Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Winning the battle, losing the war; the US and Pakistan

When former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said this weekend that Pakistan's nuclear weapons are not safe under President Asif Ali Zardari, he almost certainly did not mean that the nuclear arsenal is not secure. The nuclear weapons have little to do with the civilian government; they are guarded ferociously by the Pakistan Army both against terrorist attacks and any foreign or U.S. attempt to seize them, and, as a matter of pride for Pakistanis chafing at any American suggestions otherwise,  safeguarded to international standards.

Rather it was a rhetorical device to attack the government at a rally where Qureshi announced he was joining the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) , the party of former cricket star Imran Khan, a rising force in Pakistani politics.  Qureshi's assertion tapped into growing anti-Americanism, and a populist view that the  civilian government led by the Pakistan People's Party, to which he once belonged, had somehow sold the country's honour - in this case symbolised by nuclear weapons - in return for American aid.  (Pakistan first agreed its uneasy alliance with the United States under former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.)

Yet it is a measure of how distorted and narrow political discourse has become within Pakistan that Qureshi might use the safety of nuclear weapons to attack the government. That political discourse, difficult even at the best of times, is likely to become even narrower in the fury which has followed the NATO airstrikes which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the border with Afghanistan on Saturday. 

The attack, which Pakistan says was unprovoked and NATO described as a "tragic, unintended incident", has outraged Pakistanis who have already endured thousands of casualties in a war they believe was forced on them by the United States.

Sidestepping cursed number “39″ at the Afghan jirga


                                                                  By Mirwaiz Harooni and Hamid Shalizi
Afghanistan’s trouble with the number “39″, which has come to acquire a negative connotation, cropped up again at this week’s loya  jirga or  traditional assembly called to discuss the country’s proposed strategic partnership with the United States.  Some 2,000 delegates are attending the assembly and 40 committees were formed to separately deliberate the agreement that is expected to spell out the terms of a long term U.S. military presence in the country. Each committee is known by the number it was set up and so when it came to committee number 39, its members baulked. 
“As the members were unwilling to work on committee 39, the best solution was to form committee 41,”  said Safia Sediqqi, the loya jirga spokeswoman.
No one is quite sure why the number has become so contaminated, but is widely seen as an unlikely synonym for pimp and a mark of shame in the deeply conservative country.  Kabul gossip blames it on a pimp in neighbouring Iran  who had a flashy car with a 39 in its number plate. So he was nicknamed “39″ and the tag spread, the story goes. Earlier this summer, the country’s booming car sales industry was thrown into chaos with people refusing to buy any vehicle with that number.

Shooting from the hip : Pakistan and the U.S. election season


It’s rarely a nice thing for a foreign country to figure high in a U.S. presidential election campaign. If it is China, it is more likely to be about currency and trade disputes with Beijing, and how each of the candidates was going to tackle it than any bouquets. Or if it is Iran, you can be sure there would be some shooting from the hip as each candidate seeks to outbid the other in trying to convince voters he or she means business with the perceived threat from that country’s nuclear programme.

And so if you were a Pakistani, last weekend’s Republican presidential debate would be just as worrisome even though you know this is election season and candidates are given to competitive sabre rattling. The country was mentioned 55 times in the debate in South Carolina, notes Sadanand Dhume in a piece on The Enterprise blog. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the leading candidate, said Pakistan was nearly a failed state with multiple centres of power  including  a weak civilian leadership and a powerful military.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Capturing the Punjabi imagination: drones and “the noble savage”

Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid may have captured something rather interesting in his short story published this month by  The Guardian.   And it is not as obvious as it looks.

In "Terminator: Attack of the Drone", Hamid imagines life in Pakistan's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan under constant attack from U.S. drone bombings.  His narrator is one of two boys who go out one night to try to attack a drone.

India-Afghan strategic pact:the beginnings of regional integration


A strategic partnership agreement between India and Afghanistan would ordinarily have evoked howls of protest from Pakistan which has long regarded its western neighbour as part of its sphere of influence.  Islamabad has, in the past, made no secret of its displeasure at India’s role in Afghanistan including  a$2 billion aid effort that has won it goodwill among the Afghan  people, but which Pakistan sees as New Delhi’s way to expand influence. 

