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Pakistan Army accused of extrajudicial killings in Swat. Again.

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This video, which has been doing the rounds on the internet for over a week, allegedly depicts the Pakistani Army engaging in an extrajudicial execution of six unidentified men, purportedly in the Swat region. It was reported on blogs and Twitter, but the mainstream media was slow to pick it up, and most interestingly, so was Human Rights Watch.

Since then, it has been picked up by several agencies, and while it was also briefly linked to the Indian Army in Kashmir, most of the discussion seems in favour of declaring it the real Pakistani deal.

The New York Times report:

But American officials, who did not want to be identified because of the explosive nature of the video, said it appeared to be credible, as did retired American military officers and intelligence analysts who have viewed it.

After viewing the graphic video on Wednesday, an administration official said: “There are things you can fake, and things you can’t fake. You can’t fake this.”

Al Jazeera English has a better report that delves deeper into the video and its authenticity:

An organisation called the International Pashtuns’ Association posted the video on Facebook and says that the incident took place during the military’s crackdown on the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat valley the summer of 2009.

The uniforms and rifles appear to be consistent with Pakistan’s standard military equipment, and a former Pakistani general told Al Jazeera that while the video could not be verified, the images should be taken seriously.

“We have to take it at face value at the moment, and take it seriously,” said Talat Masood. “My view is that the CIA and ISI are in a much better position to authenticate this.”

“It looks as though they are Pakistani troops, but there are several other aspects that need to be re-checked  before we can say that it is authentic.”

Human rights groups say the video fits in with “credible allegations” they have received about the conduct of Pakistani troops. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in June that 282 extra-judicial killings by the army had taken place in the Swat region in the past year.

The AJE report also includes responses from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who also say that the video is consistent with numerous reports in the past of the Pakistani Army engaging in such executions. Indeed, both HRW and the NYT have reported it in the past.

The Pakistani Army has, predictably, denied reports and declared the video fake.

The real question is over what fallout this will cause.

Reuters says that it could threaten US aid to Pakistan and includes a quote from State Department spokesman PJ Crowley: “Human rights and the issue of extra-judicial killings has been a part of our ongoing conversation … with Pakistan.” I’d say that quote pretty much sums up the US response, an “ongoing conversation” is vague enough to indicate some sort of action, but nothing concrete or real.

Scarecrow at Fire Dog Lake sums up the inconsistency in relation to drone attacks:

But then one must ask whether there is some moral or legal distinction between what the Pakistan forces are alleged to be doing, which if true would be an egregious crime and warrant protests from all civilized nations, and what our own military teams are doing when they observe a Pakistani village or group of individuals via drone cameras and then, from targeting rooms that may be located in the US, direct the drones to bomb and kill those individuals. Because I’m having a hard time seeing a meaningful difference.

Indeed, it is difficult to find a meaningful difference. Moreover, there’s the much publicised case of Anwar al-Awlaki, and reportedly three other US citizens, all of which are in line to be assassinated by the US Army. Legal challenges to these assassinations have been blocked by the Obama Administration by invoking the State Secrets doctrine to shield it form judicial review. And, of course, there’s the ongoing protection of those involved in Bush-era torture allegations.

So is the US going to withhold aid from Pakistan or take any real action over these killings? Hell no, there won’t even be a statement of condemnation. Why? Because obviously, the Obama Administration doesn’t care. It will put sanctions on Iranian diplomats for torture, but it’s not going to censure a key strategic ally for the war in Afghanistan. In this case, American exceptionalism must, to some extent, be extended to strategic allies.

So anyone looking for something concrete to come out of this, don’t hold your breath. Instead, just wait for it to blow over, as undoubtedly it will.

Written by alexlobov

October 1, 2010 at 5:37 pm

On Aafia Siddiqui’s conviction

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Pakistani protesters burn effigies of US President Obama and former Pakistani President Musharraf in Multan (PHOTO: REUTERS)

It was bound to create controversy and outrage in a country fixated with Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. The sentencing of the Pakistani neuroscientist — dubbed the ‘Grey Lady of Bagram,’ the ‘daughter of Pakistan’ and ‘Prisoner 650′ by her supporters — in a New York court on Thursday has riled many in Pakistan, including the government that had campaigned for her release.

But other than the typical and expected anti-U.S. comments made by Aafia Siddiqui’s supporters, anger was directed at the Pakistani government. On Thursday night, Siddiqui’s sister Fauzia addressed a press conference minutes after the ruling (86 years imprisonment on seven counts) and said it was a “slap on the face of our rulers and every leader of the Muslim world” and that she had been reassured by government officials that Aafia would be repatriated. She accused the Pakistani government of “selling Aafia out repeatedly.”

