Tag Archive for 'Afghanistan'

A deadly triangle: India vs Pakistan in Afghanistan

The Brookings Essay by William Dalrymple:

 AT SIX O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING of February 26, 2010, Major Mitali Madhumita was awakened by the ringing of her mobile phone. Mitali, a 35-year-old Indian army officer from Orissa, had been in Kabul less than a year. Fluent in Dari, the most widely spoken language in Afghanistan, she was there to teach English to the first women officer cadets to be recruited to the Afghan National Army.

It was a sensitive posting, not so much because of gender issues as political ones: India’s regional rival, Pakistan, was extremely touchy about India providing military assistance to the government in Afghanistan and had made it very clear that it regarded the presence of any Indian troops or military trainers there as an unacceptable provocation. For this reason everyone on the small Indian army English Language Training Team, including Mitali, and all the Indian army doctors and nurses staffing the new Indira Gandhi Kabul Children’s Hospital, had been sent to Afghanistan unarmed, and in civilian dress. They were being put up not in an army barracks, or at the Indian Embassy, but in a series of small, discreet guest houses dotted around the city’s diplomatic quarter.

The phone call was from a girlfriend of Mitali’s who worked for Air India at Kabul airport. Breathless, she said she had just heard that two of the Indian guest houses, the Park and the Hamid, were under attack by militants. As the only woman on her team, Mitali had been staying in separate lodgings about two miles away from the rest of her colleagues, who were all in the Hamid. Within seconds, Mitali was pulling on her clothes, along with the hijab she was required to wear, and running, alone and unarmed, through the empty morning streets of Kabul toward the Hamid. More:

The Buddhas of Bamiyan by Llewelyn Morgan

Samanth Subramanian in The Guardian:

In 2001, in a violent attempt to advance the cause of Islamic fundamentalism, a clutch of men empowered by the Taliban brought down a titanic pair of structures that loomed over their skyline. No lives were lost. The few people living near the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, were cleared out first, before anti-artillery weapons were trained on the sculptures, carved out of the russet cliffs of the Bamiyan valley. “These statues have been and remain shrines of unbelievers,” a February 2011 edict from Mullah Omar had proclaimed. Their destruction was carried out with a rare and perverse vim. Failing at first to pulverise the Buddhas, the Taliban called in Pakistani and Arab engineers to finish the job. In The Places in Between, Rory Stewart observed that the Taliban had scorched a fresco on the ceiling of one of the caves that honeycomb the cliffs and then stamped boot-prints over the patina of soot. “This must have taken some effort, as the ceiling was 20 feet high.”

The Buddhas had stood for a millennium and a half; the smaller figure, 38m tall, was built around AD550, and the larger – at 55m only a little shorter than London’s Monument – around AD615. In The Buddhas of Bamiyan, Llewelyn Morgan, a lecturer in classics at Oxford University, explores not so much the heartbreaking demise of the statues as their remarkably long lives. How and why did the Buddhas survive more than a dozen centuries of an Islamic Afghanistan, only to meet their end at a particular political moment in 2001? The final downfall of these sculptures – their arms already snapped off, their surfaces pitted by erosion and minor vandalism – represented the nadir of a long and complex process of civilisation. More:

Afghanistan: What the Anthropologists say

Can the study of politics, power and culture at the local level reshape efforts to rebuild Afghanistan? Alexander Star in The New York Times:

Ten years after the Taliban’s leaders fled their country in apparent defeat, the war in Afghanistan has become what one observer calls “a perpetually escalating stalemate.” As in Iraq, the United States military has responded to bad news with counterinsurgency: eliminate troublemakers in the dark of night, with the most lethal arts, and befriend tribal elders by day, with cultural sensitivity and expertise. The Army has gone so far as to embed credentialed social scientists with front-line troops in “Human Terrain Teams” that engage in “rapid ethnographic assessment” — conducting interviews and administering surveys, learning about land disputes, social networks and how to “operationalize” the Pashtun tribal code.

The military, in short, demands local knowledge. But what kind of local knowledge is in supply, and what does it indicate? Though the chief purveyors of such insight, academic ethnographers, have balked at working with the military — the American Anthropological Association issued a report condemning the Human Terrain program as a violation of professional ethics — they have not ignored the country. Noah Coburn’s “Bazaar Politics” is the first extended study of an Afghan community to appear since the Taliban fell. It follows an ambitious history of Afghanistan by the Boston University anthropologist Thomas Barfield, and an impassioned essay by Rory Stewart, the Conservative M.P., author-adventurer and Kabul preservationist, that faults the international effort in Afghanistan for its neglect of ethnographic insight. Whatever anthropology has to say about America’s longest war, it’s saying it now. More:

Afghanistan – touch down in flight

“As each of us has his own impression of Afghanistan that is predominantly marked with pictures of foreign forces, explosions and terror, we were privileged to have access to capture daily life and portrait some people of Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan – touch down in flight from Augustin Pictures on Vimeo.

