Category Archives: Terrorism/Counter-terrorism

Afghanistan won’t let me sleep

The more I think about it, the more I worry about how the endgame is going to work out in Afghanistan. The problem, of course, is that the US strategy of pulling out by 2011, relying on a strategy that combines using heavy force to negotiate from a position of strength, and building Afghan institutions (particularly the police and the ANA), has about as much chance of succeeding as, to borrow a phrase from one of the greatest writers to grace us with his wit, a whelk has in a supernova.

Shafqat Mahmood seems to think so, too. In fact, once you’ve read this, you’ll begin to worry about Mr Mahmood’s mental state. Keep him away from sharp objects, make sure he isn’t left alone with pills, that sort of thing.

Grim.

The problem is that in order for the US strategy to work, the ANA needs to be in a position to secure Afghanistan on its own, with minimal foreign assistance, by next year. Moreover, it needs to have a significant number of Pashtun soldiers, in order for it to be accepted as a national army, and not an ethnic one. At the moment, US forces say none of the Afghan battalions are in a position to act independently of foreign troops. Meanwhile, policemen continue to be beheaded for ‘colluding with foreign invaders’ – hardly confidence inspiring stuff.

The other problem, of course, is that the Taliban were hardly beaten in Marja, which was supposed to be the first step in the US’s big push to force them to the negotiating table. Kandahar will be bloodier, and no less conclusive, when the coalition eventually takes it on.

Cannons to left of them, cannons to right of them.

So if the Taliban can afford to wait out the coalition (with even the UK now announcing a date for the withdrawal of troops (even if said date is 2015)), why would they take any negotiations seriously? The US is trying to force ‘reconcilables’ to the table, and to put pressure on those it considers to be impossible to negotiate with (read: the Haqqani group), but honestly, what incentive do Talibs who do come to the table have to stick to any agreements once the US is gone. The battle for Afghanistan, for them, is ideological, not driven by political agendas.

In other news, while I’m not going to touch the morass of opinion, crisis and just general unpleasantness that is the India-Pakistan dialogue process in this post, US CJCSC Adm Mike Mullen’s just left Delhi, talking about how militants could push India and Pakistan to the brink of war, and emphasising how there needs to be greater understanding, and more concrete anti-terror movement, between the two neighbours. I find this interesting only because of a recent discussion about how the US divides its military commands to separate India and Pakistan (Pakistan comes under USCENTCOM, India under USPACOM), thus making it impossible for them to think about the two together. I think that argument is interesting, but practically speaking, the US has been forced to deal with the realities of India’s and Pakistan’s  problems with each other, because of Afghanistan. Whether or not it does something about these problems, though, is a whole different kettle of fish. But they do know Pakistan’s interest in Afghanistan is not divorced from its enmity with India.

These men (the ANA) are not going to be securing anything,
other than perhaps their lunch, for a while

In other news:

General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has been given a 3-year extension as Chief of Army Staff. The only surprising thing about this story is the length of the extension – a one or two year extension was expected, but to keep the COAS on for three more years means he will outlive the current government and all its officials (except the Senators, notably Rehman Malik) and, moreover, will muck up the Army’s seniority ranks quite royally. Nevertheless, he was always going to be given an extension, given his excellent relationship with the US, his generally non-confrontational behaviour with the democratic set-up, and the fact that he has not utterly failed at his job. Note use of the word ‘utterly’. Anyhow, enough intelligent commentary has been written on the man and his extension, so I shan’t add to the cacophony. Read Shuja Nawaz on the AfPak channel in particular, and Ikram Sehgal, who has long been arguing for changes to the overall command structure of the military. Sehgal wanted Kayani to be appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.

– Federal Minister for Education Sardar Aseff Ahmed says, on the fake degree issue, that Chairman of the NA Standing Committee on Education and fake-degree-witchhunter-in-chief Abid Sher Ali has no authority to deal with the issue, and that “a single person could not exceed his powers for the sake of fame”. Presumably finding out that lawmakers have lied about their eligibility for public office is a publicity stunt, according to the minister.

