Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

B-minus for war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan ?

(Afghan boys at a cemetry in Kabul. Picture by Ahmad Masood)

(Afghan boys at a cemetry in Kabul. Picture by Ahmad Masood)

Gallup has a new poll out testing the mood inside Afghanistan and Pakistan and it remains downbeat.  Roughly half of those surveyed in both countries said their governments were not doing enough to fight terrorism, despite the infusion of troops in Afghanistan and military offensives in Pakistan.

The dissatisfaction is  even more pronounced the closer you are to the trouble spots.  Nearly 60 percent of those surveyed in Pakistan’s northwest, which is really the ground zero of the war against militant groups, were unhappy with the government’s efforts.  Afghans were even more impatient, with some 67 percent in the east which faces Pakistan’s troubled  northwest, registering their disappointment.

 So for all the missile strikes by unmanned drones  on leaders of al Qaeda and the Taliban, and successful  ground operations in difficult places such as Pakistan’s south Waziristan, the people’s perceptions about their government’s efforts to fight terrorism haven’t changed much. Gallup says these findings reinforce the view that what happens after a battle is almost as important as the battle itself.   Winning a battle doesn’t necessarily mean people start feeling fully secure. Also as  this Reuters analysis points out, the Pakistani Taliban may be down, but they are not out by any means.  

The poll conducted in November-December 2009 also threw up another key finding: people on either side of the Afghan-Pakistan border have no love lost for the Taliban.  Eight in 10 Afghans, on an average,  said the Taliban had a negative influence. Even in Kandahar, the spiritual centre of the Taliban, the majority of those polled said they had a negative influence although the number of people seeing them in a favourable light increased from a June 2009 poll. 

Engaging the Afghan Taliban: a short history

(The niche that once held a giant Buddha, in Bamiyan. Picture by Omar Sobhani)

(The niche that once held a giant Buddha, in Bamiyan. Picture by Omar Sobhani)

For those pushing for high-level political negotiations with the Afghan Taliban to bring to an end to the eight-year war,  two U.S. scholars  in separate pieces are suggesting a walk through recent history  The United States has gone down the path of dialogue with the group before and suffered for it, believing against its own better judgement in the Taliban’s promises until it ended up with the September 11, 2001 attacks, says  Michael Rubin from the American Enterprise Institute in this article in Commentary.

Rubin, who is completing a history of U.S. engagement with rogue regimes, says unclassified U.S. State Department documents show that America opened talks with the Taliban soon after the group  emerged as a powerful force in Kandahar in 1994 and well over a year before they took over Kabul. From then on it was a story of   diplomats doing everything possible to remain engaged with the Taliban in the hope it would modify their  behaviour, and that they would be persuaded to expel Osama bin Laden who had  by then relocated from Sudan.  The Taliban, on the other hand, in their meetings with U.S. diplomats, would stonewall on terrorism  but would also dangle just enough hope to keep the officials calling and forestall punitive strategies.

from Tales from the Trail:

Is Holbrooke’s “bulldozer” style working?

Dubbed the "bulldozer" for his tough guy tactics in Balkan negotiations, U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has been making waves in South Asia recently.

holbrookeU.S. embassies in New Delhi and Kabul have been scrambling over the past week to deal with local fallout from statements made by Washington's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

India, Pakistan and the Afghan army



Afghan President Hamid Karzai is visiting Pakistan, and one of the issues on the table is a rather audacious Pakistani offer to train the Afghan National Army.

The Pakistani and Afghan security establishments have had a rather uneasy relationship, stemming from Pakistan’s long-running ties to the Taliban.

Terror index: Iraq down, but Afghanistan and Pakistan red-hot

A U.S.military convoy in southern Afghanistan

A U.S.military convoy in southern Afghanistan

Iraqis  are voting today for a new parliament and despite the bombings in the run-up to the election, the over-all trend is down, according to the Brookings Institution. Not so in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre, America ‘s other war, which remains red-hot according to a country index that the Washington-based thinktank  puts out for Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The index is a statistical compilation of economic, puiblic opinion and security data.

