A strategic blunder in the North-West Frontier Province

Hari Sud, UPI Asia
The United States is enjoying the Pakistani Army’s efforts to root out the Taliban from its sanctuaries in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The region bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, known as the North-West Frontier Province, has become the flashpoint in this contest. Al-Qaida is now a secondary threat.

The Pakistani Taliban threw down the gauntlet at Pakistan’s government following the attack by Pakistani forces on Lal Masjid, a religious seminary in Islamabad, in 2007. As most of the dead in the attack were from the NWFP, it infuriated local warlords, who blamed the United States for bankrolling the Pakistani army to do its dirty work. The suicide bombings in Pakistan in the past two years are a direct result of that.

Surprisingly, most anti-Pakistan insurrection leaders are former intelligence service agents who were serving Pakistani interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir. When they fell out with the government, they began a new insurrection in the border region.

The United States may have killed the top Taliban leader in Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud, in a recent drone attack, but the anger in NWFP is against Pakistani troops, who dare not step in the tribal areas. A new leader will take Mehsud’s place and seek revenge against both Pakistan and the United States…
(21 August 2009)

U.S. Military Says Its Force in Afghanistan Is Insufficient

Helene Cooper, New York Times
American military commanders with the NATO mission in Afghanistan told President Obama’s chief envoy to the region this weekend that they did not have enough troops to do their job, pushed past their limit by Taliban rebels who operate across borders.

The commanders emphasized problems in southern Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents continue to bombard towns and villages with rockets despite a new influx of American troops, and in eastern Afghanistan, where the father-and-son-led Haqqani network of militants has become the main source of attacks against American troops and their Afghan allies.

The possibility that more troops will be needed in Afghanistan presents the Obama administration with another problem in dealing with a nearly eight-year war that has lost popularity at home, compounded by new questions over the credibility of the Afghan government, which has just held an as-yet inconclusive presidential election beset by complaints of fraud…
(23 August 2009)

Tensions Rise in Post-Election Afghanistan

Jason Motlagh, Time
In the days since millions of Afghans braved Taliban threats at the polls, President Hamid Karzai and his leading challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, have waged their own offensive, trading accusations of fraud and impending victory. It may look like politics as usual. But against a volatile backdrop of resurgent militancy and ethnic fault lines, the consequences for Afghanistan’s fragile democracy are harder to predict.

Initial results are expected to be made public on Aug. 25, though a final total won’t be known until two weeks later. Karzai is expected to come out ahead, but it appears unlikely he’ll carry the 50% of the vote plus one needed to avoid a runoff in October. Should a runoff happen, analysts agree the country will retreat to ethnic and regional divisions, with the majority of Pashtuns across the south backing Karzai, and Tajiks, the second largest ethnic group, rallying in the north behind Abdullah, the son of a Pashtun father and Tajik mother. Abdullah is also more closely identified with the Northern Alliance, which ousted the Taliban — a largely Pashtun movement — from power in late 2001.
(Read about the Taliban threat to disrupt the election.)

Abdullah struck early the day after the election with charges that Karzai supporters were guilty of ballot-stuffing, intimidation and widespread irregularities. He expanded his case on Aug. 23 with claims that pro-Karzai ballots were still coming in from parts of violent southern provinces, where turnout was said to be low to nonexistent. A spokesman for Karzai levied similar charges of fraud-related violations while asserting that the former Foreign Minister was acting out of desperation. However, the head of the electoral complaints commission has since said his group has received 35 allegations of “high priority” misconduct that are “material to election results” and could potentially sway the outcome…
(24 August 2009)

Is Pakistan’s Taliban movement on the way out?

Saeed Shah, McClatchy Newspapers
Pakistan’s extremist Taliban movement is badly divided over who should be its new leader, and analysts and local tribesmen say the al Qaida-linked group may be in danger of crumbling.

A wave of defections, surrenders, arrests and bloody infighting has severely weakened the movement since its founder, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed Aug. 5 in a U.S. missile strike. The announcement this weekend that Hakimullah Mehsud, a 28-year-old with a reputation as a hothead, would succeed him is likely to further widen the split.

Hakimullah has support from Taliban groups in Orakzai, where he is based, and Bajaur, both parts of the wild Pakistan tribal zone that borders Afghanistan. But the heart of the Pakistani Taliban movement lies in the Waziristan portion of the tribal area, where the warlike Mehsud and Wazir clans live and where a commander named Waliur Rehman is backed as the next chief. Rehman was very close to Baitullah Mehsud.

