Friday, January 11, 2013

Obama, Karzai seek office for peace talks with Taliban

There was a stray, sad moment in the joint press conference that President Obama held with President Hamid Karzai, of Afghanistan, that made one think of valor and loss. It came when Obama said that the Medal of Honor was being given to Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha—for his actions in an ambush in which he was wounded and kept fighting, and exposed himself to more fire to get to stranded soldiers—just after reminding the audience that “two thousand of America’s sons and daughters” have died in a war that began more than a decade ago. And, after all that time, he still struggled to explain why. Obama is the second President to stand in press conferences like that next to Karzai, who wore, as he does, a cape and karakul cap. It is strange to remember that, when we first met him, after the September 11th attacks, Tom Ford described him as “the chic-est man on the planet.” During his visit to New York in early 2002, eleven Januaries ago, the Times ran a piece explaining to readers that “the garments he had chosen, Afghan observers in America said, were a carefully assembled collection of regional political symbols, combined in a way that might look swashbuckling to the West, but could be read as something else by anyone back home.” The cape, worn “with such élan,” was “typical of clothes worn by northern tribesmen,” while the hat “is of an Uzbek style,” the pants of a type common among “village people.” Stranger still is that the deliberate way he chose his clothes once seemed so interesting—romantic, even. They don’t anymore. The Karzai who was in Washington would strike no one as swashbuckling, unless the word is meant only to invoke pirates and looting. He had the half-weary, half-stubborn look of a man whose main concern is how to preserve the position and wealth his relatives and associates have accrued through corruption and graft. Because of term limits, he is scheduled to leave office after elections in April, 2014, so it may be tricky; then again, he more or less openly stole the last election. After Obama talked about how the withdrawal of American combat troops, scheduled for next year, might be achieved even more quickly, a reporter asked Karzai, “Do you have any sense of how many troops you would be willing to have?” “Numbers are not going to make a difference to the situation in Afghanistan,” Karzai replied. “It’s the broader relationship that will make a difference to Afghanistan and beyond in the region.” Cynicism about Karzi has reached the point that one wondered, when Karzai said “the broader relationship,” if what he meant was money. (The other question that came to mind was who had the more mendacious negotiating partner: Obama, talking with Karzai; or Biden, sitting down with the N.R.A.) Obama, for his part, looked like a man who might be sorry that he had, early in his Presidency, tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan. His nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense certainly supports that view. “Let me say it as plainly as I can: starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission,” he said. “That is a very limited mission, and it is not one that would require the same kind of footprint, obviously, that we’ve had over the last ten years in Afghanistan.” When a reporter asked about how America’s departure would affect Afghan women, Obama, with some feeling, spoke about how “Afghanistan cannot succeed unless it gives opportunity to its women,” and Karzai appended a distracted “Indeed, indeed.” “I want us to remember why we went to Afghanistan,” Obama said. “We went into Afghanistan because three thousand Americans were viciously murdered by a terrorist organization that was operating openly and at the invitation of those who were then ruling Afghanistan.” He then spent a couple of minutes explaining why that was “absolutely the right thing to do”—and why we were done: “Have we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not. This is a human enterprise and you fall short of the ideal.” Indeed.

