Today, Pakistan’s military escorted selected members of the media through Miramshah, which had been ground zero for militants in Pakistan’s North Waziristan and the focus of the heaviest fighting in the Zarb-e-Azb offensive undertaken by the military last month. From the video provided in the Express Tribune story on Miramshah, it is clear that the town is essentially deserted and most buildings appear to be heavily damaged.
The offensive is taking a huge toll on Pakistan. Depending on the source cited, there are either 787,000 or 833,274 people who have been displaced from North Waziristan. Those are truly remarkable numbers, as the linked Washington Post article notes that previous estimates of the population of North Waziristan were only 600,000, so it is clear that virtually all citizens have left the region.
Because the media have been banned from the region before today, Pakistan’s military has controlled the flow of information. The latest claims I can find put the death toll at 400 militants and 20 soldiers. No information on civilian deaths has been released and the military claimed that the civilian death toll was zero even after over 200 militants were said to have been killed.
One of the most remarkable stories to emerge along with those who have fled Miramshah is that of Azam Khan, who was a barber in Miramshah:
Azam Khan was one of the top barbers in Miranshah — the main town of North Waziristan — until he, like nearly half a million others, fled the long-awaited offensive unleashed by the Pakistan military on the tribal area in June.
He told AFP his business boomed in the month leading up to the army assault as the militants sought to shed their distinctive long-haired, bearded look.
“I have trimmed the hair and beards of more than 700 local and Uzbek militants ahead of the security forces’ operation,” he said while cutting hair in a shop in Bannu, the town where most civilians fled.
For years he cut Taliban commanders’ hair to match the flowing locks of former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Hakimullah Mehsud, killed by a US drone last November, but in May a change in style was called for.
“The same leaders came asking for trimming their beards and hair very short, saying that they were going to the Gulf and wanted to avoid problems at Pakistani airports,” Khan said.
It would seem that there is now a good chance that the real targets of this offensive left before it even began. All citizens of the region have been displaced and most buildings have been rendered useless, only to kill the low level forces who were left behind because they didn’t have the resources to flee along with their leaders.
I often note how the US military, throughout its nearly 13 year quagmire in Afghanistan, continues to spout “we’re winning” messages when it is clear that the entire effort has been an utter failure from the start. Juxtaposing a story in today’s Washington Post with another in today’s New York Times shows how the military’s rosy statements are devoid of all connection to reality on the ground.
The Post story centers on the military, with Joseph Dunford in the lead, filling in more details on projected troop staffing levels in Afghanistan beyond the end of this year. The article ends with this gem:
U.S. and NATO officials described a Taliban force that has been greatly debilitated since the beginning of this year and pointed to the successful first round of Afghanistan’s presidential election in April as a defeat for the militants. The top two vote-getters are competing in next week’s runoff to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who has refused to sign the bilateral security and status-of-forces agreements.
“In the wake of the election, for the first time . . . the Taliban are on the defensive in the information space,” the senior military official said. For 10 years, he said, the Taliban has had two messages — that the United States was occupying their country and ultimately would abandon it. In the wake of the turnover of combat operations to Afghan national forces over the past year, and Obama’s announcement for the future, those messages have less resonance, the official said. The coalition has made clear, the official said, that we “won’t fall off the cliff at the end of 2014.”
Dunford described “friction” within the Taliban and said that although the militants are still carrying out lethal attacks against Afghan forces, “if you compare the political space of the Taliban, it’s significantly reduced.”
Okay, then. The Taliban is “greatly debilitated”, are “on the defensive in the information space” and are “significantly reduced” in “the political space”. Yet, on the very day that Dunford and a “senior military officer” made such outrageous claims, the Taliban were happily scoring their biggest propaganda victory of the entire war in Afghanistan. From the Times:
The Taliban seem loose, almost offhand, on camera as they wait for the American Black Hawk to land. Two fighters walk their hostage, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, out to American troops, greeting their enemies eye to eye as they quickly shake hands. They wave as the Americans retreat back to the chopper.
In their viral video to the world on Wednesday, framing dramatic images of their transaction with the United States with music, commentary and context, the Taliban scored their biggest hit yet after years of effort to improve their publicity machine — one bent on portraying them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan in exile.
