exclusive story on Express Tribune, where Mr. Haider writes a weekly column, about the Taliban sanctuary in Kharotabad area of Quetta. The report included followings;

  •  Madrassahs in Kharotabad are providing free accommodation to Taliban militants from Afghanistan.
  •  At least six to eight new, unarmed recruits leave Kuchlak Bazar, located near Quetta, on brand new 75CC motorbikes every morning, headed towards Afghanistan.
  • The wounded Afghan Taliban militants receive free medical treatment at five prominent private hospitals [in Quetta].
  • An international NGO of world repute, funds their medical care.

In a TV talk show recently, former ISI Chief Hamid Gul was saying “Jalaluddin Haqqani is as Pakistani as I am“. He also proudly revealed that he had sent his sons Omar and Abdullah to Jihad with Haqqanis. One shakes head listening to a former Chief of the ISI saying this, but not surprising to read Gen Asad Durrani who wrote in a column couple of weeks ago calling Ejaz Haider his “former comrade in arms“, which makes it clear why Mr. Haider was so pissed with the BBC documentary that he quickly produced a denial twisting the facts.

Instead of questioning their deep-state on why the entire world complains about their double-games, Pakistani analysts like Mr. Haider continue forming perceptions to hide the facts, the way Pakistanis have always been fed propaganda about Afghanistan.

Thanks to propaganda by people like Mr. Haider, common myths among ordinary Pakistanis today are; Taliban represent majority of Afghans, who support the ‘Jihad’ against the ‘occupation’ of foreign troops. Such is the level of shameless propaganda that recently a prominent columnist Orya Maqbool Jan was saying that Taliban control 80 percent of Afghanistan and they will come back to power.

There are rare voices of sanity in Pakistani media commenting on Afghanistan, but many of those propagandists who feed the narrative of the military-jihadi nexus to common people. Recently Hamid Mir, another top TV anchor and columnist had invented a proverb referring to the Tajiks of Afghanistan. It is not his ignorance, but intentional propaganda when he makes up a proverb that does not exist.

And there is no language as Tajiki, as he had written in his column on Daily Jang Oct 24 provoking Tajik-Pashtun ethnic divide in Afghanistan. Unfortunately there are many of Hamid Mirs and Ejaz Haiders in Pakistani media who distort facts and make perceptions to promote a particular narrative and propaganda about Afghanistan.

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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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In the City of “Taliban Shura”—Quetta

Strategic Importance of Quetta

It’s not Kandahar—the birthplace of Taliban and hometown of most members of the so-called Taliban Shura–but Quetta being infamous as the hub of Taliban leadership. Western media has been saying Quetta is the city where Mullah Omer leads Taliban Shura. But there is very little reporting or analysis about social and political situation of Quetta. Recently i was in Quetta for two weeks. Interesting is that local journalists and people of Quetta laugh on the myth about Taliban Shura’s existence in Quetta. Being the capital city of a separatist insurgency-hit province—Balochistan—, Quetta has a very strategic location because it’s a bordering city with Iran and Afghanistan. Its home to millions of Afghan refugees, who have settled, bought property and have business in Quetta. The oldest and one of the most prestigious institutions of Pakistan Army, Command and Staff College is in Quetta Cantonment—in South Asia cantonment means a permanent military station. Most of the transportation and trade from Gwadar Deep Sea Port have to come to this city. There are road and railway between Quetta to Afghan and Iran borders. Traveling by road, one can reach Quetta in the evening leaving Kabul early morning. It takes just 10 hours of road travel to reach Quetta from Kabul. Same is the distance between Quetta and Iran border with Pakistan, which’s called Zero Point.Under the British Raj, Quetta was made a military center due to its strategic location. Its 3 hours of drive from Chaman–the bordering Pakistani city with Afghanistan–to Quetta. People living on both sides of bordering towns are from same tribes and mostly same families. Even same families live in Quetta and Kandahar. Thus local people of bordering towns are not bound to any documents for crossing the border. The control on this border is not so strict. It has been a route for militants from the other side of border to come in Kandahar and other provinces for “Jihad” and then return back home safe and sound. This border and surrounding towns are comparatively peaceful than those of Tor Kham border in Peshawar.

Problems of Durand Line

All these make Chaman Border a busy crossing-point where thousands of people cross daily. There are many local people having shops in Chaman of Pakistan and Boldak of Afghanistan, who crosses the border every morning and goes back in the evening. Much of the problems regarding insurgency is linked to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Kabul, the political sensitivity of the Durand Line has also made it a taboo to discuss the issues related.  Durand Line cannot be called a “border” literally. People cross it like herd of sheep without any travel documents. There is no strict check. How could it be called a border? The elite decision makers and politicians should realize now that its a non-issue. Some in Kabul always talk about Durand Line with political purposes and question its legitimacy. The fact is that we cannot bear more troubles. And there is not a nationally united-consensus on this issue among all major ethnic groups. We cannot manage the regions that we have now, why to bring more troubles?

