Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The problem with drones and the flourishing system of esteem among the Taliban

The article in today’s NYTimes by Eric Schmitt and Jeane Perlez ["Strikes Worsen Qaeda Threat, Pakistan Says" ] tells us some useful details about the struggle with the Taliban-AlQaeda in Pakistan. The Pakistani officials are saying that the drone strikes have had their effect but they also generate more volunteers for the cause. What I wonder about is whether the Pakistan objections by the military are not mere admissions of how much trouble they are in, now that they have created a “monster” and nourished it all these years. The article helps me understand the system of esteem at work in the tribal areas where the Taliban are flourishing. And it turns out that Arab zealots are key in it.

Some significant statements in the article.
• “But they express growing alarm that the drone strikes in particular are having an increasingly destabilizing effect on their country. They also voiced fears that the expected arrival of 17,000 American troops in Afghanistan this spring and summer would add to the stresses by pushing more Taliban fighters into Pakistan.” [Does this suggest that they haven’t actually minded much that the Taliban were able to operate so freely inside Afghnistan?]
• There is “no cessation to the attacks by Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban aimed at undermining Pakistan’s government.” [This is the reason for their worry.]
• “Pakistani officials suggested that Al Qaeda was replenishing killed fighters and midlevel leaders with less experienced but more hard-core militants, who are considered more dangerous because they have fewer allegiances to local Pakistani tribes.” [From what we already know the Taliban are not tribal and have worked hard to undermine tribal authority – killing 48 tribal leaders a few months ago. Dozens if not hundreds of tribal leaders have been assassinated by the Taliban, so this claim seems unconvincing; the Taliban have never been responsive to tribal controls.]
• “Al Qaeda was using sophisticated Web sites and sleeper cells across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia to enlist young fighters who were less patient or inclined to plan and carry out far-reaching global attacks and who had instead redirected their energies on more immediate targets and on fomenting insurgency in Pakistan, the officials said.Qaeda leaders have also increased their financing and logistical support for the Taliban and other militant groups, having come to see the survival of Qaeda sanctuaries as dependent on the ability of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan to hold territory.” [What seems to be new here is that the new focus of AlQaeda attack is Pakistan. No wonder then that the Pakistanis are complaining. But to blame drone attacks for this seems disingenuous, as they have harbored AlQaeda-Taliban for so many years. It is true, though, and we can sympathize, that they now have a monster on their hands.]
• The complaint is that “the missile strikes cause too many civilian casualties and that they hand the militants a propaganda windfall.” [This is hard to deny. Air power in its various forms seems effective technically but socially and politically it seems consistently to create anger on the ground. From here it would seem that without an effective thrust on the ground the use of drones is likely to continue. So the Pakistani army has a case.]
• “The Pakistani intelligence assessment found that Al Qaeda had adapted to the blows to its command structure by shifting “to conduct decentralized operations under small but well-organized regional groups” within Pakistan and Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has given up training sites and shifted to mobile training teams, which Pakistani intelligence officials say are still effective. They often consist of just a few bomb-making or tactical experts schooling a handful of fighters in a private house, . . . “ .
• “The flow of new recruits comes largely from countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia and Uzbekistan, Pakistani intelligence officials said. They often travel through Iran, enter Pakistan through Baluchistan Province and then move onto Waziristan for training, . . .” [That this is being published indicates how well know it is. The one source of recruits that seems curious is Uzbekistan. These recruits are creations of Karimov’s repressive measures there; anyone he distrusts he calls an Islamist, a Wahhabi. So is he creating his own “Wahhabi” movement up there? Note that the training is centered in Waziristan. This has been a major target of the drone attacks.]
• “Uzbeks affiliated with Al Qaeda carried out the brunt of the militants’ operations against civilians and the army in Swat, . . . The Uzbeks, who were driven across the border from Afghanistan with the Taliban and Qaeda after 2001, have been particularly ruthless as they helped their allies secure sanctuary in the tribal areas. They have now been unleashed on Pakistani soldiers in Swat, . . . .”
• “Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Taliban in Swat, was backed by about a half-dozen Arab fighters from Al Qaeda who served as the “main motivators,” . . .
• The Arabs who traveled from the Qaeda bases in Waziristan across the tribal belt to Swat are held in high esteem by Pakistani Taliban fighters, the agent said. “The Arabs motivate the local guys, who see them as people who have forsaken all their money for jihad,” [The Arabs thus appear to be wealthy, or are believed to be so by the Pakistani Taliban.]
• [A social movement is an esteem system and it seems that Arabs are now much admired among the Pakistani Taliban. Arabs considered wealthy and zealous for their faith are inspiring young Taliban to follow their example. In fact, the Arab influence in the movement in Pakistan seems to be a critical feature of the situation the Pakistani military have to deal with. Note the following concluding statements in the article:] “the Arab leaders of Al Qaeda were intent on promoting their fighters up through the ranks to overcome the loss of leaders like Mr. Kini, . . . The Arabs have a strategy to elevate people to a higher position, . . . If someone is killed there is always a replacement. The training goes on.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Taliban are hunkering down?

The BBC report on affairs in Pakistan [2/24/09] says that the unilateral ceasefire announced by Faqir Mohammad, deputy of Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, was because "Pakistan is our country and the Pakistan army is our army". . . . "We don't want to fight the army, but some elements have been creating misunderstandings between us." He also claimed that there were no foreign fighters in Bajaur. Now, it seems, the Taliban are ready to grant that they live in part of Pakistan, a new admission.

Apparently also a strategic one, given the circumstances. The report says that “The announcement comes a day after the security troops dislodged militants from the strategic Bachina heights. . . . and also “two days after the head of the TTP, Baitullah Mehsud, announced a new strategic alliance with two important non-TTP groups in Waziristan. One is led by Mullah Nazir in South Waziristan and the other by Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan.” The deals in Waziristan are taken to mean that “the Waziristan groups have decided to fend for themselves.”

So in several places separate deals are being made. Does this mean that the apparent unity among the Taliban is weakening? The deals are of course taking place on the heels of the notorious cease fire in Swat.

Tucked at the end of the BBC report is the most interesting detail: “observers believe some militants are on the retreat due to people's war fatigue, the recent realignments within different groups in anticipation of the new US strategy in the region and increasing international pressure on Pakistan to eliminate militant sanctuaries.” War fatique? If this is the reason, it is good news because in such a context a true resolution to these conflicts is possible.

And does this mean that anticipation of a greater US commitment to the region is generating worry among the Taliban? Reason enough to lie low.