Shaheed Bilour: immortalized, not silenced

daily times
BY: Ammara Ahmad
Mr Bilour was the only mainstream politician who dared to take a clear position against terrorism The greatest victory of a politician and activist like Bashir Bilour is to be known for his cause during his lifetime and afterwards. Peshawar, where Shaheed Bilour was based, had been rocked by more than 400 blasts last year alone. This was an attempt to rock the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, defame the ANP government and intimidate it into submission. Yet Mr Bilour visited the families of terror victims and martyrs regularly. Just before his death, he had visited the houses of the slain polio workers. He was proud that girls continued attending colleges in Peshawar despite extreme pressure from radical groups to quit. He openly condemned the attackers of the teenaged activist, Malala Yousafzai. He also criticised politicians who denied that the Taliban were behind Malala’s attack. Mr Bilour often made high-profile media appearances, criticising heinous terrorism-related crimes and affirming that he would keep on fighting this evil. He was the second most senior elected official in the terrorism-struck province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Mr Bilour was the only mainstream politician who dared to take a clear position against terrorism. Couple this with the fact that his party had lost some 600 political workers and leaders to the war on terror, and there had been an attempt on his life twice. But he visited terrorism-torn sensitive areas and people without security to show solidarity with them. Unfortunately, this high-profile murder by the Taliban was committed just a few days before the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s fifth death anniversary. What has changed in Pakistan since 2007? Has security, intelligence and the rule of law improved? Not really. In fact, things have only worsened. However, despite the mayhem, bombings, kidnappings, threats and killing, is there any consensus regarding terrorism among Pakistan’s political parties? Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan accepted the responsibility for Mr Bilour’s murder. At the start of this month, Fazlur Rehman, an influential religious and political leader, denied the very existence of the Taliban movement. A few years ago, when a wave of terrorist bombings started in Punjab, the PML-N’s stance was that the Taliban should not attack Punjab. One of Pakistan’s most popular leaders nowadays, Imran Khan, is a believer in having talks with the Taliban. Khan believes that these Taliban are alienated from us because of our pro-US policies. He has acknowledged the fact that they are terrorists having ideological differences with our state and that they do not recognise Pakistan’s constitution and challenge the writ of the state. Khan believes in having a dialogue with the Taliban. Yet the Taliban have already flouted many of the agreements they made with the Pakistani government. That was something Shaheed Bilour knew very well and had therefore lost hope in. Tributes, accolades and condolences poured in from across the country. Punjab Chief Minister Main Shahbaz Sharif and the former Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani visited Bilour’s family. President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf paid tributes too. This is heartening. Mr Bilour was a towering political figure with a 40-year career behind him. But did anyone give a statement against the Taliban, lambasting religious extremism and condemning violence? Not yet. But this happened in Malala’s case too. Top-notch politicians praised her in their speeches and paid hospital visits. But are they willing to support her cause and possibly pay the price she did? Not really. Many politicians, including MNA Bushra Gohar, are now asking for an operation in Waziristan, but to a large extent, there is still silence in the political arena. Politicians do not want to shoulder such a burden during an election year. The day after Mr Bilour’s death, the headline in one of the national dailies read: “Taliban silence most vocal critic.” But to me, he seems to be the loudest in his death. Every time an unknown, brainwashed teenage bomber takes the life of an activist, the attacker is shredded into pieces, and the pieces are taken away by police for further investigation. This is a nameless death without a burial. But the martyr becomes a hero, lives on in the memory of his family, people and party. This is Mr Bilour’s greatest victory. Pashtuns are known for their bravery and Shaheed Bashir Bilour was rightly called the “Lion of Pashtuns”. The lion has been killed but his roar lives on.

