Saturday, March 27, 2010

Kandahar, a Battlefield Even Before U.S. Offensive


KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — American forces have begun operations to push back Taliban insurgents in this most important southern province, the birthplace and spiritual home of the Taliban, and a full-scale offensive is expected in coming weeks.

But the Taliban have already turned this city into a battlefield as they prepare for the operation, which American officials hope will be decisive in breaking the insurgency’s grip on southern Afghanistan.

When American forces all arrive, they will encounter challenges larger than any other in Afghanistan. Taliban suicide bombings and assassinations have left this city virtually paralyzed by fear. The insurgents boldly walk the streets, visit shops and even press people into keeping guns and other supplies in their houses for them in preparation for urban warfare, residents say.

The government, corrupt and ineffective, lacks almost any popular support. Anyone connected to the government lives in fear of assassination. Its few officials sit barricaded behind high blast walls. Services are scant. Security, people say, is at its worst since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001.

“They are focusing on the city,” said Hajji Agha Lalai, a provincial councilor and former head of the peace and reconciliation commission in Kandahar, who has extensive contacts with the Taliban. “The Taliban want to show themselves to the world, to show, ‘We are here,’ ” he said.

The intensifying Taliban campaign is a measure of the importance the insurgency places on Kandahar, where the bulk of the 30,000 additional American forces arriving this year are being deployed. That is a sign of its value to the Americans, too.

The scale of the coming American offensive is expected to dwarf the recent operation in Marja, in neighboring Helmand Province, where 15,000 American, NATO and Afghan forces were deployed to secure an area much smaller than this provincial capital of 500,000 people.

American forces have been preparing for Kandahar since last year, building a presence around this city and along the border with Pakistan to try to secure the province. But as a result, in the most important urban center in southern Afghanistan, life has rapidly deteriorated, residents say.

On March 13, suicide bombers killed 35 people, and the Taliban have issued repeated warnings that they are in the city and planning more attacks.

“We do not feel safe in town, and even for the men it is dangerous to go out,” said a female human rights worker who asked not to be named for fear of being singled out by the insurgents.

In the week before the bombings, officials said, the Taliban conducted a series of attacks on the police and other officials in the city, killing one or two police officers every night for several days and seizing their weapons.

A government official, the well-liked head of the province’s Information and Culture Department, Abdul Majeed Babai, was gunned down on his way to work on Feb. 24. He had received threats from the Taliban, who wanted him to leave his position, relatives said.

“The Taliban can walk around, and government officials cannot,” Hajji Lalai said.

The man nominally in charge of Kandahar Province, Gov. Tooryalai Wesa, sat alone in his office reading papers on a recent afternoon. The spacious lawns and rooms of his palace, thronged by tribal elders and petitioners a few years ago, stood empty and silent.

Outside the city, it is worse. Government services barely exist. Only 5 of 17 districts in the province are accessible for government officials. Four districts are completely under the control of the insurgents, according to Nader Nadery, deputy head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Administrators and police chiefs are appointed to the districts, but they have so little backup and so few resources, they can do little. With 40 to 60 police officers in each district, they can barely guard the district center.

Health services and education are virtually absent outside the towns, and two-thirds of the province’s schools are closed, human rights officials say.

“If a single nurse or midwife is working in the districts, you can call me bad names,” a women’s activist, Shahida Hussain, said. “Even in the city, they don’t have enough equipment — forget the districts.”

Afghan officials in the district of Spinboldak on the Pakistan border said their area was more secure since American soldiers of the Stryker Brigade were deployed there last year to try to close down Taliban infiltration routes, or “rat lines,” as soldiers call them. The road to Spinboldak had grown safer, and a radio tower had been installed that would allow the government to reach Afghans throughout the border region, the governor, Mr. Wesa, said on a recent visit.

Yet the Taliban have repeatedly hit Stryker units in another strategic district, Arghandab, just to the north of Kandahar city with roadside bombs.

In Malahjat and Panjwai, agricultural districts to the west and southwest of Kandahar city, farmers say they are under constant threat from mines laid by the militants, as well as from American drones and helicopters combing the skies.

Villagers described at least three instances in recent weeks when drone strikes killed farmers digging ditches or bringing goods home from the market, as well as other cases when Taliban fighters were hit.

American helicopters swoop in on villagers who are on motorbikes or are working in the fields and hover over them until the men remove clothing and stand with their arms aloft to show they are not militants, said one man who frequently visits his village by motorbike from the city. He asked not to be named for fear of trouble from any side.

In addition to the dangers, residents say they are despairing about the political crisis gripping the province.

Real power rests with just two families who have prospered under the presence of American forces in the past eight years. One of them is the family of President Hamid Karzai, who is represented here by his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who heads the provincial council.