The Haqqani clan: the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war

In The New York Times:

They are the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war, a ruthless crime family that built an empire out of kidnapping, extortion, smuggling, even trucking. They have trafficked in precious gems, stolen lumber and demanded protection money from businesses building roads and schools with American reconstruction funds.

They safeguard their mountainous turf by planting deadly roadside bombs and shelling remote American military bases. And they are accused by American officials of being guns for hire: a proxy force used by the Pakistani intelligence service to carry out grisly, high-profile attacks in Kabul and throughout the country.

Today, American intelligence and military officials call the crime clan known as the Haqqani network — led by a wizened militant named Jalaluddin Haqqani who has allied himself over the years with the C.I.A., Saudi Arabia’s spy service and Osama bin Laden — the most deadly insurgent group in Afghanistan. In the latest of a series of ever bolder strikes, the group staged a daylong assault on the United States Embassy in Kabul, an attack Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, charged Thursday was aided by Pakistan’s military spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. More: And more here

In Kabul, it’s not MTV, it’s a mission

The man who brought us rock videos is advising a media group in Kabul that is shaking up television in Afghanistan. David Carr in the New York Times:

The missile strike was in Afghanistan, where Mr. Freston lived during the 1970s when he was in the clothing business. Now he is serving as a board member and adviser to the Moby Group, which owns a burgeoning string of television and radio networks in a country where simply owning a television was illegal not so long ago. Forget about wanting their MTV, Afghans just wanted their TVs.

The Moby Group owns Tolo TV, a Dari language network; Lemar TV, which beams out in Pashto; two FM stations; and Farsi1, a joint television venture with the News Corporation that serves millions of Farsi speakers in Iran as well. When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, it all but criminalized most of pop culture, so it’s remarkable that Moby is broadcasting shows in which men and women interact, often to hilarious effect, and the radio station has a male and a female D.J. bantering away the morning. And the audience apparently is there: Tolo TV has a 45 percent market share, according to Saad Mohseni, the head of Moby.

In Afghanistan, many women still wear burqas, and freedoms are limited, so working with the guy who helped bring “Beavis and Butt-Head” into public consciousness would not seem especially helpful. But Mr. Mohseni said Mr. Freston has been critical to the enterprise.

“He is a prolific e-mailer and always available for making connections for even the smallest things,” said Mr. Mohseni, speaking by phone during a visit to the United States last week from Afghanistan. He said that Mr. Freston had introduced him to Rupert Murdoch, among others. “When he comes here, he talks with the producers, the managers, the people doing the work,” Mr. Mohseni said.

In the ’70s, Mr. Freston ran a clothing company called Hindu Kush — “I had no idea what I was doing,” he said — out of Kabul and New Delhi. He developed a lasting crush on Afghanistan and now, more than 30 years later, he’s traveling there about three times a year. More:

Also read: Studio Kabul

Afghans rage at young lovers

From The New York Times:

Herat — The two teenagers met inside an ice cream factory through darting glances before roll call, murmured hellos as supervisors looked away and, finally, a phone number folded up and tossed discreetly onto the workroom floor.

It was the beginning of an Afghan love story that flouted dominant traditions of arranged marriages and close family scrutiny, a romance between two teenagers of different ethnicities that tested a village’s tolerance for more modern whims of the heart. The results were delivered with brutal speed.

This month, a group of men spotted the couple riding together in a car, yanked them into the road and began to interrogate the boy and girl. Why were they together? What right had they? An angry crowd of 300 surged around them, calling them adulterers and demanding that they be stoned to death or hanged.

When security forces swooped in and rescued the couple, the mob’s anger exploded. They overwhelmed the local police, set fire to cars and stormed a police station six miles from the center of Herat, raising questions about the strength of law in a corner of western Afghanistan and in one of the first cities that has made the formal transition to Afghan-led security.

The riot, which lasted for hours, ended with one man dead, a police station charred and the two teenagers, Halima Mohammedi and her boyfriend, Rafi Mohammed, confined to juvenile prison. Officially, their fates lie in the hands of an unsteady legal system. But they face harsher judgments of family and community. More:

The loud silence from Al Qaeda

Scott Shane in The New York Times:

Washington: When Al Qaeda’s online propaganda arm sought to rally supporters this week after the killing of Osama bin Laden, it did not hint that the network had a major terrorist plot in the works. Instead, it proposed do-it-yourself terrorism, urging militants around the world to come up with their own attacks, however modest.

