Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Biden as VP and the NATO Supply Line

Back here I wrote about how Biden was being tipped as Obama's VP and what implications this may have for Pakistan. Now that Biden's candidacy has been announced, several other sources have picked up on the story. For example, see here and here.

Also of interest have been recent posts by Peter Marton over at [My] State Failure Blog regarding the logistics issue for NATO forces in Afghanistan. With recent attempts by the Taliban to disrupt the flow of supplies to NATO forces that move through Pakistan, there had been talk of opening a second longer and more expensive supply route through Central Asia. But as Mr Marton points out the recent Georgian war seems to have put a end to that idea, which makes talk of a surge in Afghanistan problematic.

What this has also done, of course, is strengthened Pakistan's hand and in particular that block within the military that argues that Pakistan can take a tougher line against Indian influence in Afghanistan, in resisting American demands to clamp down on militants, and continue to sponsor Taliban groups who will continue to bleed NATO forces dry until their coalition falls apart and they pull out, when they will become the instrument of extending Pakistani influence over Afghanistan again.

Increasingly though, Pakistan's civilian government looks like it doesn't like this plan.

Monday, 18 August 2008

A Sight for Sore Eyes

So I was curious about whether the humanitarian crisis unfolding in FATA has registered anywhere abroad and ended up at the IRIN website run by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (What is an Humanitarian Affair anyway? Sounds a little dodgy to me.)

Anyway, looking for the news on Pakistan, one finds mention of the recent flooding of villages along the Sutlej river, but nothing about Bajur.

And I came across this gem of a paragraph in an article called 'High-tech Survey Tool offers New Hope to Disaster-Hit Communities':

The sight of humanitarian assessment teams moving through calamity-hit villages and punching data into small, hand-held computers as they interview villagers may soon become routine in Pakistan.

All I can say is: I sincerely hope not!

Part II: Bajur in the Aftermath of Lowi Sam

This is a follow-up to my earlier post on the Battle of Lowi Sam and the second in a series of posts on whats been happening in the regions along the Pak-Afghan border.

Following the debacle at Lowi Sam and the threatened encirclement of the FC Regional Headquarters at Khar, it seems as if the gloves really came off for the armed forces. Apart from the heavy use of artillery, the army's air arm and the Air Force (including the use of F-16s) both played a heavy role in attacking suspected militants in Bajur.

August 14, which is Pakistan's Independence Day, saw militants taking shelter within the built-up areas of Khar. The military dropped leaflets ordering civlians to leave the areas in which they were hiding as a prelude to bombardment. The leaflets included the following draconian orders:

“Security forces have launched an operation against miscreants and people have to follow certain guidelines for their own safety,” the pamphlet said.

It asked people to immediately alight from their vehicles and raise their hands if a helicopter flew over them.

It said drivers should not park their vehicles under trees. Violators of the instruction would be attacked, it warned.

The following day saw a reported 35 deaths and the bombardment of a number of militant targets, including the Taliban's FM radio station which was operating from a Madressah run by a Maulvi Muneer, a Taliban court and private jail, and anti-aircraft guns the Taliban were using against the helicopters. The leader of the Bajur Taliban, Faqeer Mohammad, meanwhile was said to have narrowly escaped being killed in an airstrikes (Originally the authorities claimed to have killed him, but he later surfaced, though he did admit that several of his colleagues were killed).

The Jamaat-i-Islami meanwhile called for a halt on the military operation, claiming that it had dispalced over 300,000 people. While that seems to have been an exaggeration, one might get a sense of the scale of displacement by the fact that the authorities at one checkpoint counted 3000 families passing through in search of shelter. A conservative estimate would make that between 15-20,000 people - on one road!

The Prime Minister, in his first address to the Parliament since his return from the States, took a tough stance on tackling militancy. Aftab Sherpao of the NWFP-based PPP-S and the PML-Q asked some tough questions on the use and effectiveness of airstrikes. Aftab Sherpao's estimate was of 200,000 refugees.

By the 16th of August, authroities were claiming to have cleared militants out of Khar and its environs and were calling on refugees to return there, though its not clear how many people responded to this call since they repeated it again the next day (the government is claiming 130 families have returned). More importantly, it seems as if local tribesmen have decided to take on the militants and have started their own patrols to seek them out (militants killed two tribesmen the same day).

While I'm sceptical of the capability of the local tribes to effectviely combat the Taliban, and generally am very sceptical of the idea of heavily armed groups of tribesmen wandering around anywhere, once again what the case does underline is that there does seem to be a strong groundswell of antagonism for the Taliban. The key here is that the military needs to be careful that it doesnt push the local populace back into the arms of the Taliban through indescriminate airstrikes and the use of artillery. People may be happy that the government is doing something about the armed bullies who drive around threatening barbers and telling them how to live, but that happiness may quickly evaporate if they start losing relatives and their houses and property to randomn shelling.

