The Afghanistan quagmire

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh

ON January 31 and February 1 this year, Afghanistan President Karzai, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair presided over a conference in London which brought together 60 nations and international organisations to pledge assistance to Afghanistan and to lay out a plan for bringing stability to that country in the next five years. The Afghanistan Compact, which emerged from the conference, set forth both the international community’s commitment to Afghanistan and the latter’s commitment to state-building and reform over the next five years.

The compact supports the Afghan National Development Strategy (ANDS), an interim version (I-ANDS) of which the Afghan government presented at the conference. The compact provides a strategy for building an effective, accountable state in Afghanistan, with targets for improvements in security, governance and development, including measures for reducing the narcotics economy and promoting regional cooperation.

The Americans claim that the Afghan national army with a proper ethnic mix has now reached the figure of 30,000 and is able to function reasonably well with air and other logistic support being provided by the coalition forces. Separately, the Nato countries committed themselves to increase their troop levels in Afghanistan and to have Nato as the lead organisation in the International and Assistance Security Force take over security and other duties from the Americans.

The announced plans called for troop levels to reach 32,000 by June-July this year and for American troops to be placed under unified Nato command by November this year. It is not clear whether some elements of the American force (reduced from the current 19,000 to about 16,000) would continue their anti Al-Qaeda and anti Taliban operations. The British, who were to assume overall command and would commit the largest number of forces theoretically, won Nato approval for the fact that not only would the Nato forces provide the personnel and security for the provincial reconstruction teams but would also engage the Taliban whenever it became necessary.

On April 12, a major offensive with the participation of 2,500 Afghan and coalition forces was launched in Kunar. The operation called Operation Mountain Lion was designed to eliminate the Taliban redoubts in the region and to bring the area under the control of the Afghan central government. The early success of the operation has been marred by reports that a helicopter with 10 American soldiers on board had crashed killing all those on board and bringing to 234 the number of American servicemen who have lost their lives in Afghanistan, 25 of them this year. In 2005, the Americans suffered 84 fatalities, the highest annual figure since the start of the operation in 2001

The Afghan parliament elected in September 2005 has met and the proceedings at least in the first few sessions appeared to be reasonably democratic with the parliament exercising its authority to reject five ministers and calling into question the nomination of three others who were definitively approved only after a supreme court decision. Questions were also raised about ministers who had dual nationality and at least two of them had to renounce their non-Afghan nationalities to be approved by parliament.

This is the good news. But overall the news is overwhelmingly bad. Despite all the brave talk and despite the rosy reports of the success attending the efforts of the US-led coalition to build a national army and to disarm the warlords the fact is that the insurgency is worse this year than in the past. Last year, the Americans lost 84 soldiers. The casualties among the Afghans — for which statistics are not available — have been far higher than in the past. The Taliban insurgency, confined in past years to the south and east of the country, seems to be spreading with incidents in Herat in the west and in Farah in the north, pointing to the growth in insurgent and other violent activities.

It is the “other” violent activity which should be a matter of added concern. According to the representative of the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan the violence is not all of Taliban origin but rather “It’s a whole set of fluid alliances, cross-border attacks from Pakistan, drugs, tribal feuds, and of course the Taliban.” Others also agree that the issue of security is intimately related to “poor governance and official corruption among provincial governors, police chiefs, and others” and that restoring security essentially requires good governance and a measure of integrity on the part of officials appointed by the Karzai administration.

This is not easy to come by. In Helmand province, according to American and UN officials an estimated 100,000 to 125,000 acres of poppy were planted last year out of some 260,000 poppy acres nationwide. The governor, Akhundzade, known to be involved in the drug trade was removed last year in December under international pressure but was then made a member of the Afghan parliament’s upper house. His successor is said to be honest but the ex-governor’s brother continues to be the deputy governor, and he and the police chief are, according to most sources, undeniably involved in the drug trade.

