Friday, April 14, 2017
By HELENE COOPER and MUJIB MASHAL
“What I do is I authorize my military,” Mr. Trump said after a meeting with emergency workers at the White House. He called the bombing “another very, very successful mission.”
The Syria strike — on Tuesday near the town of Tabqah, which Syrian fighters and American advisers are trying to capture — was the third American-led airstrike in a month that may have killed civilians or allies. Earlier bombing runs killed or wounded scores of civilians in a mosque complex in Syria and in a building in the west of Mosul, Iraq.
“We have the greatest military in the world,” Mr. Trump said. “We have given them total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing, and frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.” American commanders in Iraq and Syria have been given more authority to call in strikes, a loosening of the reins that began in the last month of the Obama administration. But some national security experts said that Mr. Trump and the Pentagon risked inflaming anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world with their approach to fighting the Islamic State.
The number of civilian casualties reported in American-led strikes in Iraq and Syria has increased since Mr. Trump took office, and March was the deadliest month for civilians ever recorded by Airwars, a group that tracks bombings. Reports of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria jumped to 3,471 from 1,782 the month before, the group said.
American officials have attributed the rising number of strikes and the increased danger to civilians to the fact that the fight is moving to the densely populated urban battlefields of Mosul and Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital in Syria. They say they try to avoid civilian casualties, while the militants deliberately kill anyone who stands in their way. In addition to the greater leeway granted to commanders in Iraq and Syria, Mr. Trump has relaxed some of the rules for preventing civilian casualties when the military carries out counterterrorism strikes in Somalia and Yemen.
“Trump has ceded responsibilities to his military commanders, and it appears he’s paying little attention to operational details,” said Derek Chollet, who was the assistant secretary of defense for international affairs in the Obama administration.
“Here’s the question,” Mr. Chollet added. “Trump takes great pride in his authorizing the military when things go well, but one wonders if he’ll have the same sense of shared accountability when things go wrong, as they inevitably do.”
Thursday’s strike in Afghanistan — using a 20,000-pound bomb that cost $16 million, and more than $300 million to develop — hit a tunnel complex in the Achin district of Nangarhar Province, according to a statement from the United States military in Afghanistan. The statement did not say how many militants were killed, or whether the bombing caused any civilian casualties.
The weapon is so big that, while the cargo plane is in the air, the bomb rolls out of the rear on a pallet, pulled by a drogue parachute. It is designed to destroy tunnels and other underground facilities, and its blast radius is estimated to stretch a mile in every direction.
The strike against tunnels and caves reflects the ever-changing nature of the war in Afghanistan, now in its 15th year.
During the years of intense fighting in Afghanistan, the United States dropped a handful of similar bombs to destroy caves believed to be used by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, as well as to frighten troops dug into trenches who were not immediately killed. The military offered a similar rationale on Thursday for using the bomb — a successor to the “daisy cutter,” a heavy bomb designed for the instant clearing of large sections of jungle in Vietnam.
Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan “are using I.E.D.s, bunkers and tunnels to thicken their defense,” said Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the United States commander there, referring to improvised explosive devices. “This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles and maintain the momentum of our offensive.”
Afghan security officials said their ground forces had advanced on the Tangi Asadkhel area of Achin but met firm resistance from Islamic State militants who were launching attacks from six mountainside tunnels. The Afghan forces retreated and asked for airstrikes. “The ground forces could not do it, so the Americans bombed the area,” said Gen. Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense.
The Afghan government was kept “in the loop” about the bombing, said Shahhussain Murtazawi, a spokesman for the president.
While the damage from the bombing, which occurred at night in a remote area, was unclear, the strike quickly brought backlash. Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s former president, was among those who condemned it. “This is not the war on terror but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous weapons,” Mr. Karzai wrote on Twitter. “It is upon us, Afghans, to stop the USA.”
Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Pentagon was being given leeway to carry out strategy without being told what, exactly, the overarching strategy is. “What they haven’t been given is a lot of strategic guidance to work with,” he said. “They can affect things, but without a guiding strategy, it’s hard to be sure you’re having the desired effect.”
Tuesday’s strike in Syria was requested by coalition allies on the ground near Tabqah, according to the United States Central Command, which oversees combat operations in the Middle East. The fighters had “identified the target location as an ISIS fighting position,” it said in a statement, using another name for the Islamic State. The military said the target location turned out to be a “fighting position” for the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have been fighting the Islamic State alongside the United States.
“The coalition’s deepest condolences go out to the members of the S.D.F. and their families,” Central Command said in the statement, calling the episode “tragic.” Military officials said the cause was being investigated.