“We say to every mujahid Muslim, if there is an opportunity, do not waste it,” said the statement Monday from Al Fajr Media Center, the terror network’s online voice. “Do not consult anyone about killing Americans or destroying their economy.”

The message praised Bin Laden for his “long-term planning and vision,” but proposed exactly the opposite: “We also incite you to carry out acts of individual terrorism with significant results, which only require basic preparation.”

The message implicitly acknowledged that the demise of Al Qaeda’s founder leaves its core in a weakened position. Even before Bin Laden’s death, the rise of affiliates, notably Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, had shifted attention and energy away from the parent organization in Pakistan.

Now, with a handful of flawed or little-known candidates ready to succeed Bin Laden, but no one with his status and charisma, the future of the network’s old hub is uncertain. Some American intelligence analysts believe that the fact that more than 10 days have passed without the announcement of a successor could be a sign of a power struggle. More:

Post-uprisings depression

In The Economist, a review of Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven (PublicAffairs; 558 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £30) and Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad by Bruce Riedel (Brookings Institution Press; 180 pages; $24.95):

IT IS a shame that these books should be published at a time when the world is riveted by events in the Middle East. Pakistan’s population is more than half the size of the entire Arab world; for most of the past three decades it has been involved in a war with a superpower, first against it, and now on the same side as it; it suffers from an Islamic insurgency that has killed 30,000 people over the past four years; it is regarded by students of geopolitics as the most likely location of nuclear conflict; and the reasons why it does not work as a country are many and fascinating.

The trouble with Pakistan’s story is that the country is one rather depressing stage on from the Middle East. Its people have risen up bravely against autocrats (three times over, if you count only the generals, or four if, like some Pakistanis, you count Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as well) and had several unsuccessful attempts at democracy. So it ricochets between military and civilian governments, with a state that does not work very well but has not collapsed, and an insurgency that is not turning into a civil war but won’t go away. Unlike the Middle East, it is not full of hope.

Yet for drama, colour and complexity, the place is hard to beat; and Anatol Lieven captures the richness of the place wonderfully. His book has the virtues of both journalism and scholarship—not surprising, since Mr Lieven used to be a reporter for the Times and is now at King’s College, London. He has travelled extensively and talked widely, to generals, shopkeepers, farmers, lawyers and bureaucrats. More:

How Obama lost Karzai

Ahmed Rashid in Foreign Policy:

A few weeks before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, an exiled Afghan leader I had known for nearly 20 years paid a visit to my home in Lahore. His name was Hamid Karzai, and his problem, he told me, was that he was rapidly losing faith in the West’s concern for his country.

Karzai was the scion of a prominent Pashtun family in southern Afghanistan, one with a deep-rooted enmity for the Taliban regime. The Taliban, which had ruled the country since 1996, had gunned down Karzai’s father in front of a mosque in the Pakistani city of Quetta two years earlier. Now the younger Karzai was clandestinely sending money and weapons across the Afghan border for an eventual uprising against the ruling regime. But he had just been served notice by Pakistan’s all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) that his visa had been revoked — the Taliban, with its close links to the Pakistani intelligence agency, had urged the ISI to get rid of him. Karzai was making the rounds of Western embassies in Islamabad to ask whether anyone would support him if he went inside the country and raised the standard of rebellion. But nobody offered to help. Several ambassadors refused to see him.

By the time U.S. bombers pounded the last remnants of the Taliban out of Kabul just a few months later, everything had changed. Karzai had gone from pariah to president and, in the eyes of the U.S. government, from combatant in an obscure regional conflict to vital strategic partner. Yet when I met with Karzai not long ago at the presidential palace in Kabul for a lengthy conversation, one of many in the decade since our pre-9/11 meeting in Lahore, it was remarkable how much his relationship with the United States seemed to have come full circle. More:

Opium wars

A key step to securing peace will be to wean Afghan farmers off growing poppies. Robert Draper in National Geographic Magazine:

The chief of police has a memorable way of demonstrating that he’s not afraid of the drug smugglers. He holds up his right hand, revealing the absence of his middle finger. Four years ago, Brig. Gen. Aqa Noor Kintuz was hired as provincial chief of police in the northeastern Afghan province of Badakhshan and charged with destroying its plentiful poppy fields. “After I finished one of the first eradications,” he says, “my vehicle was blown up by a remote-control bomb.” He rolls up his right shirtsleeve. His forearm is badly mangled. In the years since, he has received innumerable death threats. Women and children of poppy farmers have hurled stones at his policemen. One of his eradication tractors was torched.