Within hours of the video’s release, the Taliban website where it was posted was overwhelmed with traffic and the page hosting it crashed, according to Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the insurgents. The video has since been uploaded in dozens of different versions on YouTube.
It is the product of a Taliban propaganda effort that has grown increasingly savvy.
It’s hard to imagine a better example of how the US has lost all credibility when it comes to describing conditions in Afghanistan. Granted, the statements in the Post stem initially from claims made around the election going “smoothly“, but the sweeping statements quoted clearly are meant to apply to the Taliban’s situation generally, not just regarding the election. But the Taliban even covered that:
And they suggested that they had purposefully held back on attacking civilians on election day in April, and that Afghans should trust the Taliban over a government being chosen by Western ways.
We can only wonder how Dunford and his associates will ever be able to top this one.
This weekend’s swap of Bowe Bergdahl for five Afghan Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo has triggered responses on a large number of fronts. For now, I will leave it to others to sort through whether Obama was required to inform Congress, whether the move provides incentive to the Taliban to capture more prisoners and whether Bergdahl was a deserter. Instead, I want to focus on the fact that this prisoner exchange stands as a significant accomplishment in negotiation among parties who have seen previous attempts at negotiation fail.
Recall that back in early 2012, we first learned that the Afghan Taliban was opening an office in Qatar:
The Taliban said in a surprise announcement last week they had reached a preliminary agreement to set up a political address in Qatar and asked for the release of prisoners held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay.
So the release of Afghan Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo was at the top of the list for setting up the office in Qatar and beginning negotiations. It is also important to note that the Haqqani Network, who held Bergdahl in Pakistan, was also to be included in the talks at the same time that the opening for negotiations was first noted and that Pakistan helped to move things along:
The US has taken Pakistan into confidence over the unprecedented development of allowing the Taliban a political office in Qatar to advance the Afghan reconciliation process, sources revealed.
A senior Pakistani official stated that the Obama administration not only sought Pakistan’s consent over the Taliban office but had also given a ‘green light’ to allow the deadliest Afghan insurgent group, the Haqqani network, to be a part of the reconciliation process.
The move by Washington was a clear deflection from its previous policy of keeping Islamabad at bay over its peace overtures with the Afghan Taliban.
“Yes, we were onboard,” said the senior Pakistani official referring to the latest push by Washington to seek a political settlement of the Afghan conflict.
The process suffered a major setback when the office was found to be flying the flag the Taliban used when they ruled Afghanistan and when the sign on the door seemed to suggest that the Taliban felt they were still the legitimate governing body. Hamid Karzai threw a huge fit over that development, and even though his government hadn’t been invited to the talks, he managed to stall the process. About a year and a half later, things settled down a bit and the provocative sign and flag were removed.
As noted last week, the Afghan Taliban brazenly stated the day and hour at which their 2014 offensive would launch while also characterizing the targets they would attack. It appears that the attacks started pretty much at the appointed hour this morning, with rocket attacks aimed at the airport in Kabul and Bagram Air Base. There also was an attack on a government building in Nangahar. The rocket attacks appear to have done little or no damage, while there were at least four deaths in the attack on the building.
Data continue to accumulate that pierce the narrative that the US military has tried to create around a “weakened” Taliban insurgency. Khaama Press reports that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan released a report stating that at least 545 children were killed in Afghanistan in 2013. The same article notes that the Independent Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan has counted at least 284 children have been killed so far this year, suggesting that 2014 will be even worse for child deaths. A report from the International Crisis Group is also being released today, and in it we see that violence in Afghanistan is indeed continuing to rise. From the Wall Street Journal:
Violence levels across Afghanistan are steadily rising as U.S.-led troops return home, an indication that the Taliban remain determined to fight for power, according to a report by the International Crisis Group set for release on Monday.
An analysis by the ICG, an independent conflict-resolution organization, estimates that the number of insurgent attacks in Afghanistan increased 15-20% in 2013 from a year earlier, the first time such figures will be released publicly. It added that violence continued to escalate in the first months of 2014.
Despite the fact that the International Crisis Group describes itself as an “independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict”, its leaders published an op-ed in today’s Globe and Mail aimed at drumming up support for Afghanistan’s armed forces. Even the title of the piece is aimed at the military’s battle for hearts and minds: “Reduced to eating grass, Afghanistan’s forces are in dire need of our help”, and the text seems just as slanted toward the West maintaining a presence in Afghanistan:
Afghan forces are holding the district by themselves, so far, but Taliban roadblocks are causing food shortages. Ghorak’s defenders recently started to eat boiled grass.