(Click on the title for a link to the whole article.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

GAO's new report on stabilizing Pakistan's border

The GAO has issued a report -- SECURING, STABILIZING, AND DEVELOPING PAKISTAN’S BORDER AREA WITH AFGHANISTAN -- which can be accessed on line. You can reach it by clicking on the title above. RLC

Kamran Rehmat's report on Swat: A worrying picture

AlJazeera reproduced the following report by Kamran Rehman on Swat. A sad story. RLC

Pakistan's lost paradise

By Kamran Rehmat in Islamabad

Amid Barack Obama's inauguration as US president, the war on Gaza and the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan's media had until recently all but ignored the descent into hell of the Swat Valley in the North-West Frontier Province.

The valley has been transformed from a tourism magnet because of its alpine scenery into a valley stained with blood in recent months.

From banning female education and blowing up schools to the hanging of decapitated bodies in Mingora, the valley's main town, the reign of terror spearheaded by Maulana Fazalullah, a radical cleric, defies description.

Until recently, the 11-month old government in Islamabad was virtually oblivious to the chain of events that question the very territorial integrity of the country.

Even the hyper-active local media was busy elsewhere: angling for the latest in the India-Pakistan stalemate, decoding what the incoming Obama administration held for Islamabad and the usual soap opera that passes for national politics.

No-go area

Swat valley was once a tourism magnet because of its alpine scenery [GALLO/GETTY]

That all changed, however, after radicals delivered on their promise of blowing up schools if they were not shut down by a January 15 deadline.

Their actions have made a mockery of the government's commitment a day earlier that the schools would reopen with its patronage and protection.

Only last week did the national parliament pass a resolution, rejecting the ban on female education and condemning the blowing up of schools.

On Saturday, the government decided to deploy troops to guard some institutions in Mingora.

But the belated measure to post 25 soldiers each at 16 locations is seen by many as an exercise in futility.

Swat today is a decidedly no-go area. Even Haji Adeel, a senator and senior leader of the Awami National Party, which heads the ruling coalition in the North-West Frontier province, pointed to the valley's dire security situation.

He said: "Swat is a part of Pakistan but no governor, chief minister or the prime minister can venture to go there."

The Pakistan army says armed groups have so far blown up or torched 165 schools for girls, 80 video shops, 22 barber shops and destroyed 20 bridges.

A devastating after-effect of the insurgency is that an estimated one million children in the Frontier province, which includes Swat, may have missed anti-polio vaccinations after the government exempted from its immunisation drive various settled areas it deemed too dangerous.

Kingdom of fear

Fazalullah's attempts to enforce Islamic Sharia and an ongoing military operation launched by Pervez Musharraf, the former president, in 2007 have forced nearly a third of Swat's 1.5 million people to migrate out of the province.

Taking advantage of the government's deep engagement in the "war on terror" and Musharraf's own protracted battle for survival in 2007, Fazalullah's 10,000-strong private army established control over 5,337 square kilometres of territory.

The radical cleric uses FM radio to pass on his decrees to the local population. So effective is his grip on the valley, that the government's influence is now largely confined to just 36 square kilometres of territory in and around Mingora.

Fazalullah runs a self-styled judiciary, which hears cases and hands down verdicts.

A treasury collects ushr (the Islamic practice of collecting one-tenth of agricultural produce). Last month, they also collected animal hides worth millions of rupees on Eid Al Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice.

His feared - and well-equipped - rebel army reportedly takes its cue from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an extremist organisation headed by Baitullah Masud, the commander suspected of authoring the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, in 2007.

The two came together in the aftermath of a sweeping military operation in 2007 at the Red Mosque in Islamabad that killed hundreds of seminary students and clerics who had defied the Musharraf regime for months.

Following up on their threat to avenge the killings, this alliance is said to be responsible for suicide bombings that killed dozens of security personnel.

The army, which has four brigades in Swat, says it is considering a new strategy to retrieve the situation by securing the main supply routes and reinforcing its strength in urban and rural centres.

However, skepticism abounds about how that will be achieved.

Scene from hell

Zubair Torwali, a social activist who lives in Swat, says the security forces fear patrolling the Swat valley.

"The police are escorted by the army personnel and come out of their hideouts for a couple of hours," he said.

"One of the busiest squares, Grain Chowk, was renamed by shopkeepers as Khooni (bloody) Chowk because when they come to their shops in the morning, they find four or five bodies hung over the poles or trees. The bodies are usually headless."

"The police are escorted by the army personnel and come out of their hideouts for a couple of hours"

Zubair Torwali, a social activist

A more chilling account of the prevailing fear is provided by Hamid Mir, a talk show host with Geo TV; Mir earned fame for his interview with Osama bin Laden in 2001.

Mir describes an episode in which a widow, who taught at a private school in Mingora, was warned by the extremists to stop coming out of her house, let alone teach.

Having no other means to feed her three children, she begged a religious scholar to intercede with the extremists, one of whom was a former student of the scholar.

However, the commander of the extremists was so annoyed that he had the scholar arrested immediately, before banishing him from Mingora.

Days later, the widow was executed by the extremists after being declared a prostitute.

At least three journalists - Sirajuddin, Azizuddin and Qari Shoaib - have also been killed while a sister of another, Sherinzada, perished in an attack on his house.

However, two other journalists, Hameedullah Khan and Musa Khankhel, have braved death to report on events in Swat.

Khan had his house dynamited by the local Taliban earlier this month and Khankhel has escaped two assassination attempts.

Khankhel has managed to earn the ire of both the security agencies and the extremists for his reporting.

The army has also been accused of indiscriminate fire resulting in the deaths of many innocents. It claims to have killed 784 extremists while losing 189 personnel since launching the military operation.

Mission impossible?

Faizullah's army with its sophisticated weapons practically rules Swat [GALLO/GETTY]

Syed Allauddin, a ruling Pakistan People's Party MP from Swat who is unable to return to the region, believes there may be a three-pronged solution to the violence.

He suggests that Sharia be officially implemented followed by economic development and creation of job opportunities.

"But if I cannot enter my area how can I help my voters?" he said.

Caught between an indifferent government and ineffective army on the one hand and the extremists on the other, the people of Swat are, similarly, at a loss.

"The predicament of the people of Swat is worse than even of the people of Gaza. In Gaza, the enemy was well known but in Swat, the people don't know who the enemy is and whom to hold responsible," said Torwali.

The lack of faith is understandable, said Nasim Zehra, a security analyst based in Islamabad.

"Clearly, people in Swat have zero faith in the institutions of their own country. Can we blame them?"

Kamran Rehmat is News Editor at Dawn News, an independent Pakistani TV news channel.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.