But the increased casualties in Syria “cannot be explained away simply by the increased tempo of the war,” said Chris Woods, director of Airwars. He noted that the number of airstrikes and targets hit actually fell slightly in March, but said his group’s research indicated that civilian deaths had risen sixfold in Syria, with more than 350 killed last month alone.
“This indicates to us a possible loosening of U.S. battlefield rules,” he said, “which is placing civilians at greater risk of harm.”
BY RAZA RUMI
The violent passions incited in many sections of Pakistani society by accusations of blasphemy were on display once again – this time in Mardan. Reports indicate that a student mob from a local university campus was infuriated by a series of rumours about certain students posting ‘blasphemous’ material online. The bloodthirsty mob turned its fury towards a student, 23-year-old Mashal Khan. He was beaten, shot and tortured until he died, while another student remains critical. A video is now circulating on social media, showing Mashal’s lifeless body, stripped of all clothes, lying outside a hostel building on campus, as a mob of students continues to beat his body and throw things at it. The campus has now been emptied and sealed to contain the violence.
There are two particularly alarming aspects to this horrific episode. Firstly, there are some indications that the two students were targeted based on their dissenting views on religion and society. Secondly, amongst the rumours circulated was the idea that they were promoting the Ahmadi faith. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, blasphemy allegations go hand-in-hand with being identified as Ahmadi –with both resulting in terrifying violence.
Sadly those in power have contributed to this unfortunate situation. Since January, the state authorities have been drumming up the campaign against blasphemy on social media. From the Prime Minister to the Parliament and from judges to legislators, high-sounding rhetoric has been aired to prove that the state is somehow guarding the faith. On social media, Pakistanis have been accepting challenges to prove their faith to fellow Muslims. In a country where 95 percent or more are Muslims, the fear-mongering over blasphemy is nothing but a deliberate ploy to invoke religious passions to achieve political ends. The primary objective has been to suppress dissenting views on religion, military and state policy. Political parties have social media cells that malign party leaders, and the security establishment has been keen to employ digital media for public messaging. In this race for who wins at shrill hysteria and controls the internet, innocent young people like Mashal are being killed.
What can authorities do in such a situation? Although a solution seems difficult – given the might of those who do politics (and even business) on accusations of blasphemy – there are still some steps that can be taken to reduce such religious extremist violence. The Prime Minister and his associates and other branches of the government must end this blasphemer hunting campaign and give Pakistan a break from the sordid trends of the past.
First, authorities must be as firm as necessary in investigating and prosecuting the perpetrators of such violence, in the aftermath of accusations of blasphemy. Second, something will have to be done about the purveyors of bigotry and merchants of violent hatred on social and electronic media. It will be especially necessary to apply the law to a handful of TV anchors who have recently participated in the most bloodcurdling campaigns against alleged blasphemers, without any evidence. Third, when the state takes action against anyone who stands accused of blasphemy, it must uphold due process, stick to the law, avoid incitement and bear in mind the maxim which is the basis of most modern democratic justice-systems: “Innocent until proven guilty”.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said such incident in the universities were big threat to our education institutions and government should take adequate steps to check such incidents in future.
PPP Chairman expressed sympathies with the parents and the family of the victim.
BY BEENA SARWAR
Over the last decades, simply accusing someone of ‘blasphemy’ has proved enough to trigger a vigilante death sentence. Obviously, Pakistan has not got to this situation overnight.
In today’s age of instant news and social media, reports of university student Mohammad Mashal Khan’s death on the morning of April 13 would not have been broken gently to his family.
Nor will they be spared the graphic videos and photos of their son’s horrific death at the public Wali Khan University in Mardan, the second largest city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, an hour’s drive from Mashal’s home in neighbouring Swabi district.
The mob dragged Mashal, a journalism student, out of his hostel room. They stripped, beat and clubbed him, then shot him. Videos circulating online show young men, some carrying backpacks, kicking and throwing stones at his near-naked, bloodied, lifeless body.
They also attacked another mass communications student, Abdullah, who had hidden in the chairman’s washroom. The mob smashed the office and beat the boy even as he recited verses from the Holy Quran to prove his faith. Police who reached the scene managed to rescue him and get him to a nearby hospital.
After the police rescued Abdullah, the mob hunted down Mashal.
Rumours had started circulating on the morning of April 13 about Mashal’s alleged ‘gustakhi’ – literally disrespect, but in the context of Pakistan, blasphemy. Concerned, some of his teachers had driven him away from campus to another location, but Mashal returned to his hostel, saying, “I have done nothing wrong, why should I hide?”