The open border makes it very easy for militants, smugglers of drugs and weapons to move freely. Last year during my trip from this border, there were two Taliban fighters on the vehicle that I was travelling from Kandahar to the border. They were going to Quetta, and were back from the “Jihad” in Uruzgan and Helmand. They were telling stories of attack and escape tactic on the US troops in Uruzgan and Helmand. This is very common. Weapons are supplied to insurgents from border.  Former Pakistani President Musharraf once suggested fencing the entire border. He had assured the world that fencing would cover the entire border within 5 years. Though it will need a big force, surveillance equipment, and huge amount of money, but for larger cause of security, its not impossible. There are examples of controlling long borders. The long Indo-Pak border and the Kashmir LOC, the Irani Sestan-Balochistan border are examples of our region. International community has no interest to resolve the key conflicts in the region. These are the roots of the situation in Afghanistan. If the weapons’ supply and manpower of insurgents are stopped from moving freely between borders, the insurgency would reduce and can be defeated easily.

In most cases, suicide bombers in Afghanistan are from bordering areas of Pakistan or vice versa. Whether it’s the suicide bombers of Pakistan’s FATA blowing themselves up in Kabul or those from Paktia of Afghanistan attacking in Lahore, now their agenda is the same radical Jihad. Extremists living on both sides of the Durand Line border are connected not only ideologically but operationally also. Unless the Durand Line is controlled strictly, terrorists would move easily on both sides making bloodshed.

Kabul-Kandahar Highway

Now coming back to my trip to Quetta, the highway between Kabul and Kandahar is very insecure. There are daily roadside bomb blasts and mine attacks. Taliban stop most of local buses and search for civilians working in international organizations or National Security Forces. Common people are compelled to travel on this insecure way as they have no other alternative route, but the businessmen and well to do people prefer flights from Kabul to Kandahar. On the highway, NATO troops make road blocks. There are firefights on road and civilian vehicles have to stop for hours. While travelling in local vehicle, I noticed that people hate these road blocks by American troops the most. For instance while coming from Boldak to Kandahar, I saw unnecessary road blockade by a convoy of the US troops. A hospital ambulance came there and it was not allowed to cross the convoy waiting for nothing. It’s not the way the US troops want to win hearts and minds.

Improvements on Border

I have travelled on Chaman Border for many times previously, but there were some changes recently. People used to cross the border like a herd of sheep without fences or lines. Even vehicles full of people without any security check could cross the border. Though smugglers transport drugs and weapons daily on this long border from mountains, but on Chaman Border’s gate there are check points and security forces. Despite the gate and check posts, there is no proper checking process. The transporters have a chain of bribing system with the security personnel on the border. Security forces do not stop the vehicles, thus smuggling is very common. This time there were some changes and improvements on Chaman Border. I saw American troops on the Afghanistan side of the border. They were not there previously. While the border blockade on Pakistan side had improved with fenced lines and a proper way for people to go through some minor and informal security checks. I thought all these improvements, concrete walls and fenced lines, were because of the presence of American troops on Afghanistan side of the border. There were some big changes on the other side of border too. Road construction was underway on Khojak Pass, which connects Quetta to Chaman. Like the Khyber Pass of Tor Kham border in Peshawar , there is a similar mountain pass in Chaman too. Elevation of Khojak Pass is 7,513 ft (2,290 m). The road was under construction at the end edge of Khojak Pass near Chaman city. The travel was a little more comfortable on this road as it had been paved all the way from the pass to Quetta city, almost 3 hours of drive. There were many trucks transporting military vehicles and other equipments for American troops in Afghanistan. Oil tankers were also using this way. The route from Peshawar to Jalalabad and Kabul via Tor Kham border is now not so secure. Oil tankers and other NATO supply came under heavy attacks during all the year. It made the US to arrange an alternative route for NATO supply through Russia or Central Asian states. Now this route via Chaman Border is used for supplies. I thought the road construction and the fences might also be related to the NATO supply. This route is much longer compared to Peshawar. The supply comes from Karachi, the southern port city of Pakistan. It takes a long way, and there have already been several rocket firing on oil tankers on the way between Quetta to Chaman. Though security has been good in these parts of Balochistan province, but it’s a fact that the people are very sympathetic to Taliban in these areas (Qilla Abdulla, Muslim Bagh, Quetta). Many Taliban fighters are from these areas that come for “Jihad” to Helmand and Kandahar. I don’t think this route for NATO supply will remain safe for longer. Once there is heavy traffic of supply, attacks will increase. This route is an easier target for militants. Because there is not security forces and a lot of check posts between Chaman and Quetta. In near future, the US will have to once again search for alternative routes for supply, particularly the options of Central Asia and Russia.