Stoehlein: "Real Security in Central Asia is Not a Great Game"

Andrew Stoehlein has a nice discussion of the current issues in Central Asia. It's worth reading to remind ourselves of how much cliches masque realities that need to be carefully examined.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Pakistan's requests for Drone Strikes

Today's New York Times says it as if it were common knowledge: that Pakistan wanted the US to attack some Pakistani Taliban leaders inside Pakistan. Somehow I have missed it, and a statement to that effect disappeared on me [or was I seeing things?]. So today they say it in more explicit terms:

("Obama Widens Missile Strikes Inside Pakistan" By MARK MAZZETTI and DAVID E. SANGER)
"For months, Pakistani military and intelligence officials have complained about Washington’s refusal to strike at Baitullah Mehsud, even while C.I.A. drones struck at Qaeda figures and leaders of the network run by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a militant leader believed responsible for a campaign of violence against American troops in Afghanistan.
"According to one senior Pakistani official, Pakistan’s intelligence service on two occasions in recent months gave the United States detailed intelligence about Mr. Mehsud’s whereabouts, but said the United States had not acted on the information. Bush administration officials had charged that it was the Pakistanis who were reluctant to take on Mr. Mehsud and his network."

(Click on the title for a link to the original article.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Will the real Killers of Anna Politkovskaya Ever be Found?

In a country where "nothing works," especially when "the system" has its reasons for hating those who publish information unvetted by the system, justice is scarcely impartial and the truth is hard to come by. The loss of Politkovskaya was a loss to the world because she so fearlessly declared the abuses of the highest officials as well as the tragic personal costs of those abuses. She was an example to journalists around the world -- of how to sniff out details the authorities are trying to hide, and also of what happens when the venality of authorities is shouted out to the world. [Thanks, by the way, to Registan for keeping a list of journalists murdered.]
Some selections from the NYTimes are below.

New York Times February 20, 2009
Jury Acquits 3 in Killing of a Russian Journalist

MOSCOW — A jury here ruled unanimously on Thursday to acquit three low-level suspects in the murder of a prominent investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, frustrating hopes for bringing to justice those responsible for ordering the killing.

. . . Coming exactly a month after the killing in broad daylight of a human rights lawyer and a 25-year-old reporter, the verdict was more cause for pessimism in human rights circles about political violence.

“The fact that no one at all has been held accountable for this murder sends a very clear message to potential perpetrators: You can do it, and you can get away with it,” said Tatyana Lokshina, deputy director of the Human Rights Watch Moscow bureau. “Brazen killings have become almost routine in the Russian Federation.”

. . . But two and a half years later, the three men who were tried on murder charges were peripheral figures: . . . the suspected triggerman, . . . has never been found. Sergei M. Sokolov, deputy editor of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, where Ms. Politkovskaya worked, attributed the result to “resistance from the whole system,” in particular the refusal to prosecute members of law enforcement and special forces.

“There were two verdicts delivered today,” he said. “One, de jure, was the acquittal of the defendants. But a guilty verdict was leveled against the corrupt system that exists here. Nothing works, not one governmental institution works.”

. . . “Russia is a country where for years and years now, journalists who cover human rights issues and corruption are being murdered and assaulted,” . . . “It has to be admitted, at the highest level of the country, that there can be no free speech in a country where the best journalists are afraid for their lives for doing their jobs.”

. . . Ms. Politkovskaya, 48, distinguished herself covering Moscow’s war in Chechnya, which she characterized as “state versus group terrorism.” She documented torture, mass executions, kidnapping and the sale by Russian soldiers of Chechen corpses to their families for proper Islamic burial, concluding, “What response could one expect but more terrorism, and the recruitment of more resistance fighters?”

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Recent articles on Sufi Muhmmad and Mullah Faizullah

Rescue or surrender? Local hero brings sharia law to troubled region

• *Taliban-dominated area wins religious concession *

• *Government accused of capitulation to Islamists*

Saeed Shah> in Islamabad The Guardian,> Wednesday 18 February 2009

With his long, flowing white beard and black turban, Sufi Muhammad cut an imposing figure as he walked through the crowds in Mingora town, north-west Pakistan> yesterday. Tribesmen and mullahs jostled to be at his side, then raised him aloft. All around, black-and-white flags fluttered - flags of the religious group founded by Muhammad, the Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi.

The organisation was banned in 2002 after Muhammad led hundreds of young men across the border to fight alongside the Taliban against the US-led coalition. He was jailed and only freed last year. Yesterday though, Muhammad was hailed as the man who brought peace to Pakistan's Swat region - by securing the official imposition of Islamic law. Muhammad has persuaded the government of Pakistan to agree to the enforcement of sharia for the vast Malakand area, which includes Swat.

Desperate for a respite from violence, thousands turned out in Mingora, Swat's main city, to greet him. A ceasefire was announced by the local Taliban in response to Muhammad's deal, which was unveiled on Monday. And that has made this Islamist something of a local hero. Sweets were distributed in the town as people flocked on to the previously deserted streets. For the first time in months, all the shops opened, the bazaars were busy and even schools suddenly started teaching again.

"We have come out of a nightmare. We are very excited," said Zubair Torwali, a social worker from Swat. "Ordinary people want peace at any cost."

The authorities portrayed it as a political settlement to end the bloodshed. Others see it as the moment of Pakistan's capitulation to the extremists.

Swat slipped out of government control two years ago, and over the last few months it had been an almost total takeover by a fearsome band of Taliban led by Muhammad's estranged son-in-law, Mullah Fazlullah. Under the militants' control, girls schools were closed, women banned from shopping, and public floggings and executions were carried out. The main business in Swat - tourism - was extinguished. For the people there, Sufi Muhammad had managed to get the extremists to lay down their arms in return for the introduction of Islamic courts. In turn, government forces will pull out of active operations in the region.

It remains unclear how much hold Muhammad has over Fazlullah and more hardline elements in the region. Yesterday, though, the people of Swat appeared relieved that the fighting had stopped.

"Today, the fear has finished," Sherin Zada, a hotelier in Swat.

Others in this country, though, are less optimistic. "This is not a political solution. It is very clearly a surrender," said Athar Minallah, a lawyer and civil liberties activist. "It's a complete failure of the institutions of the state. The political forces are looking for a shortcut, but this will have very long-term repercussions for this country. It sends the message that anyone who takes up arms will succeed."

Swat lies in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), just 100 miles from the capital Islamabad, not tribal areas further west that have always had their own rules and, after 9/11, have been largely lost to the Taliban and al-Qaida. In Swat in 2007, Fazlullah broke with the somewhat softer Islamist organisation of his father-in-law and joined the Pakistani Taliban, taking up arms and suicide bombings. The rule of the Taliban in Swat has led to the death of hundreds, while up to 500,000 may have fled their brutal attacks.

IA Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, warned that the new courts, not the government, would end up deciding what constitutes sharia and Islamic punishments, producing a new tussle with the state. "There's a question of whether it [sharia] can be contained to Malakand. Once it spreads to Frontier, then why not Punjab (Pakistan's heartland)?" said Rehman.

The Pakistan army, which has around 12,000 soldiers deployed in a losing battle in Swat, announced that it will now hold fire against the militants.

