While the mainstream press finally catches up to the fact that there were indeed hundreds of violent attacks on election day in Afghanistan (even though hippies could find the data over a week ago), there is yet another disturbing development in the efforts to hold talks between Afghanistan’s High Peace Council and the Afghan Taliban. I noted nearly a year ago that Mutasim Agha Jan was beginning to bring some attention to a more moderate faction within the Afghan Taliban. He was successful in getting discussions going with the Afghan High Peace Council, but one of his associates, Abdul Raqib, was gunned down in Peshawar in February just after returning from a negotiating session in Dubai. It has now been confirmed that Mutasim Agha Jan has disappeared while in Dubai as he was preparing for another round of talks there. Here is ToloNews on the disappearance:
Agha Jan, who was one of the few crucial Taliban figures that had direct contact with the HPC, lived in Turkey and recently disappeared during a tour to the UAE.
“The government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is aware of Agha Jan’s disappearance in the UAE,” MoFA spokesman Ahmad Shekib Mustaghna said on Monday.
There are rumors about the possibility that Agha Jan may have been abducted. MoFA has not released a statement in regards to the rumors, but has called the circumstances surrounding the disappearance ambiguous and questionable.
Over the past month, Agha Jan had met with the HPC delegation twice; both sides had agreed to continue peace discussions.
There is a very interesting bit of language in the Khaama Press story on the disappearance:
The ministry of foreign affairs of Afghanistan confirmed that the former senior Taliban leader Agha Jan Mutasim has gone missing in United Arab Emirates.
Foreign ministry spokesman, Shekib Mostaghni told reporters in Kabul that the Afghan officials have started negotiations with the UAE officials regarding the fate of Agha Jan Mutasim.
Mr. Mostaghni further added that the government of Afghanistan has stepped up efforts to take practical steps to find out Agha Jan Mutasim.
Normally, I would attribute that bit about “negotiations with UAE officials” as poor translation from an initial story about Afghan officials speaking to UAE officials simply to ask questions. But there is also this report in the Express Tribune:
Last week, Mutasim’s family sources and friends confirmed to The Express Tribune that they have lost contact with him in Dubai. They were concerned that the UAE authorities might have detained and shifted Mutasim to an undisclosed location in Abu Dhabi.
The Express Tribune article also makes it clear that he has been missing for quite a while:
After a mysterious silence for nearly two weeks, the Afghan foreign ministry on Monday confirmed that Mutasim is missing in the UAE. “The Afghan government confirms that Agha Jan Mutasim has disappeared in the UAE and we are talking to senior Emirati officials to know his fate,” spokesman Ahmed Shakaib Mustaghni said in Kabul.
“The talks, unfortunately, have not yet produced any results and we do not have any more details,” Mustaghni told a weekly press briefing, according to the recorded version of the briefing received here.
So it would indeed appear that Afghanistan may be in some sort of negotiations with UAE on the fate of Mutasim. But since we don’t have confirmation yet that he actually is under UAE control, we could be back to the list of suspects I discussed in the death of Abdul Raqib also being suspects in this case as well (but read here for a pretty strong argument that Taliban hardliners were responsible for Raqib’s death). I will keep an eye out for further developments on Mutasim’s location and safety.
With no catastrophic attacks taking place and reports of over 7 million people voting, on first impressions it would appear that Afghanistan’s presidential election on Saturday was a resounding success. Digging a bit deeper, though, reveals disturbing evidence of hundreds of violent incidents that received little attention and large areas of the country where the electorate was too scared of the Taliban to vote. Another large cautionary note is that the slow rate of vote counting means that it will be a long time before there can be any meaningful analysis of the extent of vote-stuffing. Further, the US goal of a new president clearing the way to a signed Bilateral Security Agreement is likely to be put off further, as any runoff will not happen until late May, which could well be past the point at which the US will have to decide if it will invoke the zero option and withdraw all troops from the country at the end of the year.
The New York Times gives us the rosy version of the voting:
After enduring months of Taliban attacks and days of security clampdowns, Afghans reveled Sunday in the apparent success of the weekend’s presidential election, as officials offered the first solid indications that the vote had far exceeded expectations.