Pakistan: Heart-rending carnage

A black Thursday it was verily. Over 126 innocent people lay dead and many more gored on the awful day in Quetta, Mingora and Karachi in terrorist attacks. And where is the state? The country has been in the throes of terrorism over these past five years or so. The monstrosity has swallowed no less than 50,000 of our innocent civilians during the period. They include toddlers, children and women. And apart from men in uniform, at least 5,000 of them, professionals, religious scholars, academics, lawyers, doctors and civil servants in scores have fallen prey to the prowling monstrosity. Even political leaders and workers it has done in. Yet it has lost no sleep amongst the incumbents. Driven to sleepless nights they are by a Tahirul Qadri, even though he poses no threat to the state but only to the hegemony of the entrenched political entities on the nation’s all politics and the elitist state system they have engendered to serve their vested interests. But no nerves are wracked in those high places over the viciousness of this monstrosity that threatens the very existence of the state and is undeniably the biggest internal security threat to the country presently. No counter-terrorism strategy or action plan have the incumbents, both federal and provincial, evolved as yet to fight out this monstrosity, even as there has been no slowdown down whatsoever in its vileness and instead it has only been in ascendancy. Appallingly, the incumbents remain all obsessed with their petty politics, wholly unmindful of the perilous way the monstrosity is pulling down the ship of the state. No special committee of the federal cabinet has ever been formed throughout to plan and oversee a campaign to counter terrorism. Why? No exclusive task forces have been established by the provincial governments to take on terrorists. Why? And why indeed it is all cool on both the federal and the provincial official corridors? Their security apparatuses are just hibernating. Why no heads roll after a terrorist strike? The law-enforcers seem to have been assigned the task to only assess the weight of the explosives used in a thuggish assault, not to prevent its use. They seem to have been further tasked to cordon off the stricken area and search for the thugs. It doesn’t matter that that causes only inconvenience to the public. Terrorists, after all, do not go for window shopping or loitering in the area after the strike. They make their escape good instantly. But where are the intelligence agencies of the state? Where are the CIDs and spooks of the provincial governments? The terrorist outfits are not all unknown. The extremist organisations, too. Even those outlawed operate quite freely publicly under new banners. They all maintain their sleeper cells and lairs in the urban areas. Then why have the intelligence services failed so spectacularly in penetrating the terrorist and extremist outfits to reach out to their masterminds, fundraisers and arms suppliers and burst them up internally? Why have they come such a cropper in tracking down their urban sleeper cells, lairs and hideouts and dismantle them lock, stock and barrel? Is it because those services have not been tasked to carry out this job? And if they are, is it because no questions are asked and no answers are demanded? Or, what? Why indeed the task of fighting out terrorism has been left to the military alone and why has the civil power taken idly such a backseat? Isn’t fighting urban terrorism primarily the responsibility of the civilian security apparatus? Isn’t keeping the proscribed sectarian outfits out of action the job of the civilian administrations and the provincial governments? Isn’t going after the purveyors of message of hate the domain of the local administrations? Isn’t keeping an eye on the stranger and the suspect the bounden duty of the city cops? Then, why this idleness of the civil power? Why this washing hands of the civil power of a responsibility that it cannot wish off in any event to fight out a monstrosity that can be subdued and beheaded only by a combined action of the state’s military power and civil power? When indeed will the incumbents come out of their stupor and do something to face up to a monstrosity that has become a lethal existential threat to the country? Or, how many more black Thursdays is this beleaguered nation destined to see until they lay down their batons in the coming month or two?

Rights group warns Pakistan faces worsening sectarian violence

Violence against Pakistani Shia Muslims is rising and some communities are living in a state of siege, a human rights group said on Friday, warning that sectarian violence will only get worse a day after 114 people were killed in bombings. Most of the deaths were caused by twin attacks in the western city of Quetta, near the Afghan border, the worst violence against Shias in decades. "Last year was the bloodiest year for Shias in living memory," said Ali Dayan Hasan of Pakistan Human Rights Watch. "More than 400 were killed and if yesterday's attack is any indication, its just going to get worse." Eighty-two 82 people were killed and 121 wounded in Quetta when a suicide bomber targeted a snooker club and a car bomb blew up nearby 10 minutes later. Nine police and 20 rescue workers were among those killed in the second blast. "It was like doomsday. Bodies were lying everywhere," said police officer Mir Zubair Mehmood Mehmood. The banned Sunni group Lashkar-e-Jangvi (LeJ) claimed responsibility for the attack in a predominantly Shi'ite neighborhood where the residents are ethnic Hazaras. The bombings underscored the myriad threats Pakistani security forces face from homegrown Sunni extremist groups, the Taliban insurgency in the northwest and the less well-known Baloch insurgency in the southwest. The LeJ wants to impose a Sunni theocracy in U.S.-allied Pakistan by stoking Sunni-Shi'ite violence. It bombs religious processions and shoots civilians in the type of attacks that pushed countries like Iraq close to civil war. LeJ leader Malik Ishaq was released last year after spending 14 years in jail in connection with dozens of murder and terrorism cases. The roughly 500,000-strong Shia Hazara community in Quetta are routinely hunted by extremist groups because their ethnically distinct features make them an easy target, said Dayan of Human Rights Watch. "They live in a state of siege. Stepping out of the ghetto means risking death," said Dayan. "Everyone has failed them - the security services, the government, the judiciary." SECURITY FORCES STRUGGLE TO COPE Earlier in the day, a separate bomb killed 11 people in Quetta's crowded main market. The United Baloch Army claimed responsibility for that blast. The group is one of several fighting for independence for Balochistan, an arid, impoverished region with substantial gas, copper and gold reserves. Quetta is the capital of Balochistan, a province that constitutes just under half of Pakistan's territory and is home to about 8 million of the country's population of 180 million. In a separate attack in Mingora, the largest city in Swat valley, at least 21 people were killed when an explosion targeted a public gathering of residents who had come to listen to a religious leader. No one claimed responsibility for that bombing. Swat has been under army rule since a military offensive expelled the Taliban in 2009. The Taliban insurgency in the northwest has launched a string of attacks in recent weeks, including a suicide attack on Peshawar airport, the kidnap and execution of 21 paramilitary forces and a suicide attack killing a leading politician. Sectarian attacks in Pakistan have risen even as overall deaths from militant violence have fallen over the past two years. But Pakistan's security forces and its overburdened justice system are still struggling to cope. Human rights groups say the government must investigate whether some of the groups have links to elements within Pakistan's security services. The LeJ has had historically close ties to elements in the Pakistani security forces, who see the group as an ally in any potential war with neighboring India.