The grim axiom defining today’s Afghanistan, 85 percent of whose citizens are farmers, is that its economy relies on two dueling revenue streams. One flows from Western aid, in the hopes that the country will renounce the Taliban. The other flows from opium trafficking supported by the Taliban, which use the proceeds to fund attacks on Western troops. Only recently has the Afghan government seemed to take stock of the obvious: For the outside world’s largesse to continue, the national economy’s addiction to opium must end. The poppy fields must be destroyed. But just as this devoutly Muslim nation did not become the world’s leading opium supplier overnight, uprooting Afghanistan’s poppy mind-set promises to be a complicated endeavor.

In Badakhshan, chief of police Kintuz appears to be making some headway against poppies. Five years ago the province was Afghanistan’s second-biggest opium producer, after the Taliban-controlled province of Helmand. For a brief period after a Taliban ban on poppies in 2000, Badakhshan even took the lead in poppy cultivation, because the province was controlled by the Northern Alliance militias, rather than the Taliban. When Kintuz started his job in 2007, 9,000 acres were planted with poppies. Two years later fewer than 1,500 were. More:

Afghan war hero is put down by mistake

Julius Cavendish in Kabul. In The Independent:

Target, a tawny-coloured mongrel bitch, defied an Afghan suicide bomber, gunshot wounds and an attempted hit-and-run, but fate finally caught up with her in middle America, where an animal control agent put her to sleep in a heartbreaking case of mistaken identity.

US soldiers serving in Afghanistan rescued the dog after she alerted them to an attack in February, by barking at a suicide bomber about to blow them up with 25 pounds of explosives. From that day on Target was treated like royalty by US soldiers in Dand Patan, near the Pakistan border. Five soldiers were slightly injured in the attack and it was suggested at the time that the bombing could have killed as many as 50 troops without Target’s intervention.

Sergeant Terry Young – one of the soldiers whose lives she saved – took the two-year-old German Shepherd cross home with him after he finished his tour of duty earlier this year. She was feted as a war hero and even appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. More:

From Russia with blood

The Kalashnikov, the world’s real weapon of mass destruction. In Foreign Policy:

Mikhail Kalashnikov with the assault rifle that bears his name.

The Avtomat Kalashnikova, C.J. Chivers writes in The Gun, is “the world’s most widely recognized weapon, one of the world’s most recognizable objects.” The AK-47 and its descendants have defined and exacerbated half a century of guerrilla conflict, terrorism, and crime; it is the most abundant firearm in the world, with as many as 100 million Kalashnikovs in circulation, 10 times more than any other rifle.

Chivers, a Marine Corps veteran and senior writer at the New York Times, has spent nearly a decade mapping the spread of the Kalashnikov and untangling its history, from the dusty government archives of the former Soviet Union to the battlefields of Afghanistan. The Gun, his history of the weapon, was published this week. He spoke via email with FP’s Charles Homans about the AK-47′s uncertain origins, how it has transformed modern warfare, and why the age of the Kalashnikov won’t end anytime soon.

Foreign Policy: The Soviet Union’s atomic bomb and the Kalashnikov both date from the same year, and you suggest that the United States made a critical error in obsessing over the former while ignoring the latter. But is there anything the United States could have done to limit the spread and influence of the AK-47?

C.J. Chivers: The United States is not responsible for the Kalashnikov’s mass production or stockpiling, and during the Cold War it could have done nothing to stop these things from occurring. Later, while it certainly would have been helpful, in the security sense, if it had done more to contain the spread of weapons and ammunition that have rushed out of post-Cold War stockpiles, it might be useful to ask this question of China and Russia — the two main Kalashnikov producers, who have shown little interest in undoing the effects of their exported rifles. That said, there are many ways to contain the ongoing proliferation, and rather than pursue them with any real determination, the United States has instead become the largest known purchaser of Kalashnikovs, which it has reissued in Iraq and Afghanistan with scant accountability. One thing about the AK-47 story is that almost no one looks good in it. More:

Reading Woodward in Karachi

Is this the nail in the coffin of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship? Mosharraf Zaidi in Foreign Policy:

Bob Woodward’s books have an uncanny ability to create palpable nervousness in Washington. They almost always expose some government officials in a poor light. But though many figures in his latest, Obama’s Wars, don’t come off particularly well, there is one clear, overwhelming, and irreconcilable villain. It isn’t a member of Barack Obama’s administration, the Taliban, or even al Qaeda. In fact, it’s not a person at all.

In the opening chapter, Woodward introduces his bad guy: “the immediate threat to the United States [comes] … from Pakistan, an unstable country with a population of about 170 million, a 1,500 mile border with southern Afghanistan, and an arsenal of some 100 nuclear weapons.” Never mind the Woodward effect in Washington; in Obama’s Wars, the villain is an entire country.