The News has some interesting articles on the situation in Bajur. Firstly we start getting some solid statistics:

Provincial Relief Commissioner Jamil Amjad has said the ongoing military operation had led to the biggest migration in the country’s history. “More than 39,100 families comprising about 250,000 individuals have been displaced, amongst whom some 70,000 people are registered in the relief camps in Dir Lower, Malakand Region and Peshawar,” he told a press conference here.

The largest share of the burden of refugees has fallen on Dir, which is struggling to cope with the influx of refugees:

More than 85 percent schools, hospitals, rural health centres, basic health units and other government buildings in Jandool and 15 to 20 percent in other parts of the district have been occupied by the military operation victims. The affected families could be seen sitting in the open, under-construction markets, bazaars, bus stands, at roadsides and in camps in a miserable condition. Though the provincial government has been providing tents and food to the migrants at camps for the last three days, the sanitation and other facilities are barely discernible.

It seems as if militants fleeing security forces were also trying to set up shop in Dir, but after prolonged neotiations with local tribal elders, they have agreed to leave.

We also get some insights on what is happening within the area of conflict. Helicopter airstrikes seem to be exercising some form of discrimination when choosing targets:

Choppers were also sent and directed to destroy the house of TTP spokesman Maulvi Omar but since it was located in middle of the houses and aerial strikes could cause damage to other houses and residents, therefore, the idea was dropped. The gunship choppers also bombed militants’ suspected hideouts in other small villages of Mamond Tehsil and Mulla Said Banda and Pashat in Salarzai Tehsil.

I'm not sure how effective these operations are in actually killing militants but they are eroding the infrastructure of the militants' organisations. Hence:

This correspondent on Sunday visited Bajaur Agency’s troubled spots including Seway, where the militants headquarters was located and a so-called Islamic court had been established, Chopatra, the hometown of militants’ commander Maulana Faqir Mohammad, Badan village, the hometown of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Maulvi Omar, and several other places, which were once the strongholds of the Taliban fighters and where their armed men were once publicly checking vehicles at roadside checkpoints.

Ah, but wait, they seem to be fairly effective in targetting militants as well:

The militants admitted that they had suffered heavy losses due to choppers and warplanes and now the thundering voice of gunship choppers created panic in the hearts of many of their colleagues.

Just as a note, I blogged a couple of days ago about Joeseph Biden's proposal for dealing with Pakistan. One of the things he stressed was the need for America to do something concrete to help everyday Pakistanis:

When U.S. aid makes a real difference in people's lives, the results are powerful. In October 2005, after a devastating earthquake, American military helicopters delivering relief did far more to improve relations than any amount of arms sales or debt rescheduling.

Well, 250,000 internally displaced refugees sounds like a major humanitarian crisis to me and seeing as opponents of the military operation in Bajur are blaming all the violence on America, it strikes me as a good time for the Americans to maybe step up and help out with the refugee crisis. Why not have a "reminder that America cares"? In a case like this where all they have to do is cough up some measly amounts of money and basic necessities such as food and water and not make any long-term commitments, it shouldn't be too difficult to make a difference at a low cost.

I don't actually hold out much hope that the US government will actually do anything here, since it has very demonstrably shown not only that it doesn't care, but that it is unable to pretend to care even when it is in its own interest to do so.

But just in case anyone in the US government is listening. How about helping out the poor people of Bajur?

Saturday, 16 August 2008

The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention Crashes and Burns

Back when I was in college, I briefly toyed with the idea of going into the field of International Relations. One day I interrupted a friend studying for a test in her IR course. Upon asking her what she was studying, she replied she was memorizing the "golden rules" of international relations. What, I asked sceptically, were these rules? The first golden rule, she replied, was that no democracy ever goes to war with another democracy.

It was at that point that I knew IR wasn't really for me. I just knew too much history to be able to buy into these kinds of simplistic, uninformed and ignorant "golden rules". In the laa-laa land of American academic IR theory these self-serving theories may have great traction but in the messy, complex, unsimplified reality revealed by history they serve little purpose but to obfuscate the facts.

But wait a minute, these kinds of theories haven't just stayed in laa-laa land but unfortunately have leaked into the public consciousness through ignorant hacks and bestselling writers such as Thomas Friedman, author of the utterly simplistic and mostly wrong cheering chorus of a book on globalization, "The World is Flat" (and incidentally someone who attended the same college I did, which might explain where he gets some of his ideas).

