Friday, November 20, 2009

Afghan Surveys

Today (er, yesterday) I came across two extremely interesting surveys of Afghanistan that were conducted earlier this year and released in the last few weeks, both of which had surprising results. The first was conducted in June and July (before the botched election) by the Asia Foundation, and was impressively comprehensive, featuring interviews in every single province and coming in at 231 pages. Needless to say, I have not read all, or even a substantial portion, of it yet. There are a few things that jump out at me from what I've read so far, though:

•First of all was the way the numbers stacked up against the US. 42% of Afghans thought the country was going in the right direction; Real Clear Politics has us at 37.8%. 68% of Afghans approved of Parliament's performance, compared to only 27% for Congress.

•Ironically, there was great faith in the electoral process; 64% thought that the election would be free and fair. I rather suspect that number has since changed.

•Security in the west of the country has decreased dramatically; see next item. I suspect that part of this is due to the militants having been flushed out of Helmand earlier this year.

•There were a number of villages that the surveyors were unable to visit, usually because of insecurity, inaccessibility (e.g. due to flooding), or there just not being any village by that name (maps of Afghanistan are absolutely awful; I would know). Of the 102 data points (12% of the total) that could not be visited due to insecurity, four were in Kabul (Province), two were in Kapisa, two were in Wardak, five were in Logar, two were in Nangarhar, eleven were in Kunar, one was in Daikundi (the Taliban were also present), eleven were in Ghazni, three were in Paktia, two were in Paktika, two were in Khost, eleven were in Qandahar, one was in Zabul (the Taliban were also present), four were in Uruzgan, seven were in Badghis, three were in Herat, four were in Farah (one of which had a Taliban presence), three were in Baghlan (two with Taliban presences), eight were in Kunduz (where the Taliban is currently trying to shut down an alternate supply line we're establishing so that we don't have to rely so much on the Khyber Pass), three were in Balkh, and ten were in Faryab. Additionally, one data point in Nimroz could not be visited due to the presence of the Taliban but not insecurity. Tomorrow or Saturday I will put together a map depicting this information.

The other poll was by Oxfam; the BBC has a nice summary here. I personally view this one as being less interesting because it was not nearly as comprehensive and was done all the way back from January to April. Additionally, the way in which the data is presented is not very clear, and from what I've been able to garner from it in my current half-asleep daze, I have some serious reservations about its accuracy.

However, some of the questions it asked were extremely interesting, especially what the respondents considered to be the main causes of the present conflict. The answers both give and take hope: On the one hand, only 18% identified the presence of foreign forces as a major factor, on the other hand, the economy (70%) and corruption (48%) were both considerably higher than the Taliban (36%). While I don't think anyone was seriously expecting the Taliban to be number one, it still would have made things infinitely simpler. This is of course assuming that the results are reliable, which I will have to determine at a later date.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Rah-e-Nejat Update

I have compiled a basic map showing Operation Rah-e-Nejat (click for larger version). Green icons indicate cities held by the Pakistani Army and black icons those held by the Taliban. The three red lines are the three "axes" referred to in news reports: the Razmak-Makin Axis, the Shakai-Kaniguram Axis, and the Jandola-Sararogha Axis. Note that while Kaniguram is still held by the Taliban, it has been surrounded by Pakistani forces and will probably soon fall.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pakistan begins Taliban operation

The Pakistani military has begun a ground offensive against Taliban strongholds in South Waziristan.

The ground operation began early on Saturday, advancing from at least three directions - Zhob to the south, Razmak to the north and Jandola from the east. Air power was also put to use.

About 28,000 troops are to be employed in the offensive against about 10,000 Taliban.

The move followed crisis-talks and a meeting headed by Yousuf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, on Friday in which it was decided to launch the operation against Taliban.

The drive comes after continued bomb attacks in the country over the past two weeks that have killed more than 150 people.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Waziristan offensive "imminent"

Pakistani jets bomb S Waziristan

Pakistani aircraft have attacked suspected Taliban fighters in South Waziristan near the Afghan border, in advance of an imminent ground assault.

The air raids on Sunday night came less than 24 hours after commandos stormed an office building and rescued dozens of security officials taken captive after an attack on the general army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

"The jets hit and destroyed two of their hideouts in Makeen and Ladha and we have a total of about 16 militants killed," a unnamed Pakistani intelligence official told Reuters news agency.

But the military has been conducting air and artillery strikes in South Waziristan for months, while moving troops, blockading the region and trying to split armed opposition to Islamabad's authority.