In the City of “Taliban Shura”

Quetta city is nowadays like a war zone. There are security check posts on every junction and square in the city. Every local vehicle, including taxis and buses, are checked. It’s due to the worst security situation there. Sectarian and ethnic target killing is a daily routine in the city. During two weeks of my stay there, 10 people got killed by unknown attackers. Mostly they are civilians, killed due to sectarian conflicts and ethnicity. Security forces also come under daily attacks in Quetta. The three major ethnic groups of the city are Pashtoon, Baloch and Hazaras. A small number of people from other provinces of Pakistan also live in Quetta. Thus the ethnic and religious population is a mixed of different ethnicities but divided geographically. I mean people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds live in different parts of the city. And the killings and attacks happen in the center of the city or mixed commercial areas. The sectarian attackers are mostly sectarian militant outfits like Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar Janghvi. These groups are behind the sectarian violence all across Pakistan. Pakistani security officials said Lashkar-e-Janghvi was behind the bloody attack on a shrine in Lahore a couple of weeks ago. This same outfit takes responsibility for the sectarian killings in Quetta. And those who are targeted for ethnic reasons are mostly claimed by the Baloch separatist insurgent groups. Majority of the people killed are from Hazara ethnic, as they are both from a different minority sect—Shiite—and a minority ethnic group of the city. People from Punjab province living in Quetta are mostly killed on ethnic bases and attacks on them are claimed by Baloch separatist groups, while the Hazara killings are claimed by religious outfits.

Recently the US Embassy in Islamabad wanted to establish a consulate in Quetta. There are some diplomatic councils in the city. The most active is the Iranian consulate and the “Iranian Culture House”.  As the rumors of the US consulate emerged in media, many political groups “opposed” and criticized the Pakistani Government for it. Among the groups giving media statements in local newspapers and news channels included pro-Iran religious groups and student unions. A pro-Iran religious political party had called delegates of Shiite groups from all Pakistan to come in Quetta for protest against the sectarian killings on July 4. But it had to do more with the US consulate issue than the sectarian killings. When I talked to some local people in the city about the consulate, they knew it and said it will bring them “troubles”. They were saying if there is a US consulate, suicide bombers will come to this city!

There is huge population in Quetta sympathetic to Taliban but local people don’t know their city is known in western media as the “city of Taliban Shura”. Local journalists laugh when you ever talk about this topic. Its mainly because the Taliban have not tried to do something Talibanic and get attention. When the Government of Taliban was toppled by the US, the most violent protest rally was taken out in Quetta city of Pakistan. During 1990s, Taliban also killed father of President Karzai in this city. While the President himself learned and taught English in a language center of this city. Despite its location as a bordering city with two countries, there is less trade and development in this cosmopolitan city of 3 million populations. Quetta is not only the center of trade between traders of three countries Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, and center-point for smugglers from these countries, but also now becoming a place where proxy games are being operated among different countries.

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Hate-mongers of Pakistan and Khalid Khwaja Mystery

Son of the slain former ISI officer, Khalid Khwaja–who was killed a couple of weeks ago in North Waziristan by “Asian Tigers”–has said he will go to court against the renowned Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir. This comes after the audio-tape leaked in Pakistani media in which allegedly Hamid Mir is talking with a member of Taliban. In the audio-tape conversation, published by some Pakistani newspapers, Hamid Mir accuses Khalid Khwaja of being a CIA agent and close to Ahmadiya sect. Khwaja’s son, Usama Khalid says Mir published a report in The News and Jang newspaper on May 02 with same contents discussed in his conversation in the tape. Mr. Mir says the audio is fake, while his employer Jang Media Group, that runs top Pakistani newspapers Jang and the News and the most watched Geo TV has said it will investigate the issue.  Hamid Mir hosts a prime time talk show “Capital Talk” live from Islamabad on Geo TV every night.

The audio-tape be fake or true, however its true that there are some top Pakistani journalists having idealogical orientations with extremists. These journalists, whose shows and columns i follow regularly include Hamid Mir, Dr. Shahid Masood, Zaid Hamid, Amir Liaqat Hussain, Ansar Abbasi, Abdul Qadir Hassan and some others. Mr. Mir has interviewed Usama Bin Ladin twice. When nobody had access to Baitullah Mehsood, former Amir of Taliban in Waziristan, this guy went to North Waziristan, interviewed him and came back safe and sound. How is it possible unless you are close to extremists?