Relations between the United States and Pakistan have never been more fraught. Last month, NATO helicopters breached Pakistani airspace several times. In the first instance, they engaged a group of suspected terrorists, killing more than 30. On Sept. 30, in another breach of Pakistani territory and airspace, NATO gunships fired on Pakistani paramilitary troops from the Frontier Constabulary (FC). Three Pakistani soldiers were killed and another three were badly injured. No one even attempted to dismiss the incident as friendly fire. In response, Pakistan has shut down the main border crossing and supply route into Afghanistan at Torkham, and militants have attacked convoys bringing fuel to NATO forces. All this comes after the most intense month of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan since the campaign began.

Into this environment comes Woodward’s account of the Obama administration’s decision to embrace a surge strategy in Afghanistan, which also offers a pretty good window into what American power sees when it looks at Pakistan. Woodward’s emphasis on the “Pak” in AfPak reflects a larger shift in emphasis in official Washington. Perhaps inadvertently, the book is also likely to confirm many of the darkest suspicions that ordinary Pakistanis have about their erstwhile American allies. More:

From Wikileaks, the 2008 attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul

From The Hindu:

Among the classified U.S. documents released on Monday by Wikileaks is one which details an imminent threat to the Indian embassy in Kabul.

The threat report, dated July 1, 2008, cites information obtained on June 30. “Taliban are planning to carry out an attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul. TB designated an engineer […] to take this action. He intends to use stolen ANA/ANP [Afghan national army or police] car, and wears stolen uniform. He speaks Dari with distinct Iranian accent. Allegedly, he is the owner of a […] company.”

Some of the words in the document as posted on the New York Times website have been redacted.

Describing the specific modus operandi for the attack, the report says: “INS [insurgents] are planning to divide into two groups: first will attack Indian embassy building, whilst the second group will engage security posts in front of MOI [Ministry of Interior], IOT [in order to] give possibility to escape attackers from the first group.” It added: “Budget for this action is about 120 000 USD. The main goal of this operation is to show TB’s [Taliban's] abilities to carry out attack on every object in Kabul.” More:

Read The War Logs in The New York Times

Unlikely tutor

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal found an ally in Greg Mortenson, the author of “Three Cups of Tea,” whose work had led to building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Elisabeth Bumiller in The New York Times:

Washington: In the frantic last hours of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s command in Afghanistan, when the world wondered what was racing through the general’s mind, he reached out to an unlikely corner of his life: the author of the book “Three Cups of Tea,” Greg Mortenson.

“Will move through this and if I’m not involved in the years ahead, will take tremendous comfort in knowing people like you are helping Afghans build a future,” General McChrystal wrote to Mr. Mortenson in an e-mail message, as he traveled from Kabul to Washington. The note landed in Mr. Mortenson’s inbox shortly after 1 a.m. Eastern time on June 23. Nine hours later, the general walked into the Oval Office to be fired by President Obama.

The e-mail message was in response to a note of support from Mr. Mortenson. It reflected his broad and deepening relationship with the United States military, whose leaders have increasingly turned to Mr. Mortenson, once a shaggy mountaineer, to help translate the theory of counterinsurgency into tribal realities on the ground.

In the past year, Mr. Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute, responsible for the construction of more than 130 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, mostly for girls, have set up some three dozen meetings between General McChrystal or his senior staff members and village elders across Afghanistan. More:

By bread alone

Some Pakistanis have begun blaming Afghan immigrants for bringing “their” war into Pakistan—one Afghan baker’s story of harassment, corruption, and exile. J. Malcolm Garcia at Guernica:

The baker sits cross-legged on the flour-dusted floor. His store-front bakery overlooks a narrow pitted street where taxi drivers sleep. Their sandaled feet stick out open car windows, before they rouse themselves and drive into downtown Islamabad seeking fares.

Near the baker, a boy beats mounds of pasty dough into flat circles. Then he slaps the dough against the flame-seared walls of a clay-brick oven. He wipes his hands on stained aprons hanging on the wall. The aroma of baking bread rises invisibly around us lingering even as it must compete with odors already circulating on the awakening street: dew-damp garbage piles warming under the rising sun an hour past dawn, diesel exhaust from lumbering trucks jouncing down the pitted road, panicked chickens carried upside down by their legs and carried to a market by small barefoot boys.

I lean against the wall and watch the increasing commotion of the street. I have been in Islamabad for nearly four weeks on a freelance reporting assignment covering the rise in violence from jihadi groups opposed to the government’s alliance with the U.S. and its war on terror.

