Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
from Pakistan: Now or Never?:
One year ago, I asked whether then President-elect Barack Obama's plans for Afghanistan still made sense after the Mumbai attacks torpedoed hopes of a regional settlement involving Pakistan and India. The argument, much touted during Obama's election campaign, was that a peace deal with India would convince Pakistan to turn decisively on Islamist militants, thereby bolstering the United States flagging campaign in Afghanistan.
As I wrote at the time, it had always been an ambitious plan to convince India and Pakistan to put behind them 60 years of bitter struggle over Kashmir as part of a regional solution to many complex problems in Afghanistan. Had the Mumbai attacks pushed it out of reach? And if so, what was the fall-back plan?
One year on, there is as yet still no sign of a fall-back plan for Afghanistan and the tense relationship between India and Pakistan remains the elusive piece of the jigsaw.
After some attempts at peace-making which culminated in a meeting between the leaders of India and Pakistan in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt in July, and despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's own determination to try to repair relations, the two countries have descended into mutual recrimination.
If you want an idea of just how much the Afghan experience has soured for Canada, look no further than a furore over allegations that officials may have committed war crimes by handing over prisoners to local authorities in 2006 and 2007.
The accusations flying through Parliament — not to mention a cartoon portraying the Prime Minister as a torturer — cannot have been what Ottawa expected when it committed 2,500 troops to Kandahar in 2005 on a mission that has turned out to be much bloodier, longer and expensive that anyone had calculated. At best, Canada’s dreams for Afghanistan are on hold: the Taliban is still strong, corruption is rampant and there is little sign of the major development that Ottawa hoped for.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is in the United States for the first official state visit by any foreign leader since President Barack Obama took office this year. While the atmospherics are right, and the two leaders probably won’t be looking as stilted as Obama and China’s President Hu Jintao appeared to be during Obama’s trip last week (for the Indians are rarely short on conversation), there is a sense of unease.
And much of it has to do with AFPAK - the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan which is very nearly at the top of Obama’s foreign policy agenda and one that some fear may eventually consume the rest of his presidency. America’s ally Pakistan worries about India’s expanding assistance and links to Afghanistan, seeing it as part of a strategy to encircle it from the rear. Ordinarily, Pakistani noises wouldn’t bother India as much, but for signs that the Obama administration has begun to adopt those concerns as its own in its desperate search for a solution, as Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek.
The United Nations said last week that Afghanistan is “without doubt” the worst place in the world for a child, especially a girl, to be born.
It has the highest infant mortality rate in the world, 70 percent of Afghans have no access to clean water and hundreds of schools, mostly girls’ schools, have been attacked by Taliban or other insurgents.
In his inauguration speech on Thursday, Afghan president Hamid Karzai promised to combat corruption and appoint competent ministers, heading off the growing chorus of criticism from the West that his government is crooked and inept. Unsurprisingly, the Western dignitaries in the audience declared that they liked what they heard.
We predicted ahead of time that we would hear positive words about Karzai this week. After all, Western governments need to convince their own voters back home that the veteran Afghan leader’s government is worth sending their sons and daughters to die for. This autumn’s election debacle made Karzai look bad – a U.N.-backed probe found that nearly a third of votes cast for him were fake — but now that’s all over and the West needs him to look as reliable as possible.
On the eve of Hamid Karzai’s inauguration as Afghanistan’s president, the obvious question to ask is what happens if he, or more crucially his Western backers, fail to turn back a resurgent Taliban the second time around.
Steve Coll, journalist and president of the New America Foundation, sets out four consequences of failure in Afghanistan in a blog in The New Yorker, which speak to those especially in America who question its involvement in the first place in this far-off “graveyard of empires.”
That sure was fast.
On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told American TV audiences that Afghan President Hamid Karzai needed to take steps to fight graft, including setting up a new anti-corruption task force, if he wants to keep U.S. support. Less than 24 hours later, there was Karzai’s interior minister at a luxury hotel in Kabul — flanked by the U.S. and British ambassadors — announcing exactly that. A new major crimes police task force, anti-corruption prosecution unit and special court will be set up, at least the third time that Afghan authorities and their foreign backers have launched special units to tackle corruption.
There are just a couple of days left before Karzai is inaugurated for a new term as president. Perhaps a few more days after that, U.S. President Barack Obama will announce whether he is sending tens of thousands of additional troops to join the 68,000 Americans and 40,000 NATO-led allies fighting there.
U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated on Monday his belief that the Afghan police and army had to grow in order to pave the way for a United States and NATO military drawdown in Afghanistan.