Two senior officials from the Independent Election Commission said the authorities supervising the collection of ballots in tallying centers had counted between seven million and 7.5 million total ballots, indicating that about 60 percent of the 12 million eligible voters had taken part in the election. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because results will not be released for weeks.
Even this report, though, cautions that fraud could still be a problem and will take time to detect:
Afghan election observers backed up the numbers offered by election officials, as did Western diplomats, though the latter struck a more cautious tone. But both said that some votes would invariably be thrown out because of fraud.
The question was how many, and whether Afghanistan would see a repeat of the 2009 election, which was marred by widespread ballot stuffing and other fraud. Turnout that year was about 38 percent, though some estimates put it lower. The memory of what happened that year still hovers here, giving many reason to hesitate before declaring this weekend’s vote an unqualified success.
It took days for the full extent of the problems with the 2009 election to emerge, and the ensuing political crisis lasted months, souring relations between President Karzai and the United States, embittering many Afghans and helping fuel a Taliban insurgency that was gaining momentum.
But the claims of no large attacks overshadowed the news that there were actually hundreds of attacks aimed at the voting:
The anti-government armed militants carried out 690 attacks across the country during the presidential and provincial council elections on Saturday.
Defense ministry spokesman, Gen. Zahir Azimi said Saturday that the attacks by militants included direct fire, rocket attacks, improvised explosive device (IED) attacks and suicide attacks.
Azimi also added that 164 militants were killed and 82 others were injured during the attacks while Afghan army soldiers seized various types of weapons belonging to the assailant militants.
He said at least 7 Afghan national army soldiers were martyred and 45 others were injured during these attacks.
Yesterday, in noting the large deployment of Afghan security personnel for Saturday’s presidential election, I wondered in an aside how well these troops had been screened, since a large contingent of them were described in the Afghan press as “fresh”. Sadly, a police unit commander in the Tanai District on the outskirts of Khost turned his gun on a vehicle occupied by AP photographer Anje Niedringhaus and AP reporter Kathy Gannon. Niedringhaus was killed and Gannon is being treated for at least two bullet wounds but is said to be in stable condition. Early reports suggest that the police officer who opened fire was not a recent recruit and was taken into custody when he surrendered immediately after the incident.
AP provides details on Niedringhaus’ Pulitzer Prize-winning career:
Niedringhaus covered conflict zones including Kuwait, Iraq, Libya, Gaza and the West Bank during a 20-year stretch, beginning with the Balkans in the 1990s. She had traveled to Afghanistan numerous times since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
Niedringhaus, who also covers sports events around the globe, has received numerous awards for her works.
She was part of an AP team that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in breaking news photography for coverage of the war in Iraq, and was awarded the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation. She joined the AP in 2002 and had since been based in Geneva, Switzerland. From 2006 to 2007, she was awarded a Nieman Fellowship in journalism at Harvard University.
Niedringhaus started her career as a freelance photographer for a local newspaper in her hometown in Hoexter, Germany at the age of 16. She worked for the European Press Photo Agency before joining the AP in 2002, based in Geneva. She had published two books.
Reporter Kathy Gannon is also experienced in war zones and Afghanistan particularly:
Gannon, 60, is a Canadian journalist based in Islamabad who has covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for the AP since mid-1980s.
She is a former Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and the author of a book on the country, “I Is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror: 18 Years Inside Afghanistan.”
The New York Times has one of the more complete descriptions of the attack that I have seen:
Ms. Niedringhaus and Ms. Gannon had spent Thursday night at the compound of the provincial governor in Khost, and had left on Friday morning with a convoy of election workers delivering ballots to an outlying area in the Tanai district, The A.P. and Afghan officials said.
The convoy was protected by the Afghan police, soldiers and operatives from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, said Mubarez Zadran, a spokesman for the provincial government. Ms. Niedringhaus and Ms. Gannon were in their own car, traveling with a driver and an Afghan freelance journalist who was working with the news agency.
After the convoy arrived at the government compound in Tanai, Ms. Niedringhaus and Ms. Gannon were waiting in the back seat for the convoy to start moving again when a police commander approached the car and looked through its windows. He apparently stepped away momentarily before wheeling around and shouting “Allahu akbar!” — God is great — and opening fire with an AK-47, witnesses and The A.P. said. His shots were all directed at the back seat.