But every morning before I begin making my rounds to the various ministries for news updates and press conferences, before I once again negotiate the countless bureaucratic hurdles required to see minister so and so, I walk one block from my guest house to this bakery for bread and a cup of tea. An hour or so later, I return to my guest house, check my email for messages from my Washington-based editor and then wait for my driver. More:

The Patience Stone

Maya Jaggi in The Guardian:

The freeing of women from Taliban rule became a belated war aim for US‑led troops in Afghanistan; this, despite western bolstering of the Taliban’s precursors, the mujahideen, in their resistance to Soviet occupation during the cold war. The latest novel by writer and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi imagines what such liberation might entail, for both women and men. It also hints at how relations between the sexes in his country of birth have been deformed, not just by residual tradition, but by the political interventions of recent history.

Women were off-stage in Earth and Ashes, Rahimi’s powerful debut novella set after the Soviet invasion of 1979, which traced an almost mythic cycle of vengeance among generations of men. It was written in Dari (a form of Persian) in 1999, years after the author had fled the Soviet occupation to asylum in France. His film version won a prize at Cannes in 2004. The Patience Stone, awarded the prix Goncourt in 2008, is his first novel written in French. Like his previous novel, A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, it adopts the viewpoint of women, for whom war can bring both suffering and a curious freedom. More:

Forgotten victims Of great games

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uld8pPGN5cM

Also see here and here

They would have called themselves Katis, but the Muslims surrounding them had for centuries called them Kafirs – infidels – and their land, thus came to be known as Kafiristan. C.M. Naim in Outlook:

My Heartrendingly Tragic Story By Shaikh Muhammad Abdullah Khan ‘Azar’. Edited By Alberto M. Cacopardo and Ruth Laila Schmidt. Oslo: Novus Press, 2006

One day in 1897, near the village Brumotul not far from Chitral, then a semi-independent Muslim state high in the Himalayas, a bunch of boys went walking. They were not Chitralis, but refugees from another place that lay west of the newly demarcated Durand Line. They were not Muslims, either. The boys would have described themselves as Katis, but the Muslims surrounding them had for centuries used “Kafir” to describe the boys’ ancestors, and “Kafiristan” for their original land. The British had retained that nomenclature for the portion of that land they now controlled, while the Afghan Amir, Abdur Rahman, whose invasion had made the boys refugees, had named his portion “Nuristan” (“The Land of Light”).

The boys stopped on a bridge to watch two “Sahibs” fishing in the stream below, not having seen their likes before. One of the sportsmen came over to them and said something in Khowar, one of the several languages spoken among the Kafirs. One Kati boy understood what was said; he asked his friends to find earthworms for the Sahib. Later, he and another boy carried the day’s catch to the Sahibs’ camp. The man who spoke to the boys was an army doctor named Capt; the Kati boy who understood him was named Azar. Something about the boy struck Harris as exceptional. He sent for him the following day and almost obsessively insisted that Azar—barely ten or eleven at the time—should join his service. Azar offered excuses, his mother cried, but his father, Kashmir, the leader of the clan, gave his permission. Azar became Harris’s servant—first for 18 months at Chitral, and then for two years at Peshawar. Meanwhile, Kashmir was killed by some relatives when he was on his way to Kabul—after converting to Islam—to meet the Amir and seek from him his previous high status. More:

See Kafiristan in Wikipedia:

Prof. Georg Morgenstierne travelled extensively throughout South Asia, but the most unique were his visits to the inaccessible areas of The Hindu Kush Mountains. Read his account here.

My Life with the Taliban

Abdul Salam Zaeef was a founder of the Taliban and his memoir, My Life with the Taliban, offers a fascinating if dispiriting insight into the movement. From The Telegraph:

Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a founder of the Taliban in 1994 and a minister during its short-lived regime, has much to say about the wars in Afghanistan and the roles he has played in them. As a teenage refugee from the Soviet invasion, he joined the mujahideen, and a few years later was fighting alongside Mullah Omar when the future Taliban leader lost an eye.

He has written a fascinating account of his own remarkable life which gives real insight into why the Taliban was formed, what motivates it, and what it is now trying to achieve. It is what he has to say about hopes of ending the current war, however, that will be of most interest to the spooks and diplomats in Kabul, Washington and London; they will have been hoping that Mullah Zaeef would point the way towards a negotiated end to the fighting. But he does not, and what he has to say suggests that ending the bloodshed could prove extremely difficult, if possible at all. More:

Taliban may be descended from Jews

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZvuM8VrX9I

Click here to watch part 2 and here for part 3

The ethnic group at the heart of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan may descended from their Jewish enemy, according to researchers in India. Dean Nelson in the London Telegraph:

Experts at Mumbai’s National Institute of Immunohaematology believe Pashtuns could be one of the ten “Lost Tribes of Israel”.

