Saturday, June 25, 2011

A community under siege in tribal Pakistan
Parachinar, in Pakistan's tribal north west, remains under siege. The only road connecting this district bordering Afghanistan to the rest of Pakistan has been blocked by Taliban fighters since 2007.

The blockade was briefly lifted in March, or so the Pakistani government proudly announced. The road was open again and travellers would be protected, they said. Owais, a 25-year-old recent graduate of engineering, was one of the few who took the risk and decided to visit his family.

On March 25, his Toyota HiAce and two other vans were stopped on the Thal-Parachinar road by Taliban fighters. Owais and 44 others were kidnapped.

The Taliban freed the women and children, but killed seven - some claim ten - of the abducted passengers. A further 30 men remained in captivity for close to three months.

After protracted negotiations between tribal elders, the Pakistani government, and varying Taliban factions, 22 of the captives were set free on June 21. Owais was one of the lucky ones.

"They have been handed to the government forces of the Frontier Corps and are on their way home," a friend of Owais told Al Jazeera.

Reports suggest the Taliban were paid a ransom of at least 30 million rupees, roughly $350,000. Eight men remain in captivity. And the road, though no longer described as "blocked", still remains highly insecure.

In his speech this week announcing the military transition in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama once again emphasised Pakistan's crucial role in combating extremism.

"Of course, our efforts must also address terrorist safe havens in Pakistan," he said. "No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will … work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keeps its commitments."

The siege on Parachinar is prime evidence to caution the "mission accomplished" rhetoric already employed by US policy makers. It speaks to the Taliban's tight hold on the crucial border region, the absence of Pakistani government forces, and the challenges that lie ahead in reaching any meaningful conclusion to the "war against terror".

"The whole Kurram region has turned into a detention centre for the people," says local journalist Zulfiqar Ali, referring to the tribal agency of which Parachinar is the administrative capital. Pakistan's tribal areas are divided into seven agencies, with Kurram bordering Afghanistan's Khost province.

On the road to Parachinar, passenger vehicles are frequently attacked and food convoys are torched. Since 2007, hundreds of people have been killed in Kurram due to the violence, while the United Nations says at least 30,000 families have been forced to abandon their homes and move to camps for Internally Displaced People.

But escaping the region has become a difficult task. For residents to make it to Peshawar, the nearest Pakistani city, they have to first go into Afghanistan. That route has often been closed due to military operations by the Pakistani army. And even if they make it through, they face tremendous risks in Afghanistan - because the same fighters are active across the border.

"People cannot even travel there to bury their dead," a local human rights activist told Al Jazeera in condition of anonymity, due to the risks involved in discussing the matter.From sectarianism to militancy

The only road connecting Parachinar to the rest of the country has been blocked since 2007.
The recent troubles in Kurram began as sectarian violence but analysts and local sources say the situation was hijacked by Taliban fighters who use the tribal areas to launch attacks against NATO in Afghanistan.

"Local sectarian groups do not have enough resources to block the road," says Ali. "It is purely a militant issue now."

The Shia are a slight majority in Kurram Agency, an area of about 500,000 residents. During the Afghan Jihad, when the tribal regions were used by the CIA as the training grounds for anti-Soviet fighters, the region saw an insurgence of Sunni hardliners.

"There have been sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia in Kurram for decades," says Reza Jan, Pakistan Team Lead at the American Enterprise Institute. "But in the past, Sunni-Shia clashes were usually minor. Clashes, when they did occur, were resolved fairly quickly by local leaders and authorities."

After the fall of the Taliban government in Kabul, and Pakistan's crackdown on radical elements in Punjab, the tribal areas became the hub of both Pakistani and Afghan insurgents. But many among the armed groups consider Kurram's Shia tribes - who refused to shelter fighters - as apostates. And Kurram's Shia paid a heavy price as a result.

"The Tareek-e-Taliban's current leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, is known to be fervently anti-Shia," says Reza Jan. "Before he led the TTP, he was the TTP commander for Kurram, Orakzai and Khyber agencies where he made a name for himself through his brutality towards Kurram's Shia."