It’s the same story in many other rural areas: Afghan police and soldiers are keeping the insurgency at bay, but they need more support from the international community.
Current plans for international support of the ANSF are insufficient. Donors must go beyond the annual commitment of $3.6-billion (U.S.) made at the Chicago 2012 summit and provide funding for maintenance of an ANSF personnel roster approximately equal to its current size, until stability improves in Afghanistan.
The Afghan government also needs international assistance with logistics, air support, intelligence and other technical aspects of security operations sometimes known as “enablers.” There is, for example, a pressing need for more helicopters and armoured vehicles. Currently, Afghan police and soldiers, far from urban centres, die of minor injuries while they wait for scarce helicopters or armoured convoys to transfer them to medical facilities.
As for the bullshit claim to need even more armored vehicles, read this from last August. But again, this whole plea by the International Crisis Group is just the same line we have gotten from the military essentially from the start of the Afghan quagmire. The narrative of a weakened Taliban and an increasingly capable Afghan defense force is always there, and yet the entire operation always teeters on the edge of collapse if we don’t ramp up our support. Completely missing is an understanding that the Taliban’s targets are centered around the presence of US troops and those who collaborate with them. When US troops are completely gone, the main reason for fighting is also gone.
Torturing on behalf of the United States appears to be a career move that results in a comfortable lifestyle after moving on from government service. Jose Rodriguez, who both ordered up torture and then personally destroyed video evidence of it, now profits from those events through book sales. James Mitchell, who was integral to the design of the torture program, now lives quietly in Land O’Lakes, Florida and until very recently didn’t even have to bother talking with reporters, let alone crime investigators. Of course, if you choose to expose US torture, it’s prison for you, as John Kiriakou has demonstrated.
But the disgusting free status of Rogdriguez and Mitchell pales in comparison to the level of depravity in the known history of personal involvement in torture for Haji Gulalai and how it was revealed yesterday that Gulalai is now living a quiet, comfortable life just outside Los Angeles. [Just as a bit of life advice, never piss off Julie Tate, as her work in finding Gulalai is perhaps the best bit of investigative journalism in the US in decades.]
Even very early in the US misadventures in Afghanistan, Gulalai was a favorite for the US and its press. Here is a bit from CNN in December of 2001:
Despite intelligence reports indicating the location of Mullah Mohammed Omar, a senior Afghan official said going after the Taliban leader is not a priority.
Haji Gulalai, Kandahar’s intelligence chief, said information suggests that Omar is in Helmand province, west of Kandahar, in a district called Baghran.
He says the priority of officials in the Kandahar region is to rebuild the country and the city of Kandahar first, not chasing after Omar.
Gulalai played a special role in development of the Afghan government, eventually becoming, as described in the Post article, Afghanistan’s “torturer in chief”:
Since its inception, the NDS [National Directorate of Security] has depended on the CIA to such an extent that it is almost a subsidiary — funded, trained and equipped by its American counterpart. The two agencies have shared intelligence, collaborated on operations and traded custody of prisoners.
Gulalai was considered a particularly effective but corrosive figure in this partnership. He was a fierce adversary of the Taliban, officials said, as well as a symbol of the tactics embraced by the NDS.
“He was the torturer in chief,” said a senior Western diplomat, who recalled meeting with a prisoner at an NDS facility in Kabul to investigate how he had been treated when Gulalai entered unannounced. The detainee became agitated and bowed his head in submission. “He was terrified, which made sense,” the diplomat said. Gulalai was “a big wheel in a machine that ground up a lot of people.”
In setting up the torture program for Afghanistan, Gulalai was paid directly by the CIA:
“It was chaos; you had to start from scratch,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official involved in the effort. The agency equipped the NDS with a fleet of vehicles brought up through Pakistan, delivered office supplies to a Kabul building that the Taliban had trashed and provided a stream of cash to cover payroll. “Money would come in on aircraft, we’d put it through a counting machine and distribute it in duffel bags,” said the former U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the CIA’s role.
Gulalai distinguished himself particularly for his torture in Kandahar: Continue reading
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?