Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

The Taliban in Afghanistan’s once impregnable Panjshir Valley

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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.

The Long War Journal’s Bill Roggio wrote that the bombing was a propaganda coup for the Taliban. Panjshir is the home of the legendary Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud who was assassinated by two days before the Sept 11, 2001 attacks. Under Massoud’s leadership the Panjshir Valley held out against not only against the Taliban, but famously the Soviet before them.

All along the drive by the side of the rushing Panjshir river on way to Massoud’s hilltop mausoleum, the relics of the war against the Russians have been preserved : rusted tanks on roadsides and an overturned  armoured personnel carrier in the river. There were giant Massoud posters everywhere and because it was the anniversary of his assassination at the hands of a pair of men who pretended to be journalists, the ceremonial gates to the valley were draped in black.

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A Week in Pictures 7 August 2011

After rioting in Xinjiang left 11 dead at the start of Ramadan the Chinese authorities stated that the insurgents who started the trouble had fled to Pakistan. Security forces quickly deployed in numbers to ensure that any further trouble was prevented or quickly quelled. Shanghai-based Carlos Barria travelled to Kashgar to shoot a story on the renovation of the old Kashgar centre, an example of China's modernising campaign in minority ethnic regions. A busy week for Aly Song, who is also Shanghai based, with taxi drivers on strike over rising fuel costs while Lang Lang had local fishermen preparing for typhoon Muifa to hit. In both pictures, the eye is cleverly drawn  to the distance to show in one image, a line of  striking taxi drivers, and in the other, rows of boats bracing for the imminent typhoon.

Ethnic Uighur men sit in front of a television screen at a square in Kashgar, Xinjiang province August 2, 2011. Chinese security forces blanketed central areas of Kashgar city in the western region of Xinjiang on Tuesday, days after deadly attacks that China blamed on Islamic militants highlighted ethnic tensions in the Muslim Uighur area.  REUTERS/Carlos Barria

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A week in Pictures 24 July 2011

China are hosting the 14th FINA World Championships in Shanghai. In my mind's eye, aquatics is a sport of power, grace, balance and beauty but our pictures seem to add the additional factors of concentration, determination or maybe sheer fear. Against my better judgement, I just have to mention that some of the expressions on the athletes' faces remind me of the age old tradition of gurning. What also made an impression are the angles, different points of focus and continually new shapes that compliment a file that could have been very repetitive.

Qin Kai of China perform during the preliminary round of the men's 3m springboard diving event at the 14th FINA World Championships in Shanghai July 21, 2011.        REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Stirring the hornet’s nest in Pakistan’s northwest

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The United States has a set of expectations  that it wants Pakistan’s government to meet, Secretary of State of  Hillary Clinton said ahead of her short trip to Islamabad  last week, the kind of language Washington has frequently employed to bring its conflicted partner in the war against militant Islam to heel, each time  there has been a crisis. Clinton didn’t elaborate, saying only at the end of her meetings in Islamabad that she expected Pakistan to take decisive steps in the days ahead.

But on Monday, Pakistan’s The News reported that the military was preparing to launch an air and ground offensive against militants in North Waziristan, a demand that the United States has repeatedly made over the last two years. It said the decision was taken during discussions that Clinton and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of State Admiral Mike Mullen had with Pakistani government and military leaders.

from FaithWorld:

Even without bin Laden, Pakistan’s Islamist militants strike fear

(Supporters of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden shout anti-American slogans, after the news of his death, during a rally in Quetta May 2, 2011/Naseer Ahmed)

The death of Osama bin Laden has robbed Islamist militants of their biggest inspiration and al Qaeda itself has dwindled to a few hundred fighters in the region, but Pakistan remains a haven for militants with both ambition and means to strike overseas. Worse, there are signs that groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure), nurtured by Pakistan's spy agency to advance strategic interests in India and Afghanistan, are no longer entirely under the agency's control.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Solving Afghanistan and Pakistan over a cup of tea

cups of teaI have never read "Three Cups of Tea", Greg Mortenson's book about building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I tried to read the sequel, "Stones into Schools" and gave up not too long after the point where he said that, "the solution to every problem ... begins with drinking tea." Having drunk tea in many parts of South Asia - sweet tea, salt tea, butter tea, tea that comes with the impossible-to-remove-with-dignity thick skin of milk tea - I can confidently say that statement does not reflect reality.