It is under their supervision that the anti-drug campaign has to be waged and they have managed so far to destroy only some 9,000 acres of the poppy crop in the province. Experts predict that this destruction notwithstanding the crop figure will be higher this year than the 4,600 tons produced in 2004 and only marginally reduced in 2005. The general conclusion is that the drug business has become organised, those involved in it are well armed and is allied with insurgents such as the Taliban. There are ugly rumours vehemently denied that, warlords and officials apart, even President Karzai’s own brother is involved in the drug trade.

While there is reason to praise the new parliament the fact is that by some estimates, 50 to 60 per cent of the new MPs are linked to the warlords and Islamic warriors and are in parliament because they got votes through the use or the threat of the use of force and there is no doubt that they intend using their office to protect the interests of the warlords many if not all of whom are drug traffickers. The campaign for disarming the private militias or illegal armed groups has taken up a huge chunk provided by the Japanese and it is claimed that some 60,000 people have been disarmed. Observers agree that an enormous number of armed individuals remain part of such illegal groups.

Lt. Gen Eikenberry, the American commander of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, when asked in a recent interview to explain the upsurge in violence, denied that the Taliban are “the strongest they have ever been” and attributed the increase in violence to the fact that “the institutions of the state are still fragile and in certain instances are still weak.” The situation was even better described by a Nato military spokesman who said that “There are feudal fights, factional rivalries, people settling old scores, people opposed to anti-drug operations.”.

...”There is no coordinated strategy between incidents. When there are areas of ungoverned space, where the rule of law is not in operation, it becomes a breeding ground for insurgent action.”

Much has been made of the Nato forces and the extension of their operations to the south and south east of the country. The British commander of the Nato forces has maintained that combat operations against insurgents will be added to the Nato mission of stabilisation and security after the command is merged in July this year. It is, however, known that many of the participating countries have said that their troops will only provide security and will not be available for offensive operations. The British have said that they will not be directly involved in the eradication of poppy but will provide “security conditions” for the Afghans who will been the direct responsibility for the anti opium campaign.

Nato has nevertheless maintained that Afghanistan is its top priority mission and it is sending its elite force, the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, to take on the task. “Nato cannot afford to fail in Afghanistan, for the whole world and the whole region,” said Himet Cetin, Nato’s civilian representative in Afghanistan. He went on to add that he planned to visit Pakistan where he will be building on a whole series of visits by European officials and the UN’s special representative. According to him “without the cooperation of the whole region we will not have stability.”

The UN’s special representative in Afghanistan during a recent visit to Pakistan called for Afghanistan and Pakistan to increase security cooperation to prevent the Taliban and other movements from destabilising their border region. There is no doubt that such instability exists. The occupation of Miran Shah by militants in early March was brought to an end but it is apparent from the reports in our own press that (in the words of the Guardian correspondent) “A vicious mini-war has erupted between the Pakistani army and the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan, a turbulent tribal area that has moved to the front line of the Pakistani and US war on terror. Every day sees fresh violence between the army and militants — a loose coalition of radical clerics, tribal leaders and Al Qaeda fighters.”

Just a few days ago our interior minister said that additional troops would need to be sent to Bajaur where the security situation had deteriorated after the killing of Al-Suri of the Al Qaeda. The inflammatory message from Al Qaeda’s No. 2 calling on Pakistanis to overthrow Musharraf, which received wide publicity in the region, has been followed in the tribal areas by the circulation of pamphlets by a group terming itself the Mujahideen of the Afghanistan Emirate, asking for the assassination of Musharraf.

The new Afghan foreign minister, Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, has said that improving relations with Pakistan is his country’s foreign policy priority. This marks a change from the vitriolic exchanges that have characterised the relations between the two countries particularly since the visits of President Karzai and President Bush to Pakistan. The fact remains however that the Afghans still profess to believe that the Taliban raids in Afghanistan are financed and masterminded by Taliban leaders resident in Pakistan.

