Sunday, July 26, 2009

As Swat's exiles journey home, gunfire suggests problems may not be over

Joy of return tempered by army warning that many Taliban are still on the loose

When Bakht Biland reached his house, having run the gauntlet of tense army checkpoints, bullet-pocked hotels and the deserted city square where the Taliban used to string up their bloodied victims, he had just one thought. "Finally," said the 55-year-old taxi driver, prising open his front door. "I will sleep in a soft bed tonight."

Small comforts carry big hopes in the Swat region of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. The misery of war could be nearing an end now; and, after 12 weeks of battles between the Pakistan army and the Taliban, exiled residents are flooding home.

The crowded, steamy, camps of the plains are emptying as convoys of buses, trucks and even rickshaws thunder up the mountain road into Swat, twisting through a landscape dotted with the debris of recent battle. So far, 500,000 of an estimated 2 million displaced people have returned to the valley and surrounding Buner and Dir districts, according to government figures.

Yet the joy of return is tempered by worries that the fight is not truly over. Shortly after Bakht reached Mingora on Friday an ugly noise echoed across the city: the rattle of a helicopter gunship spewing bullets at a Taliban hold-out across the river.

"I don't think the Taliban can come back," said Bakht cautiously, fingering his prayer beads. "But if they do, we'll have to flee again. That would be the worst thing."

The journey home started in a small camp off a busy road in Mardan district, which has borne the brunt of the refugee crisis. At dawn his seven children loaded their meagre possessions into the rear of a pick-up. Then his burka-clad wife clambered into the back. They left behind two small canvas tents, unbearably muggy even at eight at the morning, which had collapsed in a monsoon squall two nights earlier. "It's time to leave," he said.

Security was tight. Long tailbacks formed at checkpoints as soldiers waving wand-like devices checked for explosives. Bakht's van was channelled through a giant, million-dollar x-ray scanner imported from Canada.

As the road climbed into the mountains it passed Churchill Picket, a small fort where Winston Churchill battled restive tribesmen over a century ago, then levelled into Swat. Tank tracks scored the valley road, sometimes swerving through orchards, and many shops and houses had been crushed. But the fighting seemed to have been limited: buildings, not neighbourhoods, were destroyed.

Bakht's van halted at a petrol station, where volunteers with an Islamic charity handed out snacks.

A small man with a grey beard, Bakht admitted he once had a soft spot for the Taliban. He was drawn to their Islamic ideals, he said, particularly to the radio sermons of their clerical leader, Maulana Fazlullah. "His voice was so sweet. Even if you heard it, you would support him."

His enthusiasm waned as Qur'an thumping turned to Kalashnikov fire earlier this year. As mortar shells whistled over their roof, Bakht's children lay awake at night, crying with fear. And so, reluctantly, he fled on 15 May, carrying a few bundles and the equivalent of £25 in his pocket. Now, going back, his worry was whether his house had been hit.

An ominous sight greeted him on the edge of Mingora: a clutch of soldiers standing over a pair of blindfolded men – Taliban suspects captured a few hours before. It was a mixed blessing: a sign of the army's newfound resolve, but also a reminder of the lingering menace.

A few intersections in Mingora had been damaged by fighting, but in general most buildings were left unscathed. Soldiers, paramilitaries and police patrolled the streets. Reviving the police is seen as an urgent priority; under the Taliban, Swat's police were killed, kidnapped or scared into quitting. Now the government is recruiting 2,000 "community police", effectively a civilian militia, to flush the militants out.

Bakht's van curled through the narrow streets into Green Chowk. Under the Taliban this junction was the city's most notorious spot, a place where the militants dumped their bloodied victims – tribal leaders, women dancers, teachers – on a concrete plinth. Now the authorities plan to rename it Peace Square or Martyrs' Square. Finally, Bakht was home, pulling up outside his four-room house. To his great relief, it was untouched. "I only had a cheap lock," he said. "We had never left home before."

Speaking from behind the privacy of an ajar door, his wife, Hajra, said she was happy to be back. But, she added in an accusatory tone, she was embarrassed that their daughter, who had got married while they lived in the tent, had not received a proper send off. Bakht winced but said nothing.

Normal life was slowly percolating through the rest of the city, too. Teenagers whacked cricket balls on the grounds where clerics once delivered fiery anti-government speeches. Older men grumbled about the high price of food and lack of mobile phone coverage, but expressed relief at being home.

Not everyone had left. Shamin Khan, an elderly eccentric with plastic flowers pinned to his clothes, emerged from his quarters with tales of how he had been victimised by both sides – kidnapped for two days by the Taliban, who accused him of being a spy, and shot at by army snipers, who mistook him a Taliban.