Take for incidence this passage from one of his articles:
So I’ve had this thesis for a long time and came here to Hamburger University at McDonald’s headquarters to finally test it out. The thesis is this: No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.

The McDonald’s folks confirmed it for me. I feared the exception would be the Falklands war, but Argentina didn’t get its first McDonald’s until 1986, four years after that war with Britain.

Now I don't understand why Thomas Friedman is so popular (in the past few months two different people have enthusiastically recommended his abysmal book to me), but then he's just a mediocre popular writer, who will (hopefully) be forgotten a few years down the line. The thing is its not just him, serious scholars buy into this kind of thing.

At this point one may be prompted to point out that the Kargil War between Pakistan and India happened when both had plenty of McDonald's franchises and democratically elected governments to boot, but one could argue that Pakistan and India don't rate high on the democracy scale, or, if you believe Nawaz Sharrif, that the Pakistani army started the war on its own without taking the democratically elected leader of the country into confidence.

But as various bloggers have pointed out, what about Georgia and Russia?

More on this here and here.

If Joe Biden Became Obama's VP Candidate...

The grapevines are buzzing over the idea that Joe Biden might be picked as Barack Obama's running mate. While some people are pointing out that he has made some bizarre foreign policy suggestions in the past, such as splitting up Iraq, as far as Pakistan is concerned, it may just be the best thing to happen to Pakistan in an otherwise dismal year for the country.

First off, Joe Biden has a much better appreciation of what is happening in Pakistan than the concerns of Pakistanis than other Presidential candidates. But better than that, have a look at Biden's proposal for what direction its policy towards Pakistan should take.

What does he propose?

We've got to move from a transactional relationship -- the exchange of aid for services -- to the normal, functional relationship we enjoy with all of our other military allies and friendly nations. We've got to move from a policy concentrated on one man -- President Musharraf -- to a policy centered on an entire people... the people of Pakistan. Like any major policy shift, to gain long-term benefits we'll have to shoulder short term costs. But given the stakes, those costs are worth it.

And how would he do this?

1. Triple non-security aid to $1.5 billion annually for at least 10 years.

2. Make security aid conditional (so for example, don't just pour in money for submarine hunters and air-defense radars which have no relevance to the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan's northern areas, but focus it on COIN-relevant stuff and tie it to what the army is doing against militants).

3. Give a "democracy dividend" of $1 billion above the annual non-security aid to help the new government with the promise of more aid tied to developing democratic institutions.

4. Focus on creating ties with the Pakistani public and not just the elite by "improved public diplomacy and educational exchanges" and "high impact projects that actually change people's lives."

There's an interesting comment on Biden's plan here.

Suffice it to say that it sounds pretty good at least on paper. Its a perennial complaint that whenever Pakistan has a military government that the US needs to do its bidding, money flows like wine, but whenever there is a democratic government, the aid seems to dry up and various sanctions tend to pile up against the country. So its good to hear a Biden recognizing that the aid needs to be based on something other than a transactional basis.

As for making military aid conditional - well if it will help convince our generals to abandon their proxy militants and focus on stamping out the Insurgency in FATA, thats all to the better. My guess is that they would want at least some of the money to be spent on expensive anti-Indian toys as well, but I'm all for measures that actively help fighting militancy in Pakistan (and by extension, Afghanistan).

So it will be interesting to see what happens next. I personally don't know too much about the other candidates for the VP slot, but generally I've been underwhelmed by Obama as far as foreign policy goes (though he certainly seems better than Mr John "In-the-21st-century-nations-dont-invade-nations" McCain.) But for Pakistan, I think Joe Biden's plan would be much-needed good news.

P.S.: McCain actually went one dumber and recently claimed that the Georgia-Russia war was the “first serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War”. So there you have it. 9/11? Not serious. Invasion of Iraq? A cakewalk. Darfur? Afghanistan? Mid-East? All just giggles. No, the Georgia-Russia war is SERIOUS!

P.P.S.: We've just learned that those evil commie Chinese are using underage athletes to cheat the US of A out of well-deserved Olympic medals. This must be the most serious crisis internationally since the Barbarian invasion of Rome! Something must be done about it!

Decline of the Empire?

As pointed out on the blog, 'Twilight of the Weimar Era', the Pentagon recently released a study called 'Military Advantage in History' which sought to examine empires across history in order to learn how to increase the longevity of the American Empire (the whole silly enterprise is explained here). You can download the article if you have time to spare and need a giggle or two.

I was reminded of this sorry episode when I read Juan Cole's brief note on the impending demise of the Musharraf Presidency. One commentator noted, "you can measure the demise of the Empire by the rate at which its satraps are falling and wringing their hands".