It is against this backdrop that one must view the statement by Henry Crumpton, the US state department’s coordinator for counterterrorism while in Kabul that Pakistan was not doing enough to eliminate Taliban safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Our indignation and outrage is understandable particularly given the fact that while in Pakistan Crumpton had made no such observations. But it should not have come as a surprise or as a revelation about American thinking on the subject. More or less the same message was given during President Bush’s visit requiring President Musharraf to provide a long and laboured explanation about the sincerity of the anti-terrorism strategy even while conceding that there may have been slippages in implementation.

President Musharraf can rightly claim that the situation in our tribal areas and the Talibanisation of the region which we cannot now fail to acknowledge was largely a product of actions taken during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and was exacerbated when past governments sought to provide assistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan. He can just as rightly claim, as the foregoing account of developments in Afghanistan shows, that Afghanistan’s current problems are largely of its own making.

This does not, however, change the fact that if Pakistan is to be a moderate, tolerant state the Taliban as much as the Al Qaeda must be recognised as a “common enemy” of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and whatever our differences with Kabul and whatever our misgivings about the activities of the Indian consulates in Afghanistan, we must make common cause with the Afghan and foreign forces there to eliminate the Taliban.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

The other side of press freedom

By Zubeida Mustafa

LAST Wednesday was World Press Freedom Day. Observed every year on May 3, since the UN General Assembly designated it so in 1993, the day has served to remind governments and civil society of the importance of the freedom of expression. It is now universally recognised that a free press plays a vital role in strengthening democratic institutions and fostering development around the world.

Yet the right of access to information and press freedom cannot be taken for granted. In fact if anything the IPI’s World Press Freedom Review 2006 shows how this right is flouted in so many countries of the world. This document covers 188 states which include some of those conventionally considered to be the strongholds of press freedom, such as Britain and the Scandinavian countries. Some skeletons in their cupboards have also been exposed.

Not surprisingly, the report does not really have many flattering things to say about Pakistan which has been listed as a “death watch country”, two journalists having been killed here in the course of the year. In a nutshell, the report observes, “While journalists working in Pakistan have never been able to carry out their profession free of harassment and other dangers, the situation has worsened over the past year.”

The government’s anti-terrorist policy comes under severe criticism because the authorities have used it to justify attacks, even physical ones, against journalists and restrictions on their right to free expression. The law was misused to imprison journalists critical of the government. It describes the “safety of journalists” as a major issue in Pakistan and not just the government but also members of political parties and religious groups have been identified as the attackers of journalists and the media.

In Pakistan the day was observed by journalists, media proprietors and other professionals connected with this sector by holding seminars and meetings. The focus of the speeches was on the degree of freedom the press in Pakistan has managed to achieve over the years. The journalists generally claimed that they have had to struggle hard for their freedom of expression and for easy access to information, yet the press continues to be in chains. Those representing the establishment were vehement in their view that “the government had given complete freedom to the press”.

The truth lies somewhere halfway between these two extremes. Those who have worked in the information and press sector for a long time know that the state of freedom they have today may not be ideal but the situation is certainly better than ever before. Even a casual observer of the scene can testify that the newspapers published in Pakistan in the year 2006 are more lively, candid and brutally frank. The public’s right of access to information has still to be recognised and granted but it must be conceded that the people of this country are certainly being told more than they have ever been told before. The numerous private television channels that have mushroomed and the Internet have opened the floodgates of information — good and bad, right and wrong.

But the basic point that is being missed in the ongoing debate is that press freedom — to whatever degree it has arrived — has failed to ruffle any feathers in Islamabad. The powers that be have come to realise that if they swallow their pride and ego no harm will really come to them if a newspaper cries itself hoarse about misgovernance, corruption, incompetence, ill-advised policies and a host of other evils. All that the rulers have to do is develop a really thick skin and turn the other way without batting an eyelid.

Sometimes a lethargic public relations officer of an agency/organisation that finds itself under attack stirs into action to dispatch a wishy washy rejoinder. But s/he has learnt from experience that it is best to let sleeping dogs lie and let the storm blow over rather than enter into an argument with the press. Besides, the government feels that when the press is allowed to let off its steam the grievances do not build up to burst into the open at an inopportune hour.

Hence, it comes as a matter of deep disappointment and despair for journalists, who have struggled against heavy odds dreaming of another world and believing that they can change the lives of millions, that their words fall on deaf ears. Even though newspaper reports disseminate information and create awareness about the misdoings of the powerful and the inequities of our system, they seem to make no difference. Why? For the simple reason that the democratic structures and institutions of good government are sadly missing in Pakistan.

The parliament, the law and order machinery, the other agencies that can provide relief to the common man are either not functioning as they should or do not exist at all. Under the present chief justice of the country the courts have become active and have started taking note of what appears in the press. But there is too much going on for the courts to handle single-handedly. The fact is that the various institutions that should underpin democracy have developed unevenly in Pakistan. To its credit the press has moved faster than the others and achieved the freedom it enjoys now thanks to the struggle waged by the stalwarts of the profession and also the support they have received from international organisations that have championed the cause of freedom of expression in all countries of the world.

Unfortunately, the bodies that have the capacity to take action on the basis of the information provided by a free press have not developed sufficiently in Pakistan. Frustrating though this situation is, one should not despair. The struggle for press freedom has been a part of the process of the democratisation of the state and society in Pakistan. Unesco has rightly observed, “Freedom of the press should not be viewed solely as the freedom of journalists to report and comment.

It is strongly correlated with the public’s right of access to knowledge and information. Communication often acts as a catalyst for the development of civil society and the full exercise of free expression enables all parts of society to exchange views and find solutions to social, economic and political problems. Free media play a crucial role in building consensus and sharing information, both essential to democratic decision-making and to social development.”

Hence, the struggle must continue though it should now be oriented towards other issues as well such as professional training and excellence, commitment, optimising the use of communication technology for improvement of the work of journalists while resisting corporate “control” of the media, including the Internet.

There is also the need to use the media as an agent to catalyse socio-economic development, to inculcate health education and to change the behaviour and mindset of the people. Politics is important because it determines who will rule the country. The one who rules provides the direction to all policies. But a free press should use its capability to identify the fallacies in the government’s policies with the hope that some administrator with a conscience will give the printed word a thought.

Dacoity and politics

By Hafizur Rahman

THE time has come in Pakistan when a budding politician, holding a press conference about his plans for the 2007 elections, may be asked by reporters to state if he has any intention of adopting dacoity as a concurrent profession.

This is so because Muhammad Khan from Mianwali described by an admiring public as ‘a bahadur dakoo’ was asked, after spending 23 years in prison (as it happened a few years ago) whether he would go into politics. Isn’t the difference between the two communities becoming blurred in many ways? At least most newspaper columnists seem to think so.

If the idea appeals to him, the politician-turned-dacoit will not have to hide his face behind a mask for he would be entering the arena almost to the beat of drums. Maybe a contingent of pressmen and photographers accompanies him on his first foray, if a clever PR man is there to handle the publicity.

The trouble with the late Muhammad Khan was that like a young crusader-turned-criminal — a phenomenon frequently seen in our action films — he claimed he was a man of certain principles. Some 40 years ago when he became known as a killer, he held these principles dear and clung to them. When he was released from jail the world outside had changed almost beyond recognition. Now having become a really good man, he wanted to go and live behind the bars to escape the evil men who stalked the country with impunity in the garb of politics.

The traditional variety of ‘dakoo’, the very word itself, is from the world of make-believe and romance. We don’t have such Robin Hoods nowadays. Today when we read of bandits — masked or unmasked — raiding banks and holding up petrol pumps and kidnapping rich people for ransom, we call them dakoos, which they are not. They are plain and simple criminals who have adopted high-grade stealing and even killing as a sideline for want of anything gainful to do in an honest manner.

In the subcontinent the dakoo has often been a hero-like figure, like Sultana Dakoo of the UP and Jagga Dakoo of Punjab. They were towering figures, made larger still by legend, some true and some contrived and imagined. It is said that Muhammad Khan was the last of the breed, though, on release from prison, he used to claim indignantly that he had never committed a dacoity, though having done just a few murders to protect his honour and self-respect. Let me tell you a story. It will give you an idea of the terror and misconceived glory that Muhammad Khan allowed to be built around him. At one stage he had also shot at his own wife. For that, Mrs Muhammad Khan was appearing as a witness in a court presided over by a cousin of mine.

When asked if her husband had really tried to kill her she gave a reply that stunned the courtroom. Everyone was expecting that, like a faithful eastern wife, she would want to shield her husband. My cousin tells me that Mrs Muhammad Khan was tall and stately and commanded instant respect. When this question was posed to her she said proudly in Seraiki: “Of course he fired at me. Who else could have the guts to aim a gun at the wife of Muhammad Khan?”

When he came out of jail, Muhammad Khan called a press conference to clear his position. If the journalists who sat before him wanted to settle old scores with him they should certainly have pushed him into politics. One cannot think of a worse fate for a man of his legendary status. He was never a petty criminal. In fact if they have categories among dacoits, he was a 24-carat 22-grade killer. As a politician he would have immediately dropped down to the petty variety, in line with most others of the breed who are out to amass riches by hook or by crook.

But actually it is not hard going in Pakistan for a politician. You will see this proved after the next general elections. All that one has to do is to go on issuing press statements on matters that interest the public mind. That is what everyone does if one is part of the opposition. The press is always accommodating. It will give space (even prominent space if properly approached) to any puerile nonsense from any Tom, Dick and Harry.

Imagine, say, Chaudhry Turrabaz Khan, Chairman of the Toba Tek Singh PPP, calling upon Iran to forge a united front of Muslims to counter Israel’s threat to the ummah. Or Malik Mastaan Khan, Chief of the Turbat PML, warning Dr Manmohan Singh to “lay off Pakistan” or be prepared for the consequences. Muhammad Khan would have had no problem getting people to dash off such statements to keep up his image as a politician. Proceeding cleverly, and paying court to Chaudhry Pervaiz Ilahi, he could even have been elected to the Punjab Assembly in course of time.

Somehow Mrs Tehmina Durrani Khar comes to mind. She was the umpteenth ex-wife of Mr Ghulam Mustafa Khan, the “lion” of the Punjab. She took to politics like a fish in welcome waters, at least in so far as press statements were concerned. But, in addition to her best-selling book, she confined herself in these well-drafted statements to one single subject — the misdeeds of the lion himself, forgetting that her barbs and arrows were not causing even a ripple in the cool composure of her former husband.

Come to think of it, and agreeing with my brother columnists, there is hardly any difference left now between dacoity and politics and other shenanigans that we have witnessed. As a British colonel in the old Indian army said when it was pointed out to him that he had sanctioned leave for Sepoy Natha Singh whereas it was Sepoy Prem Singh who had applied for it, “What difference does it make, old boy? Natha Singh Prem Singh comes to the same thing!”

Punishing prospects

INTERNATIONAL law bans collective punishment — a tenet the representatives of the Middle East peace “quartet” should bear in mind when they meet in New York to consider the grave situation in the Palestinian territories.

The US and the EU suspended their direct funding of the Palestinian Authority when the government of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, entered office last month. Their purpose was to pressure Hamas to formally recognise Israel, abandon violence, and accept agreements concluded between Israel and the PA.

The boycott has not achieved these goals. By not paying the salaries of 165,000 public employees it has aggravated the rapidly deteriorating economic crisis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The quartet — Russia and the UN form the other half — are to discuss creating a special international “mechanism” to bypass Hamas and funnel aid through the World Bank, the IMF or the UN.

—The Guardian, London


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