Across the river, at Imam Dehri, the Taliban headquarters was empty, its chairlift link to the main city destroyed. An army spokesman, Major Nasir Khan, said that up to a quarter of the Taliban's 5,000 fighters were still on the loose, mostly concentrated in remote pockets along the border with Dir. There was no word of Fazlullah, he said, but the security forces had just captured two vehicles belonging to him. "We're not leaving anything to chance this time," he said. "The menace will be eliminated."

But the returning refugees will need more than words. At dusk, vehicles were still entering Mingora, filled with hot, tired and anxious families.

Khurshid Ali, a clothes trader, poked his head out a window as his vehicle crawled through a security check. "I had been happy to return earlier," he said. "But I just heard some gunfire a few moments ago. We had been told the fighting was over."

Nicolas Sarkozy in hospital after minor attack, 'doing well'

President Nicolas Sarkozy has been admitted to the Val-de-Grace military hospital in Paris Sunday, after suffering a 'minor' nerve attack while exercising, officials in his entourage said. He is reportedy 'fine' and awaiting exam results.

Hazaras May Play Key Role in Afghan Vote

KABUL, Afghanistan, July 25 -- For generations, Afghanistan's Hazara minority has occupied the humblest niche in the country's complex ethnic mosaic. The political power structure has been dominated by the large southern Pashtun tribes, followed by the slightly less numerous northern Tajiks.

During various periods in history, the Shiite Hazaras have been forced from their lands and slaughtered in bouts of ethnic or religious "cleansing." In more recent times, they have often been relegated to lowly jobs as cart-pullers or domestic servants. The abused boy in the novel and movie "The Kite Runner," which generated much controversy here, came from a family of Hazara servants.

But the group now stands poised to play a decisive role in the Aug. 20 presidential and provincial council elections. It has produced a popular presidential candidate, independent Ramazan Bashardost, who is an extremely long shot but has been traveling the country nonstop, preaching a message of government reform and social justice.

Meanwhile, President Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun who is seeking reelection, and his major challengers are aggressively courting the Hazara vote. The group makes up as much as 20 percent of the country's electorate and had high voter-registration and turnout rates in the last presidential election, in 2004.

"We have become kingmakers," said Mohammed Mohaqeq, a leader of the main Hazara political party, Wahdat-e-Islami, who agreed to support Karzai in return for pledges that Hazaras would be given control of several ministries and possibly a newly created province. "I cannot get elected, because my Pashtun brothers might not support me, but our people can make a big difference in deciding who wins," he said.

Mohaqeq has been campaigning in various provinces for Karzai, who has remained largely invisible during the run-up to the elections. Mohaqeq's party has organized an army of campaign workers and has fielded a slate of 14 candidates for the upper house of parliament and provincial councils, including one young man whose posters depict an old Hazara cart-puller bent under a load of goods.

Karzai, whose second vice presidential pick is a Hazara, took pains to appease conservative Hazara leaders in March by approving a controversial Shiite family law, even though it outraged human rights groups because it subjected Hazara women to the absolute control of their fathers and husbands.

Yet the political emancipation of Afghanistan's Hazaras, whose children are flocking to universities and office jobs, has created a generational and political split in a community that long fell in lockstep behind ethnic militia or religious leaders such as Mohaqeq as a matter of survival.

Many older or less educated Hazaras still express strong loyalty to such leaders and say they intend to follow their political instructions on voting day. But many others, including students and former refugees who have returned after years in Iran, said they value their political independence.

"I am Hazara, but we have rights now, and no one can tell me how to vote," said Farahmuz, 33, a laborer who joins dozens of men each morning at a traffic circle, hoping to obtain a few hours of work. "I don't want ethnic issues to come up in these elections, because they can destroy the country again," he said.

Many Hazaras said their sentimental favorite for president is Bashardost, 44, a reformist legislator and former planning minister whose office is in a tent across the street from parliament. He has been campaigning in much the same style, accepting government-provided planes to reach distant provinces but then mingling with voters in parks and markets.

"I like Mr. Bashardost because he understands our problems," said Jawad, 25, a Kabul resident who grew up in exile in Iran and now supports his elderly parents as a construction worker. "He doesn't campaign in luxury vehicles like the others. He came to Shar-i-Nau Park on foot and sat there in a tent and listened to the people."