For the past three years, locals have desperately looked for help, mainly from Islamabad - but also from Kabul. In 2008, they accepted a peace deal with the Taliban. The exact components of the deal are seen differently by analysts, but the purpose was clear: they wanted an end to the violence and a lifting of the blockade on the road.

"The Mari agreement in 2008 gave the government full authority to use force against any militants blocking the road," says Ali. "Why has the government not been able to deliver?"

Failure of the state

With Pakistan's security apparatus always focused on India, the insurgency in the tribal areas did not recieve sufficient attention in its early years.

As sectarian violence began to be dominated by the Sunni Taliban, the Pakistani government relied on the Frontier Corps, a federally-controlled paramilitary force. But the Frontier Corps was ill-equipped in counter-insurgency and failed to stem the Taliban's rapid growth.

In 2009, two Pakistani generals told the Associated Press that, of $6.6 billion in US military aid provided during the previous six years for counter-terrorism measures, only $500 million had been used for that purpose. The rest of the funds were used towards Pakistan's "defence against India".

Since April 2010, the Pakistani army has reportedly paid more attention to the problem and launched operations in central and lower Kurram agency. But the army's repeated reliance on peace deals with the insurgents suggests they have failed in rooting out the problem.

"It does not mean the state is not trying," says Irfan Ashraf, a journalism lecturer at neighbouring Peshawar University. "The fact of the matter is that [the] state is too weak to resolve the issue. And it is not accepting its weakness."

More people have been displaced by these recent operations. And the route via Afghanistan has also now closed, limiting the flow of food, medicine and other supplies.

"If a sack of flour costs 2000 rupees in Islamabad, it cost us 6000 in Parachinar," one local, recently relocated to Islamabad, said.

The presence of the army in the region has also limited media access, pushing the issue out of the public discussion.

"Anything that is security related is a 'no go area' for media and the rest," says Ashraf. "The media looks up to the security forces, and the official line of the security forces is that it is quiet there."

When the government announced the reopening of the road in March, it was on the back of a peace deal. Signed in 2008 at the height of the sectarian violence, the deal was being implemented three years later, when local dynamics had changed. Sectarianism was the smaller problem for locals. By then, the Taliban were dominating the area.

The deal itself is not problematic, but the peace deal's reported mediators, the Haqqani "independent militia", appears to have become one of the main sources of the abuses now.

"The Haqqanis - with backing from the state - were able to broker a deal between Shia and Sunni. They, in return, would be given transit rights through Kurram," says Reza Jan.

"The Haqqanis essentially fashioned themselves as the guarantors of the deal."

Not only has the deal brought more problems for the locals as the Haqqani fighters move around more easily, it has also brought US drone aircraft. The population, once caught in constant sectarian violence, now finds itself again under siege - by the Taliban and the Pakistani army on the ground - and US drones amid the skies.

Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan to 'combat terrorism'

The presidents of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan

agreed on Saturday to join forces in combating militancy as they attended a counterterrorism summit in Tehran under the cloud of an Afghan hospital bombing that killed 60 people.

The joint statement by the three neighbours also came hot on the heels of an announcement by US President Barack Obama that Washington will withdraw 33,000 of its 99,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer.

"All sides stressed their commitment to efforts aimed at eliminating extremism, militancy, terrorism, as well as rejecting foreign interference, which is in blatant opposition to the spirit of Islam, the peaceful cultural traditions of the region and its peoples' interests," the statement said.

"All sides agreed to continue meeting at foreign, interior, security and economy ministers' level to prepare a roadmap for the next summit due to be held in Islamabad before the end of 2011," added the statement carried by Iran's official IRNA news agency.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Iranian and Pakistani counterparts Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Asif Ali Zardari held three-way talks on Friday ahead of a six-nation counterterrorism conference on Saturday.

The three leaders discussed "ways of battling terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking," IRNA said.

In his speech at the opening session of the two-day summit, Karzai said that despite his government's efforts, militancy was on the rise both in his country and in the region.

"Unfortunately, despite all the achievements in the fields of education, infrastructure and reconstruction, not only has Afghanistan not yet achieved peace and security, but terrorism is expanding and threatening more than ever Afghanistan and the region," the Afghan leader said.