So I have always been a bit puzzled that the Americans took Mortenson's books so much to heart. Yes, I knew he boasted that his books had become required reading for American officers posted to Afghanistan; and yes, there is the glowing praise from Admiral Mike Mullen on the cover of  "Stones into Schools", where he wrote that "he's shaping the very future of a region". But I had always believed, or wanted to believe, that at the back of everyone's minds they realised that saccharine sentimentality was no substitute for serious analysis. Just as hope is not a strategy, drinking tea is not a policy.  (To be fair to the Americans, I have also overheard a British officer extolling the virtues of drinking tea in Afghanistan.)

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A Week in Pictures April 3, 2011

In case anyone is in any doubt about the volatile situation many of our staff and stringers work under in Afghanistan I want to recount what happened on Saturday. Ahmad Nadeem was covering a demonstration that was sparked by the actions of extremist Christian preacher Terry Jones, who, according to his website, supervised the burning of the Koran in front of about 50 people at a church in Florida. The mood at the demonstration changed very quickly as the crowd sought a focus for their anger. Ahmad, our stringer in Kandahar was targeted. He was beaten with sticks, his gear smashed and his hand broken. Then an armed man instructed the mob to kill him. Ahmad fled for his life escaping into a nearby house where he successfully hid from the mob. Earlier in the day a suicide attack also hit a NATO military base in the capital Kabul, the day after protesters overran a U.N. mission in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and killed seven foreign staff in the deadliest attack on the U.N. in Afghanistan.

AFGHANISTAN-VIOLENCE/KABUL

Bullet holds are seen on the windshield of a car used by insurgents after an attack at Camp Phoenix in Kabul April 2, 2011. Insurgents clad in burkhas attacked a coalition base in Kabul with guns and rocket-propelled grenades on Saturday, but were killed either when they detonated their explosives or by Afghan or coalition fire outside the entrance, NATO and police said.    REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

United States begins a new war, what happens to Afghanistan?

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The United States has said the scope of its military intervention in Libya is limited, but it nevertheless raises questions about what happens to the two other wars that it is waging, especially in Afghanistan. The last time Washington took the eye off the ball in Afghanistan was in 2003 when it launched the Iraq war and then got so bogged down there that a low level and sporadic Taliban resistance in southern Afghanistan grew into a full blown insurgency from which it is still trying to extricate itself.

The question then is will the U.S. attention again shift away from Afghanistan and to Libya  and indeed other African and Middle East countries where revolts  against decades of authoritarian rule are gaining ground, and unsettling every strategic calculation.   Already U.S. Republicans are saying they are concerned that U.S. forces may be getting drawn into a costly, long-running operation in Libya that lacks clear goals.  If it ends in a stalemate – a possibility recognized by Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen – how focused can America be on Afghanistan where you can argue that the stakes are arguably less now that al Qaeda has largely been pushed out, and the fight is almost entirely with the Taliban.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

The “sound and fury” of U.S.-Pakistan ties

rayjmonddavisphotoWith the release of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, the United States and Pakistan have put behind them one of the more public rows of their up-and-down relationship.  It was probably not the worst row -- remember the furore over a raid by U.S. ground troops in Angor Adda in Waziristan in 2008, itself preceded  by a deluge of leaks to the U.S. media about the alleged duplicity of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in its dealings on Afghanistan.

But it was certainly one which by its very nature was guaranteed to get the most attention - an American who shot dead two Pakistanis in what he said was an act of self-defence, denied diplomatic immunity and ultimately released only after the payment of blood money. Adding to the drama were two intelligence agencies battling behind the scenes.

Flash, bang, but Afghan night raid comes up empty

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Reuters correspondent Matt Robinson provides a rare glimpse of night raids by U.S. forces in Afghanistan that are again on the rise in an effort to break the back of the insurgency. Here’s his story from a village in Paktika province near the eastern border with Pakistan. (Picture by Matt Robinson)

First the men were separated from the women and children and made to crouch outside on the frozen ground, wrapped in blankets. Then the soldiers went room-to-room, torches shining from raised rifles.

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