It’s quite instructive just to look at the numbers in the three  countries. Weekly violent incidents in Iraq are  about 90 percent less frequent than in the months just before the surge.  Violent deaths from the vestiges of war are in the range of 100 to 200 civilians a month, meaning that mundane Iraqi crime is probably now a greater threat to most citizens than politically-motivated violence, Brookings says in its latest update.

Ex-Guantanamo Bay prisoner the next Afghan Taliban commander?

(An Afghan soldier speaks at a flag raising ceremony in Marjah)

(An Afghan soldier speaks at a flag-raising ceremony in Marjah)

It is a measure of the shadowy nature of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan that it is hard to come up with even a couple of names of senior figures who could possibly succeed  top commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader following his capture in a joint U.S.-Pakistan raid.

Such is the diffused leadership structure - more like a franchise down to the villages – that the only thing you can say for certain is that the Islamist movement is still led by the one-eyed Mullah Mohammad Omar, although according to reports  he hasn’t been seen even by his own followers in the past three years.

Pakistan still the greatest worry, says Biden

(Outside the mausoleum of Mohammad Ali Jinnah)

(Outside the mausoleum of Mohammad Ali Jinnah)

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told CNN this week that his biggest worry was not Afghanistan, not Iraq and not even Iran which is hurtling into a fresh confrontation with the West over its nuclear programme.  The big concern was Pakistan with  its nuclear weapons and  a radicalised section of society.

“It’s a big country. it has nuclear weapons that are able to be deployed.  It has a real significant minority of radicalised population. It is not a completely functional democracy in the sense we think about it.  And so….. that’s my greatest concern.”

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

“My Life with the Taliban” – on study and Islamic values

zaeefIn  "My Life with the Taliban",  Abdul Salam Zaeef -- who fought with the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan and later served in the Taliban government before it was ousted in 2001 -- writes of how he longed to escape the trappings of office and instead follow in the footsteps of his father as the Imam of a mosque, learning and teaching the Koran.

"It is work that has no connection with the world's affairs. It is a calling of intellectual dignity away from the dangers and temptations of power. All my life, even as a boy, I was always happiest when studying and learning things. To work in government positions means a life surrounded by corruption and injustice, and therein is found the misery of mankind," he writes in his memoirs, newly translated and edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn.

The agony of Pakistan



It must take a particularly determined lot to bomb a bus full of pilgrims, killing scores of them, and then following the wounded to a hospital to unleash a second attack to kill some more. Karachi’s twin explosions on Friday, targeting Shia Muslims on their way to a religious procession were on par with some of the worst atrocities committed in recent months.

It also came just two days after a bombing in Lower Dir, near Swat, in which a convoy of soldiers including U.S. servicemen were targeted while on their way to open a girls school. Quite apart from the fact that the U.S. soldiers were the obvious targets, the renewed violence along with fresh reports of flogging by the Taliban calls into question the broader issue of negotiating with hard-core Islamists as proposed by the Afghan government just over the border.

America loses soldiers in Pakistan; faces questions




With three U.S. soldiers killed in a roadside bombing in Pakistan’s troubled northwest on Wednesday, the war has just gotten hot. The bombing in which five Pakistanis also died took place in Lower Dir, an area near the Swat valley that the Pakistani military said had been cleared of the Taliban. More embarrassing, the attack raises uncomfortable questions about  just what American soldiers are doing inside Pakistan. The  three were part of a unit that trains Pakistani Frontier Corps responsible for security in areas near the Afghan border and may well be the first American fatalities in the effort to train Pakistani forces to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban.

No American soldiers are formally stationed in Pakistan, unlike Afghanistan or Iraq. The deaths of the three soldiers  may therefore reignite debate over the role of the U.S. military in Pakistan, which has long chafed at U.S. military actions that violate its sovereignty, such as missile strikes by unmanned “drone” aircraft.