The Pakistani president said: "Terrorists violate both human and divine values by inflicting death and destruction on fellow human beings. They have no religion."

He said attacks had resulted in the deaths of 35,000 people in Pakistan, 5,000 of them law enforcement personnel, and material damage totalling $67 billion.

In his speech to the opening session, Ahmadinejad again accused Iran's archfoe, the United States, of using the September 11, 2001 attacks as a "pretext" for sending troops to the region.

"In light of the way it was approached and exploited, September 11 is very much like the Holocaust," the Iranian leader charged.

"The American government used the attacks as a pretext to occupy two countries, and kill, injure and displace people in the region," he added.

"If the black box of the Holocaust and September 11 is opened, many of the realities will come to light. But unfortunately despite worldwide demand, the American government has not allowed it."

Ahmadinejad has repeatedly courted controversy by questioning the accepted version of both the September 11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States, and the Holocaust.

He has dubbed 9/11 a "big lie" and a "suspect affair" similar to the Nazi Holocaust, which he dismissed as a "myth" shortly after coming to power in 2005, triggering an international outcry.

In his message to the counterterrorism conference, which was also attended by the leaders of Iraq, Sudan and Tajikistan, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also spoke out against what he charged was Western abuse of the terrorist threat.

"The diabolical calculation of the dominating powers is to exploit terrorism as a tool to gain their illegitimate aims and they have used it in their plans," he said in the message which was read out to the conference.

"In their view, terrorism is whatever threatens their interests. They consider those who are fighting for their legitimate right against occupiers as terrorists but do not consider their mercenaries and malicious groups who harm innocent people as terrorists."

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the next conference of the six nations would be held in Baghdad next year, and a permanent secretariat would be opened in Tehran.

While US talks withdrawal, Afghan corruption soars

The farmer picking apples in the outskirts of Kabul must pay the Taliban $33 to ship out each truckload of fruit. The governor sends in armed men to chase workers off job sites if the official bribes aren't paid. Poor neighborhoods never get their U.N.-provided wheat, long since sold on the black market.

These are some of the elements, large and small, that together form the elaborate organized crime environment Afghans contend with daily. And despite the hoped-for success of the U.S. military surge and President Barack Obama's claims of significant progress, Afghanistan's resemblance to a mafia state that cannot serve its citizens may only be getting worse, according to an upcoming report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.

The 46-page study, to be released next week, looks specifically at Afghanistan's heartland: the rural areas of Ghazni, Wardak, Logar and other provinces just beyond the periphery of Kabul. Unemployment is high, government presence is low and the insurgency operates with impunity. Corruption and cooperation with the Taliban reach the highest levels of local governance.

"Nearly a decade after the U.S.-led military intervention little has been done to challenge the perverse incentives of continued conflict in Afghanistan," the research group says. Rather, violence and the billions of dollars in international aid have brought wealthy officials and insurgents together. And "the economy as a result is increasingly dominated by a criminal oligarchy of politically connected businessmen," the report concludes.

The sobering analysis of a culture of corruption that long predates the U.S.-military effort comes as Obama tries to highlight military and other gains in Afghanistan as proof that Americans can leave. The widespread abuse of power from simple shakedowns to outright collusion with the Taliban will surely outlive the presence of American combat troops.

In announcing that he would pull out 10,000 soldiers this year and 23,000 more by the end of next summer, Obama made it clear that his timetable for a U.S. military drawdown was not going to be beholden to further security advances or the ability of American and Afghan forces to maintain their recent gains. Obama didn't mention the issue of corruption.

But regardless of how many troops are withdrawn, and how fast they come home, Obama acknowledged the U.S. withdrawal by 2015 will create challenges for the country. "We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place," the president said. A responsible end to the war is achievable, but he warned of "dark days ahead."

For ordinary Afghans, the situation in the center of the country provides a valuable case study. There, the Pashtun majority lives alongside Hazaras and Tajiks. Foreign money has created competition even among the insurgent groups as fighters loyal to Mullah Omar's Taliban vie with the Haqqani network and local militants for a share of the riches. Citizens end up squeezed by them and government officials, the report argues.