Reached on his cellphone Saturday in a noisy market in Khost province, Bashardost said he had discovered "a big distance between the ordinary people and the politicians in Kabul," adding: "I am sure we are going to see a revolution on August 20." He also said he had received a surprisingly large amount of support from Pashtuns at home and abroad. "This is something very new for Afghanistan," he said.

As a minority group that has long faced economic exploitation and social oppression, Hazaras seem to be taking particular advantage of political freedoms that have opened up since the fall of extremist Sunni Taliban rule in late 2001.

At a new private Shiite college in Kabul, teachers and students said the elections are important for their community, no matter who wins, because they represent a step toward modern, democratic practices that can help overcome Afghan traditions of ethnic and tribal competition.

"We need to develop the values and practices of democracy," said Amin Ahmadi, the college director. "Unfortunately, ethnic issues still play a large role in our country, and people don't trust leaders from other ethnic groups. But if we can have fair, transparent and peaceful elections, that will matter more than if we get a good or a bad president."

In West Kabul, the rundown but bustling heart of the capital's Hazara community, every public surface is papered with campaign posters. Yet many cart-pullers, mechanics and other workers said they are fed up with both national and ethnic politics. They said that their community suffers from widespread unemployment and poverty, but that no one in power has done anything to help.

"We are not happy with our government, and we are not happy with our own leaders," said Imam Ali Rahmat, 61, who sells firewood. "To them, we are just made of grime and dust. To us, they are just made of false promises. We need a change and we need new leaders, because we have lost our way."

Pakistan forms committee to question Sufi Muhammad

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik has constituted a committee to investigate the cases against pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Sufi Muhammad who was arrested Sunday in northwestern Peshawar City, The security forces also detained the cleric’s two sons, Ziaullah and Rizwanullah, in a raid in Peshawar City.The special joint committee will comprise officials from the federal and provincial security agencies, the report said.

Pakistan police detain pro-Taliban cleric Sufi Mohammad

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Pakistani police have detained pro-Taliban cleric Sufi Mohammad, accusing him of helping militants in the country's northwest and sabotaging the government's fight against them, an official said on Sunday.

Mohammad helped broker a deal between the government and the Taliban in February to end violence in the northwest Swat valley, but the pact collapsed after militants refused to lay down arms and began expanding their influence in nearby districts.

Security forces subsequently launched an offensive against the militants in Swat and nearby districts nearly three months ago, as the Taliban's advances raised concerns about the stability of the U.S. ally and the safety of its nuclear weapons.

"We have detained him as his activities could disturb the law and order situation and after an inquiry we'll file cases against him," said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister of the North West Frontier Province.

"He has been involved in activities which help militancy and militants and sabotage government efforts to combat them," he told a news conference in Peshawar.

Mohammad is the father-in-law of Swat Taliban commander Fazlullah, whose spokesman said last week he was alive and unhurt, contrary to earlier reports by the military that he was injured.

The spokesman, Muslim Khan, vowed the Taliban would continue to fight on in Swat.

The military says it is in the final stages of its operation in Swat and has started helping to bring the roughly 2 million people displaced by the fighting back to their homes.

However, security forces continue to face pockets of resistance, and critics say few militant leaders have been eliminated, making it more likely they will be able to regroup.

Iraq Veterans Find Afghan Enemy Even Bolder

NAWA, Afghanistan — In three combat tours in Anbar Province, Marine Sgt. Jacob Tambunga fought the deadliest insurgents in Iraq.

But he says he never encountered an enemy as tenacious as what he saw immediately after arriving at this outpost in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. In his first days here in late June, he fought through three ambushes, each lasting as long as the most sustained fight he saw in Anbar.

Like other Anbar veterans here, Sergeant Tambunga was surprised to discover guerrillas who, if not as lethal, were bolder than those he fought in Iraq.

“They are two totally different worlds,” said Sergeant Tambunga, a squad leader in Company C, First Battalion, Fifth Marines.

“In Iraq, they’d hit you and run,” he said. “But these guys stick around and maneuver on you.”

They also have a keen sense of when to fight and when the odds against them are too great. Three weeks ago, the American military mounted a 4,000-man Marine offensive in Helmand — the largest since President Obama’s troop increase — and so far in many places, American commanders say, they have encountered less resistance than expected.

Yet it is also clear to many Marines and villagers here that Taliban fighters made a calculated decision: to retreat and regroup to fight where and when they choose. And in the view of troops here who fought intensely in the weeks before the offensive began, fierce battles probably lie ahead if they are to clear the Taliban from sanctuaries so far untouched.

“It was straight luck that we didn’t have a lot more guys hit,” said Sgt. Brandon Tritle, another squad leader in Company C, who cited the Taliban’s skill at laying down a base of fire to mount an attack.

