New Age Islam Edit Bureau
December 29, 2015
Pakistan through the eyes of an Arab
By Wafa Zaidan
The approaching offensive
By Khalid Aziz
Trouble is brewing
By Syed Rashid Munir
The prospect of intelligence war in Afghanistan
By Musa Khan Jalalzai
Pakistan through the eyes of an Arab
By Wafa Zaidan
December 29, 2015
Some weeks ago I arrived in Islamabad with the aim of sitting for the B2 French exam in Lahore. I ended up extending my stay in the country by a week. It was difficult to move with my family to Qatar sometime back after having lived in Pakistan for most of my life, yet it took me no time to feel the warmth of being back home once I took my first step off of the aircraft.
It was a stroke of good luck that my stay here was extended because I got the opportunity to vote in the local government (LG) elections in Islamabad that were held for the first time. It felt like Eid in that people seemed to be in a festive mood on election day, the roadsides were dotted by posters of candidates and banners of political parties with the odd miniature tiger and cricket bat also apparent.
Some voters wore head-bands or topis of the parties they supported. Others reflected their party of choice by the colour of their dress. Stalls of each of the independent candidates and the participating political parties dotted the area around the polling stations and everyone was dressed up as if it was a national festival. Perhaps it was. My phone didn’t stop beeping the night before polling day, with messages and calls from parties campaigning for their respective candidates.
On polling day itself, one could see that those who had voted for the same party exchanged looks of satisfaction and pride at the polling stations, even though they were meeting each other for the first time. And the fact that most people showing up to vote were young, drew wide smiles on the faces of everyone present at the polling station. It did not matter who won. What was significant was the patriotic spirit that was on display in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
I might need hours to explain all the emotions and describe these happenings to my fellow Arabs, because in our region, a majority of the countries never hold free and fair elections. People in these countries do not enjoy the freedom of a multiparty system and do not understand what it means to vote and participate in elections — be it a country where a self-proclaimed secular president rules or a self-described religious one. In the Arab world, we are used to seeing results like the 98 per cent vote for Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, or his heir’s recent 88.7 per cent vote, not to mention the 81 per cent votes of Algeria’s Bouteflika and, of course the 96.91 sky-scraper-high-percentage of Egypt’s Al Sisi. We don’t vote in the Arab world, we just wait for fixed results to be announced and fake festivals to celebrate victories achieved in uncontested elections.
What my fellow Arabs might find surprising is that it was the police that guided me to the polling station that I was supposed to vote in. The kindness they showed is worth mentioning. It is difficult to absorb the idea of a helpful police as an Arab. This is not to say that all Arab or Middle Eastern countries suffer from a lack of a public-friendly police. There are some countries, like Jordan, Tunisia and majority of the Gulf countries where the police do serve their people.
I consider myself lucky to be a Pakistani of Arab origin and that I had the right to vote in the LG polls and therefore had a say in the political process. The fact that my opinion, my vote and my choice mattered in my country gives me confidence and boosts my patriotism. I mourn the situation in the Arab world today, where at least 10 countries are in turmoil. The situation in Pakistan may not be ideal, but the country definitely has the makings of a pluralistic political system.
The approaching offensive
December 29th, 2015
ACROSS the world, spring is associated with rejuvenation and rebirth after a burdensome winter. Yet this logic skips Afghanistan. Here spring has been associated with death since 2003. One of the unintended consequences of the long military operation in Afghanistan has been its emulative nature; the adversary, in this instance the Taliban, has learnt the techniques normally used by states.
Its clearest proof was provided last year, when on April 22, the Taliban announced in a tone normally associated with government press releases that, “The Islamic Emirate is going to launch the spring operations under the inspirational name of ‘Azm’ [determination] at 5am on the 24th of April”. They added that the target of their operations would be the foreign occupiers and their Afghan supporters.
Such an announcement would have appeared farcical at best was it not for its deadly earnestness — on the said date, 108 deadly attacks were launched throughout Afghanistan, involving attacks on many provincial headquarters.
Unlike the past, when Nato and US forces bore the brunt of the spring offensive due to the large number of troops they had, attacks since 2015 have been more focused on the Afghan security forces and ordinary citizens.
While we tend to overlook pressing challenges in this region — witness the kid-glove treatment of Maulana Aziz of Lal Masjid in Islamabad — there is still time and opportunity to prepare and improvise a plan to devise a response to the threat of the coming spring offensive that the national unity government will face.