In the district of Qarabagh, southwest of Kabul, insurgents share an informal alliance with the local commander, Gen. Bashi Habibubullah. In nearby Ghazni city and elsewhere, rich chromite mines were plundered for export for the benefit of the provincial governor, Usmani Usmani.

Usmani was eventually removed from his post but only after becoming a "particularly embarrassing example of corruption," according to Candace Rondeaux, International Crisis Group's senior analyst for Afghanistan. To move the chromite — a mineral that goes primarily to Pakistan and then to China for stainless steel production — Usmani contracted the help of insurgents. They would then coordinate attacks to distract security forces away from outgoing trucks, Rondeaux said.

The pervasiveness of the corruption hasn't escaped the attention of American officials, either. In a 2009 diplomatic memo released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, former Ambassador Francis Ricciardone noted how "conversations paint a picture of criminal enterprise masquerading as public administration in Ghazni."

At the most micro of levels, there are the apples. The taxes may pale in comparison to the weapons and drug trades, but with insurgents gaining a large chunk of the revenues from hundreds of thousands of exports each year, the profits help feed the conflict. And for farmers living close to subsistence levels, the extortion may make survival even a challenge.

Ultimately, the enduring corruption and collusion between political elites and insurgents may not define the post-war Afghanistan or what America's nearly 15-year legacy will mean when all U.S. troops have departed. But it does challenge any notion of a clean exit.

While the focus in Washington has centered on bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, Rondeaux said her research of everyday life in Afghanistan shows it would be a mistake to see a political solution as a solve-all to the country's problems.

"It will not address the growing organized crime networks in Afghanistan," she said. "The U.S. and its partners can withdraw their forces and make power-sharing arrangements. It doesn't mean these will hold, or that Americans should feel comfortable with how they are leaving this place.

Nawaz Sharif a liar

In the interview with ARY channel, Pervez Musharraf accuses former premier Nawaz Sharif of maligning the army

Pakistan's former president Pervez Musharraf lambasted former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in a television interview aired on Friday , branding him a "liar" and accusing him of maligning the army.
In the interview with ARY channel, he said Nawaz Sharif was suffering from "paranoia" and that was why he "speaks against me day and night."
"He is a compulsive liar," said the former military ruler, who had toppled Sharif's government and seized power in October 1999 in a bloodless coup and sent him into exile in 2000 for a decade.
Musharraf claimed that as prime minister, Sharif had agreed to a "sell out" on Kashmir issue during the visit in February 1999 of then Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to Lahore.
He ridiculed Sharif for taking credit for the nuclear weapon tests conducted by Pakistan in May 1998 in a response to similar tests earlier by rival India.

"Nawaz Sharif was against conducting the tests but agreed under pressure from others," he said, wihout identifying who exerted the pressure.
Musharraf, who has been living in self-imposed exile since leaving Pakistan in 2008 and has formed his own political party under the name of All Pakistan Muslim League, also answered questions about the May 2 US operation that killed Osama Bin Laden on Pakistani soil.
He said it was wrong that questions raised by the operation were not answered with promptness. For three days after the incident no one from the government or the military spoke on the matter and "this silence was a wrong strategy."
Musharraf voiced skepiticism about the claim that Bin Laden had been living in the garrison town of Abbottabad for five years, saying it "does not logically appeal to me that he was there for all these years."

Pakistan army chief shows no signs of quitting soon

At the height of the storm which swept Pakistan after the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani spoke for 1- hours, then told his officers they could ask whatever they wanted, and lit a cigarette.

"This is a very delicate situation," he said, in answer to a question about relations with the United States at the National Defense University on May 19. "It's not an easy one."

"If we come out of it, keep our relevance and show them we are part of the solution, not part of the problem, we will succeed," Kayani said in one of a series of "town hall" meetings he held to revive army morale.

Those meetings have since fueled speculation - particularly in the United States - that the most powerful man in Pakistan, by opening himself up to questions, is fighting for survival.

Participants at the meeting, however, said Kayani showed no outward sign of being under pressure as he sat in full dress uniform at a table on the same level as his audience.

Equipped only with a file, ash tray and glass of water and facing rows of some 80 officers along with a few civilians, he patiently answered questions from all ranks.