Instead the reaction to the pact signed last month during President Hamid Karzai’s visit to New Delhi, the first Kabul had done with any country, was decidedly muted. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani  said India and Afghanistan were “both sovereign countries and they have the right to do whatever they want to.”  The Pakistani foreign office echoed Gilani’s comments, adding only that regional stability should be preserved. It cried off further comment, saying it was studying the pact.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

She came, she saw, she confounded: Clinton in Pakistan

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recently concluded visit to Pakistan has left us none the wiser about how the United States and its allies will end the  Afghan war. In her public comments, she spoke of action "over the next days and weeks – not months and years, but days and weeks".  She promised the United States would tackle Taliban militants in eastern Afghanistan in response to a long-standing Pakistani complaint that Washington had neglected the region when  it decided to concentrate its forces in population centres in southern Afghanistan in 2010 (remember "government in a box"?).

She called, in return, for cooperation on the Pakistani side of the border to "squeeze these terrorists so that they cannot attack and kill any Pakistani, any Afghan, any American, or anyone."  Between the two countries, they would tackle the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Trusting the masses: US tiptoes into democracy in Pakistan

In his book "Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination", an edited collection of his Chapati Mystery blog, historian Manan Ahmed complained about the United States' past support for former president Pervez Musharraf, and its refusal, at the time to trust Pakistan with democracy.  In an entry written in 2007, he described Pakistan as the "the not yet nation" - a country for which democracy might be a good thing in the long run, but  was in American eyes not yet ready.

"We fear the multitudes on two fronts. One is that we conceive of them as masses without politics – forever hostage to gross religious and ideological provocations. Masses which do not constitute a body politic or act with an interest in self-preservation or self-growth. Faced with that absence of reason, we are forced to support native royals to do the job (from Egypt to Pakistan). We justify it by stressing that we may not like these dictators but we know that if we did not have them, the masses would instantly betray us to the very forces of extremism that we seek to destroy," he wrote.

The Taliban in Afghanistan’s once impregnable Panjshir Valley


Last month driving up Afghanistan’s magnificent Panjshir valley, you couldn’t help thinking if the resurgent Taliban would ever be able to break its defences, both natural and from the Tajik-dominated populace. With its jagged cliffs and plunging valleys, Panjshir has been largely out of bounds  for the  Taliban, whether during the civil war or in the past 10 years when it has expanded a deadly insurgency against western and Afghan forces across the country. But on Saturday, the insurgents struck, carrying out a suicide bombing at a provincial reconstruction team base housing U.S. and Afghan troops and officials.

They were halted outside the base, but according to the provincial deputy governor they succeeded in  killing two civilians and wounding two guards when they detonated their explosives. The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying the first suicide bombing in a decade was a message to Western forces that they were not secure anywhere in the country. They said the  bombers came from within Panjshir, which if true  would worry people even more  because that would suggest the penetration was deeper and there could be more attacks.

Pakistan and Afghanistan, spoiling for a full-blown fight ?


With a series of spectacular attacks over the past few months, first in the provinces and then in the Afghan capital Kabul, the Talban have captured attention and even prompted comparisons with the Viet Cong’s Tet offensive. But they are not the only ones attacking Afghanistan, according to The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). It lists a series of attacks from early this year to build the case that Pakistan has joined the Taliban in what it called a “military invasion of Afghanistan”, driving another nail in the faltering U.S. effort in the country.

Beginning from the February bombardment of Afghan  border police posts in Nangarhar and Khost provinces in eastern Afghanistan by Pakistani planes to the firing of hundreds of rockets last month in Kunar and Nuristan, Pakistani forces have stepped up cross border action, MEMRI  said in a report.  It quoted Afghan officials  as saying the artillery and missile strikes backed by air intrusions were an “act of intrusion.”

from Photographers' Blog:

38 days and 10 years in Afghanistan

By Erik de Castro

As I write this blog, I am on the 38th day of my current assignment to Afghanistan as an embedded journalist with U.S. military forces. I have been assigned here several times since 2001 to cover the war that is still going on 10 years after the al Qaeda attack on U.S. soil. Mullah Omar, popularly known as the one-eyed Taliban, was the first member of the Taliban I met back in 2001. He held press conferences almost daily at the Afghan embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan a few weeks before U.S. forces and its allies attacked Afghanistan to remove the Taliban government.

Ten years and several trips back to Afghanistan later, I still haven't seen a lot of Taliban fighters. My present assignment is the time I’ve experienced the most encounters between the combined U.S. and Afghan forces and the Taliban.