– Gibran Peshimam has taken the trouble to write us an op-ed telling us that he has no idea why violence breaks out in Karachi periodically. Wonderful. That’s useful.

– Crazy LHC petition of the day: Pak-Afghan transit trade agreement challenged as ‘unconstitutional‘.

– Crazy Twitter Update of the Day: Punjab Governor Salman Taseer wants to be accused of having a fake degree, defaulting on bank loans and tax fraud.

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It’s time to talk about the homicidal elephant in the room

An edited version of this op-ed originally appeared in Dawn, on June 22 2010.

On a recent research visit to Friday prayers at a madrassa known for advocating the use of violence against ‘unbelievers’, I was advised, in no uncertain terms, and on the highest authority, to harm those who would “offend the shan of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)” – topping the list were Jews and Christians, with Ahmedis following close behind. (Interestingly, the man leading the prayers reserved his harshest words not for any of these people themselves, but for those who “sympathise and provide comfort” to members of the Ahmedi community.)

All this, of course, was happening behind a police security picket and, indeed, happens week in and week out.

Earlier in the week, I visited the Karachi headquarters of a banned sectarian group (now operating under the name Ahle Sunnat wal Jammat), where I was told that the organisation’s main purpose is the disenfranchisement of members of the Shia community. As the group’s representative told me of all the “dangers” that the Shias pose and how and why it is perfectly correct to oppress them, given that they “offend” the sensibilities of other Muslims, a Rangers jawan sat opposite us.

It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. Mainly because the elephant is violently intolerant at best, and homicidal at worst.

This is not, however, a piece about the government not cracking down on religious groups with intolerant views of society that espouse violence against other Pakistanis. It is about why the government is not in a position to do so, not because of some double- or triple-game being played with ‘strategic depth’, but because of what regular Pakistanis believe, and more importantly, tolerate.

Take the Lahore High Court’s ban on Facebook for hosting material that was declared to be “offensive” to Muslims. The LHC’s decision may have been particularly narrow and conservative, but the actual issue, as raised by a legal analyst, is this: if indeed the ban was challenged on appeal in the Supreme Court, the court would very likely have upheld it, not because of any legal merits of the case, but because the Supreme Court cannot be ‘seen to be supporting blasphemy’.

Why?

The issue, then, is not necessarily the organs of the state and the decisions that they make, but the society in which those decisions are made. Specifically, when it comes to religion, it is about how violent actors are able to gain public support.

Understanding this support is, in many ways, key to understanding how and why members of the PML-N campaign with heads of banned sectarian organisations, or the courts set free heads of organisations that have been banned because of their links to violent ‘jihad’.

And what’s more, it appears that everything we thought we knew about the nature of this support is wrong.

A recent report published in the International Security journal suggests that there are four ‘conventional wisdoms’ that appear to govern counterterrorism policy in Pakistan. First, that poorer or less-educated people are more likely to support militancy. Second, that personal religiosity and support for Shariah predicts support for militant groups. Third, support for religious political parties (such as the Jamaat-e-Islami) predicts support for militancy. Finally, that belief in democracy and support for militancy are mutually exclusive.

Fair enough. Those sound perfectly reasonable.

As it turns out, though, not really. Having carried out extensive fieldwork to gather data from thousands of individuals from various backgrounds, the authors found that, in general, there is no correlation between support for militancy and the factors outlined. A separate study, carried out on six Muslim countries in 2009 for the Journal of Conflict Resolution, found that not only was there no correlation in any of those countries, higher income and higher literacy groups in Pakistan were actually more supportive of militancy than lower income and literacy groups.

Clearly something is wrong with the way the question is being framed. And indeed there is. Inherent in each of the conventional wisdoms is a simultaneous assumption that there is such a thing as a ‘taste’ for militancy that can be ‘educated’ out of a person, and the divorce of the model from politics.