The other belongs to Gul Agha Shirzai, the former governor of Kandahar, and his brothers Bacha Shirzai and Razziq Shirzai, who have gotten lucrative security and construction deals with NATO forces.

Residents and elders accuse the families of persecuting rivals and excluding all other tribes from access to power. Their domination has undercut any popular backing for the government or the foreign forces supporting them.

“The first thing Afghans fear is the coming of more foreign troops, and the second thing they fear is the empowering of the current leadership and administration,” said Shahabuddin Akhunzada, a tribal elder from Kandahar city. His Eshaqzai tribe has complained of repeated arrests and political exclusion. The West’s acceptance of Mr. Karzai’s re-election despite widespread fraud was the last straw, he said.

US commander in Afghanistan bans burger and pizza bars at Kandahar base

If an army marches on its stomach, General Stanley McChrystal would prefer that it wasn't full of burgers and pizzas.

In an edict that will appal the units garrisoned at Kandahar airbase, but no doubt raise a smile from soldiers living off rations in forward operating bases, the famously sober US commanding general in Afghanistan has called for an end to the junk food culture that has taken root at the base.

With queues for Whoppers outside Burger King and troops ordering takeaways from Pizza Hut while others enjoy the occasional evening of line dancing, the square of shops and restaurants at the airfield could almost pass for smalltown America.

But the fact that these fast-food joints are just a few miles down the road from Kandahar, spiritual home of the Taliban and the focus of critical Nato operations this summer, has not impressed McChrystal.

Anxious that his men focus on the job at hand, McChrystal has ordered the closure of most of the all-American food outlets that have appeared over the years at Kandahar airfield.

As one of his top deputies put it in a written announcement: "This is a war zone – not an amusement park."

The closure of Burger King, Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen and Military Car Sales, where soldiers can buy pickup trucks to be delivered their home address, will all help the alliance "accommodate the troop increase and get refocused on the mission at hand", Sergeant Major Michael Hall said.

Their departure will remove the essential elements that made the "boardwalk"area of Kandahar airfield one of the oddest in Afghanistan. Just a few hundred metres from an airstrip that sends so many fighter jets, unmanned drones and helicopters out on missions around Kandahar and Helmand that it is the world's busiest, soldiers can shop for perfumes, cigars and high end electronics as well as eat junk food.

Inside a restaurant such as TGI Friday's, the only reminder that this is the most surreal outpost of the US casual dining giant is when the camouflage-clad customers dive under tables at the sound of a rocket attack alarm – an occasional hazard in Kandahar. TGI's is not yet on the McChrystal hit list, but a warning that some contracts will not be renewed suggests it may not last long.

The news is likely to delight US troops who live off rations in tiny outposts where occasional showers are the closest they get to luxury. Such frontline soldiers routinely disparage their colleagues who spend their tours among the creature comforts of the large bases.

But some US military personnel in recent months have told the Guardian that McChrystal's puritanical streak, which has also seen a ban on activities such as salsa classes, is an unnecessary added burden on soldiers on lengthy 12-month tours.

The mega-bases of Kandahar and Bagram will be the most affected by the new policy, and it is not clear whether Camp Bastion, the UK's giant facility in the desert of Helmand will lose the sea container that houses a tiny Pizza Hut.

It is the only such franchise on a base which McChrystal would otherwise find admirably austere – British troops' shopping opportunities are restricted to the Hobnobs, toiletries and Nuts magazines sold at the Naafi store, an outlet dwarfed by the giant US equivalents.