The Israeli government is funding a genetic study to establish if there is any proof of the link.

An Indian geneticist has taken blood samples from the Pashtun Afridi tribe in Lucknow, Northern India, to Israel where she will spend the next 12 months comparing DNA with samples with those of Israeli Jews.

The samples were taken in Lucknow’s Malihabad area because it was regarded as the only place safe enough to conduct such a controversial project for Muslims.

Shanaz Ali a senior research fellow, will lead the study at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Tel Aviv. More:

Gurkha soldiers in Afghanistan

From The Atlantic: The Gurkhas, who come mostly from the rugged hills of rural Nepal, have fought for the British in almost every war since 1815. Today, members of the Royal Gurkha Rifles are fighting in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Video by Anup Khaple.

The hidden beauty parlour of Helmand

Make-up and fashion have become a form of resistance for many women in Afghanistan. Katrina Manson reports from Lashkar Gah in The Independent:

Pamela Anderson and Afghanistan’s most dangerous, conservative province might not at first glance seem to have much in common. But step into a busy, cramped room in Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, and there she is: blonde locks, wide darkly made-up eyes, and petulant pink lips smiling down from a large mirror.

The crinkly laminated poster of the Playboy model’s face is not the only surprise in a room filled with hairspray, fake eyelashes and lipsticks. For this is a hidden beauty parlour in a land where women appear in public only when shrouded in full-length burkhas that obscure even their eyes. Tucked into a private home down a dusty dead-end alley, women are indulging in playing at dressing-up in the province in which the fight against the Taliban rages and where more than 90 British troops have lost their lives since the start of the Afghan war in 2001.

It’s the night before Roya’s wedding, a white dress hangs on the wall, and she is leaning back. Wearing light, flowing fabrics of red, blue, gold and purple dotted with sequins, three more giggling women pack into the parlour. More:

Can the Taliban really distance themselves from al-Qaida?

Jason Burke in the Guardian:

The Taliban have always been adept communicators. Their latest effort – Statement of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan on the Occasion of the Eighth Anniversary of the American Attack on Afghanistan – was posted on one of several websites they regularly use. Then it was emailed – in English – to individuals and organisations that the movement specifically wanted to reach. This is normal practice for any press officer for a government, NGO or major retailer anywhere in the world.

It is unclear whether the statement represents a genuine shift in position or a clever attempt to influence an ongoing debate. It could of course be both. The Taliban stand to benefit even if they are not serious, as their intervention will fuel the increasingly acrimonious and muddled debate on Afghan strategy in the west and the public disillusionment with the war. Or they will gain if the statement is taken seriously and they are genuinely interested in repositioning themselves as independent from al-Qaida. More:

Taliban claim they pose no threat to west

Network of militants is robust after Mumbai siege

Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba has persisted, even flourished, since 10 recruits killed 163 people in a rampage through India’s financial capital. Lydia Polgreen and Souad Mekhennet in the New York Times:

Hafiz Saeed

Hafiz Saeed

Indian and Pakistani dossiers on the Mumbai investigations, copies of which were obtained by The New York Times, offer a detailed picture of the operations of a Lashkar network that spans Pakistan. It included four houses and two training camps here in this sprawling southern port city that were used to prepare the attacks.

Among the organizers, the Pakistani document says, was Hammad Amin Sadiq, a homeopathic pharmacist, who arranged bank accounts and secured supplies. He and six others begin their formal trial on Saturday in Pakistan, though Indian authorities say the prosecution stops well short of top Lashkar leaders.

Indeed, Lashkar’s broader network endures, and can be mobilized quickly for elaborate attacks with relatively few resources, according to a dozen current and former Lashkar militants and intelligence officials from the United States, Europe, India and Pakistan.

In interviews with The Times, they presented a troubling portrait of Lashkar’s capabilities, its popularity in Pakistan and the support it has received from former officials of Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment.

Pakistan’s chief spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, helped create Lashkar two decades ago to challenge Indian control in Kashmir, the disputed territory that lies at the heart of the conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbors. More:

The Afghanistan impasse

Ahmed Rashid in the New York Review of Books:

To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan by Nicholas Schmidle (Henry Holt, 254 pp., $25.00);

Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda by Gretchen Peters (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, 300 pp., $25.95)

On August 5, Baitullah Mehsud, the all-powerful and utterly ruthless commander of the Pakistani Taliban, was killed in a US missile strike in South Waziristan. At the time of the strike, he was undergoing intravenous treatment for a kidney ailment, and was lying on the roof of his father-in-law’s house with his young second wife. At about one o’clock that morning, a missile fired by an unmanned CIA drone tore through the house, splitting his body in two and killing his wife, her parents, and seven bodyguards.