“One force will put enough fire down so you have to keep your heads down, then another force will maneuver around to your side to try to kill you,” he said. “That’s the same thing we do.”

In other parts of Helmand the Taliban have been quick to mount counterattacks. Since the offensive began, 10 Marines have been killed, many of them south of Garmser in areas thick with roadside bombs. In addition, British forces in Helmand, who often travel in lightly armored vehicles, have lost 19 men, all but two from bombs.

All told, Western troops have died in greater numbers in Helmand this month than in any other province in Afghanistan over a similar period since the 2001 invasion.

It is unclear whether the level of casualties will remain this high. But the Taliban can ill afford to lose the Helmand River Valley, a strip of land made arable by a network of canals that nourish the nation’s center for poppy growing.

“This is what fuels the insurgency,” said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine brigade leading the offensive.

For now, the strategy of the Taliban who used to dominate this village, 15 miles south of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, is to watch and wait just outside, villagers and Marines here say.

“They all escaped,” said Sardar Gul, a shopkeeper at the Nawa bazaar. Mr. Gul and others who reopened stores after the Marines arrived estimate that 300 to 600 Taliban fled to Marjah, 15 miles to the west and not under American control, joining perhaps more than 1,000 fighters.

Marine commanders acknowledge that they could have focused more on cutting off escape routes early in the operation, an issue that often dogged offensives against insurgents in Iraq.

“I wish we had trapped a few more folks,” the commander of First Battalion, Fifth Marines, Lt. Col. William F. McCollough, told the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who visited Nawa. “I expected there to be more fighting.”

When the full battalion arrived in Nawa in early July, the Taliban “knew we were too powerful for them” and left, said Staff Sgt. Michael Placencia, a platoon sergeant in Company C.

But he predicted the Taliban would stand and fight if Marines were to assault Marjah, describing them as a “more efficient” foe than the insurgents he saw as a squad leader in Anbar in 2005 and 2006.

“They will come back, and they will try to take this back and pin us down,” said Maj. Rob Gallimore, a British officer who trains Afghan soldiers here. He hopes that the Marines do not spread themselves too thin and that they focus instead on building a deep bond with locals in places they occupy, a classic counterinsurgency tactic.

So Marines are bracing for a fight against guerrillas who, they discovered in June, are surprisingly proficient at tactics the Marines themselves learned in infantry school.

“They’d flank us, and we’d flank them, just like a chess match,” said Sgt. Jason Lynd, another squad leader in Company C.

In June the Marines ended up in sustained firefights the first four times they left their outpost. The Taliban were always overmatched — attacking the Marines with only one-third the number of men — but they pressed the fight, laying complex ambushes and then cutting off Marines as they made their way back to base.

One fight began after Marines stopped three vans, which they let go. Fifteen minutes later they took fire from two homes near where they had been pursuing a suspicious man they wanted to question. They cleared both buildings, but were then attacked by gunmen behind the homes, some of whom, the Marines believe, had been in the three vans, a few disguised in burqas.

Somehow, none of the Marines were hit in the secondary ambush. “They tried to suck us in, and their plan worked,” Sergeant Tritle said. “They just missed.”

No Marines were killed in the two weeks they were here in June.

In contrast to Iraqi insurgents, the Taliban do not seem to have access to large artillery shells and other powerful military munitions that Anbar fighters used to kill hundreds of Marines and soldiers. The bombs found so far have been largely homemade with fertilizer, though they have still killed more than 20 British soldiers and United States Marines to the north and south of Nawa.

“If they had better weapons, we’d be in real trouble,” said Lance Cpl. Vazgen Matevosyan.

What the Taliban lack in munitions they make up for in tactics, even practicing “information operations” and disinformation, Marines say. Knowing the Marines listen to their two-way communications, they say, the Taliban describe phony locations of ambushes and bombs.

“They’re not stupid,” said Lance Cpl. Frank Hegel. “You can tell they catch on to things, and they don’t make the same mistake twice.”

Taliban Attack Police Station

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Taliban fighters wearing suicide vests and armed with AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades attacked the main police station in the southeastern city of Khost on Saturday, officials said. They set off gun battles that went on for hours and left 7 militants dead and 14 other people wounded.

Also on Saturday, a British soldier was killed by a roadside bomb during a patrol around Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province.

Zemeri Bashary, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said all the attackers in Khost were killed, but the Defense Ministry later said that one attacker might have escaped.