What the authors of the International Security report found was that the Pakistani public’s support for militancy is, essentially, a political decision. People will support violent action against US forces in Afghanistan, for example, if they believe the US presence in Afghanistan to be an occupation; they will support action against Pakistani government targets if they believe the Pakistani government to be acting against Pakistan’s interests. Further, there is heavy discrimination between different types of militant groups: therefore while support for groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan may be generally low, there is more solid support for sectarian groups, or groups that mainly operate in Kashmir. Within support for groups in Kashmir there is further nuance: in general the data showed that people who believe that the Indian government harshly cracks down on Muslims did not necessarily support Kashmiri groups, because there was an inherent realisation that any violence on their part would result in a violent backlash against other Muslims.

While the data did not show that understanding the political views of people will always predict support for militancy, it did show that there is a significant correlation. The point here is, of course, that support for violence in this country runs deeper, and is more complex, than policy appears to have so far assumed.

So, to return to that madrassa, or to the Lahore High Court – why do Pakistanis feel, by and large, comfortable with the fact that there are groups advocating violence against other Pakistanis, or courts advocating blanket bans on freedom of speech? That’s a question that this society needs to answer, and it appears that the truth is rather messier than advocates of liberal democracy would like: Pakistan is not a largely closed, repressive (in the matter of religion) country because its rulers are that way. It is because its people are.

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“Hey, don’t leave now – what ever happened to killing bad guys?”

So, as promised, I went and talked to some informed people about India’s interests in Afghanistan. And by talked to I mean, of course, listened to. The informed Indians in question were Ambassador KC Singh (former Indian Ambassador to Tehran and current Co-ordinator on Counter-Terrorism for the Indian government), Ambassador Kanwal Sibal (former Foreign Secretary, amongst many other posts) and Praveen Swami, an assistant editor at The Hindu. They were joined by Pakistanis Gen (r) Aziz Khan (a former Chief of General Staff), Talat Husain (of Aaj TV) and Aamir Rana (Director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies).

Right, so what’s the story?

Well, as far as one can tell, Indian interests in Afghanistan seem to be driven by two material concerns. First, there is the security dimension, and the concern regarding having a possibly religiously radical and ideologically driven State in the neighborhood, with the associated concerns regarding possible attacks on Indian soil. To be fair, one of the panelists did note that attacks on Indian soil did not rise during the Talibans’ previous time in power, from 1996 to 2001, as compared to other periods, so this link is not entirely direct. Nevertheless, there is the concern of having a State that can harbour militants antagonistic towards India in the neighborhood.

The second interest is perhaps the more pressing one. India needs a stable Afghanistan in order to have a stable land route into Central Asia. This land route is not, of course, for Manmohan Singh to have a convenient and picturesque place to take off on a road trip to: it’s for trade. As noted rather interestingly here by Yousuf Nazar, the Indian model of power is built not primarily on military strength, but on economics (though this was not admittedly the thrust of Nazar’s piece). Indian foreign policy is driven by two things, both linked: economics and energy. In that sense, having a stable Afghanistan is vital in order to have access to both power from, and trade to, Central Asian states.

In fact, while the debate at the panel began in the expected rather friendly and conciliatory tones, as time went on one panelist said that if it came to a situation where the Taliban were seen to be taking control in Afghanistan in a manner inimical to India’s ‘interests’ (security, trade and ideological opposition, in this panelist’s case), India would not hesitate to work “together with Iran and Russia” to work towards ousting that regime and to defend its interests.

The Indian argument is couched in strong moral tones. The words ‘right’, ‘good’, ‘evil’ often make an appearance, with one ambassador terming the West’s apparent turnaround in its stance on talks (“We won’t talk to those evil terrorists” to “Well . . we’ll talk to those of them who are willing to lay down arms, to the reconcilable elements” to “Well, we’re going to have to talk to them eventually, aren’t we?”) intensely “disheartening”. He then delivered a grimace to his mostly British audience, as if in reproach.

Now this is not to say that morality doesn’t have a part to play in international relations. I’m just not sure what such a role is, and, further, whether or not this is just another case of packaging real strategic interests in easily defended moral terms.

So India supports the Karzai regime, because at the moment that’s the only game in town that protects its interests in that country. And the underlying reality to such a strategy is this: India’s strategy in Afghanistan is defensive, not offensive, and is certainly not directed against Pakistan in particular. This may come as a shock to some Pakistanis. Deal with it – we are not the be-all-end-all.