Ms. Niedringhaus was killed instantly.
The police commander, identified by the authorities as Naqibullah, 50, then surrendered to other officers and was arrested. Witnesses said he was assigned to the force guarding the government compound and was not one of the officers traveling with the election convoy.
I have written extensively on the issue of green on blue killings, where Afghan forces attack US forces. It would appear that this is the first instance, though, of Afghan security personnel turning fire on Western members of the press. The Times addresses the insider killing aspect in relation to previous events: Continue reading
Saturday will mark the first time Afghanistan has gone to the polls to choose a new president since the US overthrew the Taliban and put Hamid Karzai in charge. This will hardly be an accomplishment to herald in the US press, although I am sure the military will attempt to get major outlets to tout it as so after the fact. In fact, even the rosy “look what has been accomplished in Afghanistan” fluff piece published today in Khaama Press cites a paltry list of accomplishments, such as 50 television stations and not quite half a million Afghans on Facebook. Tellingly, though, a closer look reveals that the piece is attributed to Dr. Florance Ebrahimi. It turns out that even though she is originally from Kabul, she practices in Sydney. And why shouldn’t she? Afghanistan is tied with North Korea and Somalia at the very bottom of the list when countries are ranked for their level of corruption. And it appears that even before the election takes place, ten percent of the planned polling stations have been closed due to security concerns. And what of the candidates? The top three are profiled here by the New York Times. All three of the leaders have already pledged to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, keeping US troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of this year–and thus assuring the maximal continuing flow of US funds to fuel even more corruption. The candidates are noteworthy to me only in that two of them have running mates that would rival Dick Cheney as the most notorious war criminal to be Vice President of a country in the past 15 years.
Today’s New York Times piece cited above on the closure of polling places due to anticipated violence is devastating. For example:
One of the few polling centers in this part of Logar Province is the government’s district headquarters, a building so devastated by rocket attacks and Taliban gunfire that it looks more like a bomb shelter than an administrative office.
As the body count for security forces has risen over the past few days in this embattled district, a stretch of dusty farmland surrounded by mountains, it has become clear that no one here is going to vote on Saturday, either for president or for provincial council delegates.
So far, that has not stopped security officials from proclaiming the district open for voting: It is not among the roughly 10 percent of 7,500 total national sites shut down as too dangerous to protect. The Charkh district center has been pumped full of security forces to keep the vote a nominal possibility, but residents know that within a day or two after the elections, the guards will be gone and the Taliban will remain.
“The government has no meaning here,” said Khalilullah Kamal, the district governor, who was shot two times in the stomach a few months back while speaking in a mosque. “If there is no expectation that we will arrest people who break the law, then how do we expect the people to come and vote?”
Think about that. The polling place in this passage looks like a bomb shelter and life has gotten so violent there that it is clear nobody will vote there Saturday. And yet this site isn’t included among the 10 percent of sites that won’t be open Saturday. Further, “government has no meaning here” reflects the utter failure of US efforts to establish a unified government in Afghanistan. But does that apply only to a small area? Hardly. Consider that the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction stated back in October that it is likely that no more than 21 percent of Afghanistan will be accessible to SIGAR (pdf) to carry out oversight functions (and the State Department warned them that the 21 percent figure may be overly optimistic) by the end of this year.
Since the US has already formally handed over security operations to the Afghans, what are they doing to make the election safe? On Tuesday they announced that 60,000 “fresh” (I presume this means newly trained? How well were they screened?) Afghan National Army troops were deployed across the country for election security. Then, on Wednesday, the figure was increased to 195,000 total security personnel when ANA figures were joined with security personnel from the Afghan National Police and the National Directorate of Security. That’s quite a force. So for roughly 7500 polling stations, that gives about 26 security personnel guarding each site if they are distributed evenly. Oh, and to protect Westerners before the election, places where they tend to gather have been closed.
Whatever the outcome on Saturday, I see little reason to be optimistic that there will be any improvement in living conditions for the average Afghan citizen.