Asad Munir, a retired army brigadier who was formerly head of military intelligence for the NWFP, said that the government was right to try to isolate Fazlullah by building up Sufi Muhammad and conceding the key demand of sharia. But he warned that military operations had to continue and that the Taliban would use the ceasefire to regroup.

"[The Taliban] are not going to leave the power they've got through the gun," said Munir. "They will never surrender."

The government, which is led by the secular Pakistan People party, seems not to know how to deal with the extremists. Islamabad said that the new laws would not come in until peace was restored and that the form of sharia would comply with the existing constitution of Pakistan.

"Western values cannot hold the ground all the time, said Raza Rabbani, a minister in the federal government. "You mix values and principles with ground realities and give it a touch which is Pakistani."

Pakistan's western allies view it differently. The British high commission in Islamabad warned that, "previous peace deals have not provided a ... long-term solution to Swat's problems".

Nato, which heads the international coalition across the border, is concerned that Swat and the wider Malakand region could now become a sanctuary for militants that would then cross over into Afghanistan. "We should all be concerned by a situation in which extremists would have a safe haven. Without doubting the good faith of the Pakistani government, it is clear that the region is suffering very badly from extremists and we would not want it to get worse," said a Nato spokesman, James Appathurai, in Brussels. Law unto themselves

*Malakand* administrative "division" now comprises the mountainous, former princely states of *Swat*, *Dir* and *Chitral*, in the far north-west of Pakistan. These states remained independent during the British Raj and even after Pakistan was formed, becoming part of the country only in the 1960s.

In Swat, under the ruler, the "*Wali* of Swat", there was what he called *Islamic law* and, though it was not a particularly religious form of justice at the time, many in the area hanker after sharia, remembering how quickly cases were decided in the Wali's era.

A young *Winston Churchill* wrote his first published non-fiction book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, about a military campaign he fought in Malakand in 1897.

The British did not believe in the kind of *peace* deal just announced by Pakistan. In the book, Churchill describes a *massacre* of the local tribes, with six-foot-high piles of bodies.


Peace or appeasement in Pakistan?

*The recent deal between religious leaders in tribal Pakistan and the government legitimates the Taliban insurgency*> Mustafa Qadri>>, Wednesday 18 February 2009 22.00 GMT

The timing could not have been more emblematic of the mess engulfing Pakistan. Barely a day after the new United States envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, completed his preliminary consultations with Pakistan's civilian and military leaders about confronting the Taliban, the same leadership endorsed a deal> with religious leaders sympathetic to the jihadi movement in the country's northern tribal district of Malakand.

The agreement negotiated last Monday with a local group called Tehreek-e-Nifaaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, or Movement for the Establishment of Islamic Law, did not directly involve the Taliban. But TNSM has many ideological similarities with the Taliban and its leader, Maulana Sufi Mohammad, is the father-in-law of a key Taliban leader in the region, Maulana Fazlullah.

The Taliban issued a 10-day ceasefire in Malakand in honour of the agreement.

Under the "Nizam-i-Adl Regulation" reached between TSNM and the North Western Frontier Province government, sharia, or Islamic law, is to supersede "all un-Islamic laws" – meaning the secular laws of the local, state and, potentially, federal governments of Pakistan. President Asif Ali Zardari said> the new legal regime would not supplant "the writ of the state" but that leaves open the question: whose state? The Taliban or the TSNM could argue that because Pakistan is an Islamic state, actions aimed at enforcing Islamic law and tradition, even by force of arms, are consistent with the writ of the state.

The Pakistani government could contest these claims, but people in Malakand think little of the politicians in Islamabad whose lifestyle and language is a world away from their own. The views of local conservatives like Maulana Sufi and the Taliban's Fazlullah resonate more easily even if people do not accept all their pronouncements.

The government has made two main calculations in concluding the agreement, one tactical the other political. It has gambled that acquiescing to the implementation of Islamic law removes much of the oxygen upon which the fire of Taliban descent is fuelled.

Ordinary citizens in the urban centres where most of Pakistan's population live have been deeply troubled by a conflict pitting Pakistani against Pakistani that has killed many hundreds and displaced up to 200,000 more in Malakand alone. As one army captain who had just returned from Malakand told me in Islamabad last month: "Fighting your own people is the most painful thing you can do [as a soldier]."

As a result of the agreement, the government – whose political opponents accuse it of killing its own people for the sake of its western allies – can claim it is seeking to stem the carnage.

Last week a bomb believed to have been planted by the Taliban killed a secular Pashtun leader in Peshawar, capital of the North Western Frontier Province. The same day, the Taliban claimed responsibility> for a bloody attack on central Kabul, Afghanistan just a block away from the presidential palace.

Internationally there are fears that this latest arrangement – like previous peace agreements> between pro-Taliban groups and the Pakistani government – will give the Taliban time to recoup losses until they are ready to fight again.

Britain's ambassador to Pakistan warned that the agreement could "create space for further violence", a view echoed>by Nato officials in Brussels. India's minister for external affairs said his country was monitoring the situation and called the Taliban>a "danger to humanity and civilisation".

The Australian government did, however, give qualified support to the arrangement, with foreign minister Stephen Smith, currently on an official visit to Pakistan, calling it> "a positive development".

The specifics of the peace agreement are yet to be ironed out, but there are some preliminary indications. It relates to the Swat valley region of Pakistan's northwest, a predominantly mountainous, tribal sector of the country that has been gripped by a resilient Taliban insurgency since October 2007. Maulana Fazlullah is the public face of that insurgency, although few have actually seen him.

"I haven't had personal contact with Fazlullah, but he is my commander and I always obey him," explained one Taliban commander I met in the lower Swat valley late last year. "Ultimately, we want Sharia over all of Pakistan, but, first of all, here [in Malakand]," he continued.

A young cleric who emerged from the madrasas of these mountainous parts preaching a return to the sharia, Fazlullah is popularly known as Maulana FM for his clandestine radio broadcasts which, since 2006, have promoted a harsh, conservative brand of Islam similar to that practised by the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan. Fazlullah has also made threats>against a wide range of people over the airwaves, from policemen merely seeking to enforce the law to schoolgirls whom he threatens with brutal attacks for daring to seek an education.

Maulana Sufi rejects Fazlullah's resort to violence and has appealed to the young cleric to end his militancy. That may have something to do with Sufi's imprisonment by Pervez Musharraf in 2002 for helping to organise young men to support the Taliban against Nato and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. A chastened Maulana Sufi was released last year after he renounced violence and publicly stated that he supported education for women and immunisation for children. The Taliban has destroyed hundreds of schools in Malakand since 2007 and vehemently opposes immunisation programmes which they believe are part of a global western-Zionist plot to sterilise the population.

Following this latest agreement, however, the line between violent and nonviolent Islamist has become dangerously blurred. The decision to implement sharia is a significant victory for the Taliban because it implicitly legitimates their cause by acknowledging that Pakistan's tribal areas need the stamp of approval that only an Islamic political movement can provide.

The Taliban's ideological battle, in Malakand at least, will now shift away from promoting the sharia to arguing it is best placed to administer it. That debate is unlikely to be nonviolent.


Violence still a threat in Swat Valley despite Sharia deal Zahid Hussain in Islamabad The Times February 19, 2009

Waving black and white flags and chanting "God is great!" thousands of men marched through the streets of the main town in Swat Valley yesterday, led by a hardline cleric who called for peace in return for the enforcement of Islamic law.

"I have come here to establish peace and I will not leave until this has been achieved," Sufi Mohammad, the aging, white-bearded leader of an outlawed Islamic movement, told his supporters in Mingora, the main town in the area.

On Monday the regional government in northwest Pakistan struck a peace deal with Mr Muhammad, who was released recently after spending six years in jail for leading thousands of his supporters to Afghanistan to fight American forces in 2001.

In return for the imposition of Sharia, the pro-Taleban cleric is expected to persuade Mullah Fazlullah, his son-in-law, who is spearheading the insurgency, to lay down arms.

"It will be a good step if it ends the bloodletting," Mohammed Jaffer, whose grocery business has suffered hugely as a result of the fighting, said as he watched from his shop doorway. It is a common sentiment in Swat, desperate for peace after years of violence. But reining in Mullah Fazlullah will be no easy task.

The firebrand cleric, 33, has turned what was once a favoured tourist destination into a byword for terror. The Taleban in Swat has conducted a campaign of beheadings, lynchings and bombings, and although Mullah Fazlullah announced a ten-day ceasefire on Sunday, analysts said that there was no indication that he would agree to put his weapons aside.

A similar deal last year collapsed in a few months and was blamed for giving the insurgents time to regroup. Many people — including Western politicians — accuse the Government of surrendering to terrorism and abdicating its responsibility to protect the lives and property of the people.

"This deal shows that the Pakistani Army has been defeated by the militants and the State is incapable of retaining control over its territory," Athar Minallah, a leading lawyer and a former provincial minister, said.

At the end of 2007 Islamabad sent thousands of troops to quell the insurgency as the Taleban expanded its influence from the semiautonomous tribal areas into parts of the North West Frontier Province of which Swat, with a population if 1.3 million, forms a part.

Even though Swat does not border Afghanistan, Mullah Fazlullah pledges allegiance to Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Afghan Taleban movement.

Security officials say that large numbers of fighters from Waziristan, along with Uzbeks and Chechens, have joined the insurgents in Swat. That means that as many as 8,000 well-armed militants, allegedly funded by Arab charities, have been fighting government forces in Swat.

Mullah Fazlullah is also known as Mullah Radio for his sermons broadcast on a pirate radio station. He has declared a holy war against the Pakistani Government and in effect established a parallel Islamic regime.

Another journalist murdered, another murderer escapes. The ugly face of power in Swat

The murder of Musa KhanKhel, a TV journalist, in Swat yesterday sadly awakens all the fears we have had about the deal the army and the Taliban have just made there. Posted a few minutes ago on Earth Times Online the article reveals how little has changed: In fact, KhanKhel had been threatened by Pakistani officials. It makes us wonder how to distinguish between "officials" and criminals.

KhanKhel had reported being threatened by "a powerful force ... they want to kill me" and that he had repeatedly refused to "report what the army wanted him to report." Someone didn't want him to report on what he was learning: Who? The Army?. Of course the intent of the murder was not merely to silence this voice but also the voices of those who are left alive. Someone wanted to ensure that journalists avoid revealing things those with the weapons of power want hidden. Again the ancient wisdom: "Men loved darkness rather than light; they would not come into the light lest their deeds be exposed." And they would take a life rather than have the truth revealed. How precious does that make the truth?

The one thing we can confidently affirm is that the killer will go free. A chilling fact of life in Pakistan is that murderers of journalists get away with it. Of the two dozen journalists killed in the last two years, virtually none of their killers has been found. I have the highest respect and admiration for those now who have the courage to demonstrate publicly against the government -- the army, essentially, which owns most of the country -- in the face of the terrifying impunity enjoyed by criminals. Thank God for the Pakistani journalists who persist in exposing the truth as they know it at the risk of their lives.

Here is the article from The Earth Times.

Pakistani journalists protest colleague's killing
Posted : Thu, 19 Feb 2009 11:48:08 GMT
Author : DPA

Islamabad - Pakistani journalists on Thursday held rallies across the country to protest the overnight killing of a local reporter in the troubled Swat district of North Western Frontier Province (NWFP). Musa Khankhel, a correspondent for the Geo TV and English-language daily The News, was seized by gunmen in the Matta area on Wednesday when he was covering a peace rally by Islamic cleric Sufi Mohammad, the father-in-law of Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah.

Khankhel's bullet-riddled body was found few hours later in Detpani village, some 4 kilometers from Matta. "He received 30 bullets," said Fayyaz Zafar, a local journalist.

Around 200 journalists held a protest rally in Islamabad, chanting slogans in support of press freedom and demanding protection for media persons working in conflict areas like Swat and the tribal region, where the government forces are fighting Islamist insurgents.

"The situation in Swat is very dangerous, but we will continue to report from there. We will not bow to the extremists and the armed militias," said Ihsan Haqqani, a journalist from Swat.

Tariq Chaudhry, president of the National Press Club, told the rally that 24 journalists had lost their lives in the line of duty during the last two years in Pakistan, while dozens more were injured or harassed.

"The killers of none of these 24 were ever arrested and brought to justice," he told the rally.

Similar protest demonstrations were also held in several other cities, media reports said.

Scores of journalists gathered outside the press club in Mingora, the main town of Swat, and demanded the arrest of the murderers and an enquiry into the incident, which was the first violation of the 10-day ceasefire announced by the militants.

Hundreds of people attended Khankhel's funeral on Thursday.

The slain journalist was trying to get the details of the ongoing negotiations in Matta where the cleric Mohammad is trying to convince his son-in-law to join the peace deal he has signed with the regional government in NWFP to end the conflict in Swat.

Fazlullah has been fighting the security forces since late 2007 in a campaign for the enforcement of Islamic sharia law in the region. The rebellion has left hundreds of militants, security personnel and civilians dead, and caused a mass exodus from the war-torn district.

Under the peace accord signed with Mohammad, the NWFP government agreed to establish Islamic courts in Swat and six other districts in the Malakand region.

No group has claimed responsibility for Khankhel's murder, but his media organization reported that he was also receiving threats from the authorities.

"I have been receiving death threats from a powerful force. They are after me. They want to kill me," Khankhel was cited as saying by The News. The daily said his organization took up the issue with the authorities.

A journalist in Swat who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Khankhel had repeatedly refused to "report what the army wanted him to report."

An international organization, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), condemned the murder of the journalist.

"We mourn the tragic death of Musa Khankhel and send our condolences to his family and colleagues," said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia programme coordinator.

"But grief and condolences are not enough - the government must act swiftly to bring his killers to justice and protect journalists working in this volatile region."

Mian Iftikhar Hussain, NWFP's information minister, condemned the killing and termed it "an attack on the (provincial) government."

Copyright, respective author or news agency

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A double game: Real cooperation between US and Pakistan?

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Pakistanis and Americans, contrary to the formal denials of the Pakistanis, have been cooperating in the recent drone attacks against Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. It turns out that the Pakistanis have been sufficiently helpful for the attacks to become better targeted. This report makes me wonder that I actually did see something in an early version of the the NYTimes article on the subject a couple days ago, a statement that was purged in later editions, claiming that the Pakistanis have complained that the drones have not been targeted their bad guys, only the ones troubling Afghanistan. I'm still not sure that that is what I read [foolishly lost the text] but this article almost says it -- well, not quite.
What this reminds us is that we cannot believe all that we are told: governments tell the stories they want people to hear, not what they know is accurate. All the more reason we need to be seeking various sources for what we think. Even then we have to assume we are living in a world of contrived myths, contrived by those who know better and who want us to accept their judgment. I used to condemn Cheney for this but he did not invent such a practice, which of course is as old as the human imagination.
Here I note some of the key statements in the Wall Street Journal article.

Wall Street Journal * FEBRUARY 18, 2009

Pakistan Lends Support for U.S. Military Strikes
Leaders Continue to Condemn Air Attacks, but a Private Shift in Policy Aims to Aid Drone Assault on Militant Targets more in US »

Pakistan's leaders have publicly denounced U.S. missile strikes as an attack on the country's sovereignty, but privately Pakistani military and intelligence officers are aiding these attacks and have given significant support to recent U.S. missions, say officials from both countries.

American unmanned Predator aircraft have killed scores of Islamic militants in Pakistan in more than 30 missile strikes since August, provoking outrage in the South Asian nation. Two in the past four days have killed more than 50 suspected militants. Yet, with the Taliban pushing deeper into the country, Pakistan's civilian and military leaders, while publicly condemning the attacks, have come to see the strikes as effective and are passing on intelligence that has helped recent missions, say officials from both countries.

As a result, "the Predator strikes are more and more precise," said a Pakistani official.

Eleven of al Qaeda's top 20 commanders have been killed or captured since August because of the Predator missions conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency, according to the Pakistani official, and current and former U.S. intelligence officials.

. . . Maj. Gen Akhtar Abbas, a spokesman for the military, said Pakistan and the U.S. "have a long history of military cooperation and intelligence sharing." But he said it doesn't include the missiles strikes. "We have made our opposition clear," he said. "The strikes are counterproductive."

But other Pakistani officials say there has been a shift in Pakistan's private response to U.S. insistence the strikes go ahead. Initially, Pakistani complaints were genuine, these officials say, and reflected widespread discontent with the U.S.-led war on terror.

But after Pakistan's complaints were repeatedly rebuffed by the U.S. and with the Taliban making gains against the Pakistani military and the police, these officials say President Asif Ali Zardari and top military leaders decided in recent months to aid the American effort in the hopes it will help them regain control over the tribal areas. . . .

The protests are "really for the sake of public opinion," said one Pakistani official. "These operations are helping both sides. We are partners on this."

A former U.S. intelligence official said cooperation has always been strong between the two countries' intelligence services. "There's always been a double game," the former official said. "There's the game they'll play out in public [but] there has always been good cooperation."

. . . Most of the Predator strikes have so far targeted al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who attack U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, using Pakistan's tribal areas only as a rear base. But in exchange for helping the U.S., Washington is "sharing more intelligence with" Islamabad on Taliban factions focused on toppling Pakistan's government, said the Pakistani official.

While officials say there is overlap between the Pakistani Taliban, who fight under the banner of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, and the Afghan Taliban, the two are considered distinct networks with different aims.

. . . A senior ISI officer acknowledged his agency maintains contacts with Afghan Taliban leaders at or the near the top of the U.S. target list, such as Mullah Nazeer and Jalaluddin Haqqani. The officer said Mr. Haqqani could be "a force for stability" in Afghanistan, and insisted that he and other Taliban leaders spend most of their time in that country, not Pakistan, as U.S. officials assert.

—Zahid Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this article.

The Wall Street Journal, page A12

Copyright 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A deal in Swat that may not be a deal

Pamela Constable’s description of the situation in Swat helped me to see better what the deal is and what some of the entailments are. The deal may be far less than it looks to be at first glance.

For one thing the deal is with Maulana Sufi Muhammad who is the father-in-law of Maulana Fazlullah, a deputy to Baitullah Mehsud, who is the head of the umbrella group for the Taliban in Pakistan. Maulana Muhammad has a history of fighting to install Islamic Sharia law in Pakistan: he led an uprising in Swat in 1994 to have sharia established there but failed, and in 2001 he led thousands of young Pakistanis to fight against the Americans. After that fight, in which so many of them died, he was captured and imprisoned and was released only last April after agreeing to work for peace. [Today’s NYTimes on the same topic] So he is well connected with a key leader of the Pakistani Taliban (Mehsud and his supporters) and claims to want peace. But the deal seems to be that he will “persuade the younger and more firebrand fighters to disarm.” So the deal was with him only and now he becomes Pakistan’s emissary for peace with the militant Taliban. Will they lay down their arms? Hardly.

For another thing, according to Constable, the adoption of sharia law in Swat is said by the Pakistani officials to “bring swift and fair justice to the Swat Valley, where people have long complained of legal corruption and delays.” This legal system, they say, will "nothing in common" with the Taliban system of rule practiced in 1996 to 2001. So, no thieves' hands will be amputated and no adulterers will be stoned to death. (We’ll see.)

And anyway, that's one story. There is another: people in Swat are terrified by the vigilante methods of the Taliban: They have kidnapped for money, they have intimidated families who have relatives abroad (See today's NYTimes "Taliban threats reach New York"). The Taliban's methods are intimidation, abuse of power, brutal lawlessness. Despite their claims a reasonable case can be made that they are mere criminal gangs who have no commitment to the rule of law. In fact, given the long history of lawless behavior by the Taliban, as well as many of those who are called "Afghan warlords", one wonders if most Taliban understand how a law-governed society (sharia or otherwise) works.

And there is another thing: Just what one means specifically by sharia law is merely a generality. What that will mean in actual practice, as we well know, means different things to different people. So if it won’t be the same “sharia law” the Taliban practiced in Afghanistan, what will it be?

Here is the whole of Constable’s article.