However, a ground offensive has yet to begin and may prove to be the army's toughest test since fighters turned on the state.

Imminent attack

Nevertheless, Rehman Malik, the interior minister, in an interview in Singapore said a ground offensive was "imminent".

"There is no mercy for them because our determination and resolve is to flush them out," he said.

"They have no room in Pakistan, I promise you."

Malik said members of the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda were suspected to have been behind Saturday's attack on army headquarters, which ended a week when suicide bombers struck in the capital Islamabad and Peshawar, killing more than 50 people.

He also said the offensive against the fighters in South Waziristan was no longer a matter of choice.

"It is not an issue of commitment, it is becoming a compulsion because there was an appeal from the local tribes that we should do the operation," Malik said.

Provincial links

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Imtiaz Gul, a political analyst, said he agreed that the government was correct to commence an offensive against South Waziristan.

"A lot of al-Qaeda and ideologically tainted people belonging to the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan under the patronage of the Taliban are sheltering there," he said.

But not everyone agrees. Zafar Jaspal, a Pakistani analyst, believes that Islamabad has concentrated too much on the Swat valley and South Waziristan.

"Till today, the government has no clear strategy on how to deal with the militants who are residing in southern Punjab," he told Al Jazeera.

"The person who was captured alive after [the GHQ attack] comes from Punjab, and other members of that group are also from Punjab ... certainly the government needs to have a parallel strategy - for Punjab as well as South Waziristan."

Al Jazeera


And so it begins.

This is not quite the final push — Orakzai is still in the Taliban's hands — but it might as well be. Once Waziristan has been won, the fate of the Pakistani Taliban will have been sealed. Most surviving militants will probably flee into Afghanistan, in a remarkable mirroring of the events eight years ago. This time, though, the US military will be there to meet them. The tactical imperative of increasing the number of troops in eastern Afghanistan is more clear now than ever: a Taliban surge is coming, and there must be an American surge to counter it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

So who is this guy?

Hakimullah Mehsud, who the Taliban say is their new leader in Pakistan, came to prominence in 2007 after a number of spectacular raids against the army.

At that time he was one of several commanders under Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who the militants have admitted was killed in a US drone strike in early August.

When I met Hakimullah - a nom de guerre, his real name is Zulfiqar - in South Waziristan in October 2007 he had just been appointed Baitullah's chief spokesman.

His audacious capture of 300 Pakistani soldiers had led to us travelling to meet the kidnapped troops.

Still only 28 at the time, Hakimullah was clearly someone to be reckoned with.

Despite his pleasant demeanour and cheeky smile, danger radiated from the man.

The kidnapping incident added to his prestige. Pakistan's government eventually released several high-profile militants in line with Taliban demands.

Since then, Hakimullah Mehsud's star has continued to rise.

Battle skills

But his beginnings were hardly auspicious.

Born in the region of Kotkai near the town of Jandola in South Waziristan, Zulfiqar Mehsud's only schooling was at a small village madrassa in Hangu district.

One of the other students at the time was Baitullah Mehsud, but he dropped out.

Zulfiqar Mehsud later joined up with his fellow clansman in jihad (holy war), initially acting as bodyguard and aide to the older militant.

Baitullah's consolidation of most of Pakistan's Taliban groups into a single entity provided growing opportunities for his talented young friend.

Zulfiqar Mehsud was already famous within the Taliban for his skills in battle - his ability to handle a Kalashnikov and a Toyota pick-up were legendary.

"He is the best after Nek Mohammad," our Taliban driver told us during a hair-raising journey before the meeting in 2007.

Nek Mohammad was the founder of the Taliban movement in Pakistan.

He was killed in a suspected US drone attack in 2004, but not before he had made the Pakistani Taliban a force to be reckoned with.


The comparison with Hakimullah Mehsud sits well - both handsome young men with that extra aggressive instinct.

But Hakimullah Mehsud also has a wild streak which borders on the reckless.

When we met on that autumn day in 2007, he took us for a drive.

To demonstrate his skill with the vehicle, he drove like a man possessed, manoeuvring around razor sharp bends at impossible speeds.

He finished the demonstration by braking inches short of a several hundred foot drop.

While the rest of us sat in stunned silence, he just laughed chillingly and stuck the car in reverse to smoothly continue the journey.

"I went to Karachi once when I was a small boy," he told me when I asked how and where he had travelled in Pakistan.

"But I used to go to Punjab quite often, and have been to Islamabad several times, though not recently."

I asked him when he was last in Islamabad.