There are other underlying issues within this discussion. The first, obviously, is the idea that the war is already all but over, that the US-led coalition has lost, and that Afghanistan is going back to the Taliban. The second, flowing from the first, is that the Taliban can be negotiated with in a reasonable manner. Further, there is also the contention that the Afghan Taliban has no outward-looking designs in the region, and that they are essentially only interested in defending their homeland. It seems that on a policy-making and strategy-formulating level, there is a huge disconnect between Pakistani and Indian thinking on this matter.

More on these later.

Today’s random reading:

This, in the Guardian, from Julian Glover, about how Britain needs to figure out how big a power it really can be. Interestingly, Praveen Swami, the assistant editor at The Hindu, raised the same question regarding the United States. “Great powers need to be prepared to make sacrifices. And so the US needs to decide if it wants to be a great power,” he said, responding to a question.

This story from The News, about proposed amendments to the Pakistani constitution. Highlights include clauses making signing on to a PCO by judges an act of treason, and changes to eligibility criteria for MNAs and MPAs (taking out a clause disqualifying anyone if “he [sic] is propagating any opinion or acting in any manner, prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or sovereignty, integrity of Pakistan or morality or the maintenance of public order or the integrity of independence of judiciary of Pakistan, or which defames or brings ridicule to the judiciary or the armed forces of Pakistan.” This, of course, means that I’ll soon be eligible to run for Parliament. Excellent.

This, on Pakistan’s power woes and our lack of movement on a power deal with Iran. Interestingly, also in the paper recently was a story about how we were all set to buy some 85MW from a rental power plant that is to be shipped in on the coast, near Karachi. Something’s not quite right here.

This, from Shahzad Chaudhry in the Daily Times, on issues in Afghanistan.

And finally, this, on Leo Messi’s sublime performance against Zaragoza for Barcelona on in the Spanish League on Sunday. Highlights are here. I watched the game, and, just as Sid Lowe notes, was breathless by the end. Messi is . . magic. I’ve been a Barcelona fan for about ten years now, and, this team that Pep Guardiola has put together is the very embodiment of the club. Receive, Pass, Offer. Receive, Pass, Offer. Being pathologically wary, though, I will note this: Messi’s brilliance this year is making up for the lack of sharpness in Barca’s play this year, as compared to last. Eto’o’s industry is missed, and passes are going astray which were pinging from foot to foot last year. But then, this is me quibbling over perfection.

“Encirclement?” Manmohan asks, perplexed.  “Of who?”

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Right hand grumbles, left hand nabs Baradar.

First off, before we get to any of the fun stuff about counter-insurgency, politics, and rock n’ roll, this: I’m going to try and post a little more regularly here than . . well, my publishing schedule, from now on in, so check back often, if you find any of this even vaguely interesting.

Now, onto things that explode.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an Op-Ed for Dawn about how the US was going to be forced into  negotiations, whether it likes it or not, in order to end hostilities in Afghanistan. I also wrote that Pakistan’s recent capture of Mullah Baradar, Mullah Umar’s right-hand-man, in addition to increased arrests in urban areas, was significant in that it signaled Pakistan’s intent to be central to any negotiations; just in case the US, or other agencies, had any misconceptions about the Pakistani establishment’s interests in that country, and their determination to remain a key player.

Then, this morning,  Lyse Doucet, one of the BBC’s more senior correspondents, breaks this story from Oslo: apparently the UN had been engaged in “secret contacts” with the Taliban (they weren’t particularly secret, to be honest . . everyone just kept quite tightlipped about them when questioned on meetings that everyone knew were happening in the UAE). Anyhow, so Kal Eide, the former UN envoy to Afghanistan says Pakistan “did not play the role it should have” by arresting a high-ranking member of the Taliban.