Strengthening Afghanistan’s indigenous security forces has always been one of the main planks of the NATO-led ISAF military strategy. But the Afghan police have a lot of problems. The are often accused of endemic corruption, colluding with Taliban insurgents, being poorly trained and badly organised. In some areas, we have reported before, their criminal behaviour has actually turned the communities they are meant to serve toward the Taliban, unwittingly empowering the insurgency.
from Pakistan: Now or Never?:Given the debate about whether the United States should refocus its strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan more narrowly on hunting down al Qaeda, it's worth looking at what happened immediately after 9/11 when it did precisely that. In a new book about his years fighting terrorism, former French investigating magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere casts fresh light on those early years after 9/11. At the time, he says, the Bush administration was so keen to get Pakistan's help in defeating al Qaeda that it was willing to turn a blind eye to Pakistani support for militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, nurtured by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to fight India in Kashmir. Basing his information on testimony given by jailed Frenchman Willy Brigitte, who spent 2-1/2 months in a Lashkar training camp in 2001/2002, he writes that the Pakistan Army once ran those camps, with the apparent knowledge of the CIA. The instructors in the camp in Pakistan's Punjab province were soldiers on detachment, he says, and the army dropped supplies by helicopter. Brigitte's handler, he says, appeared to have been a senior army officer who was treated deferentially by other soldiers. CIA officers even inspected the camp four times, he writes, to make sure that Pakistan was keeping to a promise that only Pakistani fighters would be trained there. Foreigners like Brigitte were tipped off in advance and told to hide up in the hills to avoid being caught. Reluctant to destabilise Pakistan, then under former president Pervez Musharraf, the United States turned a blind eye to the training camps and poured money into the country. In return, Pakistan hunted down al Qaeda leaders -- among them alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, captured in 2003. "For the Bush administration, the priority was al Qaeda," writes Bruguiere. "The Pakistan Army and the ISI would focus on this - external - objective, which would not destabilise the fragile political balance in Pakistan." Pakistan denies that it gave military support to the Lashkar-e-Taiba and has banned the organisation. But India at the time accused western countries of double standards in tolerating Pakistani support for Kashmir-focused organisations while pushing it to tackle groups like al Qaeda which threatened Western interests. Diplomats say that attitude has since changed, particularly after bombings in London in 2005 highlighted the risks of "home-grown terrorism" in Britain linked to Kashmir-oriented militant groups based in Pakistan's Punjab province. Last year's attack on Mumbai, blamed on the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and more recently the arrest in Chicago of David Headley, linked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba and accused of planning attacks in Denmark and India (pdf document), has underlined international concern about the threat posed by the group. But for Bruguiere, one of the major lessons was that Islamist militants can't be separated into "good guys and bad guys", since they were all inter-linked. "You should take into account, this is crucial, very, very important," Bruguiere told me in an interview. "Lashkar-e-Taiba is no longer a Pakistan movement with only a Kashmir political or military agenda. Lashkar-e-Taiba is a member of al Qaeda. Lashkar-e-Taiba has decided to expand the violence worldwide." Bruguiere said he became aware of the changing nature of international terrorism while investigating attacks in Paris in the mid-1990s by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA). These included an attempt to hijack a plane from Algiers to Paris in 1994 and crash it into the Eiffel Tower -- a forerunner of the 9/11 attacks. The plane was diverted to Marseilles and stormed by French security forces.
This new style of international terrorism was quite unlike militant groups he had investigated in the past, with their pyramidal structures. "After 1994/1995, like viruses, all the groups have been spreading on a very large scale all over the world, in a horizontal way and even a random way," he said. "All the groups are scattered, very polymorphous and even mutant."
Gone were the political objectives which drove terrorism before, he writes, to be replaced with a nihilistic aim of spreading chaos in order to create the conditions for an Islamic caliphate. For the hijackers on the Algiers-Paris flight, their demands seemed almost incidental. "We realised we faced the language of hatred and a total determination to see it through."
from Tales from the Trail:
President Barack Obama summoned his war council today for what may be a pivotal meeting as he decides what to do in Afghanistan. While Obama weighs up his options on whether to send in more troops -- with most money on about 30,000 more -- he might also glance at the latest round of public opinion polls on Afghanistan.One by the Pew Research Center put Obama's favorable job rating on Afghanistan at 36 percent, sharply down from 49 percent in July.On troop levels in Afghanistan, 40 percent say there should be fewer U.S. soldiers, 32 percent approve of an increase while 19 percent say current troop levels are satisfactory.A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released today found that 56 percent of respondents opposed sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan while 42 percent supported additional forces.Which way are you leaning? More troops, less, the same? Stay, go, the status quo? As commander-in-chief, will Obama go the way of Goldilocks and take the middle road, or will there be a surprise?Click here for more Reuters political coveragePhoto credit: Reuters/Jason Reed (Obama making statement about Fort Hood shootings)