"It was in 2005," he answered, before adding spontaneously: "I was looking for [former President Pervez] Musharraf, but I couldn't find him."

He then rattled off the names of a number of Islamabad landmarks which he had scouted during his trip.

"I looked all over, but he was not around so I came back."

Convoy attacks

Our second meeting was in May 2008, at the now famous press conference organised by Baitullah Mehsud.

Hakimullah Mehsud had become a commander in his own right - masterminding the campaign against the Nato convoys in the Khyber tribal region and Peshawar.

He was later appointed Taliban commander for the regions of Khyber, Kurram and Orakzai.

In these areas, he has played a key role in a campaign of attrition against the Pakistani army.

In this respect he remains true to Baitullah Mehsud's ideology - carving out a Taliban emirate in Pakistan and taking on the army to defend it.

His appointment will be seen as confirmation that hardliners are in the ascendancy in the Pakistani Taliban.

It remains to be seen, though, whether he can actually bring all the Taliban factions under his control.

If he can, then Pakistan's security establishment's recent claims of victory may have come a bit too soon.

Via BBC.


This may not have been that smart a move on the part of the TTP. While this Mehsud certainly seems like a highly competent commander on the ground, it remains to be seen what sort of grasp he has on overall campaign strategy, let alone running an organization (the TTP is not in firm control of the regions he was in charge of, except possibly Orakzai). In particular, I suspect his youth and recklessness, which benefit him so much when chasing down a convoy in the Khyber Pass, will be potentially disastrous in the politico-military game the Taliban is playing with Islamabad.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Pakistan 'expands war on Taliban'

Pakistan's military is beginning a significant move into South Waziristan, where the
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan - or the Pakistani Taliban - are based, US officials have said.

The operation is said to be targeting Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, and will be carried out with greater support from the US.

Witnesses and intelligence officials said Pakistani aircraft had bombed a stronghold of Baitullah Mehsud on Saturday, the Pakistani Taliban leader, in the South Waziristan.

"Four fighter jets bombed parts of Makken early on Saturday but we don't know about the extent of damage or any casualties," Mohammad Khan, a shopkeeper in the area said.

Pakistan's Geo TV reported that large numbers of people were migrating from South Waziristan to North Waziristan.

"Operations that appear to be under way now would be the largest operations that have been undertaken in Waziristan," a US defence official said on Friday.

"We think that the initial phases of that operation have already begun."

Pakistan says it has almost completed an offensive to drive Taliban fighters out of the Swat Valley, an area to the north of Waziristan in North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Fight 'to the end'

Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, said on Saturday he would fight the Pakistani Taliban "to the end".

"This war has the support of parliament, the support of the political parties as well as the people of Pakistan," he said in a televised address to the nation broadcast after 1am (1900 GMT on Friday).

"We are fighting a war for our sovereignty. We will continue this war until the end, and we will win it at any cost," he said.

"These people want to capture the institutions of Pakistan by spreading terrorism and by intimidating the people.

"They have killed thousands of innocent people."

Zardari's comments came after two suicide bomb attacks on Friday, claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, in Lahore and Nowshera, in NWFP, killed at least eight people, including a pro-government religious leader.

Maulana Sarfraz Naeemi, known to oppose the Taliban, had condemned the use of suicide bombings.

The US defence official said on Friday that the Pentagon expected Pakistan to conduct "fairly significant combat operations in South Waziristan".

Another US official said Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders were "under very significant pressure", while a third US official said the US would be providing increased intelligence and surveillance support to Pakistan.

Taliban 'resistance'

Pakistan's recent operations have been under way for six weeks, taking the military first into Buner and Upper Dir districts, then into the Swat Valley.

The first US official warned that "isolated pockets of resistance still remain" in parts of the Swat valley as the Pakistani army worked to finish the two-month campaign, and that Islamabad needed to brace for more attacks.

"[Mehsud] has turned suicide bombing into a production output not unlike Toyota outputs cars," the official, who described the Mehsud as leading an extensive network of religious schools that sold or bartered child suicide bombers in NWFP, said.

The key element of the US Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, the defence official said, is to have troops put pressure on al-Qaea and Taliban fighters believed to be operating out of safe havens in Waziristan.

From Al Jazeera.


First a president was elected who is extremely popular in the Muslim world, then that president gave a speech that surpassed their wildest hopes, then al-Qaeda announced that it's broke, and now Pakistan has finally, at long last, taken the fight against the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan and its allies to Waziristan itself. Meanwhile, troops and development projects pour into Afghanistan, and public opinion in Pakistan turns against the TTP.

Could this be the beginning of the end?