This is not the interesting part of this story. The interesting part of this story is that while the UN had apparently opened up these “secret lines” of  communication in order to have “talks about talks”, and therefore was unhappy about their points of contact being picked up willy-nilly across Pakistan, the US was saying this: that al-Qaeda is on the run thanks to greater cooperation between the CIA and Pakistan, epitomised by the joint operation that resulted in the pick-up of Mullah Baradar.

So . . what exactly is going on here? Clearly the final Afghan solution is one that no-one has really decided on, or, at the very least, coordinated on. The US is working to its own ends, the UN to its, Pakistan towards some sort of central role in either of their negotiations, and India – well, to be honest, I’m going to hold off on speculating on India’s intentions in Afghanistan until I’ve spoken to some intelligent people about it. Or, alternately, someone involved in Indian policy making.

Other things to keep an eye on:

– Cyril Almeida sums up the Shahbaz Sharif ‘Taliban-gate’ (his words, not mine) scandal quite well here. The issue’s structural, as usual. Too much discourse seems to focus on the superficial: what he said. What we need to look at it is not what he said to the Taliban about leaving Punjab alone, but why he said it. And, for added measure, to whom.

– So a friend informs me that I won’t be able to see the US Senate in session during a planned trip to Washington DC in a couple of weeks because it will be on Easter break. This broke my heart, because I wanted to sit in the observer’s gallery and yell ‘DO MORE!’ periodically at that august gathering. Never mind, because Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has done it for me. Here. [Sadly, I don’t see any direct quotes in that story that attribute the exact words to the FM.]

– Finally, this. Now I have no particular interest in this murder case from Karachi, other than the fact that on my first day at Dawn‘s city pages, my editor and I had a chat about the police’s lack of investigative skills, and their inability to build cases that hold up in court (this ended up being the motivation for many of my stories for the Karachi Metropolitan pages). That day he picked up the paper and pointed out this story, and how based on the case the police had presented, there was absolutely no way a conviction would be achieved. Today, the two accused have been acquitted, for exactly the reasons he outlined. Now I could go on about how the police are ridiculously incompetent in court, but I’ve already done that elsewhere, and, well, I’m sure you’ve had enough for one day.

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There’s losing, and then there’s losing

[Op-ed originally published in Dawn, March 2, 2010, here]

The US-led military coalition is going to lose the war in Afghanistan.

But, of course, there is losing, and then there is losing.

Let me qualify that first statement: The US-led coalition is certainly not going to win the war, militarily, in Afghanistan. In the very description of this engagement, some ground rules need to be laid for definitions. What constitutes victory (and defeat)? Is it the setting up of a vibrant Afghan democracy and the killing of every militant who ever bore arms? Or is it setting up a framework that vaguely resembles a functioning state under a weak central government before retreating to watch the whole mess descend into inevitable civil war? These are extremes, of course – there is a spectrum of possible, and, I hasten to stress, more likely, definitions in between.

Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly clear that the US-led coalition cannot win the war against the Taliban outright as things stand. Indeed, cognizant of this, where several years ago policy makers in Washington DC were talking about talks with the ‘evil Taliban terrorists’ being simply out of the question, there is now the suggestion, from both military officials and civilian policy makers, that negotiations are not so much desirable as inevitable.

This is not just US President Obama’s hope and change approach to government (as opposed to  former President Bush’s Shock and Awe doctrine) – this is down to the facts on the battlefield. Without compromise, there will be no peace; and there is no surrender on the cards in this war. The Afghan Taliban are too well entrenched (both militarily and socially), and Western forces are unable to gain, hold and secure significant ground across the country. In fact, their very presence is probably doing more to drive recruitment for the Taliban than any propaganda drive on the part of the insurgents.

And now there are more of them than ever. With the 30,000-strong US troop surge underway, and a new major offensive in the south of the country, ISAF is taking the fight back to the Taliban – so wither negotiations?

Well, if you’re going to negotiate, you’ve got to have somewhere to negotiate from. So while Taliban leaders periodically make statements indicating that lines of communication will remain entirely closed “as long as a single foreign soldier is on Afghan soil”, they must realise that the Western offensive is meant to show them the coalition is resolved not to simply let this fight go, to succumb to war fatigue within electorates back home, pack up and leave (the Dutch withdrawal notwithstanding). Winning, as noted earlier, is unlikely to be at either extreme, and the offensive in Helmand is designed to show the Taliban that they will not be able to simply outlast the coalition. Not without significant losses, at any rate.