U.S. Drones Pound Pakistan, Which Responds by Doing Exactly Nothing
Make that seven U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan during the first 10 days of 2013. But the recent uptick in drone strikes hasn’t yet coincided with a resurgence in Pakistani outrage that marred Washington’s relationship with Islamabad in 2012. At least five people are dead in a drone strike near Mir Ali, in North Waziristan, launched on Thursday. That makes seven drone strikes in Pakistan since 2013 began, with an estimated death toll, according to Danger Room’s tally, of at least 40 people. (One of the strikes on Tuesday killed a “key al-Qaida commander” named Sheikh Yasin al-Kuwaiti, the Long War Journal reports.) By contrast, in 2012, the U.S. launched 43 drone strikes in Pakistan, with an average pause of between 7 and 8 days between them. Even beyond the drones, Thursday was a violent day in Pakistan: A pair of bombings in Baluchistan left at least 32 people dead and more than 100 wounded. Some observers are starting to think the drop off in U.S. drone strikes was a strategic pause — buying time before a ramp-up that appears to be underway, even before White House drone overseer John Brennan becomes CIA director. The reaction from Pakistan has been “noticeably muted,” as the Associated Press observes. The Pakistani government has yet to issue a condemnation of the new strikes. The Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman, was said to be traveling; other Pakistani officials in Washington have yet to respond to Danger Room’s request for comment. According to Pakistani press reports, tribesman rallied on Saturday in the “thousands” to protest the killing of Taliban commander Maulvi Nazir, who had reached a truce with the Pakistani military. So far, the main Pakistani politician speaking out against the drones is Imran Khan, who condemned the new strikes on Sunday as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. Khan led a high-profile pilgrimage last year to Taliban-controlled parts of South Waziristan to raise Pakistani awareness about the U.S.’ lethal drone campaign. Although Khan had to turn back because of the security risk, his march was part of a year of setbacks for Washington’s relationship with Pakistan. For the first half of the year, Pakistan blocked NATO logistics shipments through its territory, in protest of a chaotic November 2011 U.S. assault in eastern Afghanistan that left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead. It took a U.S. apology for Pakistan to reopen its border to trucks resupplying the Afghanistan war. The closure reflected lingering acrimony in Islamabad related to U.S. counterterrorism efforts, from the drones to the Afghanistan war, and especially the unilateral Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden. While the Pakistani had quietly tolerated the drone campaign for years, in December 2011 it kicked the CIA out of a Pakistani airbase it had loaned the agency for years. “We will seek an end to drone strikes and there will be no compromise on that,” Amb. Rehman told the Aspen Security Forum in July. Reportedly, Pakistan’s spy chief, Lt. Gen. Zaheerul Islam, reiterated that demand in a summer meeting at Langley with then-CIA director David Petraeus. The U.S. drone strikes hardly ended in 2012, but the U.S. launched fewer of them in Pakistan than at any time since President Obama took office. It’s still very early in 2013, but some are starting to think the drone reprieve is done. The U.S. needed to slow the the drones’ roll in 2012, a former Pakistani official tells Danger Room, so that anti-U.S. anger in Islamabad could die down. At a certain, unknown point, the ex-official added, an uptick in drone strikes will prompt greater official Pakistani outrage. But until then, the U.S. has some leeway to attack (especially if the U.S. offs militants that the Pakistani army and intelligence service want killed). That outrage may not sway Washington. At the White House, Brennan has had little sympathy for the concerns of Pakistani intelligence, according to the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Brennan is do-what-we-must,” the former official added, citing the unilateral bin Laden raid as evidence. Should Pakistani officials break their silence about the drone escalation, they may soon encounter a deaf ear at Langley.