Pukhtunkhwa-Now or never

Ghani Khan
Renaming of the North Western Frontier Province as Pakhtunkhwa has assumed importance in view of the fact that it is under active consideration of the Constitution Reforms Committee of the Parliament. The said committee is working under the Chairmanship of Senator Mian Raza Rabbani which has almost completed its task except certain important issues, which include the quantum of Provincial autonomy, the unification or merger of Pakhtun areas into one province and the renaming of North Western Frontier Province. The attitude of the Reforms Committee is friendly towards changing the name of the Frontier to "Pakhtunkhwa" as there is no harm, either covert or overt, in changing the name which is the demand of millions of inhabitants of the province. The demand for changing the name of the province has not emerged all of a sudden but in fact it is as old as the province. At the time when this province was formed in 1901, a Hindu scholar, Ram Chand belonging to Yar Hussain village in Swabi district had proposed in 1907-08 that this province be given a suitable (Pathan name) appropriate to the people inhabiting this province. This was the time when there was neither any movement for Pakistan nor any vision had come forth in this regard which only proves that the name Pakhtunkhwa is not against the integrity of Pakistan. After the creation of Pakistan, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in his maiden speech in the constituent Assembly of Pakistan i.e. on 5th March, 1948 had demanded that now that Pakistan was an independent state, there was no need to keep Pakhtuns divided into so many different administrative units as that was the requirement of the British for their colonial needs. On this occasion he had proposed that such a united Pakhtun province be named as "Pakhtunistan", He had argued that this was essential to reflect the identity of the people of the province. But not only the reply of the then Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan to Bacha Khan's speech was un-accommodating but a member from Punjab and as well as a federal minister had gone so far as to say that " Pakhtunistan" was an un-Islamic name. To this Bacha Khan had replied that if Pakhtuns were Muslims, how their name was non-Muslim. Between that and this day an innocent demand was given political clolour. More than 40 years after the original demand was made by the great Pakhtun leader, Muhammad Afzal Khan popularly known as Khan Lala i.e. elder brother was the third person who in November,1990 touched this issue most forcefully on the floor of the National Assembly of Pakistan. This was as a result of his fight for the name in the Assembly single handedly that the issue never died thereafter. The Awami National Party's efforts for renaming of the province as Pakhtunkhwa cannot be qualified as forceful or much serious and this fact is evident from its reaction that when Muhammad Afzal Khan was fighting all alone on the floor of the Assembly facing the anger and annoyance of the Punjab, not a single member from ANP had supported him in order to keep its alliance with Mian Nawaz Sharif intact. Now the objective of renaming the province is being pursued in the Constitution Reforms Committee and there is no impediment as all other parties are supporting the renaming of the Frontier province as Pakhtunkhwa except the PML (N). Instead of Pakhtunkhwa, the PML (N) is suggesting a combination of two names i.e. Pakhtunkhwa-Abbasin or Pakhtunkhwa-Khyber or Pakhtunkhwa-Hazara. The PML (N) considers Hazara division to be a separate entity for the sake of securing its few seats in the provincial and National assemblies. To agree to their suggestion tantamounts to further disintegrating the province and this will be a price unbearable for its people. Some circles even now consider that this is not an opportune time to rename the Frontier province as Pakhtunkhwa as this is not just a change of name of a street or a road. They think that even the resolution of the provincial assembly in support of change of name is not worthy of respect as another assembly may suggest another name. So they think that there is no desirability of changing the name. To oppose certain suggestion is not unexpected or an unwelcome thing but to oppose an appropriate proposal on spurious grounds indeed becomes a matter of concern. It has always been striven to make the people of the province believe that in the name of Pakistan, the alphabet "ALIF" was indented by Ch. Rehmat Ali to stand for "Afghania" as a name for the province and the people of the province were expected to consider the concealed "ALIF" as a sufficient substitute for a proper name but ultimately when Afghania was demanded, it was also outrightly rejected. The committee representing the ANP and PML(N) is comprised of Pakhtuns from both sides. It is apparent that the Pakhtuns representing PML (N) were never in position to go beyond the instructions of Mian Nawaz Sharif and as such this was evident from day one that the committee will fail to arrive at consensus. Certain news stories suggest that the matter is almost settled and during their meeting for the purpose, the leaders of both the parties will take no time in reaching consensus and Pakhtunkhwa will be declared as the new name for the Frontier. It is believable because not only the ANP had almost surrendered itself to ML for nine long years in hope of getting the province renamed at the cost of its popularity and integrity and this was also the reason for the ANP members to leave Muhammad Afzal Khan high and dry when he badly needed their help. Mian Sahib ultimately opted to break the promise given to the ANP leadership. Once upon a time Mian Nawaz Sharif used to call the Frontier province as Pakhtunkhwa in his speeches on the floor of the National Assembly and therefore one is inclined to hope that he is not seriously opposed to the proposed change just to please a division which is 50 per cent Pakhto speaking, he might only be intending to gain some political importance through delaying tactics. But one cannot ignore the fact that Mian Sahib has always used negative politics as a means of popularizing himself in Punjab. If he persisted in his opposition to the change of name this will without doubt seriously damage the harmony which has always existed in the Frontier province but will also damage relations between the two provinces and the leaderships of both parties. It is advisable that to rename the Frontier province as Pakhtunkhwa may not be considered as an affront to the ideology of Pakistan or its stability as this is not a demand for a free and sovereign Pakhtunkhwa nor this is an issue like Kashmir or Palestine. It is worth mentioning that at present there is no opposition to rename the Frontier province as Pakhtunkhwa from Sindh and Balochistan. The Punjabis belonging to PPP from Punjab also seem to favour the change which is over due. It is hoped that Mian Sahib will not ignore the pleasure of millions of Pakhtuns for the sake of the so-called minorities which are existing in every province of the country and no country in the world is ever empty of minorities and therefore the yard stick which is applied to Pakhtunkhwa has no precedent at all in the entire world, if there was any they should bring it forward. Few words of advice for the leadership of ANP that the people and particularly intellectuals are afraid that ANP being habitually a party of compromise will eventually agree to two names in one i.e. Pakhtunkhwa-Abbasin or Pakhtunkhwa - Hazara. This will further complicate and compound the issue and in fact this will be even worse than NWFP. In Seventies; when the party had had the opportunity to declare Pakhto as the official language of the province, the party leadership succumbed to its compulsions and even today the party cannot defend itself on the issue. For renaming the Frontier province as Pakhtunkhwa, this is the most opportune time and if lost will be lost for ever so this is a matter of now or never and the party leadership must keep it in mind. The party should agree to 18th amendment only after Pakhtunkhwa is conceded and therefore the party has no option to retreat from its stand which is just, desirable and need of the hour not only in the interest of the Province but of the entire country.