Further, drone strikes against significant targets in FATA continue to take out militants involved in attacks on Afghan soil. This further weakens the Afghan Taliban’s position, but does not necessarily cripple it (given the structure of the organisation). All this serves to make negotiations a more desirable option than they perhaps presently are.

When such negotiations begin, of course, Pakistan will likely have a key role to play. The recent capture of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Baradar by Pakistani authorities, even if it was inadvertent (as has been claimed from some quarters), indicates that Pakistan realises this and will not be sidelined in the stepped up offensive. By the same token, US officials of late have been seen to offer a few carrots in with the ‘do more’ sticks it periodically throws in Pakistan’s general direction.

The truth is, ultimately, the coalition will need Pakistan in order to act in what has become its traditional role as negotiating agent. The US will go through Pakistan and its intelligence agencies to access the so-called Quetta Shura – they have no other point of contact, after all.

Any treaty to end hostilities between the two sides will, of course, involve ceding ground on both sides. The Taliban will either have to be incorporated into the existing state setup, or given control entirely of provinces where it has historically held sway (primarily in the south, with the divide roughly following ethnic divisions).

In return for this, and the disengagement of ISAF soldiers from Afghanistan, the Taliban will have to end all hostilities against both Western and Afghan state targets. Further, any deal will also likely involve a disavowal of al-Qaeda, either allowing Western forces to target the organisation in Afghanistan, or, more likely, expecting the Afghan authorities to do so. This disavowal may not be as unlikely as it seems, seeing as how dispersed al-Qaeda already is across the globe, particularly in Arab states such as Yemen.

Pakistan, meanwhile, it should not be forgotten, will also have a stake in which direction these negotiations go. Any deal, since it will likely be brokered with substantial input from Islamabad, will have to take into account Pakistan’s fears regarding governance in the areas that may become Taliban-controlled, as these will be on the Pak-Afghan border. Negotiating any peace deal will be perhaps the trickiest for Pakistan, the middle man in this particular Mexican standoff.

There is, of course, one other, rather unlikely alternative: the coalition’s original plan. This involves training the Afghan National Army to the point where it is capable of securing the country and ensuring that the state has room to function. Given the fact that in order for this to work the ANA will have to wean popular Pashtun support away from the Taliban and induct members of that community into its ranks in numbers, this is unlikely. It is, after all, seen as part of a Western puppet regime.

And, even if that happens, as one London-based analyst quipped the other day, the best that would do is help to set up a “halfway decent military dictatorship” in Afghanistan. And in Pakistan, we know how that story goes.

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Mastermind Pakistan: Rashid Rauf wins.

That is, of course, assuming he’s still alive.

For background, read this, this, this and this. In fact, just read whatever The Guardian has on this, their coverage has been excellent.

So, the long and the short of it is that three men – Abdulla Ahmed Ali, Assad Sarwar and Tanvir Hussain – have been found guilty of plotting to use liquid-based explosives to bring down airliners on their way from Great Britain to the US and Canada. Other suspects were convicted of lesser charges. All of this after each of the men was found not guilty during an earlier trial, a decision which the Crown immediately appealed.

Each of these men were either planning to be on the airplanes with the explosives, or had helped in the preparation of the explosive devices and the plot. Assad Sarwar and Abdulla Ali, in particular, appear to have travelled to Pakistan numerous times to receive training and instructions regarding this plot, which, if it had been successful, would have been the deadliest attack since the World Trade Centre was brought down on Sept 11, 2009.

But who planned the whole thing? British authorities say it was one Rashid Rauf, a wanted militant who was arrested in Pakistan just days before the plot was supposed to have been put into action. Now, knowing that the US was fairly anxious that arrests be made, regardless of whether or not the British authorities felt enough evidence  had been gathered to convict those suspected of being involved, it’s not outrageous to think that the US may well have had something to do with the Rauf arrest in Pakistan. With the mastermind behind bars, the UK authorities were forced to move in, before the suspects realised that the authorities were on to them.