When the mob came for him, he stood no chance. The police too said they were helpless. Hopelessly outnumbered and inadequately trained, the best they could do for Mashal was to prevent the mob from burning his battered body, which they took away even as dozens of charged young men demanded it back.
This violence – for which there is no justification morally, legally or religiously – falls into a familiar pattern. It starts with rumours that the person has committed some kind of blasphemy. A mob is gathered and incited to attack the accused. While there have been several such instances in the past, this is the first time that students at a university campus have succumbed to the ‘poison in the body politic‘ that Pakistan has been witnessing for some time.
In this case, rumours had begun circulating that Mashal and his friend Abdullah were “promoting the Ahmadi faith on Facebook”.
Even if this was the case – for which there is no evidence – it is not a crime punishable by death in Pakistan. It is, however, a criminal offence to commit violence against anyone, regardless of the crime or transgression they are accused of.
Over the last decades, simply accusing someone of ‘blasphemy’ has proved enough to trigger a vigilante death sentence. Obviously, Pakistan has not got to this situation overnight. A critical point in this path was the 1974 constitutional amendment that officially declared the Ahmadi community to be non-Muslim. Ten years later, General Zia ul-Haq’s military dictatorship made it a criminal offence for Ahmadis to practice or propagate their faith as Muslims. He further added sections to the British colonial-era Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code, expanding on the earlier ‘injury to religious sentiment’ offence with its milder sentence.
These amendments, which form what are termed as Pakistan’s ‘blasphemy laws’, include 295-C, which made any insult to Prophet Mohammad punishable by life imprisonment or death. In 1992, the option of life imprisonment lapsed and death became the only option for 295-C convictions.
Pakistan’s first ‘blasphemy murder’ took place shortly afterwards at the hands of a young activist of the Anjuman-e-Sipah-e-Sahaba (later changed to Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan or SSP, which has been banned for some years now). The victim was a Christian poet and schoolteacher named Naimat Ahmar in Faisalabad (formerly Lyallpur), stabbed outside the education office.
The pattern that emerged with Ahmar’s murder 25 years ago still prevails. Rumours are started about an alleged ‘gustakhi’. The accusers don’t even need to spell out what the gustakhi was.
Since then, the SSP and its off-shoots have meticulously followed up any whiff of controversy around such issues, with an alliance of hundreds of lawyers on hand to follow up the cases.
While the state has yet to execute anyone convicted under 295-C – most cases are dismissed on appeal – more than 60 persons have been murdered, including inside prisons, after being accused of blasphemy or even simply “disrespect” to Islam.
It is no longer necessary for a case to be registered, as evident in the murder of the most famous of these victims, Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, who was shot to death by his official bodyguard in January 2011. No case had been registered against the Mardan University students either, whose only crime seems to have been holding secular, progressive views.
Islam does not prescribe death for blasphemy, as the young scholar Arafat Mazhar has proved through painstaking research. On the other hand, Pakistani law provides for punishment in cases of false accusations.
However, rarely is anyone punished either for false accusations or for taking the law into their own hands. The execution of Taseer’s killer Mumtaz Qadri last year was an exception. And the religious right seized upon the opportunity to glorify him as a martyr to Islam. The government allowed the building of a shrine in Islamabad at his grave, highlighting how the dangerous narrative is perpetuated.
Clearly, reasoning and facts are inadequate to counter the prevailing dominant narrative, where just accusing someone of gustakhi is considered evidence of their guilt. This narrative has become a convenient tool to muzzle progressive voices who challenge the dominant hegemonic narrative in Pakistan.
From all accounts, including his posts on social media, young Mashal was someone who upheld progressive values, including women’s rights. He was a poet and a thinker, and he questioned the mainstream discourse.
He was “one of the most intelligent students of our department,” a university teacher told Mushtaq Yusufzai, a Peshawar-based reporter with The News who also hails from Mardan.
“He was different from other students. He would raise questions and challenge people,” said another teacher, adding that Mashal was “blunt but inquisitive”. He would not take injustices lying down. When something went wrong, like lack of water or electricity at the hostel, Mashal would not stop at filing a complaint, but persistently follow up.
“I never heard of him saying anything against religion or the state, but he was critical of the present political system,” said a teacher.
It speaks for the prevalent atmosphere of fear that the teachers Yusufzai spoke to didn’t want their names mentioned.
Administrative failure also appears to play a role in this gruesome story, as there was no leadership to cope with the situation that was brewing. The university has been without a full-time vice chancellor for some months, there was no senior official available to handle the matter. The faculty say they have been trying to draw the attention of the ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf to the situation but receiving no response.