As we get into the final days before voting begins on Saturday for Afghanistan’s presidential election, the biggest question aside from the issue of who will win is whether the Taliban will succeed in its determination to disrupt the election through violence and intimidation. Rapidly unfolding events today represent either a remarkable combination of good work and good luck by Afghan authorities or the product of an infiltration of the Taliban by the National Directorate of Security, which is Afghanistan’s intelligence agency. Breaking news stories today inform us of Afghan forces capturing 22 tons of explosives from a Taliban hideout in Takhar province, the deaths of six Taliban commanders when a suicide vest went off “prematurely” (in Logar province) and the deaths of 16 Taliban commanders when a suicide bomber is said (by the NDS) to have developed differences with the leaders and decided to turn on them, exploding his suicide vest in Ghazni province.
Reuters brings us the story of the captured explosives:
Afghan security forces have seized more than 22 tons of explosives, enough to make hundreds of bombs, the interior ministry said on Tuesday, four days before a presidential election.
Taliban insurgents have declared war on the April 5 vote, calling it a Western-backed sham and threatening to disrupt it.
“This discovery will prevent hundreds of bomb attacks and would have a significant impact on the overall security of the elections,” Sediq Sediqqi, an Interior Ministry spokesman, told Reuters.
Sediqqi said the explosives, hidden in some 450 bags, were seized from a basement in the relatively peaceful northern province of Takhar, where the Taliban have gained ground in recent years.
What remarkable timing! Just four days before the election, Afghan forces find a huge cache of explosives in a “relatively peaceful” province. Four days would not have been a lot of time to produce the hundreds of bombs and distribute them to voting stations, but that is still a lot of dangerous material to be removed from use.
Moving south of Kabul to Logar province, we have this story of a suicide vest apparently going off too soon:
At least six Taliban commanders were killed following a suicide blast in eastern Logar province of Afghanistan on Tuesday.
According to NDS officials, the incident took place around 12:30 pm local time in Charkh district.
The officials further added that the Taliban commanders were looking to prepare a suicide bomber for an attack when the suicide bombing vest went off.
Hmm. It’s the NDS and not local police who are cited by Khaama Press in this story.
For the story of the suicide bomber deciding to attack the Taliban instead of voters, here is more from Khaama Press:
At least 16 senior Taliban commanders were killed following a suicide attack in eastern Ghazni province of Afghanistan on Tuesday.
Afghan Intelligence – National Directorate of Security (NDS) said the incident took place in a Taliban leaders gathering in Gelan district.
National Directorate of Security (NDS) following a statement said the Taliban leaders were planning coordinated attacks in Ghazni province when a Taliban suicide bomber opposed with the Taliban leaders plans and detonated his explosives.
Wow. Sixteen senior Taliban commanders is a huge gathering for one spot. And isn’t it interesting that it would be during that gathering that a suicide bomber would suddenly become “opposed with the Taliban leaders plans” and decide to detonate his explosives, taking them all out? And on the very day of this event, NDS seems quite confident that the 16 killed were senior Taliban leaders. Further, the NDS even seems to already know that some of the Taliban leaders killed came from Pakistan.
So did Afghanistan get incredibly lucky today, with a premature explosion taking out 6 Taliban leaders and a difference of opinion leading to a suicide bomber changing sides to take out 16 Taliban leaders, or is there another explanation? It seems to me that we have to at least consider that the National Directorate of Security has been developing assets inside Taliban cells and is choosing this pivotal week as the time to put those assets into action. Such assets could have provided the key information leading to the discovery of the explosives cache. It is also possible that these assets could have gained control of the suicide vests that went off today, either as the suicide bombers themselves or through some form of remote control, creating the appearance of accidents or betrayals.
Whatever caused these events, when grouped together they represent a major setback for Taliban plans to disrupt the election. Will they be able to respond?
The New York Times has just released an excerpt from Carlotta Gall’s upcoming book “The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014″. Recall that Gall lived in Afghanistan and covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Times from 2001-2013 (Declan Walsh also covered Pakistan from inside Pakistan until he was expelled just before the election in 2013). The biggest revelation in the excerpt is that Pakistan knew about, and Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, actively sheltered, Osama bin Laden when he was in hiding in Pakistan.