The lack of preparation to respond to the Taliban’s next spring offensive is surprising.
Although it is December, the Taliban are well positioned to wrest Helmand province from the Afghan government. Helmand is located in the south and has an area of approximately 58,000 square kilometres with a population of about one million. It constitutes the heartland of poppy growing in Afghanistan. Its fall would not only lead to the loss of a strategic province, it would also create a bridge with Balochistan linking the Taliban with supporters in that province — it will likely lead to further escalation of the conflict and increased acrimony between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It is also surprising to note a lack of preparation to defend against the Taliban’s next spring offensive planned for April 2016. Some of the preparatory steps that could be taken are the following: 1) executing the many Nato/US promises of support in enhancing Afghan security, particularly the provision of aerial support and surveillance; 2) activation of regional intelligence-sharing and security cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan; 3) force deployment and contingency planning to deny acquisition of Afghan territory. A repeat of the Kunduz debacle would be disastrous and will sink the morale of the Afghan forces.
It is also time for the Afghans to rethink the official reconciliation strategy with the Taliban. The following factors are important to note: 1) the Taliban have splintered and Mullah Mansour may well be dead as a result of an episode of firing within Taliban ranks; 2) it may not be possible to have a united Taliban group participating; 3) the Afghan government would be best placed to negotiate with the Taliban directly instead of requesting assistance from Pakistan as its leverage with the Taliban has weakened after the challenge to Mullah Mansour’s leadership; 4) reconciliation will lead to the lowering of civilian causalities that will help strengthen the Afghan state.
As the war with the Taliban, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is likely to be a generational affair, it will be wise for both states to clearly lay down their war objective. In an insurgency, the main goal of any state is to protect its population from terrorist attacks; there are no armies in the field to be defeated and both state and insurgent evolve their strategies as they go along.
Officially, the current Afghan elite indicate the non-negotiable aspect of their constitutional order designed under the Bonn Accord of 2000 and the arrangements connected with it. This could become a bone of contention in any future reconciliation with the Taliban. Perhaps, this is a short-sighted position as it is divorced from the anthropology of the Afghan state. As Tamim Ansary points out, “For most villagers the governor was a story, the king a rumour, some tough guy with a big army … [their] relevance to daily life near nil.”
There are thus two Afghanistans; a minority urban part composed of 10 to 15 large cities and the larger rural countryside composed of villages and hamlets where clans and tribes dwell and where the dynamics of powers are transacted on a daily basis. If the Afghan and Pakistani states are to obtain domination over the insurgents, then it is in such villages that they must prevail. It is best achieved by a decentralised and a locally based system of governance.
If that is the case, then though the Bonn dispensation may have shifted power to Afghan ethnic minorities, it is irrelevant to the lives of the majority of provinces where the insurgents prevail.
It will help the Afghan incumbent state to achieve more protection for its citizens (and thus victory), if it opted for empowerment at the village level and then negotiated with the Taliban insurgent leaders in such a decentralised approach. Such an approach has the following advantages: 1) to succeed at the village level, the Taliban will have to gain support of the villagers which will only be provided if their lives are made securer; 2) the Afghan government will become autonomous in achieving reconciliation without depending on Pakistan; 3) as the demand for peace gathers momentum at the village level, the insurgents will be hard pushed to deny it. All these factors go towards strengthening the incumbent Afghan state.
Philip Bobbitt in analysing the relationship between constitutional order and war correctly concludes that victory in insurgencies lies with the party that succeeds in saving lives and it is for the constitutional order to adjust. Now is the time for defining an Afghan-centric framework for peace to prevent the pain and sorrow connected with the upcoming spring offensive.
Khalid Aziz is a former political agent and chief secretary, KP.
Published in Dawn, December 29th, 2015
Trouble is brewing
Syed Rashid Munir
Once again, Afghanistan — the country that is the exception to most others in terms of government infrastructure and state’s writ — is in trouble. It appears that no matter how much effort is made to stabilise the country known as ‘the graveyard of empires’, Afghanistan resists its move towards contemporary times with a vengeance, opting instead to exist in a time and space unbeknownst to many in today’s world.