“This is the worst intolerance we have observed in Pashtun society,” said Zar Ali Khan Afridi, a human rights defender based in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas adjacent to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
When students at an institution meant to impart education can “turn barbarian and so intolerant in a matter of alleged charges of blasphemy,” he said, “then what can we expect from religious seminary students who are imparted such education 24 hours 7 days a week and 365 days a year?”
Afridi points out the dangers of the ‘gustakhi’ narrative that he, like many others, believes is supported by the state and glorified by the media. Indeed, in recent months, the supporters of this narrative have even made such baseless accusations on live television, fanning the flames of intolerance and bigotry.
Defending someone who is accused of ‘gustakhi’ can itself be life-threatening – Taseer was speaking up for Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman on death row for blasphemy, when he was killed. Lawyer Rashid Rehman Khan in Multan was shot dead for defending a young teacher accused of blasphemy.
To their credit, civil society activists in Pakistan are speaking up in public against the brutal murder. Besides voicing their views on social media, some are planning to demonstrate in various cities against it.
Heartbreakingly, nothing will bring back Mashal. “But we can stop other mothers from losing their Mashals,” said Taimur Rahman, a Marxist economist and musician.
Whether this is possible or not, the efforts must continue.
Different branches of the state have effectively worked together to turn the entire country into a slaughterhouse of which Kurt Vonnegut might be proud.
In an unbelievably horrifying incident yesterday, a few hundred students of Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan lynched to death one of their classmates on suspicion of uploading blasphemous content on the social networking site Facebook. As per the account of some students at the university: Mohammad Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old journalism student, was sitting in his hostel room when a mob burst in. They promptly dragged him out, before subjecting him to a gratuitous torturing spree that ended in him being beaten to death and subsequently shot. Video footage that is now doing the rounds in cyberspace show the crowd stoning Mashal, while chanting the slogans that we have all become far too familiar with. As if that were not enough, additional footage shows a few policemen standing around watching and doing nothing to stop this utter barbarity, while students are gleefully recording the murder for their own posterity. Mashal was not even the only victim. One of his friends remains in a critical condition, while a second has not been seen since events unfolded. After all this, no one can even confirm the nature of the alleged objectionable post. According to the police, none of the three was under investigation for blasphemy. This, then, naturally begs the question as to how it took just under one hour for a frenzied mob to play judge, jury and executioner in this most macabre performance?
The matter of Mashal’s ‘guilt’ is irrelevant. What matters is that we have now reached a point where the educated consider it an act of piety to commit cold-blooded murder, all under the banner of false piety.
Ever since Salmaan Taseer, the then sitting governor of Punjab, was assassinated for a crime he never committed while his killer was lionised overnight — not by the state itself but by those who blackmail the state — this curse of vigilantism has spread its cancer throughout each and every corner of Pakistan’s society. This is not to say that the country had a clean chit on this score, previously. The first symptoms of this were visible when then military dictator Ziaul Haq criminalised some offences. (Though it must be pointed out that the Ahmadi community were declared non-Muslim on Bhutto’s watch before him). Shortly after Zia, the then PML-N government in 1992 added other specifications to the Penal Code such as Article 295 b and c — yet failed to include basic safeguards against the misuse of the blasphemy laws, while leaving the definition of blasphemy itself wide open to competing interpretations.
The latest frenzy against ‘blasphemous content’ kicked off earlier this year when five bloggers went missing. Fingers pointed to those who are usually accused of having folk ‘disappeared’. Defence analysts and other ‘friendly’ television Talking Heads abruptly started condemning the bloggers as having committed blasphemy in what was to become a trial by media most foul. We have been here before. Mir Shakilur Rehman, Mir Ibrahim and many other employees of the Geo television network have, in the past, faced similar charges in a bid to silence the voice of dissent.
Most recently, vigilante action was triggered by the government and judiciary, who joined hands on this front. Functionaries of both repeatedly issued statements about their resolve in not leaving any stone unturned in the hunt for blasphemers. Not only a judge of the Islamabad High Court, but also the Interior Minister repeated these statements every other day for almost two weeks. This was soon followed by the FIA public awareness campaign that sought the citizenry’s help in naming and shaming alleged blasphemers. We see now how the vigilantism that was prompted by this recklessness has started bearing fruit, and what rotten fruit it is.
There is no use in repeating that this cancer needs to be removed. There is no use in pointing out that different branches of the state have effectively worked together to turn the entire country into a slaughterhouse of which Kurt Vonnegut might be proud. This lynching of a young man in Mardan is tragically not an isolated incident. Nor, too, are the numerous incidents of entire neighbourhoods being razed. These images are now forever burned into our psyche.