His death marked the first major breakthrough in the war against extremist leaders in Pakistan since 2003, when several top al-Qaeda members based in the country were arrested or killed. Over the last few years, Mehsud’s estimated 20,000 fighters gained almost total control over the seven tribal agencies that make up the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan.

Mehsud’s death plunged the Pakistani Taliban, composed of some two dozen Pashtun tribal groups, into an intense struggle over leadership, creating an opportunity for the CIA and Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI) to take action against the extremists. After ousting in April and May the militants who had seized the Swat valley-which is not in the tribal areas but north of the capital city of Islamabad-the Pakistani army is now pursuing the Pakistani Taliban with more determination: in mid-August, two of Mehsud’s senior aides were arrested, one in FATA and the other in Islamabad while seeking medical treatment. The US is anxious for Pakistan to continue its pressure by launching an offensive in Waziristan, the region in the southern part of FATA-first in South Waziristan to eliminate the Pakistani Taliban there and then in North Waziristan, where al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leaders are based. More:

The other Islamist threat in Pakistan

Selig S. Harrison in Boston Globe:

THE DANGER of an Islamist takeover of Pakistan is real. But it does not come from the Taliban guerrillas now battling the Pakistan Army in the Swat borderlands. It comes from a proliferating network of heavily armed Islamist militias in the Punjab heartland and major cities directed by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a close ally of Al Qaeda, which staged the terrorist attack last November in Mumbai, India.

Pakistan’s failure to crack down on Lashkar-e-Taiba militias and the recent release of two of its leaders jailed after the Mumbai attack led to an angry exchange on Monday at a meeting in Russia between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari.

No new US aid commitments should be made to Islamabad until it takes decisive action to disarm Lashkar-e-Taiba in accordance with Article 256 of the Pakistan Constitution, which bars private militias. The administration wants to provide $3 billion in new military aid on top of the $10 billion already showered on Pakistan since 2001, together with a five-year, $7.5 billion program of economic aid. Surprisingly, while congressional leaders are seeking to attach a variety of conditions to the aid package, they have so far ignored the critical issue of the militias. More:

Failed States

Pakistan, hit by insurgency and the worst-ever economic crisis, is among the “top 10 failed states” ranked by the Foreign Policy journal. In its annual Index of Failed States, the magazine ranks 60 countries, in various stages of failure, using 12 specific indicators generated by the Fund for Peace.

Top 20 failed states:

1. Somalia
2. Zimbabwe
3. Sudan
4. Chad
5. Dem. Rep. of the Congo
6. Iraq
7. Afghanistan
8. Central African Republic
9. Guinea
10. Pakistan
11. Ivory Coast
12. Haiti
13. Burma
14. Kenya
15. Nigeria
16. Ethiopia
17. North Korea
18. Bangladesh
19. Yemen
20. East Timor

Click here to read the full story, and here for the full list.

Risking the Taliban to confront the deadliest of peaks, K2

Graham Bowley in the New York Times. Bowley is writing a book about the 2008 accident on K2 that left 11 climbers dead:

k2peakAt midnight one evening earlier this month, I slipped out of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, heading north in a white Toyota minibus on a journey to find the second tallest mountain on earth, K2.

My purpose was to write a book about the mountaineers who dared challenge its deadly slopes – to get a taste, if not a full draught, of the danger myself. In the end, I got more than I bargained for, and not from Nature alone.

K2, which towers 28,251 feet above the border between Pakistan and China like an almost perfect white pyramid, is considered one of the most beautiful but also one of the most dangerous mountains in the world. By the opening of this climbing season, only 296 people had ever conquered its summit and 77 had died trying.

But this year, just reaching the mountain had become perilous. I had to travel, in a minibus that felt like a bubble, on a long and treacherous road that skirted Pakistan’s Swat Valley. There, at that moment, the Pakistani Army and the Taliban were fighting for control, making the lowlands south of K2 another of the most hazardous places on Earth. More:

The frontier against terrorism

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari in the Washington Post:

After the debacle of Vietnam, the United States could pack up and leave with minimal consequences for its genuine national interests; similarly, for the British in the subcontinent and the French in Algeria. But the West, indeed the entire civilized world, does not have that luxury in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If the Taliban and al-Qaeda are allowed to triumph in our region, their destabilizing alliance will spread across the continents.

In Pakistan today, democracy must succeed. The forces of extremism must be vanquished. Failure is not an option; not for us, not for the world.

How can we ensure that the forces of freedom defeat the forces of fanaticism? The problems that have fueled extremism are multifaceted and the solutions equally multidimensional. We need short- and long-term strategies, and we must realize that to truly eliminate the terrorist menace, we have to succeed not only militarily but politically, economically and socially. More: