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The Hidden War
The stories you missed in 2010: AfPak edition.
You couldn’t read a newspaper this year without catching a story about Afghanistan or Pakistan. These two countries, the focal points of U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, were in the news every day — from the capture of Taliban No. 2 Mullah Baradar to a major coalition offensive in Marja, from more than 100 drone strikes in northwest Pakistan to devastating floods across the country. Afghan civilians voted and NATO in Afghanistan got a new commander. A Pakistani-American man attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square, and U.S. troops pulled out of the bloody Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. But despite this blanket of coverage, some important stories have flown under the radar — the growing Barelvi opposition to the Taliban in Pakistan, for example, and deteriorating security conditions in northern Afghanistan; the women’s rights movement in Pakistan and Karachi’s inept security services. As the year comes to an end, the AfPak Channel asked its contributors to list the “Stories You Missed” in this troubled region — and to explain why these will be the ones making headlines in 2011.
- Behind the Chaos, Obama’s Plan Is Finally Coming Into Focus
By Steve Coll
- Actually, the U.S. Gave Up on COIN Ages Ago
By Anand Gopal
- While You Were Distracted By Marja, Northern Afghanistan Fell Apart
By Joshua Foust
- It Matters that Karzai Is Crazy — Just Not In the Way You Think
By Martine van Bijlert
- There Were More Drone Strikes — And Far Fewer Civilians Killed
By Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann
- Pakistan’s Minorities Come Under Fire…
By Kalsoom Lakhani
- … But Some of Them Are Fighting Back
By Rania Abouzeid
- Karzai Is Pardoning Taliban and Drug Lords
By Kate Clark
- The Real Story Behind the Ban On Contractors
By Matthieu Aikins
- Truth And Reconciliation Are Coming to Afghanistan – Really
By Sari Kouvo
- How The Floods Could Help Pakistan In the Long Term
By Amil Khan
- Karachi Explodes in Ethnic Warfare
By Huma Imtiaz
- Pakistani Women Have It Bad, Too
By Madiha Sattar
- Pakistan’s Criminal Justice System Needs Fixing — Now
By Samina Ahmed
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Behind the Chaos, Obama’s Plan Is Finally Coming Into Focus
By Steve Coll
To many Americans, the Afghan war understandably looked like a mess in 2010. The year began amid uncertainty at home and abroad about whether Barack Obama’s administration was coming or going: Troops went in, but a date of July 2011 was set in advance for the soldiers to start heading home. The U.S. commanding general was fired in June for remarks he made to Rolling Stone; reports of picaresque Afghan corruption spread, encouraged in part by the U.S. government, which intensified its scrutiny of the conduct of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s kleptocratic allies; and American battlefield casualties rose. Pakistan teetered after historic floods in July, and its army continued to tolerate and even aid Islamist militias operating from its soil, despite Pakistan’s receipt of billions of dollars in U.S. aid. To cap it off, Bob Woodward published a book chronicling scratchy disagreements among some of Obama’s war advisors.
But the narrative unfolding beneath the headlines had more coherence than its surface suggested. During 2010, though it has received little credit for the effort, the Obama administration gradually clarified and firmed up its strategy in the Afghanistan war. There are three overlapping lines: direct pressure on al Qaeda, mainly by drone strikes; efforts to increase the capacity of the Afghan state, or at least its security state, by at last investing heavily in training its army and police; and efforts to influence Pakistan to stop tolerating and aiding Islamist militias on its soil. Timelines have also been reset and clarified. The NATO meeting in Lisbon pushed the most meaningful date of “transition” — the time at which U.S.-led international combat forces will pass the lead role to Afghan forces — to 2014, far enough away to be innately conditional. Next year, the administration intends to open negotiations with the Afghan government to define U.S. commitments to the country’s security beyond 2014.
After the confusion over the original July 2011 drawdown date, Obama’s team is self-consciously signaling to Afghans, Pakistanis, and the Taliban themselves that it is U.S. policy to ensure that the Taliban will never return to power. American public opinion has turned sharply against the war, but there appears nonetheless to be ample political space in the United States to attempt the strategy Obama has now endorsed, on the timelines he has described.
There are as many risks and uncertainties embedded in the administration’s strategy as there are stars in the night sky. But whatever its chance of success, a coherent plan is a lot better than an incoherent one. Obama’s plan accounts at least conceptually for many of the major factors in the war — al Qaeda’s resilience as a threat to the United States, nuclear-armed Pakistan’s ambivalence about dangerous Islamist groups, and Afghanistan’s weaknesses.
What remains is to identify an equally clarified political strategy to complement the military and NATO transitions the president defined in 2010. This past year was characterized by the floating of big ideas about Afghan peace talks — ideas that were then undermined by division and false starts. Fake Taliban negotiators humiliated their interlocutors; Pakistan’s intelligence service ambiguously asserted its self-assigned role of liaison to the Taliban; and tentative efforts by Karzai’s government to explore talks and enlist Saudi Arabia as a mediator stalled. In Washington, there appears to be no consensus about what an Afghan political strategy would look like and what risks should be shouldered to pursue one. The sound idea of constructing intra-Afghan unity negotiations supported by regional diplomacy has been undermined by the year’s failures and the persistent, unhelpful conflation of political strategy with an unrealistic fantasy that Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura could or would deliver a quick and easy path to peaceful national reconciliation.
The Soviet Union’s transition out of combat in Afghanistan succeeded (until the Soviet Union itself fell apart) in part because the Geneva Accords yielded a framework for international support for the Soviet transition, tied to U.N.-sanctioned negotiations with warring Afghan factions. Mikhail Gorbachev seized on those regional negotiations to shore up the legitimacy of his Afghan proxies and lure as many allies to his Kabul stability project as possible. Those talks, leading into 1992, ultimately failed not only because the Soviet Union collapsed, but also because the United States did not take the process and all its regional complexity seriously. The first Bush administration was understandably distracted by the Cold War’s end. It preferred in any event to concentrate on its partners in Pakistan, to the exclusion of other political strategies.