It is an ironic state of affairs. The Pakistani government, which had reportedly paid $2 million for Siddiqui’s legal defense, made her into a folk hero of sorts and regularly communicated with her family, is now taking the heat. Politicians appeared instantly on television channels to denounce the government for not acting in time to ‘save the daughter of Pakistan.’ Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told Pakistan’s upper house of parliament that the government was trying to initiate an extradition treaty for Aafia Siddiqui’s release. “We did not spare any effort,” Gilani claimed, and said “Dr. Aafia is the daughter of the nation. We fought for her and we will fight politically to bring her back.”

Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani said in an e-mail interview, “We have made sincere efforts to help her legally and diplomatically and will continue to do so. We understand Fauzia Siddiqui’s grief but it is sheer fantasy to believe that Aafia’s imprisonment is because of the Pakistani government’s inaction or that the Pakistani government could somehow spring her from prison in the U.S. In over two years since her reported arrest in Ghazni, the government of Pakistan has sought but not received evidence from those issuing statements on her behalf that could disprove the U.S. government’s version of events.”

Fauzia Siddiqui said in an interview with Dawn News that she had been fooled by Amb. Haqqani and alleged that he had told her he privately met with the judge presiding over the case.

Aafia’s comments before her sentencing were a mix of confusion and conspiracies. According to Al Jazeera English, “She disputed her lawyer’s claim that she is mentally unfit to stay on trial, then went on to talk about her dreams and the symbolism of her dreams, genetic testing, her belief that Israel is behind the attacks of September 11, 2001, and that Israel was plotting with her prison warden to attack the United States.” She claimed she was not being mistreated and appealed to her supporters to not turn to violence. Fauzia repeated Aafia’s call for calm, but also said that she had been forced to make a statement saying she was not mistreated and invoked gory visions. “Have you forgotten the hearings when she would appear covered in blood, her face would be swollen and (her body) would bear marks of being hit by rifles?”

And so the sentencing was used — as most volatile incidents are — to stage public protests countrywide.

Members of civil society and the religious political party Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing Islami Jamiat Talaba clashed with the police in Karachi and Islamabad. Their aim was to protest outside the U.S. consulate and embassy in the respective cities. On Thursday night, protestors in Peshawar burned tires and stomped on posters of former U.S. President George W. Bush.

Political parties rarely call for protests after suicide bombings, but the Jamaat-e-Islami called for countrywide protests shortly after Aafia’s sentencing. Breathless condemnations of the sentencing came in almost instantly from political parties. A high-level meeting was chaired by Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik on Friday evening to form a committee on Aafia’s repatriation.

While Pakistani leaders have often been accused of dragging their feet on the issues that matter — be it condemning terrorist acts, clamping down on militant activities or ensuring transparent flood relief efforts — Aafia Siddiqui’s sentencing has kick started everyone into action.

The millions displaced by the floods in Pakistan, thousands languishing in jail awaiting trial and the countless women who are victims of honor killings, mistreatment in jails and discrimination will not see anyone rallying for their cause. Not acting swiftly to help them — who should also be dubbed daughters of Pakistan and supported by politicians — is the real injustice. Instead, the focus continues to be on the woman with the explosive purse, an illustrious past, a dubious story and now, an 86-year sentence.

This post was originally published on Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel blog here.

Other stories I’ve done on Aafia Siddiqui’s case:

WikiLeaks: Aafia Siddiqui’s incriminating purse – The Express Tribune

Not a daughter of Pakistan – AfPak Channel

Written by Saba Imtiaz

September 26, 2010 at 3:54 pm

The Cordoba Initiative and Islamophobia

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Iam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the Cordoba Initiative

This is a guest post by Negah Rahmani, the writer can be contacted here.

The recent debate over the Cordoba Initiative, or ‘The Ground Zero Mosque’ as it is more popularly known has become yet another ‘with us or against us’ style argument in America. The proposed Islamic cultural centre two blocks from the Ground Zero site has led to heated debates, rallies and political ramifications. What started out as a simple question about the appropriateness of the proposed location has brought to light a multitude of issues and deep-seated racial and religious tensions.

Firstly, if you conduct a very basic Google search with the keywords of ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ a total of 59,900,000 hits come up. The keywords of ‘Cordoba Initiative’ bring up 3,670,000 hits. The difference is immense. Even more so if you take into consideration that the proposed project is not a mosque but a cultural centre and it is not actually on Ground Zero. The Cordoba Initiative proposes to build a centre to enhance Muslim-West and interfaith relations in America and a mosque already exists close to the site. This trend of inaccurate reference to the project has sensationalised and polarised the entire debate leaving little room for meaningful discussion. Under these circumstances people have two sides to choose from with almost no middle ground.

The initial anti-mosque sentiment has now led to a spate of anti-Islamic rhetoric across America. At the forefront of this movement has been the group Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) headed by Pamela Geller. The group has been a major force in the organisation of rallies against the construction of the centre. SIAO claims to be a human rights organisation fighting for religious liberty and individual rights. Besides being a major force behind the anti-mosque movement SIAO has launched campaigns to further their cause. Their recent ad campaign on a fleet of taxis and buses refers Muslims to LeaveislamSafely.com, a SIAO webpage detailing how Muslims (it is targeted at young Muslims, especially girls) can safely leave their faith. The organisation seems to be advocating to stop Islam taking over the US and is frantically trying to stop Sharia Law from coming into effect in the US judicial system.

Besides SIAO’s organised, and seemingly well-financed, anti-Islam campaign, other groups and individuals have also used the mosque debate to express anti-Islamic sentiment all over the country. A Florida church’s plan to hold a ‘Burn a Koran Day’ on September 11th(ed: this has been cancelled, thankfully), as well as the recent assault on a Muslim taxi driver in New York all create a grim picture. The construction of mosques and religious centres have led to communities up in arms all over the country from California to Wisconsin to Tennessee. Reporting on these incidents Laurie Goldstein of the New York Times writes that communities before protested against the construction of mosques under the guise of increased noise and traffic. Now, the gloves have come off and communities all around America are openly protesting against Islam itself. The Cordoba project, it seems has unleashed a deep Islamophobia that runs strongly all over the USA.

And this has had ramifications for people all the way up to the top. Chris Cilliza from the Washington Post writes that a recent Pew survey found 18% of participants thought Obama to be a Muslim. This is significantly higher than the 2009 figure of 11%. What’s more interesting, he writes: “there was a strong linkage between those who wrongly believe Obama is a Muslim and those who disapprove of the job he is doing as president.” Two thirds of the 41% who disapprove of Obama think him to be a Muslim. So in short, the more Americans think Obama is a Muslim, the lower his popularity. A Newsweek Poll recorded 31% of respondents who believed Obama to be a sympathiser of Islamic fundamentalists and their efforts to spread Islamic law around the world. Added to this, a recent survey conducted by The Economist/YouGov found 27.7% of respondents to view the religion of Islam very unfavourably and a further 27.7% somewhat unfavourably. That is a total of 54.4% who perceived Islam in a negative light. In light of these findings the question remains, what role have the Republicans played in adding fuel to this fire and how will it affect the mid-term election results?  It has forced Obama to backpedal on his strong support for the mosque and has Democrats worried. So if the debate is being fuelled for political ends, are the American public opposed to the mosque being exploited? And how much wisdom is there in prioritising short-term political gains over long-lasting implications which will be felt all around the world?

Of course there are many more sides to this story and many voices to be heard. There have been calls to just move the proposed site to a less-offensive location. And then there are those like Newt Gingrich who call for the construction of synagogues and churches in Saudi Arabia as a precursor to the construction of the Cordoba project. Well it is easy to poke a hole through that argument. Freedoms of expression and religion (not to say that of private property) are what distinguish the US from the Middle East. America has been very willing and ready to afford itself a moral and ethical high ground based on these freedoms. And this is why they’re the right people to be invading Iraq and Afghanistan, or so we were told: to spread such (universal) ideals of freedoms and equality, right?

However, the core of the issue remains, this is no longer a widespread protest against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”, but rather an expression of an Islamophobic current that is clearly alive and well in America. Daisy Khan, the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, sums up the aspirations of the Islamic community and the Cordoba project and states, “we Muslims are really fed up being defined by the actions of the extremists.” She goes on to add that the centre is much needed to project an image of the Muslim community as majority peaceful, law-abiding citizens and good Americans. In the face of such strong Islamophobia, this redefinition of the Muslim community in the public eye is desperately needed. Given the polarisation of this topic, it will be interesting to see how the project and debate proceed. Will the Muslims who support it be considered as fundamentalists and bad Americans? Will they fall victim to more racial attacks and will there be a campaign of guilt-by-association to hinder the progress of this project? Will they abandon it under this immense pressure and, if so what does that say about the land of the free and equal?

Negah Rahmani is a student at the Monash Asia Institute undertaking a Masters in Asian Studies with a focus on Afghanistan and women’s rights.

Written by alexlobov

September 12, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Lebanon in the event of an Iran strike

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This piece was originally published at NOW!Lebanon, titled “Lebanon in the event of an Iran strike

The past few weeks have seen a flurry of discussion in US foreign policy circles about the potential for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. Much of this discussion has been focused around Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy and alarmist cover story for The Atlantic Magazine about the likelihood of such a strike happening within the next 12 months. However, no discussion of an Israeli, or indeed American, strike on Iran can ignore the unavoidable involvement of Lebanon, and the subsequent impact on the country.

Goldberg interviewed around “forty current and past Israeli decision-makers” as background for his piece, but many of them remain anonymous, and those who are named appear to contribute little different to what we already knew: Israel considers Iran an “existential threat” and is very worried, and all options are always on the table, some of them more likely than others. Thus, the motivation of Goldberg’s sources must be better understood. Why would Israeli decision makers be telling Jeffrey Goldberg that there’s a good chance of an Israeli strike on Iran? Because they understand Goldberg’s influence in Washington, and they want to mainstream the idea of not only an Israeli strike, but a potentially pre-emptive one from the US. This story has already had a broad ripple effect in the political media ecosystem, having been expanded into a fully-fledged debate on The Atlantic website and picked up by other outlets and blogs alike. This process helps an idea gain a legitimacy it didn’t have before the original big story dropped.

While, of course, such a story alone cannot be blamed for a military strike, in many ways, this process is reminiscent of similar discussions in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war, during which Jeffrey Goldberg played a remarkably similar role. In 2010, the potentially disastrous consequences of such a strike by the US, many of which would also eventuate in the case of an Israeli one, cannot be easily dismissed, and some are even mentioned by Goldberg himself: a closing of the Straits of Hormuz; a massive spike in the price of oil, exacerbating the global recession; destabilisation of the Gulf region; deadly reprisals from Iranian-sponsored terrorist outfits abroad; a nail in the coffin for the Iranian “Green Movement;” and a shoring up of sympathy for Iran’s regime internationally. Most alarmingly, Iran’s actual pursuit of nuclear-weapons capacity, both the details and progress of it, are still in doubt. A strike would, much as it did with Israel’s strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, impel Iran’s regime to redouble its efforts to reach such a capacity.

The consequences of a strike on Iran for the fragile détente between Israel and Hezbollah are unpredictable at best and a powder keg at worst. “Israel or the United States cannot just bomb Iran and (expect) things to continue normally,” Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader, told Reuters in March. “Any attack on Iran could ignite the whole region and the assailant will pay a heavy price whether it’s Israel or the United States.”

Cross-border rocket reprisals from Hamas and Hezbollah are widely expected in the case of a strike on Iran, but the extent of the potential conflict cannot be precisely anticipated. Many analysts already believe that the next war between Israel and Hezbollah is a matter of when, not if, and there are plenty of potential excuses for war already. One major cause for concern is the exploration of Tamarand Leviathan,two recently-discovered gas fields that could, as estimated by the US partner in exploration Noble Energy, contain up to 30 trillion cubic feet of gas. The maritime boundary between Israel and Lebanon is not well defined, and Beirut has also taken steps to begin off-shore exploration. Natural resources aside, Hezbollah’s steady rearmament since 2006 and Israel’s continued manned overflights over Lebanese territory, both in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, are reason enough for a major conflict to be sparked by either side.

Concerning Hezbollah’s rearmament, as noted by Daniel Kurtzer in his July report for the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, the party has improved both the quantity and quality of its weaponry since 2006, although it is unclear exactly by how much. Since Gabi Ashkenazi’s ascendancy to IDF chief of staff, Israel has also maintained that it is far more prepared today to fight a war with Hezbollah than in previous years. As repeatedly noted in Kurtzer’s report, Israel has not only levelled at Hezbollah the as-yet-unproven charge of acquiring Scud missiles from Syria, but also prepared for it, as well as the strategic threat from Syrian M-600 rockets or even advanced surface-to-air missiles, such as the S-300, which Israel considers a “red line.”

What this indicates is that Israel takes the threat from Hezbollah very seriously, and would be keeping this threat in mind in accompaniment to any potential strike on Iran.

If Goldberg’s story, particularly its many statements from Israeli officials, is to be viewed largely as an Israeli PR exercise, then Israel probably wishes to allow time for the off chance that the Obama administration will conduct a US strike on Iran, something Israel almost certainly prefers. The administration is in no hurry. As reported in the New York Times last week, administration officials believe that there is roughly a year before Iran achieves “breakout” nuclear capacity, or the time it would take to convert low-enriched uranium into weapons-grade.  Iran’s distance from real nuclear-weapons capacity, and Israel’s current wariness of an immediate military conflict with Hezbollah indicate that a strike would likely occur toward the end of Goldberg’s proposed 12-month window, if at all.

No mistake should be made about the consequences for Lebanon. Benjamin Netanyahu has already made it clear that, as a result of Hezbollah’s inclusion in Lebanon’s cabinet, the whole country would be held responsible for attacks on Israel. This is an apparent extension of Israel’s supposed “Dahiyeh Doctrine” to cover not only southern Lebanon but the country’s institutions and infrastructure on a national level, bringing with it alarming possibilities stemming from Israel’s destruction of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.

Obama does not have the stomach for the initiation of another major conflict, but only time will tell whether Israel is prepared to put aside concerns of a complicated entanglement with Hezbollah, along with the other host of issues mentioned above, and actually execute a strike on Iran unilaterally. The possibility for unmitigated disaster is great, and hopefully cooler heads will prevail.

‘The cultural situation’

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All excerpts from reports published on wikileaks:

‘Refusal of treatment’

TF Devil reported a local national woman was struck by a US convoy 26 kilometers southwest of Kabul. At 1127Z, Task Force Devil reported that a local national female stepped into oncoming traffic and was struck by an up-armor HMMWV (M1114) traveling 30 miles per hour. A medic on-scene attempted to render aid, but the local males refused to allow treatment of the woman. The woman was treated at a local national hospital. She was later scheduled for transfer from the local hospital to a medical facility on Bagram Airfield.


‘The cultural situation’

Discussion Items:
3. Traffic accident south of Abad, Nurang District. Woman taken to FST Abad and injuries resulted in amputating both feet. She was medevacd to BAF. Family member was unable to accompany PT in helo. FST provided a note to get him to the hospital at BAF and money for transportation.

PRT Assessment:

1. Briefed the Governor on the traffic accident and steps taken to ensure family member was with her at the hospital in BAF. Anticipate meeting with the family members/Elders in the near future. Radio message will be that it was a unfortunate accident, her immediate medical treatment by CF and follow on movement to the hospital in BAF, and family member provided assistance to ensure he was given the necessary paperwork to get access to the base hospital to be with her. Three things will have to happen before the radio address 1) update the Governor on her condition and 2) that the family member is with her, and finally 3)identify the family member, first reports he was either the son or nephew. (This is to ensure a more sincere message to the people)
2. The villagers in Sirkani met with the Governor and he relayed that the people feel the CFs dont care. PRT CMDR and the Governor will go to Sirkani, meet with Elders from the Tribes, state facts of the incident and get from the Elders what is needed to rebuild from the damage. This meeting will take place within the next few days once we can sync up the PRT and Gov’s schedule.
3. Per Chosin, they spoke to the ANP chief today and he said that the people in Dag had come to the police station and were actually happy about the operation. The operation got rid of some bad people, including Pakistanis. The only thing concern was two women were wounded, who will be alright. PRT discussion with ODA regarding the operation revealed that the women were medically treated by ODA with ANP present with complete respect to the women. This will be covered in the Governor’s radio address, emphasizing the success of the mission, removing ACM from this village and regret for the injury to the women, and assurance to the people that the women were treated by CF onsite with all due respect to the women and the culture. The mood seems very good with respect to the locals so far. Chosin plans a meeting with the village Elders in the next 48 hours.

‘The Nangarhar lessson’

Conducted a meeting with Gov Sherzai to discuss results and lessons learned from an operation conducted to arrest LN individuals involved in SVIED activity in the Boti Kot District of Nangarhar.

Attending the meeting were VANGUARD, PRT Jalalabad, Nangarhar Chief of Police and NDS Chief. One of the major complaints of the Afghans was the taking of the injured woman, child and female escort to first JAF hospital, then BAF hospital without a LN male escort from the house or local village. This was widely viewed by the Afghans in attendance in the meeting as a major cultural mistake, which they assessed was the impetus of the 500-person demonstration and near riot that occurred in Boti Kot this morning. PRT Jalalabad requested two male elders from the Boti Kot area to come to the PRT where we could find a solution to the situation. We eventually flew the elders from the PRT to BAF via H-60 to accompany the LN females. The plan is to return all LNs to JBAD via helicopter support on 30 Apr, regardless of the female’s medical condition, due to the cultural situation.

‘Infuriated’

Ambassador and Minister Shahrani discussed the recent incident in Jalalabad in which a young Afghan woman seriously injured during a coalition operation against the Taliban was transported without a male relative or local elder by Coalition forces for medical treatment at Bagram (Ref). Local elders were infuriated by this action and deemed it contrary both to Islam and to Afghan customs. Given that the woman’s life was in danger, Minister Shahrani said her transport was not inconsistent with the principles of Islam. He said only local tradition and interpretation created the tension and public outcry. He told the Ambassador that he is doing all he can to calm and educate people regarding the issue. In addition, Ambassador and Minister Shahrani discussed the Islamic themes that might have resonance in the counternarcotics campaign in Afghanistan.

Written by Saba Imtiaz

July 29, 2010 at 5:11 am

Signs of desperation

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While the world collects its thoughts on Wikileaks, here’s an excerpt from one of the reports that pinpoints so many things that have gone wrong with the wars waged in Afghanistan:

Men speaking on behalf of the crowd stated that they are a very poor people. They hate the Taliban because the Taliban come into their village and steal money from them and tell them to feed their troops. They hate the Americans because they bomb our homes. (The villagers were not aware that Polish troops were now working the area.) The villagers felt the Americans acted the same as the Soviets, coming to Afghanistan under the pretense of helping the country but then proceeding to kill villagers. The crowd was flabbergasted at how the CF could fire on a village with women, children and old men without cause (i.e. no fire coming from the village) using mortars in an attempt to hit Taliban insurgents instead of coming up to the village and questioning the owners on the presence of insurgents.

The villagers knew the Taliban intruders were planting IEDs and had asked them to stop conducting operations in their area. As a sign of the desperation of the villagers, they recently sent their women with a Koran to ask the Taliban intruders in the name of Allah to leave and stop operations in their area. Their efforts were met with threats of death if they interfered.

Written by Saba Imtiaz

July 27, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Top Secret America – A Failure of Gigantic Proportions

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A man walks through a flag crossing at The Pentagon. GETTY Images.

Yesterday, the Washington Post finally released the first part of what was one of the mostly hotly anticipated newspaper articles in years, a massive investigative report, two years in the making, about what it calls America’s “fourth branch” of government. The report has a dedicated site and will be released in installments, the first part yesterday and the second today, with more to follow

The piece was controversial even before it was released and has been generating a great deal of talk since its first installment hit the press and the internet. If you don’t have time to read the full first part and want a handy cheatsheet, Max Fisher at The Atlantic Wire has drawn up an executive summary of it.

The opening salvo is fired on the first page, as Priest and Arkin open up with the bewildering scale of the whole thing:

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

The gist of the first piece is that “Top Secret America” is so massive that much of it is redundant, inefficient, ineffective at keeping America safe and hugely wasteful of public funds. The complex described is so grotesque in its scale and so Kafkaesque in its operations that one can’t help but scratch one’s head at how the world’s lone superpower could possibly be so stupid. Some of it is downright scary:

Beyond redundancy, secrecy within the intelligence world hampers effectiveness in other ways, say defense and intelligence officers. For the Defense Department, the root of this problem goes back to an ultra-secret group of programs for which access is extremely limited and monitored by specially trained security officers.

These are called Special Access Programs – or SAPs – and the Pentagon’s list of code names for them runs 300 pages. The intelligence community has hundreds more of its own, and those hundreds have thousands of sub-programs with their own limits on the number of people authorized to know anything about them. All this means that very few people have a complete sense of what’s going on.

If no one knows what’s going on then how can this system that carries such immense power possibly be accountable to anyone, let alone the people of America that the country supposedly belongs to? Glenn Greenwald points out that Americans “keep sacrificing their privacy to the always-growing National Security State in exchange for less security”

Indeed, Top Secret America’s security failures are mentioned repeatedly in the report:

In Yemen, the commandos set up a joint operations center packed with hard drives, forensic kits and communications gear. They exchanged thousands of intercepts, agent reports, photographic evidence and real-time video surveillance with dozens of top-secret organizations in the United States.

That was the system as it was intended. But when the information reached the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington for analysis, it arrived buried within the 5,000 pieces of general terrorist-related data that are reviewed each day. Analysts had to switch from database to database, from hard drive to hard drive, from screen to screen, just to locate what might be interesting to study further.

What they missed was the ‘pantybomber’, a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to detonate an explosive device, stowed in his underwear, on a Detroit-bound flight. That attack was averted because of an alert passenger, not because of Top Secret America. The same was the case during the Fort Hood shooting where 13 service members were gunned down by Nidal Malik Hasan.

Of course it can be argued that the US hasn’t suffered a 9/11 since 9/11 but that in itself isn’t enough proof for me that this sprawling mess that is supposed to be protecting America is doing its job properly. Not mentioned in the WaPo article (presumably because these acts of terrorism weren’t perpetrated by Muslims and therefore don’t count as terrorism, heh) all the wiretaps and surveillance didn’t prevent a man from flying a plane into an IRS building a Texas or a pipe-bomb being detonated at a mosque in Florida. Keeping America Safe from Terrorism is clearly not working.

Some criticism has been leveled at this report for not saying anything new and not being the top secret bombshell that it was billed as but I don’t think that’s fair. What’s important about this report is that it isn’t written for commentators and insiders, it’s written for the layman and published in one of the world’s most influential newspapers. Anyone expecting ‘wikileaks‘ from the Washington Post was clearly dreaming from the beginning, but what this does is it aggregates much of the information that some of us have already read in one place and it exposes a whole new set of readers to the massive failure, money sink and joke that is Top Secret America.

Hopefully this report will spur a new set of readers to ask questions of their Government and question the massive shift in America’s true foundation. As Glenn Greenwald so succinctly put it:

That’s really the only relevant question:  how much longer will Americans sit by passively and watch as a tiny elite become more bloated, more powerful, greedier, more corrupt and more unaccountable — as the little economic security, privacy and freedom most citizens possess vanish further still?

The more that question is asked, the more this report becomes worth the time and effort it took to compile.

Written by alexlobov

July 20, 2010 at 11:11 pm

The need for accurate civilian casualty figures in Afghanistan

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This piece was originally published on Foreign Policy’s Afpak Channel, titled “NATO’s responsibility to Afghan civilians”.

June was the deadliest month for the NATO-led force in Afghanistan since the start of the conflict. As fighting intensifies and as British troops pull out of Sangin, proponents and detractors are still squabbling over the relative success of the counterinsurgency strategy (COIN), spearheaded under the Obama administration, and the GOP is arguing over whether chairman of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele’s recent ill-advised comments about the war should be a cause for his resignation.

While domestic discussion over whether various countries should remain in Afghanistan gathers steam, a key metric that should be strongly related to the ‘success’ narrative is not getting enough airtime. Much has been made of whether NATO is ‘winning’ the war in Afghanistan or what it really means ‘to win’ such a war in the first place, but civilian casualties have rarely been discussed in any precise context.

According to a UNAMA survey released in January, 2009 was the deadliest year to date for Afghan civilians and a striking amount were killed by increased Taliban activity. But whether it’s the Taliban, suicide attacks, or U.S. forces killing civilians, the pain for the families of those killed is on the rise — and they may not care who is responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. The lack of attention from coalition governments to the details of how many civilians are killed is not encouraging.

According to James Denselow, neither the U.S. Defense Department nor the British Ministry of Defense “maintain records that would enable a definitive number of civilian fatalities to be recorded.” This is in stark contrast to scrupulously maintained numbers of military casualties. Denselow thinks that this is part of the propaganda war and that it’s aimed at maintaining control over the ‘win’ narrative. NATO governments need to take more responsibility for the accurate recording and reporting of information related to civilian casualties, much as they do for military casualties. This should not be left solely to UNAMA.

Military casualties are an understandable cause for concern for those at home, but we must also care about civilian casualties and the increasing humanitarian crisis in the country. While far from a perfect measurement, Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index has rated Afghanistan as 6th in 2010, a position that has deteriorated every year since the Index began in 2005 (when Afghanistan was 11th).

It is notable that under General McChrystal’s rules of engagement, more protection was supposed to be provided for civilians. Equally notable is the news that General Petraeus might change the rules of engagement again due to concerns that they are putting coalition forces in greater danger. The UNAMA survey mentioned above indicates that during 2009, with McChrystal’s changed rules of engagement in place for half the year, the number of civilian casualties killed by coalition forces had indeed decreased, but statistics are not yet available for 2010.

So far the debate over rules of engagement has focused greatly on the balancing act between protecting civilians and endangering coalition forces; however, I struggle to see how this debate can be properly carried out when reliable metrics are not available for half of the balance.

Apart from policy wonks and military types engaged in the debate over rules of engagement, the tax payers who are bankrolling this war need to start thinking independently about what it means to ‘win’ and whether three Australian soldiers killed is so momentous that Afghan civilian casualties pale in comparison. In the war over numbers, we need to stop looking after our people only and look deeper into what the ‘win’ narrative means. While the U.S. and its allies have a lot at stake in this war, the people of Afghanistan have immeasurably more. Whether history judges NATO or the Taliban to be the ‘winners’ in Afghanistan, the Afghan people could end up being the losers.

Written by alexlobov

July 13, 2010 at 9:46 pm

General McChrystal prefers Bud Light to Biden

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Obama & McChrystal | GETTY Images

The upcoming issue of Rolling Stone is carrying a piece of hellfire for Obama. General Stanley McChrystal, Commander of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan is profiled, in all of his brash arrogance and his comments to reporter, Michael Hastings will make for some chilling reading in the White House. Although the piece cannot yet be found online, Politico has put it up and so has TIME, check it out while it’s still up.  Update: Piece is now up on RS in full.

The piece doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know. However, having these comments by McChrystal out in the open is something else. Namely, it’s open insubordination.

McChrystal has already issued a public apology, reportedly apologised to Biden personally, and been called into what promises to be a fairly fiery meeting with President Obama.

In the RS piece, McChrystal openly trashes Vice President Joe Biden, Richard Holbrooke, Karl Eikenberry and his distaste for Obama himself is veiled pretty thinly. I’m not going to fill this post with quotes from the article, you can read it yourselves via the links above or check out some of the choice bits here.

But such revelations! Who knew about the General’s preference for Bud Light Lime and his set of custom nunchucks, engraved with his name? How is the US going to win the respect & fear of the enemy if it gets out that top Generals are drinking Bud Light for fun? And custom “McChrystal”-engraved nunchucks? What is he, the karate kid? But I digress…

As I said, not much of the controversial stuff is new. McChrystal’s disdain for Biden & Eikenberry have been doing the rounds among pundits for quite some time now and I don’t think anyone really thought that all was well between him and Obama.

The real question of course is: what now? Will Obama dismiss him for insubordination?

The political implications of this for Obama are also a challenge. One one hand, it’s clear insubordination and to not fire the General will make Obama look terribly weak, as well as setting a negative precedent for future disgruntled men in uniform. On the other hand, Obama does not need another high-profile fracas for the GOP to exploit, given that they are likely to back McChrystal and his hawkish plans for COIN and Afghanistan. With the mid-terms looming and Obama already looking politically fragile, he doesn’t need more pain by looking soft on Afghanistan and National Security. It seems Obama is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Here’s what I think Obama will do. I predict that Obama will let things slide with McChrystal but muzzle him for the rest of his tenure. Whether the damage has already been done is another question. It’s no secret that McChrystal opposes the drawdown in 2011 and wants another surge in Afghanistan, will he force this issue back to center stage and successfully avoid a drawdown or is the war’s supposed growing unpopularity among Americans enough to ensure that Obama’s drawdown remains unchallenged?

Here’s what I think Obama should do. Obama should fire General McChrystal. The political reasons for why he should remain are important, sure, but what’s more important is surely preserving the Constitution of the United States, the authority of the President and the moral fabric of the world’s supposedly leading democracy. Regardless of how arrogant a General is, he has no right to openly mock his democratically elected leaders. Allowing him to do so would set a nasty precedent and would forever enshrine Obama as a toothless President.

What’s really appalling about all this is how things got this far. How could McChrystal and his staff possibly be so stupid? How could they deliver such brazenly unconstitutional remarks to a reporter (and one who writes for Rolling Stone no less)?

More answers will come after the results of Obama’s meeting but one thing’s for certain, the President takes another hit.

Written by alexlobov

June 23, 2010 at 12:53 am

We’re all conspiracy theorists, y’know.

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So even before I’d clicked on the New York Times video by Adam Ellick (to accompany a story by Sabrina Tavernise) I was filled with a sense of foreboding (though that could be because of the series of dreams I’m having in which I end up in a nameless Russian city and lose my job).

Glenn Greewald has a good takedown of the piece here, but I wanted to blog about the video. It splices – too creepily in fact – quotes from guests and hosts on talk shows, interviews and statements (including one by  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) to put together a compelling little film on why Pakistanis are conspiracy theorists.

While it accurately points to anti-US statement in the country – hardly a secret, really – the manner in which its done is discomfiting. The quotes are all strung together to form a narrative that – surprise, surprise! – Pakistani media is hugely critical of the US. What, precisely, did the NYT expect? That showing an hour of Voice of America’s Urdu programming would make everyone follow suit? Or that one could expect rationality from every talk show host in Pakistan? For example, the one host that Ellick describes as a moderate is currently front page news in Pakistan. (Daily Times. Oh, you don’t believe a Pakistani newspaper? Here’s The Guardian on the same issue.)

But if you were to watch those talk shows in their entirety, you’d realize that it does feature opposing views, particularly of people who do not believe Faisal Shahzad was a CIA plant or whatever outlandish rumour it is that is doing the rounds these days. If you would do a Google search, you’d also realize that one of the key complaints that many Pakistanis have with local talk show hosts is that they are too pro-government or side with the US too much.

It is very easy to present a one-sided, skewed version of events and tailor them to a specific audience. Why should I be surprised? That is exactly the same way anti-US sentiment has been broadcast in this country.

After all, we’re all conspiracy theorists, y’know.

Written by Saba Imtiaz

May 28, 2010 at 5:45 am

Posted in Pakistan, US

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