"In uniform, we tend to see everything in black and white," Kayani said when a young colonel asked why Pakistan kept a relationship United States if Washington did not trust it.

"In the real world there are a lot of grey areas and you have to deal with it."

A Reuters correspondent attended the meeting, but since it was off-the-record did not report it until after participants themselves relayed to the media versions of what Kayani had said. Kayani's comments were reported by participants and verified by Reuters.

The Pakistan army, the last line of Defense in a country battling a growing Islamist militant insurgency, has come under intense pressure since U.S. forces found and killed bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad on May 2.

Its inability to find the al Qaeda leader and to detect the U.S. helicopter-borne raid in which he was killed has left it facing its most severe crisis since its humiliating defeat by India in the 1971 war in which then East Pakistan won independence as Bangladesh.

In some ways it is even worse than 1971, when state-run media suppressed the worst of the news in a war happening far away from the traditional heartland of the country.

This time, U.S. forces carried out a raid undetected deep within the heart of Pakistan, not far from the prestigious Pakistan Military Academy.

That same month militants attacked a naval base in Karachi and blew up two maritime patrol aircraft.

Nobody knows what is going to happen next.


Yet no one expects Kayani to step down any time soon, or at least not until he has restored confidence within the army. And nor do they expect his most senior officers to turn against him.

"The army as an institution is under attack so if the Corps Commanders ask him to leave, that unleashes a very explosive dynamic," said Imtiaz Gul at the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.

"That's why the Corps Commanders will never ask him to step down."

In inviting questions, Kayani was following a military tradition where officers encourage their men to express their doubts before going into battle, but after the orders are given, expect them to be followed without question.

"In the military, it is regarded as a reflection of loyalty if you are frank," said General (retired) Ehsan ul-Haq, when recalling meetings of the Corps Commanders, the army's top officers with command over troops across the country.

"There is a discussion (among the Corps Commanders), but there are no fireworks," said Haq, a former head of the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"There is a lot of poise and dignity in how you address issues."

At the evening meeting at the National Defense University, Kayani, far from appearing on the defensive, actively encouraged questions.

When a young female student put up her hand to ask a question and the officer running the event said there was no more time - it was by then nearly midnight - Kayani insisted on answering it.

The student asked about the threats Pakistan faced. Kayani in response made no mention of Pakistan's traditional rival India -- the subject did not come at all in four-hour long session. "What worries me is the indirect threat and that is the economy," he said. "If you want to be secure ... you have to address your internal situation and the economy is the major issue."

And rather than relying on the Americans for money, Pakistan should reform its economy and raise taxes domestically. "We have to stand up on our own feet and we cannot do this unless we have a strong economy," he said.


U.S. media reports that Kayani is fighting for survival have infuriated the military which sees them as a deliberate attempt to malign the army.

Those have been accompanied by unprecedented domestic criticism of the army, which peaked after Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad was kidnapped in Islamabad and beaten to death at the end of May.

Shahzad had previously spoken of being threatened by the ISI over his reporting, and suspicion immediately fell on the powerful intelligence agency. It denied involvement.

And while the army still enjoys high approval ratings in Pakistan, its critics accuse it of sucking up scarce resources in military expenditure focused on India.

They also blame it for cultivating Islamist militants in the past for use against India, who are now increasingly slipping out of its control and turning on Pakistan.

There are, moreover, unquestionably strains within the military, a Muslim army which for 10 years has been asked to suppress the anti-Americanism which threads through society and fight in a campaign which many see as "America's war."

Some of those strains rose to the surface this week when the army said it had arrested a brigadier over links to the banned Hizb-ul-Tahrir, an Islamist political group seeking to overthrow the civilian government and establish an Islamic theocracy.

Kayani himself has also been the subject of private grumblings in the military after he obtained last year a three-year extension to his term of office to November 2013 - effectively strangling promotions further down the line.

But barring another big unexpected event which dents the army's credibility further, there appears to be little evidence to suggest that Kayani is about to be forced out.

Over tea, biscuits and sandwiches which followed the meeting at the National Defense University, he appeared relaxed and smiling as he chatted to participants.

"As long as you are in the (army chief's) seat, there is no threat to you," said Imtiaz Gul.