The Obama administration has a chance in 2011 to avoid repeating this historical error as it starts its own transition out of combat in Afghanistan. The administration needs a clearer political and regional negotiating strategy, aimed at reinforcing Afghan national unity and the isolation of violent Taliban.
Steve Coll is president of the New America Foundation and the author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
Actually, the U.S. Gave up on COIN Ages Ago
By Anand Gopal
In 2010, population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine — in which as much emphasis is placed on swaying the population as on fighting the enemy — was supposedly the guiding concept for U.S. strategy in southern Afghanistan. The Kandahar offensive, a series of counterinsurgency operations in restive Taliban strongholds, was to be the centerpiece of this approach. NATO’s chief spokesman James Appathurai explained the strategy by saying, “It is about protecting the population, about changing the political culture and perception… Kandahar is, from the psychological and communications point of view, the heartland of the Taliban… The biggest problem in Afghanistan is not the Taliban, but the lack of strong governance and the delivery of services.” But a close look at the last year reveals that the population-centric approach may not have been implemented at all.
The idea of counterinsurgency (COIN) is to shift the emphasis away from the traditional metrics of warfare, such as body counts and battles won, to more intangible factors — influence over the population, responsible governance, and erosion of support for the insurgents. Ideally, COIN strategy wins the hearts and minds of the population so that the insurgents can be isolated and defeated.
But that’s not quite how things played out on the ground. First came claims that U.S. and Afghan troops were making arbitrary arrests. A number of locals complained to me that the security forces were rounding up people who had nothing to do with the insurgency. An October report in the Daily Telegraph related the following:
A loud speaker carried by a U.S. psychological operations team blasted out the message: “The people of [Zhari] will now be held responsible for the cowardly actions of the enemy.” A handful of women wailed as a relative was hauled off and a group of children cried as their neighbours’ door was kicked in.
After the district governor’s lecture to the captives, U.S. Army Captain [Nick] Stout added his own warning.
He said “I don’t care who you are, if there’s a grenade goes off and I see you around, I’m going to put a black bag over your head and you’re never going to see your family again.”
Then came stories in the Christian Science Monitor that troops were forcibly occupying civilian homes. Coalition forces were also bulldozing houses and razing orchards in order to unearth improvised explosive devices, and, in a peculiar effort to bring the population closer to the authorities, military officials directed the owners to get compensation from the local governor. In Arghandab, there were reports that U.S. forces threatened to raze entire villages that didn’t cooperate with them. And in perhaps the most grievous move of all, foreign troops used the services of Abdul Razzik, the border police commander notorious for human rights abuses, to help clear villages of Taliban forces. When Razzik had been tapped for such service in the past it sparked tribal tensions and outbursts of anger over his wantonly indiscriminate tactics among local populations, pushing many closer to the insurgency.
It should be no surprise why such tactics are used: They work, at least in the short term. After months of these attacks, the Taliban are significantly weakened; hundreds of their fighters have been captured, key field commanders have been killed, and many have fled to Pakistan to wait out the storm. Some prominent insurgent commanders are refusing to fight this winter, preferring to wait until the spring to start up operations again; this bucks a trend in recent years where fighting in the south was a year-round affair. There have been sharp disputes in Quetta, Pakistan, over the course of future strategy, all spawning from the intense military pressure the movement is facing on the ground.
But in the long run, locals say the U.S. approach could backfire. There is deep resentment of the foreign forces in many quarters. Efforts to build governance go sour when figures like Razzik are given a key role — the U.S. partnering with a notorious commander named Agha Shah was a recruitment tool for the Taliban in the early years after 2001, for instance. The shift in local attitudes that is so central to population-centric COIN is not likely to take place under such conditions.
When I asked military experts what they made of this apparent abandoning of COIN, they insisted that the Kandahar offensives were indeed population-centric — and that sometimes, harsh measures are necessary. But this break-eggs-to-make-an-omelet theory runs the risk of defining population-centric COIN so broadly and loosely that it becomes devoid of any value. In reality, it seems, the approach is simpler: Do whatever it takes to get results — for now.
Anand Gopal is an Afghanistan-based journalist. He is the co-author of the New America Foundation’s “The Battle for Afghanistan” paper on militancy and conflict in Kandahar.
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images
While You Were Distracted by Marja, Northern Afghanistan Fell Apart
By Joshua Foust
Something is amiss in northern Afghanistan. The past year has seen the region, which until recently was exalted as a model of stability and development, continue a steady descent into chaos.
Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest city in the north, is still prospering, as are some other towns nearby. But just outside the city, the region has witnessed a shocking deterioration of security. Ten unarmed aid workers were killed by the Taliban in the northeastern province of Badakhshan in August. Reports emerged that U.S. companies were also lining their own pockets with development funds while providing little in the way of services to the Afghan people.
In September, NATO warplanes bombed a convoy of militants belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan seemingly traveling in the open. Among the dead were several campaign workers — suggesting a frightening collaboration between some politicians and the insurgency. In October, a bomb in the northern city of Taloqan killed the governor of Kunduz province. In a piece of grim irony, the governor had given a speech just one week before saying that if the Taliban’s advance wasn’t stopped, the whole region would fall into chaos.
But even as Afghanistan’s north goes to pieces, the U.S. media remains almost exclusively focused on the country’s south. Journalists have flocked to the south to cover the high-profile NATO military campaigns to “retake” Kandahar city and the surrounding areas, as well as a massive campaign to seize the Marja farming area in west-central Helmand. From journalists’ perspective, the high tempo of combat in the south and the region’s centrality to the U.S. grand strategy of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan make it a sexier story than events in the north. For example, a LexisNexis search of the New York Times reveals 90 stories in 2010 that mention Kunduz, Baghlan, Badakhshan, or Balkh — the four most populous provinces in the north. Meanwhile, searching the same time period reveals 182 stories about Helmand, and more than 300 stories for Kandahar.
A further deterrent for journalists working for U.S.-based media is that there simply aren’t very many Americans in the north. Without a “hook” that explains to Western readers why they should care, stories about northern Afghanistan can be a tough sell for editors.
Whatever the cause for the lack of coverage, the downfall of the north must rank as one of the great ignored stories of 2010. That an entire region of the country could spiral out of control while the Western press did little more than raise an eyebrow shows America’s fundamental ignorance of Afghanistan’s complex political dynamics. The rising violence in the north could also illustrate the Taliban’s success at metastasizing out of the southern and eastern areas of the country, which are normally considered “Taliban-friendly,” into regions analysts normally consider safe. Such a drastic reversal of fortune could even be seen as the turning point in the war — when it went from bad to potentially unwinnable.
Joshua Foust is a military analyst specializing in Central Asia and author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. For dispatches from journalist Anna Badkhen’s trip across northern Afghanistan, visit “The Crossing” on ForeignPolicy.com.
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
It Matters That Karzai Is Crazy — Just Not in the Way You Think
Martine van Bijlert
2010 has been a year of rocky relations between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers. The pattern is now familiar: Every few months the international coalition is caught off guard by yet another angry public presidential outburst — usually about international duplicity or ineffectiveness, and usually at rather an awkward moment. Karzai is then slammed in the media and behind closed doors for his disloyalty, ingratitude, and irrationality, while Western diplomats and press officers go into high-gear damage-control mode — smoothing ruffled feathers, issuing veiled threats, pressing for more cooperation, and assuring the rest of the world that such disagreements are part of a mature relationship.
Take, for instance, the post-election clash in April. Karzai accused foreigners of having manipulated the process — he believes they intentionally weakened and smeared him by insisting first on an audit and then on a second round — and wondered out loud whether he wouldn’t be better off joining the Taliban. The outburst was rewarded by a statesman’s welcome in Washington, in an attempt to prove to the wider world that all was well, after all. Then there was the protracted back and forth over the Karzai administration’s announced ban on private security companies operating in Afghanistan. It prompted heavy-handed and public pressure from the United States, including threats that this ban would result in a massive shuttering of development projects. The scuffle finally resulted in a shaky compromise, still very much in flux, and a great deal of residual resentment that is likely to resurface in the future.
Then there was Karzai’s call in November to end night raids, only days before the supposedly historic NATO summit in Lisbon. His call was swept aside as unhelpful and inappropriate, while the media was informed that there were no fundamental disagreements on matters of military strategy. But this is of course a fundamental disagreement: The Special Forces raids are seen by many Afghans as the main instance of a foreign presence going wrong — not consulting them, not respecting local culture, going after the wrong people — while the international military see them as the centerpiece of a successful strategy.
Karzai’s outbursts are often regarded as the quirks of an erratic and unreliable partner. But it is exactly this approach that leaves the United States and its allies ill-prepared to deal with them or see them coming. The main problem is not so much that Karzai is misbehaving and needs to be better “managed.” The main issue is that the nature of the international presence has, slowly but irreversibly, changed. The United States and other Western actors can no longer count on a widespread belief that their presence in Afghanistan will have a benign impact or that their proposed strategies will lead to greater stability. They are even losing the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their intentions. It does not help to angrily sweep aside criticisms or suspicions, however outlandish they may seem from far away, by pointing to how much the international involvement has cost the West. Afghans are not inherently ungrateful or irrational; why would they be? But if so much money is being spent on their country, they would prefer it to be spent well. And if the whole world wants to set up camp there, they would like to see evidence that it indeed brings greater stability.
These are likely to be the main contours of conflict between Karzai and the West in the coming year as well. The clashes will revolve around questions of sovereignty and the accelerating suspicion that U.S.-led strategies are not serving Afghan interests. There will, in particular, be recurring run-ins over the U.S.-led military operations and over the armed groups that are essentially operating above and outside Afghan law — whether they are U.S. Special Forces, Afghan auxiliaries, private security companies, or convoy protection units. And there will be increasing speculation, not just from Karzai and his advisors but also from the wider population, about what the real reasons for the continued international engagement could be, usually revolving around regional designs (Pakistan, Iran, China) or economic interests (Afghan mineral deposits).
These problems are much more fundamental than just a difficult relationship with a head of state. As the United States and its allies seek to ever more narrowly define their goals in Afghanistan, trying to identify where their real interests lie, they will probably find themselves increasingly at odds with both Karzai and large parts of the local population. Not just because these people are difficult, but because they have slowly stopped believing that the West knows or cares about what works for Afghanistan.
Martine van Bijlert is co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
There Were More Drone Strikes — and Far Fewer Civilians Killed
By Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann
In the first 11-and-a-half months of 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration authorized more than twice as many drone strikes, 113, in northwest Pakistan as it did in 2009 — itself a year in which there were more drone strikes than during George W. Bush’s entire time in office.
Given the evident importance of the program to U.S. policy toward Pakistan, it is necessary to ask what we know about the drone strikes, where they happen, and whom they are killing.
Based on updated reports from news organizations with deep and aggressive reporting capabilities in Pakistan (the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal), accounts by major news services and networks (the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, CNN, and the BBC), and reports in the leading English-language newspapers in Pakistan (the Daily Times, Dawn, the Express Tribune, and the News), as well as those from Geo TV, the largest independent Pakistani television network, we have been maintaining a transparent database and interactive map that tracks every reported drone strike since 2004.
Counting drone strikes and fatalities is an art, not a science, as it’s not possible to differentiate precisely between militants and nonmilitants because militants live among the population and do not wear uniforms, and because government sources have the incentive to claim that only militants were killed, while militants often assert the opposite.
Still, we’ve been able to discern some surprising trends. A frequent criticism of the drones program is that the strikes kill too many civilians. In the busiest year of the program, September 2010 was the busiest month, with 22 strikes reported amid news about potential Mumbai-style attacks in Europe, followed by October 2010 with 15 strikes reported and November 2010 with 14. But even as the number of reported strikes has skyrocketed — with one every three days in 2010, compared with one a week last year and one every 11 days in 2008 — the percentage of nonmilitants killed by the attacks has plummeted.
Pakistani government officials estimate that more than 700 civilians were killed by the drone strikes last year, but a U.S. government official asserted a year ago that “just over 20” civilians and “more than 400” fighters had been killed in less than two years. U.S. officials continue to claim (anonymously, of course) that only 1 or 2 percent of those killed by the strikes are civilians, and other estimates of civilian deaths range from a high of 98 percent down to 10 percent of the total fatalities.
According to our estimates, the nonmilitant fatality rate since 2004 is approximately 25 percent, and in 2010, the figure has been more like 6 percent — an improvement that is likely the result of increased numbers of U.S. spies in Pakistan’s tribal areas, better targeting, more intelligence cooperation with the Pakistani military, and smaller missiles.
Under the Obama administration, approximately 80 percent of those reported killed by drone strikes have been militants; under the Bush administration, it was closer to 55 percent. The majority of those killed appear to be lower or midlevel militants; of the some 1,260 militants reported killed in the strikes since 2004, only 36, or around 2 percent, have been leaders of al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other militant groups.
Deciphering the true nonmilitant fatality rate from the drone strikes is important as a practical as well as a moral matter. If the true nonmilitant fatality rate were more widely known in Pakistan, the program might be less unpopular there. Those targeted in the strikes, after all, are thought to have carried out or planned attacks not only in Afghanistan and the West, but also in Pakistan, where more than 4,000 people have been killed in militant attacks since the Red Mosque incident in July 2007.
North Waziristan, home to a hornet’s nest of militants affiliated with the Haqqani insurgent network, al Qaeda, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and other local militants, has been the target of about 90 percent of the reported strikes this year. Given that the region is the source of at least half of the attacks in Afghanistan, this is unsurprising. Before the Pakistani military began a much-anticipated offensive in South Waziristan in October 2009, some 60 percent of the strikes that year took place there; since then, only nine of the 122 reported strikes have occurred in that southernmost tribal area, suggesting a high degree of Pakistani-American coordination. Bolstering this point are reports that the CIA and Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, have conducted more than 100 joint operations in the last year and a half, including the arrest of the Taliban’s second in command, Mullah Baradar, in early 2010.
Another common refrain from critics of the drones program is that it violates Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty, one of the possible reasons the strikes are so unpopular among those who live where the strikes most frequently occur. But despite official public protest, in private Pakistani officials are supportive of the program, and in fact much of the targeting intelligence appears to come from Pakistani sources.
The drone strikes are a tactic, not a strategy. But given Pakistan’s negative reaction both to a Special Forces raid in South Waziristan in early September 2008 and to NATO helicopter strikes in Kurram in late September 2010, plus the Pakistani military’s unwillingness to mount major offensives in North Waziristan, it’s not clear what additional options the United States has. Militants continue to seek to attack the West from the tribal areas, despite the drone program’s escalation. U.S. officials are reportedly even seeking the expansion of the program into Quetta, where the leadership of the Taliban is believed to be based. So despite the controversies about civilians, sovereignty, and strategy, the strikes are still, as CIA chief Leon Panetta commented in May 2009, “the only game in town.” For that reason, it’s worthwhile for everyone to understand exactly what the rules of the game are and continue to be.
Peter Bergen, author of The Longest War, is the director of the New America Foundation’s National Security Studies Program, where Katherine Tiedemann, a doctoral student in political science at George Washington University, is a research fellow.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Pakistan’s Minorities Come Under Fire…
By Kalsoom Lakhani
The persecution and targeting of religious and sectarian minorities has occurred throughout Pakistan’s history, but a number of attacks in 2010 highlight a qualitative shift in this trend. The scale, location, tactics, and claims of responsibility for attacks on minority religious institutions have changed dramatically between last year and this one, proving not only that Pakistan’s minorities are a primary target of the region’s extremist groups, but also that minorities are losing support among the population at large.
Although the number of recorded attacks against minorities seems not to have changed much between 2009 and 2010, other key factors changed significantly. In 2010, attacks on minority religious institutions were for the most part large-scale, resulting in significantly higher death tolls than those in 2009. For instance, based on calculations from the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, news reports, and other sources, the average number of people killed in minority-related mosque attacks in 2009 was three. In 2010, the number ballooned to 18 (the average number wounded was 24 in 2009 and 61 in 2010).
Many of these 2010 attacks occurred in Pakistan’s major cities, such as the Sufi shrine bombing in Karachi and the Ahmadi mosque attacks in Lahore. In 2009, comparatively, such attacks were mostly concentrated in the country’s northern areas, including the tribal areas and smaller towns in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The type of attacks also shifted between 2009 and 2010. Last year, militants used mainly IEDs (improvised explosive devices), VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices), and grenades in their attacks on minority religious institutions; in 2010, on the other hand, suicide attacks were more common, a reason for the larger death tolls.
Finally, there was a shift in groups claiming responsibility. While there was no claim of responsibility for many of the attacks in 2009, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed more attacks this year, including the bombings of the Sufi shrine in Karachi and the Ahmadi mosques in Lahore (though TTP spokesmen denied they were behind the Sufi shrine attack in Lahore in July).