Personally I tend to find all this talk about the impending demise of Empires overwrought. I know the idea is extremely popular in Pakistan amongst the elite classes. Searching for signs of the coming decline of America verges on a national obsession. Still, there's something amusing about puncturing the pompous Imperium-nostalgia of certain American political scientists and foreign policy wonks by turning their own terminology of Empire against them. And with the events in Lebanon earlier this year and in Georgia more recently, one can't help but feel that at least some of the Empire's satraps are indeed in trouble.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Putting the Peices Together, Part 1: The Battle of Lowi Sam

One of the most frustrating things about the media in Pakistan is its seeming inability to piece together dribbles of information to present a larger picture of what is going on. At least, this often seems the case with the dailies [and the TV news for that matter]. Its an area where monthly magazines such as Herald really standout. [I'm still hoping that they start putting up their articles from back issues on line but so far, no luck.]

Recently everyone has been focused on the impending resignation/impeachment of Musharraf and questions over what will happen next. Personally I don't find the issue terribly interesting. Musharraf has been a dead duck in the water for a while now. Removing him is not going to make a major difference (unless, as rumored he takes the NRO with him, which would be interesting). Anyway, all sorts of interesting and shocking things have been going on in our country, particularly as regards the Taliban and, as usual, the media doesn't seem to be doing a terribly good job of putting it into context. So, I thought I might try to peice some things together in a series of posts over the next few days. Each post will correspond, more or less, to a geographical area. Here's the first:

The Battle of Lowi Sam

It seems to have slipped the notice of many people but the Pakistan armed forces have just fought one of their biggest battles since, oh well, since the ill-fated Wana Operation. Once again this seems to have been a poorly thought out and poorly executed move by the FC (Frontier Corps) that led to heavy casulties.

On August 6th, a force of about 150* FC men moved to occupy Lowi Sam in Bajur Agency, an area which they had evacuated about a year earlier under pressure of Taliban attacks. This initial move was reported in the press as a succesful operation. People were said to have welcomed the arrival of government forces because they were "fed up of the self-styled Shariah and harsh policies of the Taliban". However, there was intimation of trouble to come when, according to Dawn, "Thousands of tribesmen have left their homes in Ghazi Beg, Atokhel, Qandaharo and Khwayzai tehsils and are moving to other places fearing severe clashes in the region".

It turns out that those tribesmen knew something was up.

The Taliban responded to the FC move by heavy attacks that lasted throughout the next day. There were reports of heavy fighting and reinforcements were despatched. These convoys in turn were ambushed on the road and by the next day, 8th August, the military was using airstrikes and helicopter gunships to try and break the "seige" of the FC troops. The reports of casulties widely differed and one can probably safely say that neither the Taliban nor the official figures are entirely reliable, but one measure of how badly things were going can be gauged by the fact that the army spokesman was telling reporters to contact the FC and the FC spokesman was refusing to comment.

On August 9th it was reported that the FC contingent had managed to break out of their encirclement and retreat to the regional FC headquaretrs at Khar. Official sources said that there were 9 dead and 55 missing. The Taliban meanwhile were claiming over a hundred security personel dead and were declaring victory and distributing cash prizes.

Some of the worst loses seem to have occured where convoys were ambushed. Here is the description of one ambush by a witness to the NYT:

The insurgents then used rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-gun fire to attack a relief convoy of reinforcements sent from Khar, according to residents who arrived in the nearby town of Risalpur on Saturday.

The Taliban also laid roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, along the road the convoy traveled, said Mohammed Khan, a timber merchant from the village of Sadiq Abad whose house was on the route.

“When the convoy stopped because of the I.E.D.’s on the road, then the Taliban were everywhere, in every place — they came and attacked the Frontier Corps,” Mr. Khan said in Risalpur. “After the convoy stopped, there was fighting for two days. The Taliban have the natural advantage because there is so much greenery.”

The maize crop in the fields, a month from harvest, was nearly six feet tall and provided perfect hideouts for the insurgents, he said.

And a description of the scene at Lowi Sam from Dawn:

Eyewitnesses said the situation was chaotic and the area was littered with bodies and burnt vehicles. They said the soldiers, who had been under siege for the past three days, had returned to their base in Khaar, leaving behind bodies, trucks and a large quantity of arms and ammunition.

The FC seem to have lost many vehicles, including tanks and a crane.

And it seems as if the Taliban actually chased the FC all the way back to Khaar and actually tried to beseige the FC Regional Headquarters there. The military responded with extremely heavy shelling and ariel bombardment which seems to caused a great deal of collateral damage, as chronicled here. But it did have the effect of breaking the seige of Khar by 11th August.