As it turns out, the Crown’s case seems to have been carefully built on a huge amount of surveillance data (it’s worth studying UK Anti-Terror Laws, to see just how much of a leash counter-terrorism officials are given when investigating a suspected ‘plot’), and MI5 and the Crown Prosecution Service were able to put together something that held up in court.

But what of Rashid Rauf?

Well, here’s what happened to our man Rauf. After being arrested in August 2006, he was in Pakistani custody, and while he had not been charged with anything in court, he was in police custody for ‘questioning’. He remained there for over a year, during which time the Pakistani authorities found nothing to charge him with, apparently, but continued to say they were ‘open to the idea’ of extraditing him to the UK, if he was required there, though no extradition treaty exists between the two countries. In the meantime, they charged him under Section 4/5 of the Exposives Act, which is the standard charge given to everyone (citizens, political activists, stray dogs) and their mother (terrorists) who the Pakistani police wish to detain.

December 2006, and all charges against him are dropped. He is not, however, released.

December 2007, and Rashid Rauf, a top terrorism suspect who the UK says it has evidence against, escapes while being transported from court back to jail. According to police officials, speaking anonymously at the time, he was being transported in a daala (a police mobile) along with his uncle, who was accompanying him during the court proceedings. There were also two police constables in the vehicle. As the journey was being made close to lunch time, the uncle offered to buy the two police constables lunch. They ate their meal, and then all proceeded to a mosque, as it was Zuhr time, and apparently it is standard operating procedure to accept lunch from your prisoners, who happen to be suspected of masterminding large terrorist attacks, and to then allow them to pray with you.

Not surprisingly, Rauf escaped into the crowd.

Nov 22, 2008: The US says they’ve killed Rashid Rauf in a drone missile attack in FATA. The reports were never confirmed, however, and a number of people believe that, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, Rauf  is still alive and well.

Pakistan. Home to the Masterminds. Aa jao. . . the lunch is on us.

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More by luck than judgment.

(Originally published on June 8, 2009, Dawn. Click here.)

sufi+mohammad

Sufi Muhammad, pictured just before speaking his mind. -Reuters

Asif Ali Zardari may just be a genius. It is, however, unlikely. What is more likely is that Pakistan just got very, very lucky (appearances to the contrary notwithstanding).

With the army claiming successes in the ongoing military operation in Swat, it is worth looking back at how a military operation became an option: it was due to the breakdown of the agreement between the Pakistani government and the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat Mohammadi (TNSM).

Make no mistake, the Nizam-i-Adl Regulation was a bad idea on the part of the NWFP government, insomuch as attempting to use it as a bandage to stop the massive bleeding in the province. The rationale at the time appeared to be to try and stop the violence first, and deal with the militants later, or, perhaps, not at all. This was not, strictly speaking, wise.

But the TNSM’s main source of support in Swat for the implementation of the Sharia included the people of the valley themselves. They were accustomed to it having been governed under a form of Islamic law under the wali until it was absorbed in Pakistan in 1969. The TNSM had been lobbying for a return to the Sharia since the early 1990s. The support of Swat’s citizens hinged on the demand for a quick and efficient judicial system. Whatever one may say about the Pakistani judicial system, it is neither quick nor efficient.

So, in principle, the citizens’ (and hence the TNSM’s) demands for a new system of justice were justified. As I argued at the time the Regulation was signed, the issue with the agreement was not what it was, it was how it would be implemented. By granting the TNSM and the Swat Taliban Sharia in the valley, the government had effectively robbed them of their raison d’être, particularly when it came to employing violent means. The key now was for the government to ensure that it was the one enforcing the new rules, and that it was its qazis in the courts and its police making the arrests. This did not happen.

At the time, however, the government still appeared satisfied with allowing events to continue, even as Sufi Muhammad and Maulana Fazlullah made it clear that the government’s interventions in the implementation of the Sharia were unwelcome. At least, it appears they thought, things aren’t exploding any longer. And so Swat was lost, for a time. And it could have continued to be, were it not for the jihadi in Sufi Muhammad, who made two key errors that led ultimately to the current military intervention in the valley.