But the TTP, despite what it claims, may not be behind all these attacks. Instead, groups belonging to the Punjabi Taliban, with more reach into Pakistan’s urban centers, could be working with the militant umbrella organization to carry out these attacks. By claiming responsibility, the TTP is in effect perpetuating the perception that there is one centralized larger enemy rather than a more manageable cluster of nameless militants operating independently. The increasing number of large-scale suicide attacks occurring in Pakistan’s major cities, not just in the northwestern areas, is also important in the perceptions war because these incidents garner more media attention and exacerbate the notion that the threat is close by, stoking greater instability and fear in the country.
The shift in the nature of these attacks on minority religious institutions also mirrors increasingly heightened anti-minority sentiment in the country. Religious and sectarian minorities have long been marginalized, targeted, and persecuted throughout Pakistan’s history, though the introduction of the blasphemy laws in the 1980s added further legitimacy to this intolerance. Among the most recent victims of these laws is Aasia Bibi, who recently became the first Christian woman to be sentenced to death because of a conviction under the blasphemy laws, and whose story has sparked polarizing reactions from human rights groups to religious organizations.
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom‘s latest annual report, “[D]iscriminatory laws, promulgated in previous decades and persistently enforced, have fostered an atmosphere of religious intolerance and eroded the social and legal status of members of religious minorities, including Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadis, Hindus, and Christians. Government officials do not provide adequate protections from societal violence to members of these religious minority communities, and perpetrators of attacks on minorities seldom are brought to justice.”
It’s clear that over the course of the past year, Pakistan’s militant groups have re-emphasized a brutal method to realize their goal of destabilizing the country: By attacking minorities’ places of worship, they hope to instigate a nationwide sectarian war.
Kalsoom Lakhani is the director of Social Vision, the strategic philanthropy arm of ML Resources in Washington, D.C. She is from Islamabad, Pakistan, and blogs at CHUP, or Changing Up Pakistan.
ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images
… But Some of Them Are Fighting Back
By Rania Abouzeid
Pakistan’s large Barelvi movement, made up of practitioners of a Sufi-influenced Sunni Islam, is beginning to shake off its traditional posture of political acquiescence. As the Barelvis grasp at more power, they may pose the greatest challenge yet to Pakistan’s religious extremists.
The Barelvis have long been a target of militant and hard-line groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which view their Sufism, with its mysticism and devotional singing and dancing, as heretical. The Taliban have expressed their distaste in violent fashion, mounting a series of attacks on Sufi shrines since 2005, including a suicide bombing against Lahore’s revered Data Darbar shrine, one of the oldest Muslim places of worship on the Indian subcontinent, that left 42 people dead and 180 wounded.
The Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC), an umbrella group representing 60 Barelvi organizations, was founded in May 2009 with the explicit mission of fighting “the growing Talibanization” of Pakistan. In particular, the group has set its sights on Pakistan’s vocal minority Deobandi sect, a hard-line group increasingly associated with the Taliban and other militant groups in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The SIC is openly pushing for a nationwide ban on incendiary Deobandi literature, a clampdown on extremist groups that are ostensibly banned but continue to operate freely in Pakistan, and the monitoring of Pakistanis who have fought in Afghanistan. It also wants stronger police and judicial action against terrorism suspects and the establishment of an internal police unit to root out officers suspected of helping terrorists. It plans to realize those demands by fielding its own candidates in the next parliamentary elections in 2013.
In the meantime, the SIC is working to shore up its base. In late November the movement organized a “Save Pakistan” march, with thousands of protesters beginning in the capital, Islamabad, and ending a day later at the Data Darbar shrine in Lahore.
Still, the movement remains politically untested. It has yet to score major concessions from Punjabi authorities on any of its key demands. Many Sufi religious devotees accept their clerics’ influence in spiritual matters but are less likely to follow political directives. But Ragheb Naeemi, an SIC member, remains optimistic. “Everywhere where there are shrines and preachers of the shrines, they are telling people to come to the SIC,” he says. “Our public will not give their vote to any other party.”
The Sufi political awakening is part of a larger battle for the ideological and religious future of Pakistan. It’s a fight that will determine what strain of Islam will define the country and the extent to which religion will affect political and security issues. And there’s no guarantee that all issues will be settled through a peaceful political process: The Barelvi campaign to eradicate long-standing Saudi religious influence in Pakistan threatens to stoke further sectarian violence across the country.
In the same way that al Qaeda’s grisly and tyrannical tactics in Iraq sparked a backlash among the very Iraqis it claimed to be defending, so Taliban violence against Pakistan’s nonviolent Sufis appears to be provoking its adherents to fight back, albeit politically rather than militarily. Time will tell who comes out on top.
Rania Abouzeid is an independent journalist based in Pakistan.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Karzai Is Pardoning Taliban and Drug Lords
By Kate Clark
Sitting opposite the plump, smiling figure of Akbar Agha in June 2010, it was difficult to imagine him ordering the kidnapping of three U.N. workers in 2004. He was immaculately dressed in the traditional white salwar kameez and turban of a sayed (descendant of the Prophet Mohammed) and spoke with the soft accent of a Kandahari. I was visiting him in his home, rather than in jail, because he was the recipient of a presidential pardon.
In 2004, as the head of a Taliban splinter group, Jaish-e-Muslimeen (the Muslims’ Army), Agha paid a criminal gang to kidnap the three U.N. staff members — two men, a Kosovar and a Filipino, and a British woman. It appeared that Agha, an old associate of Arab militants, wanted to launch his group with a spectacular action in order to attract money from overseas funders of the jihad. He himself was based in Pakistan and spoke openly to journalists about the kidnapping; negotiators said he threatened to arrange the beheading of his captives. After 25 long days and nights, the hostages were rescued, and Agha was extradited to Afghanistan, put on trial, and sent to prison for 16 years for kidnapping and terrorism.
In an account that matches the U.N. story, Agha told me the presidential palace tried to free him in 2007 but met sharp U.N. resistance. In 2009, then U.N. special representative in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, admitted he heard about the proposed pardon beforehand, but did not raise it with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Finally, a year ago, Agha was very, very quietly released from prison, having served just five years of his term. He was settled in west Kabul, where he lives under semi-house arrest.
Agha told me he was one of hundreds of Taliban prisoners who were pardoned for the Muslim holiday of Eid in 2009. It is impossible to confirm this because the president has both a constitutional right to free prisoners and no legal obligation to tell anyone. When asked about Agha’s pardon, Karzai’s spokesman said the president could not recall the matter.
It is not just Taliban fighters who get pardoned. Just before the 2009 presidential elections, Karzai freed five drug smugglers, even though Afghanistan’s counternarcotics crimes law forbids such releases. The five had had influential connections to the Karzai family. Early in 2010, a senior Ministry of Information (MoI) source told me two other big smugglers were also trying to secure pardons (something which was confirmed when WikiLeaks published an August 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy of Kabul). The MoI source said one of the men, Ismal Safed, had paid $170,000 to several (named) members of parliament to plead his case. He had promised half a million dollars on his successful release — but never made it out and is still in Pul-e Charkhi prison in Kabul.
The other smuggler, Colonel Jaweed, has fared better. He is the nephew of a member of parliament, Zalmai Mujadidi, who is a Karzai loyalist and strongman in Badakhshan. Jaweed was the head of the provincial highway police when 26 kg of heroin was found in his car. MoI sources, confirmed by diplomats, said a presidential pardon was attempted in December 2009 but was met by strong opposition from the United States and Britain. Earlier this year, however, senior Badakhshan police officers said Jaweed had been quietly moved from Pul-e Charkhi to the provincial jail in Faizabad where he has his own cell and can make home visits. Jaweed reportedly believes a pardon is imminent.
A cable sent by the U.S. Embassy of Kabul in August 2009 and published by WikiLeaks refers to 150 prisoners released between 2007 and mid-2009 after interventions by Karzai or the Afghan attorney general, Muhammad Ishaq Aloko. The cable said that Karzai and Aloko “authorize the release of detainees pretrial and allow dangerous individuals to go free or re-enter the battlefield without ever facing an Afghan court.” A recent investigation by Reuters alleged that the president’s younger half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, has helped secure the release of two Taliban commanders — though this is something he strongly denied.
Most releases in Afghanistan are made informally. Interventions can be made at any stage of the legal process by anyone with influence: a quiet phone call to police, prosecutors, or judges from someone who cannot be refused, often coupled with a bribe. Captured Taliban expect their organization to get them out — and the movement has a prisoner’s commission to do just this, using bribes, influence, or threats. The opposite problem is just as widespread: those who do not have cash or clout can all too easily get stuck in detention, even if they’ve already served their sentences, even if there’s not enough evidence to bring them to trial.
In June 2010, the president set up a commission to review the cases of suspected insurgents in an effort to build confidence and foster reconciliation. Only those unfairly held were being freed, claimed the head of the commission, the justice minister, Habibullah Ghalib: “We’re trying to do this based on law, so that we don’t fear accountability…. We have a process to follow, regardless of [pressure] from officials, family members — even if it’s the brother of the president.”
Ghalib is tiny, old, and improbably energetic, and he sounds convincing: If the innocent and only the innocent are going free, it would be a great step forward for some of the many Afghans trapped unfairly in detention. Yet the difficulty obtaining numbers or names of those released, and the opacity of the whole process, doesn’t inspire much confidence that justice will be served in Afghanistan.
Kate Clark is a senior analyst at the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
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The Real Story Behind the Ban on Contractors
By Matthieu Aikins
August 9 was shaping up to be just another scorching summer day in Kabul when a journalist friend tipped me off that the private security firm Watan Risk, whose operations were run by the logistics convoy warlord par excellence Commander Ruhollah, would be having a press conference at noon at the Intercontinental Hotel. “Watan?” I asked, slightly incredulous. Afghanistan’s most notorious homegrown private security company wasn’t exactly known for its press relations.
But I went. And there sitting at the front of the conference room, with a thicket of microphones in front of him, was Commander Ruhollah himself looking ill at ease in a suit and tie. He got straight to the point; Ruhollah reminded the audience of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s harsh criticism of companies such as his in a speech the day before. Watan Risk had caused civilian casualties, Ruhollah admitted. And citing pressure from the media, the commander announced that he was resigning and shutting down Watan’s operations escorting logistics convoys for international forces in the south.
What could explain Ruhollah’s sudden decision? I could think of only explanation: Given Ruhollah’s tight links with the president and his brother, the powerful regional governor Ahmed Wali Karzai, I was certain that this had been arranged in consultation with them. Perhaps something big was about to go down, and Ruhollah’s move was pre-emptive.
Earlier that summer, I had heard rumors in Kandahar City of a big deal involving the Interior Ministry, Ruhollah, and another major private security commander, Matiullah Khan. The prize was a contract to take over security for the southern portions of Highway 1, which runs from Kabul to Kandahar and onwards to Helmand and Herat. My guess was that Karzai was going to push some kind of private security reform through the Ministry of the Interior, and that he wanted Ruhollah to position himself accordingly ahead of time. “He’s telling Ruhollah to get out of the way of the bus,” I said to a friend.
Eight days later, on August 17, President Karzai dropped a surprisingly drastic bombshell: he issued a decree banning all private security companies by Dec. 17. It was a baffling move and impossible to implement, but it was one that put him on the right side of Afghan public opinion, and also hoisted the internationals who had been complaining about corrupt commanders on their own petard. The ban — which threatened to wipe out an industry vital to military logistics and development contractors — became one of the summer’s biggest stories. Press coverage, however, focused on the ban’s impact on foreigners — a red herring that obscured a far more important angle to the story.
The private security decree was really about the worsening relations between Karzai and the West, most particularly as a result of the United State’s ham-fisted attacks this year on the patronage networks that have become essential to Karzai’s control in Afghanistan. The most notable of these was when two specialized police units, mentored by U.S. and British forces, and insulated from political pressure by their relative isolation from the rest of the Interior Ministry, raided the New Ansari hawala money exchange in January and arrested a key Karzai aide on charges of bribery in July. Karzai struck back, weakening the independence of Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission meant to oversee allegations of fraud in the August presidential election, forcing the resignations of then-Afghan National Directorate of Security head Amrullah Saleh and Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and firing the deputy attorney general — reformists who were seen as too close to the West and its anti-corruption efforts.
Karzai’s private security decree is intimately linked to this narrative. Since January, Washington has been investigating U.S. support for private security companies and warlords that contribute that fuel corruption and the insurgency. An FBI probe, a blockbuster Congressional report, and a specialized military task force, have all investigated US military contracting with the aim of reducing U.S. support for certain firms.
Ironically, Western countries now find themselves in the position of having to push back against private security reform in order to secure a delay in the ban. It now looks like the decree will be so far relaxed from its original bravado as to allow private security companies to continue their work through their current contracts. With few exceptions, the impact of the ban on the commander networks that compose private security companies, and how they might be rearranged more firmly under Karzai, has not been explored.
Karzai turned the tables on his foreign backers, ensuring that private security reforms remain on his terms. This turn of events is a resounding “check” in a chess match that has been played out, and is still being played out, between Karzai and his international patrons.
Matthieu Aikins is a magazine writer who reports on Afghanistan for Harper’s Magazine, the Walrus, Popular Science, and others.
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Truth And Reconciliation Are Coming to Afghanistan — Really
By Sari Kouvo
While most policymakers in the West and in Afghanistan have been talking this year about the prospect of negotiations with the Taliban, transitional justice, an important element of any comprehensive peace process, has received much less attention. Transitional justice — the process of dealing with legacies of past war crimes and human rights violations — has always been an awkward subject for the Afghan government and for some of its more powerful international partners, which are implicated in previous injustices. However, some Afghan and international organizations have carefully laid the groundwork for a transitional justice agenda.
At the core of the process has been the four-year Action Plan for Peace, Justice and Reconciliation adopted by the Afghan government in December 2005. The action plan has since then largely been consigned to the margins of Afghan politics, and its public launch in December 2006 did, in part, inspire the drafting of the Amnesty Law. Nevertheless, parts of the plan have been implemented — for example, the establishment of an annual Victims’ Day that coincides with Human Rights Day on Dec. 10. The plan, to be reintroduced at the Kabul Conference, has also inspired civil society and victims’ advocacy groups. This year’s National Victims’ Jirga, held just weeks before the government’s Peace Jirga, was one example.
A key theme of the action plan, responding to consistent demand from victims, is documentation and the need for truth-telling about Afghanistan’s recent history. So far, the only major published documentation of war crimes and human rights violations in Afghanistan during the period between 1978 and 2001 is the informal collection of reports in the Afghanistan Justice Project (AJP). A similar but more comprehensive report compiled by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was never published, allegedly because of U.N. concerns for the security of its staff.
A crucial development in the implementation of the current action plan — and the most important basis for future reconciliation efforts — is the documentation effort by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). Over the past four years, the AIHRC has collected and analyzed war testimonies from all Afghan provinces covering all phases of the 1978-2001 conflict period. The report is expected to be released early next year.
The action plan and the AIHRC’s documentation exercise are important parts of the ongoing reconciliation process and necessary elements of any future peace process. A focus on transitional justice can help overcome some of the shortcomings of the Afghan government’s approach (as represented by the Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Program), which has assumed that past grievances can be solved and easily forgiven without any attention to the suffering of victims and the serious war crimes committed over the past 30 years. Only when the victims’ right to truth has been ensured and a common history has been constructed can the groundwork for reconciliation be laid.
Sari Kouvo heads the International Center for Transitional Justice’s Afghanistan Program and co-directs the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
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How the Floods Could Help Pakistan in the Long Term
By Amil Khan
For six decades, military rulers, religious extremists and wealthy politicians jostled to decide Pakistan’s destiny. But a few weeks of rain have taken the matter out of their hands. As devastating as the physical effects of the floods have been, they pale in comparison to the impact the disaster will have on the future of Pakistani society and politics.
Pakistan is a country depressingly accustomed to disaster. Twenty million of Pakistan’s most vulnerable were still battling the floods when the international spotlight moved on to a betting scandal. Pakistani and U.S. officials have said the floods could lead to further instability and conflict.
But during a trip to the southern Sindh province, where relief operations are still taking place, I saw how provincial government, supported by a local humanitarian organization, was working before the floods to give poor and vulnerable Pakistanis a stake in their own futures.
Officials in the Sindh government told visiting Oxfam officials that they wanted to use the massive changes the floods had wrought on rural living patterns to redress the power imbalance between landowners and peasants. However, while these intentions are well placed, Pakistan’s state machinery — as analysts have pointed out — has been ravaged by decades of mismanagement. As a result, the state often struggles to deliver on its promises, particularly when it is attempting to take steps influential figures deem contrary to their interests.
