Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
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.
And that is producing a “perverse view” of the region, he says adding it was a bit strange that India was being criticised for its influence in Afghanistan. India is the hegemon in South Asia, with a GDP 100 times that of Afghanistan and it was only natural that as Afghanistan opened itself up following the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, its cuisine, movies and money would flow into the country. The whole criticism about India, Zakaria says, is a little bit like saying the United States has had growing influence in Mexico over the last few decades and should be penalised for it.
But what about Pakistan’s concerns, a country that was dismembered in the last full-scale war with India in 1971 with the creation of Bangladesh. The last thing it would want is a hostile regime in Afghanistan on its western flank on top of the Indian army, the world’s third largest, massed on the eastern front, not to mention the Islamist militants whom it once nurtured turning on the State itself.
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 Pakistan: Now or Never?:
One of the things U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ran into last week during her trip to Pakistan was anger over attacks by unmanned "drone" aircraft inside Pakistan and along the border with Afghanistan.
One questioner during an interaction with members of the public said the missile strikes by Predator aircraft amounted to "executions without trial" for those killed. Another asked Clinton to define terrorism and whether she considered the drone attacks to be an act of terrorim like the car bomb that ripped through Peshawar that same week killing more than 100 people.
from Pakistan: Now or Never?:
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have questioned before the value of the "AfPak" label, which implies that an incredibly complicated situation involving many different countries can be reduced to a five-letter word.
Having spent the last couple of days trying to make sense of the suicide bomb attack in Iran which Tehran blamed on Jundollah, an ethnic Baluchi, Sunni insurgent group it says has bases in Pakistan, I'm more inclined than ever to believe the "AfPak" label blinds us to the broader regional context. Analysts argue that Jundollah has been heavily influenced by hardline Sunni sectarian Islamist thinking within Pakistan which is itself the product of 30 years of proxy wars in the region dating back to the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan towards the end of the same year.
On a hilltop in central Kabul, the relics of Soviet armoured vehicles sit in the shadow of an incongruously vast and empty swimming pool. A tower of diving boards looks down into the concrete carcass built by the Russians. Boys play football there and on Fridays the basin is used for dog fights; combat is the only option for the canine gladiators, as they cannot climb up the sheer, steep sides. From the vantage point you can see the city’s graveyards, its bright new mosques, the narco-palaces of drug-funded business potentates and the spread of modest brick homes where most Kabulis live. It’s a favourite spot for reporters when they need to escape the press of urgent events and get cleaner air in their lungs.
For years journalists have sought to tell stories that go beyond the conflict in Afghanistan. We’ve tried to portray this country – the crossroads of central Asia, the summer home of Moghul emperors, the cockpit of clashing empires – as more than a place of blood, deprivation and extremism. Amid the dust and the heat it has its oases of tranquility, its laughter and its charms. From the market stalls of sweet pomengranates that line the road in autumn to the rose gardens newly planted in central Kabul, Afghanistan is a place of thorny history, cultural complexity and spartan beauty.