Gall claims that then-ISI head Ahmed Shuja Pasha had direct knowledge of bin Laden’s presence:
Soon after the Navy SEAL raid on Bin Laden’s house, a Pakistani official told me that the United States had direct evidence that the ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, knew of Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. The information came from a senior United States official, and I guessed that the Americans had intercepted a phone call of Pasha’s or one about him in the days after the raid. “He knew of Osama’s whereabouts, yes,” the Pakistani official told me. The official was surprised to learn this and said the Americans were even more so. Pasha had been an energetic opponent of the Taliban and an open and cooperative counterpart for the Americans at the ISI. “Pasha was always their blue-eyed boy,” the official said. But in the weeks and months after the raid, Pasha and the ISI press office strenuously denied that they had any knowledge of Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.
Although Pasha knew, it appears that ISI compartmented the knowledge very carefully:
In trying to prove that the ISI knew of Bin Laden’s whereabouts and protected him, I struggled for more than two years to piece together something other than circumstantial evidence and suppositions from sources with no direct knowledge. Only one man, a former ISI chief and retired general, Ziauddin Butt, told me that he thought Musharraf had arranged to hide Bin Laden in Abbottabad. But he had no proof and, under pressure, claimed in the Pakistani press that he’d been misunderstood. Finally, on a winter evening in 2012, I got the confirmation I was looking for. According to one inside source, the ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle Bin Laden. It was operated independently, led by an officer who made his own decisions and did not report to a superior. He handled only one person: Bin Laden. I was sitting at an outdoor cafe when I learned this, and I remember gasping, though quietly so as not to draw attention. (Two former senior American officials later told me that the information was consistent with their own conclusions.) This was what Afghans knew, and Taliban fighters had told me, but finally someone on the inside was admitting it. The desk was wholly deniable by virtually everyone at the ISI — such is how supersecret intelligence units operate — but the top military bosses knew about it, I was told.
Gall’s reporting on Taliban factions and their madrassas came at great personal risk. This story picks up at a point where her Pakistani colleagues have been picked up by the ISI at the hotel where they were staying and she had been summoned to meet the ISI agents outside: Continue reading
Today’s New York Times has a fascinating update on the investigation into the killing of Swedish reporter Nils Horner on March 11. Although there have been systematic attacks on journalists in the region for years, it appears that in the case of Horner, suggestions of the involvement of Western intelligence agencies are getting significant attention:
Now, some are saying Mr. Horner may have been killed as part of some shadowy intelligence war in Afghanistan waged by foreigners.
The allegation first surfaced in a widely disputed claim of responsibility issued by a group calling itself Feday-e-Mahaz, and thought to be an offshoot of the Taliban.
“This was certainly not the work of the Taliban,” Mr. Faizi said in an interview, adding that he did not believe there were any breakaway factions. “They are fictions.”
Afghan officials linked Mr. Horner’s death to the attack on Taverna du Liban, a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners that suicide attackers struck in January, killing 21 people, most of them foreigners.
Though the Taliban took credit for that attack, Mr. Karzai has suggested that it may be linked to foreigners and not Afghan insurgents. Mr. Horner was shot as he tried to find and interview a chef who had escaped from that Lebanese restaurant, officials said.
“Perhaps there are some of those with fears about what he would find out,” one Afghan official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation.
The official emphasized that he was speaking of the possibility that Westerners were responsible in both the restaurant attack and Mr. Horner’s shooting, and not Pakistanis, whom Afghan officials often blame after attacks because of what the official called Pakistan’s clandestine support of the Taliban.
But how on earth could such a ludicrous story get started? I mean, it’s not like the US meddles and tries to prevent the outbreak of peace talks or anything like that. Oh, wait.
Okay, but surely this meddling is recent. The history of our motives in the region must be pure. Just ask someone who has observed our actions over the years, like, say, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, (pdf):
But it was too late because some of the organizations had become a part of the Afghan
people. As for Afghanistan itself, the West did not support the Afghan organizations in
order to bring about peace, prosperity, and security in Afghanistan. The U.S. proxies in the
lSI under American control foiled every attempt to reconcile or integrate the various
Afghan organizations. Every time they saw a strong leader or an organization, they
supported him in order to split his organization off from the others. They split the group
Hezb Al-Islami Hekmatyar into two parties- one by the same name and one by the name
Hezb Al-Islami Younis Khalis and so on.