By now fighting had spread over a large area, the Taliban were using pirate FM radio stations to rally support and call for help from other areas, and the indescriminate use of artillery had sent over 100,000 people fleeing the fighting. An estimate put the death toll at 160 in 5 days of fighting. Millitants also reportedly beheaded two civilians for cooperating with government forces.

On August 12th, came the news that helicopter gunships had killed several militants including Al Qaeda operative Abu Saeed Al-Masri, a report which was denied by the Taliban and is still unconfirmed. Also, the leader of a Taliban group in North Waziristan, Ahmadullah Ahmedi threatened to start attacking gvoernment forces if they didn't stop their operations in Bajur and Swat (more on that in a later post). Its worth noting that things have been peaceful in Waziristan for months, presumably after the federal government and the Taliban there came to some kind of mutual understanding.

By the next day, there were reports of militants in Bajur stopping civilians from fleeing and attempting to "conscript" locals. Authorities accused them of using women and children as 'human sheilds'. Security forces also announced, by the way, that all wheat fields next to roads must be cleared to a distance of 200m from the road, a measure meant to make it harder for militants to launch the kinds of ambushes that caused such carnage on the road to Lowi Sam. As this article in the News describes, locals sheltered soldiers caught in the ambush.

So what is to be made of this sorry tale?

Firstly, its the FC that is taking the brunt of the fighting. The FC is of course under the control of the civillian Interior Ministry. The army, apart from providing air support seems to want to sit out of Counter-Insurgency operations. Certainly in terms of armament and training, the FC is the inferior force.

Interestingly enough, members of the provincial government have been appealing to the army to take action in FATA. Here is an excellent article by Afrasiab Khattak of the ANP to do just that. But so far the army seems to be keeping more of a hands-off policy here.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, whose articles I always take with a pinch of salt claims that informers within the armed forces had tipped off the Taliban about the FC operation, though this may just be rumour turned into 'news'. [Incidentally Mr Shahzad also seems to be the only reporter in Pakistan who keeps reporting about the death of Al-Qaeda No. 3s - Neither the News or Dawn used the term when they referred to the supposed death of Al-Masri.]

Also of note is that the local populace seems sick of the Taliban and would welcome the return of government rule, and, that the massive use of artillery and airstrikes is eroding that support. I fear I may sound like one of those horrible CNN cliche-spewing experts, but its clear that whats needed is more 'boots-on-the-ground' if the militants are going to be 'flushed out' of places like Lowi Sam.

* Sources differ on the number. Some say between 150 and 200. Another claims 200-300. My guess is that the original force had between 150 and 200 and as more troops were committed to the battle the total number involved approached 300.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Blogging Away...

So once again the last few months have seen a severe shortage of blogging on my part. Not that there aren't many, many things to write and read about - its just that time has been short and with my new job well underway Im not certain that the situation is going to be changing very soon. I will try and scrape together some posts now and then but in the meantime, there's plenty of other stuff out there that makes for good reading.

I've knocked off a few blogs from my blogroll that seem to now be defunct. That includes 'Not the Whole Truth', 'The Dawn Blog', 'The Emergency Times', 'The Glasshouse' and 'The Grand Strategy Blog'.

On the other hand, I've added a few blogs as well, including the 'Middle East Blog', which is hosted by Time magazine, 'Ghosts of Alexander' which focuses on Afghanistan and lastly, what to my mind is the most promising blog on Pakistan out there, 'Grand Trunk Road'. It is intelligent and well-informed and worth reading. [The discussions in the comments sections are also usually interesting.]

P.S.: Other good blogs on Pakistan are Five Rupees and Chapati Mystery.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Nuclear Missle Proliferation... in Photoshop

Okay, so this is old, old news - a month old in fact. I don't really know how I missed it the first time around. Anyway, so you might have heard about the ballistic missile test launch Iran had last month - you know the one where they fired 3 missiles and then released a photograph showing 4 missiles, right?

Well, it seems someone in Iran's Revolutionary Guard knows how to use photoshop... just not that well. Anyway, some people are getting a real kick in photoshopping their own pictures of the missile launch. Some are absolutely hilarious.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Alexander Solzhenitsyn passed away recently. Its kind of interesting comparing the BBC article about his life with this more comprehensive one at Lenin's Tomb. One wouldn't know that he was an anti-semite or one of those 'ultra-nationalists' that Washington used to crib about.

Also interesting to note was that he was published in Russia during Khuruschev's de-Stanlinisation years and exiled during the reaction that followed Khuruschev's ouster.