Islamic Law Instituted In Pakistan's Swat Valley: Agreement With Fighters Dangerous, Critics Say

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 17, 2009; A08

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Feb. 16 -- The Pakistani government, desperate to restore peace to a Taliban-infested valley once known as the "Switzerland of Pakistan," agreed Monday to enforce strict Islamic law in the surrounding district near the Afghan border, conceding to a long-standing demand by local Islamist leaders who in turn pledged to ask the fighters to lay down their arms.

In announcing the agreement, Pakistani officials asserted that the adoption of sharia law would bring swift and fair justice to the Swat Valley, where people have long complained of legal corruption and delays. They said the new system would have "nothing in common" with the draconian rule of the Taliban militia that ran Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, during which thieves' hands were amputated and adulterers were stoned to death.

"There was a vacuum . . . in the legal system. The people demanded this and they deserve it," said Amir Haider Khan Hoti, chief minister of the North-West Frontier Province. The new system will include an appeals process, something the Afghan Taliban justice system did not allow for.

Militant leaders in the scenic Swat Valley, in a gesture of good faith, said they would observe a 10-day cease-fire while the new system is implemented. The Pakistani army said it would suspend operations in the area, and there were anecdotal reports of celebratory gunfire and of crowds returning to once-deserted streets.

But Pakistani critics blasted the deal as a dangerous concession to extremist insurgents who have terrified inhabitants of the valley for months, sending thousands fleeing to safer areas. They have bombed girls' schools, beheaded policemen, whipped criminals in public squares and assassinated activists from the secular Awami National Party that governs the North-West Frontier Province.

The critics expressed fear that this victory might spur the insurgents to push harder for the imposition of Islamic law in other areas, taking advantage of a promise by the Pakistani army to pull back from the surrounding area if peace is restored.

The new special U.S. envoy to the region, Richard C. Holbrooke, underscored American concerns Monday when he said the insurgent takeover of Swat, once a popular tourist destination, had shown that "India, the U.S. and Pakistan all have a common threat now." In New Delhi, Holbrooke said he had spoken to people from Swat during his recent visit to Pakistan and found them "frankly quite terrified."

As Pakistani officials were defending their decision to negotiate with the insurgents, a U.S. missile attack by an unmanned aircraft on a suspected insurgent camp killed more than 30 people in the nearby tribal area of Kurram. The second such attack in three days, it came amid increasing protests by opposition groups that the government is sacrificing Pakistani lives and sovereignty to U.S. strategic interests.

President Asif Ali Zardari said Friday that there was "no alternative" but to use force against the insurgents, and his government is widely believed to accept the controversial drone attacks. Yet Zardari, after some initial hesitation and wording changes, also approved the new sharia plan for Malakand Agency, the large district in the North-West Frontier Province that includes Swat.

Pakistan's information minister, Sherry Rehman, rejected suggestions that the Malakand accord was a concession to the insurgents, saying it is "in no way a sign of the state's weakness." In a statement issued Monday night from Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, she said Zardari will implement sharia law "after the restoration of peace in the region."

Leaders of the Awami National Party here said they also supported the agreement even though their own views are more secular and they have been targeted by insurgent attacks. They said the government does not have sufficient force to defeat the Taliban and foreign fighters based in the autonomous tribal areas along the Afghan border. So, they said, it needs to negotiate with local militant groups in nearby areas such as Swat to isolate the renegade hard-liners in the tribal sanctuaries.

"I have agreed to put my personal hardships behind me for the sake of peace," said Wajid Ali Khan, a provincial official from Swat who said that he was put on a Taliban hit list and that his brother was assassinated because of his Awami affiliation. "We have addressed the core issue, which was Nizam-e-Adl [sharia law system], so now the fighting and other activities should stop."

But deals with Islamist groups in Pakistan have a history of failure, and this one has several weaknesses. It was not signed by any Swat insurgents but by an older insurgent leader, Sufi Mohammad, who must now persuade the younger and more firebrand fighters to disarm. Mohammad led an armed uprising in Swat in 1994 to bring in sharia rule, but it failed and he was imprisoned for several years, allowing his more radical son-in-law to take over the movement.

After a day-long meeting Monday that led to the announcement of a deal, one senior member of the local sharia movement named Mohammed Iqbal, wearing a long beard and large turban, said the group was satisfied and would soon set out to speak to the Swat fighters. "When sharia is implemented, there will be peace, not only in Malakand but all over the world," Iqbal said.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A worrisome deal in Swat

For some of us, this can be nothing but bad news. A deal like this will legitimate the Taliban and enable them to be all the more firmly ensconced in Swat.

NYTimes February 16, 2009
Pakistan and Taliban Appear Near Deal

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Government officials and Taliban militants appeared to be near a deal Sunday on the violent Swat region of northern Pakistan, where the militants declared a unilateral 10-day cease-fire and the government indicated it was willing to accept the imposition of Islamic law.

Any formal truce would be a major concession by the government, which, despite a military operation in Swat involving 12,000 Pakistani Army troops, has been losing ground to a Taliban force of about 3,000 fighters. The militants have kept a stranglehold on the area for months, killing local police officers and officials and punishing residents who do not adhere to strict Islamic tenets.

High-level talks on Taliban demands for Shariah law in Swat and the surrounding region were to continue on Monday in Islamabad, Pakistan, involving President Asif Ali Zardari; the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani; and senior local officials. But on Sunday, a prominent regional official, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, said that there was already an agreement in principle.

The Taliban made several gestures on Sunday that appeared to be aimed at moving the deal along, including declaring a 10-day cease-fire with government troops in Swat. A militant spokesman there, Muslim Khan, said the move was made out of good will and told reporters that “our fighters will neither target security forces nor government installations.” But he insisted that the militants would fight back if attacked.

Earlier, Mr. Khan said that the Taliban had released a Chinese engineer, Long Xiaowei, who had been held hostage since August, The Associated Press reported.

Previous attempts at truces in the region have fallen apart, most notably last May. And the United States has strongly opposed making political concessions to the Taliban, urging Mr. Zardari’s government to fight more vigorously.

That appeared to happen last summer, when the army began an offensive in Swat. But the move quickly stalled, with troops reduced mostly to remotely shelling suspected Taliban sites and the militants effectively imposing their authority throughout the region.

Since then, Taliban leaders have proscribed what they call un-Islamic activities by residents, including watching television, dancing and shaving beards, and they have sometimes beheaded offenders. The penalties are regularly, and terrifyingly, announced over radio stations under the militants’ control. Tens of thousands of residents of the area, which was once a popular tourist spot and considered a mainstream part of the country, have fled the intimidation and violence.

It was unclear what any formal truce would include, and the government had recently said that it was not planning to withdraw troops from Swat.

Mr. Hussain played down the significance of a formal acceptance of Shariah law in the area, saying that it would be mostly a technical agreement.