Well, yes, as Marcy notes, KSM is trolling, but there are bits that can’t be denied.
Oh, and don’t forget the use of a doctor in a vaccination ruse to obtain intelligence on the compound where Osama bin Laden was living prior to the attack that killed him. So why wouldn’t the West use a journalist? And look at Horner’s history:
Horner, 51, was an experienced Hong Kong-based reporter who had previously been in Afghanistan to witness the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and in Iraq during the war in 2003.
And just to make things juicier, even though Horner worked for Swedish radio, he held British citizenship. The Wall Street Journal article linked here notes that Horner covered Asia generally since 2001 and “had visited Kabul many times in the past”.
I’m not ready to embrace these conspiracies, but it sure is easy to see how the concept can take hold when we consider how the US has behaved in the region for decades.
Back in January, I mused on whether Pakistan was making a play for counterterrorism funds that were being freed up by the US cutting back on its funding plans for Afghanistan. It now appears that Pakistan is not only starting to receive renewed flows of US defense funding, but US development funding is flowing, as well. I probably shouldn’t be so surprised by this, since the article I cited on the US cutting back on Afghanistan funding mentioned both defense and development funds, but it still remains remarkable that those funds are being so clearly moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan.
It appears that Pakistan has had to quickly establish a new fund for accepting the newly designated development money, which totals a whopping $1.5 billion in only one month:
As the State Bank of Pakistan remains tightlipped over the source and purpose of funding, Pakistan received another tranche of $750 million in the newly-established Pakistan Development Fund (PDF), taking the total contribution to $1.5 billion so far.
Highly-placed sources told The Express Tribune that friendly countries have injected another sum of $750 million in the PDF – an account opened to channel money from abroad. The last tranche was received in February that stabilised the dwindling official foreign currency reserves.
It is the first time that any country has generously given $1.5-billion assistance to Pakistan within one month, as Islamabad never received such an amount as ‘upfront’ payments. The US, which remains the largest contributor, always gave amounts in tranches spreading over several years. Under its five-year, $7.5-billion Kerry Lugar aid package, Washington gave less than $2.5 billion in government-to-government assistance in over three years.
However, it was not clear whether the money received is a grant or depositary loans aimed at temporarily bailing out the country.
At the very end of the article, the Express Tribune notes that Pakistan is also asking the US to expedite payments under the Coalition Support Fund, which is the route through which Pakistan is reimbursed for its defense spending related to Afghanistan security. That is very interesting, since it was only a month ago that there was a major disbursement in the CSF:
United States has released second tranche of $352 million out of a total of $1.4 billion Coalition Support Funds (CSF) that Pakistan is budgeted to receive during the current fiscal year.
This was revealed by US Ambassador Richard Olson in a meeting with Finance Minister Ishaq Dar on Tuesday.
According to Finance Ministry, the ambassador assured the Financial Minister that the remaining amount will be disbursed as soon as possible,
Pakistan had hoped to receive the second tranche in December last year.
It certainly stands out that what changed between December and February was Pakistan’s new-found enthusiasm for military action against the Taliban. The article also notes that this payment was meant to cover Pakistan’s expenses incurred during January to March of 2013, so the payments are lagging spending by about a year. That would be why today’s news has Pakistan urging the US to shorten the time until reimbursement: Continue reading
In recent posts, I’ve been wondering just how Pakistan’s new security policy will be implemented. Late last week, it appeared as though Pakistan was determined to carry out a sustained military intervention in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The big question to me was whether this action would be taken against only the TTP or if Pakistan would also be attacking groups such as the Haqqani network, which the US accuses Pakistan of supporting while they carry out attacks against US troops in Afghanistan. If Pakistan were to attack the Haqqani network, I predicted that the US will provide a major increase in counterterrorism funding to Pakistan.
There have been multiple major developments since my post on Friday, with the Taliban suddenly announcing a ceasefire and Pakistan’s government responding favorably by stating that air raids in FATA will end during the ceasefire. These peaceful responses were shattered early today, though, with a major terror attack in Islamabad resulting in at least 11 dead and 25 wounded when a court area was attacked with guns and suicide bombs.