“There’s no way that the Mehsuds and the Wazirs are going to accept Hakimullah as chief. During his lifetime, Baitullah had given every indication that when he’s no more, Waliur Rehman is the next guy,” said Saifullah Mahsud, an analyst at the FATA Research Centre, an independent think tank in Islamabad. “Waliur Rehman is a cool, calm, calculated guy, a very good listener… That’s why the Taliban had liked Baituallah so much, he was a very cool guy, a very calm guy.”…
(23 August 2009)

Iran Gas Ban: Step toward War with Iran?

Michael Klare, Foreign Policy in Focus
As the Obama administration struggles to devise a strategy for dealing with Iran’s intransigence on the uranium enrichment issue, it appears to be gravitating toward the imposition of an international embargo on gasoline sales to that country. Such a ban would be enacted if Iranian officials fail to come up with an acceptable negotiating plan by the time the UN General Assembly meets in late September — the deadline given by the White House for a constructive Iranian move.

Iran, of course, is a major oil producer, pumping out some 4.3 million barrels per day in 2008. But it is also a major petroleum consumer. And its oil industry has a significant structural weakness: Its refinery capacity is too constricted to satisfy the nation’s gasoline requirements. As a result, Iran must import about 40% of its refined products. Government officials are attempting to reduce this dependency through rationing and other measures, but the country remains highly vulnerable to any cutoff in gasoline imports.

Many in Washington view Iran’s vulnerability as an opportunity to coerce the country into abandoning its nuclear-arms program. Although senior Iranian officials deny that they are seeking nuclear munitions, many Western analysts believe that the enrichment effort now under way at a huge centrifuge facility in Natanz is intended to produce highly enriched uranium for an eventual Iranian bomb. Despite massive pressure from the United States and the European Union, Tehran has refused to cease work at Natanz or to consider a slowdown there as part of a negotiating process. If Iran persists on this course, proponents of a gasoline embargo argue that sanctions should be the next step

…On the other hand, a gasoline embargo might provoke the Iranians into taking steps that would increase the risk of war, especially if the United States employed military means to enforce the ban. For example, they could encourage their allies in Iraq, such as the more militant followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, to renew their attacks on American soldiers in Baghdad and elsewhere. In recent months the Sadrists have been relatively quiescent, preferring to engage in political rather than military struggle. But they have hardly eschewed their capacity for mischief, and, with the right prodding from Tehran, might again target American personnel and their Iraqi partners, complicating the U.S. withdrawal…
(20 August 2009)

How Crime Pays for the Taliban

Aryn Baker, Time
To understand why America and its allies are losing the war in Afghanistan, consider the story behind one deadly attack. On July 6, in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz, a powerful improvised explosive device, or IED, detonated under the wheels of a U.S. humvee. Four soldiers died, as did their translator and a bystander. The makeshift bomb was assembled with goods from the local bazaar. The man who placed it was probably paid the going rate of $750, according to government officials, or more if he captured video proof of dead soldiers. And though the local Taliban covered his expenses and fees, the cash very likely came from money donated by the international community to rebuild Afghanistan’s roads, bridges, clinics and schools.

Just a week before the explosion, Hajji Lala Jan, a local businessman subcontracted by a local firm working for the German government — aid agency GTZ to build a road in Kunduz, handed some $15,000 in cash to a Taliban middleman to ensure that his project wouldn’t be attacked, according to local officials — though Jan himself denies it. The Taliban cash flow has many sources, and it’s impossible to say if German taxpayer dollars directly paid for that IED. Andreas Clausing, country director for GTZ, says such payoffs are “impossible. It is forbidden in our contracts, and we have very strict monitoring.” Nevertheless, it is likely that a substantial amount of aid money from many countries — including the U.S. — has made its way, directly or indirectly, into the Taliban’s coffers. “Here we have internationals and Afghans turning a blind eye to the fact that we are paying off the very Taliban that we claim to be fighting,” says an adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Interior. “It becomes a self-sustaining war, a self-licking ice cream.”

That war has become the most pressing overseas challenge facing the Obama Administration, which has already increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by 20,000 and is receiving pleas from top commanders to send even more. Barely a week after Afghans went to the polls to vote for a President, the results are tied up in accusations of fraud flying between the two leading candidates, President Hamid Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. It will be several weeks before an official result is announced. But the political wrangling in Kabul is a sideshow to the increasingly lethal and effective campaign being waged by the Taliban. Drugs, contributions from private donors and — more and more — payoffs from local businessmen ensure that the insurgency stays robust. A Western official estimates that the Taliban is making more than it is spending, “and I don’t want to even think about where the rest of that money is going.” And as long as the money continues to flow, the war will go on…
(31 August 2009)