After the Soviet invasion and the consequent civil war in the 1980s, there was hope that Afghanistan would start its journey down the path of a modern nation-state in the 1990s when the war ended. But it was not to be; instead, the emerging Taliban unleashed a reign of terror so brutal and wide-reaching that the world abandoned all hope and shunned Afghanistan. In its isolation, Afghanistan kept on festering without anyone noticing. This neglect, however, came at a hefty cost when the world was finally made aware of the malice that ailed Afghanistan in 2001. So, once again, there were efforts to rescue Afghanistan, efforts that have continued till today in one form or another, but it seems that all those efforts will also go waste. Forget about institutional frameworks and constitutional governments, the primary objective of military efforts -the eradication of the Taliban — remains a distant reality.
After suffering heavy setbacks over the past few years, the Taliban have made a comeback with full force in the last couple of months and have left a trail of death and misery in their wake. From Kunduz to Kabul, the Taliban have been able to target locals and foreigners with impunity. And even though some of their efforts have been ultimately thwarted, the fact that the group’s infrastructure remains as strong and robust as ever even after much of the old leadership has been killed is horrifying. There was some discord in the Taliban ranks after the death of Mullah Omer was made public, and Mullah Mansour — their new leader — had to make a lot of effort to cement his legitimacy. However, it seems now that all conflict has been resolved and the military group has set its sights on outward targets.
If the patterns of recent attacks keep repeating themselves, soon Afghanistan will return to the state of chaos and anarchy that it was meant to leave behind before the US invasion in 2001. Even after a decade and a half of the presence of US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan — and not to mention the trillions of dollars wasted on rehabilitation — the Taliban are mounting attack after attack and the various factions affiliated with the Taliban seem stronger than ever. And, lest we forget, if the Taliban falter, Islamic State (IS) will swiftly swoop in to claim their place.
To add to the misery, the Afghan setup under Ashraf Ghani remains as haphazard as ever, and there is very little hope as to Ghani’s ability to withstand the challenge to his government. President Ghani has been clutching at every straw that he can find to keep political institutions in viable shape in his country but the lack of support from the opposition, combined with his diminished credibility, make for a sorry state of affairs.
Another aspect of the regional security situation is the Pakistan-India dynamic and the corresponding stunted talks that take place every couple of years without any meaningful results. This is because, fundamentally, the two states do not trust each other one bit and, even with many hours spent on promoting peace and dialogue between the citizenry in Pakistan and India, the respective governments remain mistrustful of each other. The issue is compounded by the fact that the civil-military nexus in Pakistan is tilted in favour of the latter and since amicable relations with India are a thorny issue for the military, the civilian governments have never been fully able to take charge in this regard. There was some effort by the PML-N government in its initial days to assert itself by supporting better trade and economic relations with India but all of its efforts were soon cut down.
In the past couple of weeks, the doves have been jubilating over the promise of comprehensive talks between the two neighbours but there is a long way to go before any results can be expected. The topsy-turvy positions taken by the Indian government, combined with the limited influence of the elected government in Pakistan, do not make for ideal outcomes. The recent ‘surprise’ visit of Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi is being hailed as a breakthrough in the deadlocked talks. This may be true but we must keep in mind two things: one, that Modi’s commitment remains unpredictable as ever, and two, that the security and intelligence agencies may not take kindly to the peace efforts made by the civilian government, since the Pakistani military establishment holds a deep mistrust towards India.
Under normal circumstances, this would have been business as usual but with the rapid deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan, there can be grave consequences for the region’s security. This would spell disaster for any chances for peace in Afghanistan since the relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan are built on shaky foundations. Reaching out to the Afghan government is commendable but without the inclusion of other stakeholders, such as the civilian leadership in Pakistan, regional powerhouses like China and India, and even local chieftains in Afghanistan, the Taliban can never be brought to the negotiating table. However, since such a coordinated and comprehensive effort eludes us for the foreseeable future, perhaps the only thing we can do is to stand back and watch Afghanistan slowly decay and implode until the day we are forced to take notice once again.
Syed Rashid Munir is a freelance columnist with degrees in political science and international relations
The prospect of intelligence war in Afghanistan
Musa Khan Jalalzai
Last week, President Putin’s special representative admitted that his country was sharing intelligence information with Taliban commanders about the terrorist activities of so-called Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. Mr Zamir Kabulov told the Interfax News Agency that the Taliban’s interests coincide with the fight against IS: “I have said before that we have communication channels with the Taliban to exchange information.” On October 8, 2015, Russian Television (RT) aired Mr Zamir Kabulov’s statement about IS training camps. “IS is training militants from Russia in Afghanistan as part of its efforts to expand into Central Asia,” Mr Kabulov told a security conference in Moscow. He added that US and UK passport holders of Pakistani and Arab descent train these terrorists inside Afghanistan. This statement prompted a violent reaction in Afghanistan where the reconciliation process with the Taliban is underway. The Afghan parliament demanded a thorough investigation of his statement while the two presidents remained silent. These revelations were a great shock for the US, NATO and British intelligence agencies operating in Afghanistan.
IS recently threatened to attack Russia’s territory: “We will make your wives concubines and make your children our slaves,” IS commanders warned. However, Vladimir Putin vowed that Russia would destroy IS infrastructure. Speaking at a meeting with senior commanders, he said that additional aircraft and air defence weapons were shifted to a Russian base in Syria. To sternly counter the terrorist group, Russia also adorned Kyrgyzstan’s forces with modern weapons and deployed an additional force in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Putin administration is trying to use the Taliban against IS. A couple of years ago Russia had warned about growing IS strength in Afghanistan. Once IS fighters enter Central Asia, they will destabilise the region, a Russian police commander has warned.
The recent rapprochement between Pakistan and Russia is considered by military experts to be a positive development but the changing attitude of the GHQ and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) sometimes disappoints China and Afghanistan. According to the recent Indian Defence Review, five battalions of Northern Rifles were maintained in Gilgit and thence in Skardu during the Kargil conflict in 1999. Moscow and Beijing have also ordered their intelligence agencies to closely monitor Afghanistan’s borders with Central Asia as Russian intelligence recently claimed that IS has planned attacks in Central Asia. “Citizens from 100 countries are currently fighting in the ranks of the terrorist structure and the recruits constitute up to 40 percent of their forces,” Moscow intelligence chief Alexander Bortnikov warned.
The abrupt jump of Russian and Chinese intelligence agencies (MSS, FSB) into the unending war in Afghanistan and the shifting priorities of Pakistan’s ISI have further complicated the task of Afghan intelligence (NDS) to effectively counter all these powerful players. Indian intelligence (RAW) is also trying to maintain its networks inside Afghanistan. The agency is trying to counter Chinese and Pakistani influence in the country on the one hand and secure its political and military influence on the other. However, China’s longstanding concern that Afghanistan might turn into a safe haven for the Uighur Islamic Movement is now coupled with worries about the security of its economic corridor project. In a series of meetings with the Taliban leadership, China has tried to persuade it to come forward for a permanent reconciliation with the Afghan government.
With the exacerbation of the security situation in Afghanistan, Chinese and Russian intelligence agencies have begun translating their efforts against IS into a practical form and have extended their networks to all districts of the country. China is engaged in counter-intelligence efforts through the MSS and has employed various tactics including cyber spying to obtain sensitive information about the activities of IS near its borders. Recent research reports documented the proxy war between the US and China because the increasing Chinese influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia, together with the aggrandisement of the Russian economy and military industry, has caused unending torment for the US. The establishment of a new military intelligence agency, the Defence Clandestine Service (DCS), by the US and its focus on global threats and emerging economic and military powers means that the Pentagon wants to contain and confine both China and Russia to specific regions.
The DCS, according to the Pentagon’s report, will work closely with both the Pentagon and CIA, recruiting spies from defence intelligence agencies and deploying them in most parts of South Asia to closely watch the military and economic movements of communist China in South and Southeast Asia. In the presence of all these foreign intelligence agencies and their designs, Afghan intelligence is unable to play its role professionally or keep the balance of mutual relationships intact. NDS is too incompetent and corrupt to counter terrorism and foreign espionage effectively. The Afghan army has also warned that due to the lack of intelligence in the battlefield, the Afghan army has weakened. During his five-year tenure, the former intelligence chief, Mr Rahmatullah Nabil, held Pakistan responsible for the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. Misidentification of targets and abuse of intelligence has been a weak aspect of the NDS mechanism. There is a lack of compatibility between the unity government and the NDS management. The politicisation of the NDS’s intelligence infrastructure has also caused its failure. Chiefs of the agency are acting like politicians, criticising the president and his foreign policy. However, the recent battles in Kunduz and Helmand have proved the incompetence of the NDS’s intelligence units. The ministers of defence and interior recently warned that cooperation between security forces is in shambles.
Musa Khan Jalalzai is the author of The Prospect of Nuclear Jihad in Pakistan.