It appears that the committee of government representatives and Taliban representatives that had been appointed to get the peace talks re-started was responsible for getting the ceasefire put into place:
After the Taliban issued a call for ceasefire on Saturday, members of the government-nominated peace committee welcomed the call, terming it a major breakthrough and an opportunity to hold direct talks between the two sides.
Major (retd) Mohammad Aamir, part of the government’s peace committee negotiating with the Taliban, suggested that direct talks should now take place between the government and the Taliban as it is high “time for taking and making important decisions.”
“I do not see any relevance now for the government committee as we have succeeded to convince the Taliban to come to the negotiation table and declare ceasefire,” Aamir told The Express Tribune in an interview.
He disclosed that the “backdoor efforts” carried out by him and the Jamiat Ulema Islam -Samiul Haq Group leader Yousaf Shah resulted in the Taliban-declared ceasefire.
The government responded positively and quickly to the ceasefire announcement:
The Pakistani government on Sunday suspended its airstrike campaign against militants in the country’s northwestern tribal regions in response to a Taliban cease-fire, raising the prospect that peace talks between the two sides will be revived.
The announcement of the suspension was made by the Pakistani interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan, on Sunday evening, and came hours after military gunships targeted militant positions in the northwestern Khyber tribal area in retaliation for an attack on health workers trying to vaccinate Pakistanis against polio. Officials said that notwithstanding the suspension, they would continue to respond to provocations by militants.
Tragically, the attack on the polio workers was especially deadly, with a death toll of 13. Khan also issued a warning along with his announcement of the halt to the air strikes:
“The government and the Armed Forces of Pakistan reserve the right to effectively respond to acts of violence,” the interior minister warned in a statement.
In the worst attack in at least six months, Taliban fighters overran an Afghan army base in Kunar province near the Pakistan border, killing 21 Afghan soldiers who were said to have been sleeping at the time of the attack. It appears that a very large Taliban force carried out the attack. The New York Times carried a statement from the Afghan Defense Ministry that “hundreds” of fighters were in the attack and that the battle lasted four hours, while the Washington Post stated that “more than 100″ Taliban fighters carried out the attack.
The Times article informs us that at least one version of events suggests that the Taliban had infiltrators on the base who helped the assault forces:
One of the Afghan soldiers taken prisoner, who later escaped and was interviewed in the eastern city of Asadabad, said he believed that the insurgents had entered the fortified base with the collusion of infiltrators who had been on guard duty in the base’s three watchtowers and outside its barracks. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.
“I believe these four soldiers had links with the Taliban,” he said. “They shot our soldiers while they were sleeping. When others woke up, they were taken alive, along with me.” He said that he and three other soldiers had managed to escape from the insurgents as they fled the area.
The Times article also states that as the US draws down its forces, Afghan units no longer are accompanied by US forces and “do not have the close air support they often enjoyed”. It should be noted, though, that Afghan forces have already retaken the base. Also note that, as seen in the accompanying video of the funeral in Kabul for those killed, and as noted in this article in ToloNews, Afghan helicopters were at least available to ferry the dead, and so we are left to wonder if they were also involved in the re-taking of the base.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai canceled a planned trip in response to the attack and called for Pakistan to take action against the Afghan Taliban forces which find refuge in Pakistan. It is not clear if Karzai was aware that on Sunday, Pakistan killed at least 38 suspected militants in North Waziristan in air raids carried out by Pakistani jets. Yet another high ranking member of Pakistan’s Taliban also was gunned down today, as well.
Interestingly, at least one person the New York Times talked to about the attack seemed to think that there are still problems with screening of Afghan security forces since there are hints that sympathizers let the Taliban onto the base:
“My cousin was killed in the attack yesterday,” Hajji Alif Khan, from Khost Province, said at the ceremony at the military hospital. “I want to see the bloodshed ended in this country in my lifetime. It is enough, we lost thousands of people. Let’s stop this war,” he said.
But in the meantime, he said, “They should check every soldier’s background.”
Gosh, we were told about a year and a half ago that screening was now very good…