In Thatta, about two hours from the bustling metropolis of Karachi, the provincial government of Sindh embarked on an ambitious program before the floods hit to distribute state land to female peasant farmers in an effort to empower them. Local civil society organization Participatory Development Initiatives (PDI) and Oxfam assisted the effort by helping women access the scheme.
Sakina Chandani is a mother of six. She and her husband are peasant farmers who earn between 100 to 200 rupees ($1.16 to $2.32) for a day’s manual labor. PDI workers told Sakina and hundreds of other women like her about the scheme and helped them apply for the land grants. After an application and assessment procedure, she was awarded eight acres. Sakina is aware what her new status means. Laughingly she told us, “When we (my husband and I) argue, sometimes, I tell him, ‘Remember, I am the landowner’.”
Most of the 3,085 women who received land grants suffered when the Indus River flooded Sindh. And although the floods caused immediate hardship to women like Sakina, they also brought an opportunity. The deluge washed peasant farmers off the land they cultivated for a pittance, but it also loosened — while not severing –the bonds between peasant farmer and landlord.
These changes are still tenuous. Local landlords, some fearing a loss of their own power, others wanting the land for themselves and some motivated by nothing more than an aversion to the idea of poor women owning land, used their resources and influence to lodge legal appeals against the women. Some landlords also used Pakistan’s court system to lodge bogus criminal cases against the women’s family members. In all cases, the Sindhi government had little ability to defend the rights it had bestowed on the women. Sakina, who at first had difficulty believing that the government would want to help her, has spent 1,400 rupees attending hearings in the hope she will eventually win her right to the land. The legal aid that PDI provides with support from Oxfam gives her hope that an initiative begun by the state might one day give her family a more secure future.
It is vital for international security and Pakistan’s some 170 million people that the country turns itself into a viable agent for positive change in its people’s eyes. Extremists capitalize on the immense frustration in the country and portray themselves as the only force capable of bringing about improvement. To successfully challenge them, the Pakistani state needs to show that it can provide its people a future that is better than their present. The floods, although devastating, have provided the state and its supporters in the international community the opportunity to challenge the ingrained realities that make life a misery for millions. But if they do not capitalize on this chance, millions of some of the most vulnerable people in the world will be left hungry, abandoned, and angry.
Amil Khan works for Oxfam GB in Pakistan and is the author of The Long Struggle.
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Karachi Explodes in Ethnic Warfare
By Huma Imtiaz
In the past year alone, Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and financial hub, has seen a startling increase in ethnic and political violence with more than 1,100 people killed, at the hands of unknown gunmen. In a city that is the economic lifeline of Pakistan, how can an average of three people be killed on the streets every day? The answer is that the police and paramilitary forces, the Rangers, seem incapable of controlling the law and order situation, while major political parties pass the blame around to each other and unnamed “third parties.”
Karachi is an ethnically mixed city of 18 million. The largest group is Muhajirs, Urdu speakers descended from those who migrated from India after Partition. Other ethnicities include Baloch, Punjabis, Sindhis, and nearly 5 million Pashtuns, who have migrated from Afghanistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
The victims of the killings include Muhajirs, Pashtuns, and Sindhis — each of whom have claimed the city as their own. In August 2010, following the murder of a parliamentarian from the city’s largest party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), at least 82 people — primarily Pashtuns — were killed by unknown gunmen across the city.
Every incident is followed by a new round of allegations from the MQM and the Awami National Party (ANP), who draw most of their support from the Muhajir and Pashtun communities respectively. The MQM claims that the violence is instigated by criminal elements that want to destabilize Karachi. The ANP, in turn, says that factions within the MQM want to drive Pashtuns out of the city. More often, an unspecified “third party” is blamed.
Fayyaz Leghari, Karachi’s police chief, denies there was any political pressure against taking action on target killings. “The political parties are actively involved in getting things under control and using their influence to control the violence,” he says. “Karachi has multi-ethnic violence, there are some kinds of clashes between two communities, and that is effectively controlled by the government.” Leghari adds that the police have arrested more than 60 people in 2010 and charged them with targeted killing, and that the cases are being pursued in court.
But while the police deny the involvement of political parties, the numbers speak for themselves. The deaths of up to 50 people a day at the hands of “unknown gunmen” are becoming disturbingly frequent, and reek of ethnic genocide. As political parties continue to blame each other, the financial lifeline of the country and a city renowned for its diversity are risking permanent damage.
Huma Imtiaz is a journalist in Pakistan.
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Pakistani Women Have It Bad, Too
By Madiha Sattar
The Taliban regime’s shadow still attracts global attention to women’s rights in Afghanistan. But when it comes to neighboring Pakistan, geopolitics and nuclear-weapons issues usually trump women’s issues, with the exception of atrocities like Mukhtar Mai’s gang rape or the live burial of women in Baluchistan. Unfortunately, this past year shows that the Pakistani government’s attempts to deal with concrete problems facing women are floundering.
In some ways the state of women’s rights in Pakistan can be deceptive. Benazir Bhutto was the first woman to be elected head of a Muslim country, the National Assembly’s current speaker is a woman, and the State Bank has had a female governor. Pakistani women are prominent CEOs, architects, filmmakers, lawyers, artists, writers, actors, and human rights activists who regularly appear on TV, don’t necessarily cover their heads, and generally make themselves heard. Seventeen percent of seats in the Senate and National Assembly are now reserved for women; more than one-fifth of the latter is female.
But as with all human rights issues in Pakistan, women’s rights are deeply divided along socioeconomic lines. One of the few bright spots this year was the passage, over opposition from religious parties, of a bill targeting sexual harassment at the workplace. The bill requires every registered employer to establish a committee to penalize such cases. But a huge number of Pakistani women work in the economy’s informal sectors — and are less likely to be educated or well-off financially. For these women, seeking recourse will involve long delays while they wait for police to register cases and magistrates to deliberate.