Nawaz’s turnabout

The Frontier Post

Not even a nincompoop is wee bit surprised at this turnabout of Mian Nawaz Sharif, the PML (N) supremo. Shocked is only that bevy of palmed off media stars and fondling intellectual lights that had been projecting him disingenuously as a giant which he really is not. The street knows him for what he actually is: a pigmy and an imposter, given congenitally to opportunism and expediency, professing deceitfully commitment to principled politics with which he has no truck at all and which palpably is none of his forte. It is only the fawning crowd that had spuriously been painting him as a staunch lover of independent judiciary, but to the great amusement of the street which fretted sceptically how could he be, this erstwhile invader of the Supreme Court and the conqueror of the superior judiciary. Not the least bemused was the street by these equally deceitful cheerleaders’ chant that he was an unvarnished democrat committed to democracy and constitutionalism. It was too much of a joke that it could take. Not even the Atlantic’s entire waters can wash from the street’s searing memory that had he the required numbers in the Senate, this charlatan would have been sitting on this ill-starred nation’s neck today as its Ameerul Momineen for lifetime, a law unto himself and his word the law of the land, with the whole of the democracy and constitution shop rolled up and thrown into the junkyard for good. How could this cloned baby of the garrison hatcheries and the longtime loyal companion and toady of praetorian generals and dictators be taken as true in his tall assertions of civilian supremacy and subservience of the military to the civilian rule? That unsettling question has never left the street’s troubled mind. And not even a saintly sage could convince a starkly sceptical street that this compulsive neglector and irreverent of parliament in his glory times was now a devotee and fan of parliament’s supremacy. During his two prime ministerial stints, not just to the nation’s highest elected body he gave a short shrift in the making of state policies and decisions, he even kept his cabinets of ministers out of it. It was a select coterie of his kitchen cabinet that he would consult at best to run the country as autocratically as he runs his party despotically even today. Can anyone with a modicum of sense imagine for a moment that his party team on the parliamentary constitutional reforms committee was working on its own without any knowledge of him or any instructions from him? You must be kidding. How many times have you heard in these very recent times his party people saying on crucial issues that Mian Sahib would decide the party position or stance? And how many times have you heard them saying his word would be the last? So what is it that has prompted Mian Sahib to make this turnabout at the eleventh hour to put the almost entire finished work of the parliamentary committee in state of uncertainty and doldrums? What expediency is it that has motivated this grandee to this rash and reckless hatchet work? There must be a method to his madness, a shrewd operator as he is who like a seasoned businessman calculates carefully his costs and profits before embarking on a venture. He must have done this cost-benefit thing, carefully weighing what political gains are going to accrue to him, even though for the present it looks his seemingly idiotic move is likely to hurt him politically in the public eye. But for this, soothly, he is least bothered. With his enormous wealth, much of it slush, and with moneyed people and powerful feudal aristocrats holding pocket boroughs inhabited by enslaved electorates on his back he feels secure enough to romp home even amidst a miffed public. Still, if with his adventurous stroke his fawning cheerleaders in the media, in the intellectual nobility and in the civil society glitterati stand completely flummoxed, the street lies squarely prostrate. The street had hoped once the political elites are through with their constitutional game, they would find some time to think of the people’s multiplying miseries and travails. And they are indeed pathetically placed. They are being mowed down day in and day out by mounting problems of poverty and squalor, disease and aliments, joblessness and wants, price hikes and power and gas shortages, and official corruption and malfeasance. On top of it, criminality, lawlessness and terrorism have driven them to an utter sense of insecurity and sleepless nights. With his recklessness, Mian Sahib has dashed their hopes to the ground to become dust. What a love and affection for an unfortunate people!