The first was made during a speech to the masses, delivered in a grassy field in Mingora, flanked by smug government functionaries who were pleased with the apparent culmination of their efforts when they released Sufi Muhammad back in April 2008. The cleric, however, refused to stick to the script, and proceeded to damn everything from the Pakistani state to the media. Releasing his inner voice, he declared democracy, freedom of the media and the state of Pakistan — for good measure — ‘un-Islamic’. Not quite according to plan.

The second mistake the TNSM/Swat Taliban made was to begin a process of expansion soon after having signed the Regulation. It appears that for them the document was less of a pledge by the government to enforce the Sharia in Malakand division, and more a deed. Having taken the keys to the house, they saw no reason not to go about landscaping the land around them.

Matters reached an untenable position when the Swat Taliban moved into Buner, and then claimed to have retreated, leaving just a few ‘local Taliban members’ in the area. That there were virtually no Taliban members in Buner before the expansion was a fact that did not escape the Pakistani government’s attention, and ultimately, the current military operation became the only viable option.

Having been directly attacked, the media, which so far had largely backed the TNSM’s position in Swat, fell right into line with the government. The tide in the battle for public opinion began to turn, and the Pakistani public, which, at the best of times, is ambivalent towards the Taliban, began to realise that surrendering the writ of state, even if ostensibly to ‘Islamic’ clerics, may not be the best idea.

Mr Zardari, of course, now wants us to believe that this was the plan all along. The truth is that we got very, very lucky. Had Sufi Muhammad merely stuck to the party line during that (and subsequent) speeches, while subtly continuing his machinations in Swat, consolidating control and moving into neighbouring areas slowly, things would be much, much worse, and, moreover, the US nightmare of the Taliban in Afghanistan having another sanctuary in Pakistan would have become reality.

Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, recently stated that during the president’s visit to Washington, he confided to US President Barack Obama that he had known all along that the agreement would collapse, and that this was all one big ploy to rid the Taliban and TNSM of any legitimacy in Swat. That it has achieved the latter is unquestionable, but even if this was the plan, Mr Zardari took an awful risk in backing Sufi Muhammad’s inner voice.

So is he without sense or a genius? Well, it’s difficult to tell, as ever. Consider the series of peace deals that were struck with militants across Fata shortly after the PPP government came into power. At the time, the peace deals were decried by security analysts and the US, citing the precedent of previous deals which had merely allowed the militants time to rearm and regroup before launching fresh attacks on the state. And the peace deals duly collapsed, one by one, forcing the government to launch a series of military operations across the area and forming lashkars amongst local tribesmen to root out ‘foreigners’ and Taliban militants.

What one must realise is, however, that this series of peace deals was crucial as they lent legitimacy to the military action which followed them. If the Pakistan Army had simply marched into Khyber or if it had sent Apache helicopter gunships into Bajaur, the public, and particularly the people of these agencies, would have accused it of unnecessary heavy-handedness.

Instead, the government chose to speak softly, and then swing the big stick it had been fidgeting with. The fact is that even if the peace deals did allow the militants in these areas to regroup, it was worth it for the political capital gained. The argument may seem academic, but democracy is a messy business, and this process was important for Pakistan’s fledgling government.

What should happen next is clear, but certainly not inevitable. Pakistan’s defence secretary, Syed Athar Ali, has claimed that the operation in Malakand division ‘is 90 per cent complete’, which is a foolish boast, one feels, because all it implies is that militants have been pushed out of settled areas into their hideouts in the mountains.

The military is going to have to pursue them there, on their home turf, and attempt to dislodge them permanently. Or else all this: the deaths of over 4,500 militants and soldiers (if Mr Ali is to be believed), the destruction of Mingora and other cities, and, above all, the suffering of the internally displaced people across Pakistan will have been for nothing.

And then? Well, Waziristan. Here’s hoping that our man Zardari has a ‘plan’ for that one, too.

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