In the tape, Mr. Mir conecting Khalid Khwaja with Ahmadiya sect makes derogatory remarks against this minority religious sect in Pakistan. In one of his shows “Aalim (scholar) Online”, another hate-monger top journalist Amir Liaqat Hussain had made remarks full of hatred against Ahmadiya sect, due to which there was a wave of violent incidents and several followers of this minority sect were killed across Pakistan last year.

These journalists host prime time shows on top TVs in Pakistan and write daily columns on top Pakistani newspapers. They are very much responsible for the promotion of idealogical extremism in Pakistan. They not only write and defend Taliban and other terrorist groups, but also make conspiracy theories linking anything that happens in Pakistan to America and Israel. A liberal senior Pakistani journalist Nadeem Paracha has written a good note about this all.

Coming to the Khalid Khwaja mystery, former ISI officer was kidnapped by militants in Waziristan, and later found dead with bullets on his head and chest. Just a week before his death, “Asian Tigers”, the militant group that claimed responsibility of his abduction, released a video of Khalid Khwaja confessing his “role” against the militants and that he works for CIA. It shocked everyone in public, as people were habitual of his media statements favoring Taliban and condemning the US. Online Jihadi Forums are still confused. Activists on these online forums talk in favor, while some against Khalid Khwaja.

In that video confession, Khalid Khwaja admits he worked for CIA and ISI. He also talks about the Lal Masjid operation in Islamabad in which hundreds of armed students were killed. Apparently under fear and depression, Khalid Khwaja seemed to be forced for the confession statement. It also shows how vast impacts the Lal Masjid operation conducted in 2007, had on militants. Dozens of armed students of the Madrassah were killed in the commando operation ordered by former President Pervez Musharraf. Lal Masjid issue later led Musharraf’s resignation as President. In the video, Khwaja also talks about the Kashmiri militant leaders like Maulana Masood Azhar and others, that they are given free hand by ISI and military for activities in Pakistan.

However, “Asian Tigers” is still a mystery. It seems more like any Kashmiri Jihadi outfit, given its English name and the statements about Kashmiri leaders in that video. After it was aired on media that Col. Imam and Khalid Khwaja, the active supporters of Taliban, have been arrested, some Taliban groups like the Haqqani Network started efforts to release the abductees, but failed. It’s most probably the Kashmiri groups, as they are welcome in Waziristan and other Taliban controlled areas, but Taliban do not control them militarily or keep an eye on their “Jihadi” activities. Previously Taliban leaders have not talked about Kashmir in their video statements. Secondly, a purely Taliban group would never come up with name of English words. Many of the Jihadis in Kashmir are those baccalaureate-educated youngsters who join the “Jihad” after being “impressed” by the promises of heaven and need of war against “infidels” by Jihadi Mullah recruiters for Kashmiri outfits. But strange is, if it was a purely Kashmir-related militant group, why the abductors demanded release of Taliban leaders arrested recently. There were names of some Punjabi-Taliban groups. They are mostly those anti-sectarian outfits involved in terror attacks in Pakistan. It could also be any smaller new group of militants related to Lal Masjid. Many students, who were armed inside the Madrassah just before the operation, were let go home without a proper investigation, partly due to heavy public pressure on former President Pervez Musharaf.   While many of those who lost brothers and sisters in the mosque during the operation are on their “holy” mission of “revenge”! Though most Pakistani journalists strongly criticize Musharaf for Lal Masjid Operation and say most of the suicide bombings in Pakistan are due to the massacre in the mosque, but the fact is that the situation was getting worst and out of control at that time. I was in Pakistan in those days and following the happenings around Lal Masjid in Islamabad. Lal Masjid had become a platform of Sharia Movement in the capital of Pakistan. Nothing was best option other than the bold operation.

The mystery of Khalid Khwaja is complicated. His funeral prayer was led by Maulana Abdul Aziz, the cleric whom the “Asian Tigers” say was deceived by Khwaja during the Lal Masjid operation negotiations. Pakistan’s former DG ISI Gen (R) Hameed Gull and former Chief of Army Staff Gen (R) Mirza Aslam were also in the funeral. They all praised Khalid Khwaja as a honest person. In the video Khwaja talks about having deceived Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid. Being retired from Pakistan Air Force by resignation, Khwaja was an active behind-the-scene player in Pakistani politics. He was a master of disinformation and making alliances among political parties always against the ruling party. He also mediated for direct contact between Clinton Administration and Kashmiri outfits. While he was also used as a mediator for peace deals between Taliban and Pakistan Army.

What makes it even more curious is that militants have not threatened to kill Col. Imam, and yet there is no news of his whereabouts.

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