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from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Separating the Taliban from al Qaeda

strong chopperThe Afghan Taliban would be ready to break with al Qaeda in order to reach a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war, and to ensure Afghanistan is not used as a base for international terrorism, according to a report by Kandahar-based researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, released by New York University.

It says that the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda was strained both before and after the September 11 2001 attacks, partly because of their very different ideological roots. Al Qaeda grew out of militant Islamism in the Middle East, notably in Egypt, which -- when fused with the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan -- created its own view of global jihad. Taliban leaders grew up in rural southern Afghanistan, isolated from world events. Many were too young to play a big role in the Afghan jihad, and had no close ties to al Qaeda until after they took power in 1996.

"Many Taliban leaders of the older generation are still potential partners for a negotiated settlement. They are not implacably opposed to the U.S. or West in general but to specific actions or policies in Afghanistan. These figures now understand the position of the international community much better than they did before 2001. They are not seeking a return to the failed interactions between the Taliban and the international community of the 1990s. At present they still represent the movement," the report concludes.

"Could the older-generation leadership be relied on to keep Afghanistan terror-free? The reaction of the insurgents depends in part on how their opponents choose to engage them. There would be support for a break with al-Qaeda within the senior leadership, but how this is addressed will determine how effective the break is to be. What is highly likely is that engagement on a political level will create opportunities that do not yet exist."

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistan and Mullah Omar: who knows where he is?

shadowsThe New York Times has an intriguing story about the sourcing for a report that did the rounds last week saying that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) rushed Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar to Karachi last week after he suffered a heart attack. (h/t Five Rupees)

To recap, the Washington Post said last week that a private intelligence network, the Eclipse Group, had reported that Mullah Omar had a heart attack on Jan. 7 and was treated for several days in a Karachi hospital with the help of the ISI.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Musharraf’s Kashmir deal, mirage or oasis?

musharraf londonThe foreign secretaries, or top diplomats,  of India and Pakistan are expected to meet on the sidelines of a South Asian summit in Thimpu, Bhutan on Feb 6/7 to try to find a way back into talks which have been stalled since the attack on Mumbai in November 2008. Progress is expected to be limited, perhaps paving the way to a meeting of the foreign ministers, or to deciding how future talks should be structured.

Expectations are running low, all the more so after a meeting between the foreign ministers descended into acrimony last July. And leaders in neither country have the political space to take the kind of risks needed for real peace talks right now. Pakistan is struggling with the fall-out of the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer  among many other things, while Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been weakened by a corruption scandal at home.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Anyone here been to Pakistan and speaks English?

cricket  refugeeU.S. Vice President Joe Biden made a rather odd comment during his visit to Pakistan this week.  "We want what you want: a strong, stable, democratic Pakistan," he told a news conference, according to the Washington Post.  "We wish your success because it's in our own interest." 

It was  not that he was wrong to deny accusations that the United States is out to destabilise Pakistan - a conspiracy theory fuelled by confusion over U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, which to many Pakistanis seems so irrational that they assume there must be a darker plan behind it. Nor that he was wrong to promote democracy -- although the United States has had a track record of backing military rulers in Pakistan when it suits them.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

In India-Iran oil spat, nuclear row trumps Afghan war

khatamiNot too long ago, you could have predicted relatively easily how regional rivalries would play out in Afghanistan.  Saudi Arabia would line up alongside Pakistan while Iran and India would coordinate their policies to curb the influence of their main regional rivals. 

But that pattern has been shifting for a while -- the row over Indian oil payments to Iran is if anything a continuation of that shift rather than a dramatic new departure in global diplomacy.  And as two foreign policy crises converge, over Iran's nuclear programme and the war in Afghanistan, the chances are that those traditional alliances will be dented further. It is no longer a safe bet to assume that rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran will fit neatly into Pakistan-India hostility so that the four countries fall easily into two opposing camps come any final showdown over Afghanistan.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Bajaur bombing highlights conflicting U.S.-Pakistan interests

damadola2Last week's suicide bombing in Pakistan's Bajaur region, which killed at least 40 people, had a grim predictability to  it.  The Pakistan Army cleared Pakistani Taliban militants out of their main strongholds in Bajaur, which borders Afghanistan's Kunar province, after 20 months of intense fighting which ended earlier this year.  But as discussed in this post in October the insurgents' ability to flee to Kunar -- where the U.S. military presence has been thinned out -- combined with a failure to provide Bajaur with good governance, suggested the security situation in the region was likely to be deteriorating. The bombing appeared to confirm those fears.

The implications go far beyond Bajaur. The Pakistan Army has resisted U.S. pressure to launch a military offensive against militant strongholds in North Waziristan until it has secured gains made elsewhere.  Pakistani daily The Express Tribune quoted army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas as reiterating that point after the Bajaur bombing and after fighting in the neighbouring Mohmand region. Until areas "cleared" by the military were consolidated, "it is impossible to rush into another campaign,” it quoted him as saying.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

After Holbrooke, chances of political settlement in Afghanistan fall

holbrookeReading through some of the many thousands of words written about Richard Holbrooke,  for me two stories stood out in their ability to capture what will be lost with his death:

The first was in Rajiv Chandrasekaran's obituary in the Washington Post:

"While beleaguered members of Mr. Holbrooke's traveling party sought sleep on transcontinental flights, he usually would stay up late reading. On one trip to Pakistan, he padded to the forward of the cabin in his stocking feet to point out to a reporter a passage in Margaret Bourke-White's memoirs of the time of India-Pakistan partition and independence. Bourke-White quoted Pakistani leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah telling her that Pakistan would have no problems with the Americans, because 'they will always need us more than we need them.' Mr. Holbrooke laughed, saying, 'Nothing ever changes.'"

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistan talks up al Qaeda/Taliban split

british soldierPakistan is increasingly talking up the need for a political settlement in Afghanistan which would force al Qaeda to leave the region. And while there is little sign yet Washington is ready to hold serious negotiations with Afghan insurgents, analysts detect a new tone in Pakistani comments about driving Osama bin Laden's organization out of its haven on the Pakistan border.

A senior security official said the Afghan stalemate could be lifted by setting a minimum agenda in which insurgents broke with al Qaeda. There were indications, he said, they could renounce the organisation and ask it to leave the region. Senior politician Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, a pro-Taliban member of the ruling coalition, also said a settlement "would squeeze the room for al Qaeda."  "Al Qaeda will have to fall in line or leave the region," he told Reuters in an interview late last month.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Wikileaks on Pakistan

iran pakistanIn the State Department cables released by Wikileaks and so far reported, the most eye-catching as far as Pakistan is concerned is a row with Washington over nuclear fuel.

According to the New York Times, the cables show:

"A dangerous standoff with Pakistan over nuclear fuel: Since 2007, the United States has mounted a highly secret effort, so far unsuccessful, to remove from a Pakistani research reactor highly enriched uranium that American officials fear could be diverted for use in an illicit nuclear device. In May 2009, Ambassador Anne W. Patterson reported that Pakistan was refusing to schedule a visit by American technical experts because, as a Pakistani official said, “if the local media got word of the fuel removal, ‘they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons,’ he argued.”

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Al Qaeda, its branches and Afghanistan

osamaSo little is known about al Qaeda that it is can be tempting to see patterns when none exist, or conversely to see only madness when there is method at work.

But with that health warning, it's interesting to see Afghanistan cropping up in recent comments from both al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

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