Afghan suicide attack increases pressure on Pakistan

TALIBAN militants struck at government buildings in the city of Khost in southeastern Afghanistan yesterday with suicide bombs, AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, wounding 14 people, including two police officers, and provoking fears of a bloody election campaign.

At least three suicide bombers blew themselves up during the onslaught, which began in the early afternoon near a US military base. General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a defence ministry spokesman, said later that Afghan forces had surrounded the attackers.

The raid came as the United States asked Pakistan for help in ensuring a peaceful election campaign. Islamabad has been asked to send troops to key points along its border with Helmand to stop Taliban militia crossing back and forth.

For the past two weeks, 4,500 US marines have been engaged in Operation Khanjar (Strike of the Sword), their largest offensive yet. They have grabbed a swathe of territory in southern Helmand.

Although July has been the deadliest month for foreign troops in the eight-year war, with 66 killed, including 20 British men, military officials say the operation has so far faced less resistance than expected.

But this is because the Taliban faded away and officials are well aware that the militants can be eliminated only if Pakistan stops allowing them sanctuary. Border controls led to surprisingly peaceful polls in 2004 and 2005.

The request to Pakistan was made during a visit to Islamabad last week by General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, and General Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador to Kabul. It was reinforced by President Barack Obama’s special envoy Richard Holbrooke, who is visiting the region.

Nato commanders and the Afghan government have long complained about the sanctuary the Taliban enjoy in Pakistan where they send their wounded, train and recruit fighters and raise funds. Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed Taliban leader, and his senior associates operate from Quetta, and journalists often receive calls from Taliban spokesmen in Peshawar.

But Pakistan’s military has recently taken a tough new stance after Taliban forces launched a spate of suicide attacks and took over the Swat valley, a former tourist area 70 miles from the capital. “We suddenly realised we could be left an army without a country,” said one general.

However, with Swat almost cleared after three months of fighting and Pakistani troops moving into the border areas of Waziristan to pursue Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, there is concern that Islamabad seems to have no interest in taking on militant groups that are using its territory to attack western forces over the border.

A senior US official said: “We still don’t see any evidence that Islamabad has politically or militarily made a decision to go after the Afghan Taliban.

“As far as we’re concerned, they will only turn the corner when they tell the Quettashura [tribal council], ‘You have a choice – go back home and either negotiate or fight, but you’re not welcome here’.”

McChrystal said last week: “What I would love is for the government of Pakistan to have the ability to eliminate the safe havens that the Afghan Taliban enjoy.”

Briefings by senior Pakistani military indicate that they still divide Taliban into good and bad. “They cause no trouble to us,” replied one general when asked about Mullah Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Waziristan warlord closest to Al-Qaeda.

“What we have to consider is what happens when the foreign troops leave Afghanistan,” said another. “If the Taliban then take over, we don’t want to be on the wrong side.”

Pakistan has objected that American operations in southern Afghanistan are forcing more militants over its side of the border.

“There is a need for better coordination at the military level,” said Shah Mehmud Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister. “Pushing the buck over won’t solve the problem as with such a porous border the buck will just go back again.”

In an interview with The Sunday Times in Islamabad, Qureshi insisted that his country would no longer give sanctuary to Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban.

“We are clear we have to deal with all elements that are challenging the writ of the government and making Pakistan or other places insecure,” he said. “We don’t want our soil, our national territory, to be used against anyone.”

“We’re no more differentiating between good terrorists and bad terrorists. They’ve created havoc, made our environment insecure, and wherever they are, we’ll take them on.”

Asked specifically if this would include Mullah Omar and his Quetta shura, which runs the Afghan Taliban, the minister replied: “Absolutely, we’ll be taking them on.”

Banks to reopen in Mingora

MINGORA: The State Bank has directed all commercial banks to reopen their branches in Mingora city on Monday.

Official sources told Dawn that the central bank had issued directives to restart operations because of a majority of displaced people had returned home.

The banks have also been told to facilitate disbursement of salaries to government employees.

The local business community has been facing problems because of closure of banks since April last when militants extended their activities to the headquarters of Swat.

Now normalcy has returned to the city and 80 per cent of shops and business centres have reopened. The main bazaars and markets are full with customers.

The NWFP government announced on Saturday that educational institutions would reopen on Aug 1.

Minister for Higher Education, Qazi Assad, said authorities concerned had been asked to prepare feasibility reports for rebuilding of schools and colleges.

Sources said district authorities had been directed to submit a report on damaged schools and those occupied by security forces and to make alternative arrangements for reopening them.

Around 200 schools have been destroyed completely or partially by insurgents.