“We are not enacting any new law,” he said. “The regulation already exists and is enforced in Swat, but the mechanism to enforce it is missing. We are only providing for an increase in the number of judges and setting a time frame for the disposal of cases.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Saturday, February 14, 2009

An Arc of Instability for the next century?

The article on the latest drone attack on Uzbeks in the Tribal Areas that has the most detail on the issues, I think, appeared in Dawn, the Pakistani paper.

Buried deep in the article is a statement worth bringing forward for serious reflection. The author, Anwar Iqbal, quotes Admiral Dennis C. Blaire who referred to an "'Arc of Instability' stretching from the Middle East to South Asia that would be the source of challenges throughout the century." In a way, there's nothing new here -- we've been watching it go from bad to worse for years -- except that by giving the situation a name he has identified more clearly the critical nature of the situation. The world has a long term problem, whose implications have scarcely been internalized by the American people, that will occupy world attention for years to come. I'm glad he gave it a name.

The article also says, however, that even that critical regional crisis fails to be the greatest danger to the security of the United States. That status belongs to its own recent economic crash, created as we know by greedy rich Americans.

DAWN - the Internet Edition
February 14, 2009 Saturday Safar 18, 1430

US official says drones using Pakistan base By Anwar Iqbal

WASHINGTON: Drones that attack suspected terrorist targets inside Pakistan actually take off from the Pakistani soil, a senior US lawmaker said at a congressional hearing which also heard from the US intelligence chief that joint US-Pakistan efforts had reduced Al Qaeda’s capability to carry out terrorist attacks.

On Thursday evening, the Senate Intelligence Committee also heard from US National Intelligence Director Admiral Dennis C. Blair that nuclear weapons were preventing yet another war between India and Pakistan.

But it was Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, who stole the show with her disclosure about the use of a Pakistan base for the drone attacks.

Expressing surprise over Pakistan’s opposition to the campaign of Predator-launched CIA missile strikes against targets inside the Pakistani border, Senator Feinstein said: “As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base.”

As chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Feinstein has access to classified information which requires her to exercise caution when discussing sensitive matters in public.

Even Admiral Blair was taken aback. “Pakistan is sorting out” its cooperation with the United States, he said quietly, while responding to her remarks. He did not say whether what Senator Feinstein said was correct.

The existence of drone bases inside Pakistan suggests a much deeper relationship with the United States on counter-terrorism than has been publicly acknowledged.

The CIA declined to comment, but former US intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Senator Feinstein’s account was accurate. Later, Philip J. LaVelle, a spokesman for the senator, said her comment was based solely on previous news reports that Predators were operated from bases near Islamabad.

‘Al Qaeda weakened’

Admiral Blair acknowledged that Pakistan’s current military campaign against the militants was having an impact. He said the pressure the United States, Pakistan and others were putting on Osama bin Laden and his core leadership in Fata had succeeded in weakening the terrorist group.

“Al Qaeda today is less capable and effective than it was a year ago,” he said.

The US intelligence chief, however, warned that Pakistan’s intensified campaign against terrorists has failed to subdue multiple insurgencies or quell growing radicalism in many parts of the country.

Admiral Blair noted that while no major country faced the risk of collapse at the hands of any terrorist groups, “Pakistan and Afghanistan have to work hard to repulse a still serious threat” to their governments.

He also warned of an “Arc of Instability” stretching from the Middle East to South Asia that would be the source of challenges throughout the century.

Impact of N-arms

Admiral Blair also spoke about the impact of nuclear weapons on India-Pakistan relations. He said that leaders in both countries realised that a war between them could soon get out of control, resulting in ‘tremendous devastation’ on both sides.

“I think there are a number of factors that would perhaps change the attitude that was there in 1947. One certainly is the possession of nuclear weapons by both sides,” Mr Blair said.

“There is no doubt that senior Pakistani and Indian leaders feel that a war between them would get out of hand and would result in tremendous devastation for both sides, far more than the issues in general in Kashmir that they’re confronting over,” he said.

“I think the violent extremism in the region of South Asia is changing attitudes, perhaps slowly, in Pakistan and in India... Now Pakistan is realising that this violent extremism can be a threat to them,” Admiral Blair said.

Admiral Blair said that determined efforts by Indian and Pakistan leaders to improve relations would fail unless Islamabad, for its part, took meaningful steps to cut support to anti-Indian militant groups and New Delhi, for its part, made credible efforts to allay Pakistan’s security concerns.

“The increase in violent attacks within India is a cause of great concern to its government, as is instability in neighbouring countries in South Asia,” he said.

In a stark departure from the Bush years, the US intelligence chief said that the failing global economy was a bigger threat to US security than Al Qaeda or the spread of weapons of mass destruction, which had led the list for years.

The admiral said that a worsening economy led the list of “emerging areas of concern,” while other growing threats include global warming and worldwide food, water and energy shortages.

“Time is probably our greatest threat. The longer it takes for the recovery to begin, the greater the likelihood of serious damage to US strategic interests,” he warned.

His comments on the economy were the biggest change from past threat assessments. In recent years the annual assessment, delivered to Congress had focused primarily on terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

On the drone attack: Was I dreaming? Or did the NYT detele the most interesting statement in today's paper?

I am confused and feel cheated. Today's NYTimes has an article on the drone attack on a community in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan. I would swear that I found a sentence that indicated that the Pakistanis were bothered that the American drones were attacking only those insurgents who were crossing into Afghanistan to attack civilians, the implication being that they wanted the Americans also to attack the Taliban who were active inside Pakistan. Unfortunately I did not copy the article as it stood at about 6:30 this a.m. What I can find now seems to have been changed -- at least I find no such statement in this article.

So now I'm wondering if I'm dreaming. So my statement on the matter has to be tempered by the possibility that I'm crazy [don't ask Rita, my dear wife]. For the moment I have to change the title: but I still wonder ...

What I posted a litter earlier today was the following:

A new complaint: "You're ignoring our bad guys."

Tucked in today's New York Times article on the drone attack in Pakistan is a new wrinkle. All along we have been reading that the Pakistani government has complained that the drones are killing civilians. This article says that the Pakistani government complains that the attacks only kill Taliban and Al Qaeda who are invading Afghanistan. Now the objection is, "Why don't you kill our Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, the ones that attack people in Pakistan?" Maybe I've missed it before, but this is a new twist on Pakistan's complaints about drones.
Another new twist, at least to me, is that the drones are being launched inside Pakistan. Clearly the relationship of the Americans and Pakistanis has been changing. If all this is true, and confident information on what's going on in that part of the world is elusive, we might hope for some meaningful progress in dealing with the insurgency that has long been nourished in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

[Click on the title to link to The New York Times February 15, 2009 U.S. Drones Kill up to 32 in Pakistan By PIR ZUBAIR SHAH.]

A report on the event in the Telegraph:

A report on the event in Dawn:

Friday, February 13, 2009

A better future for women in Iran?

Like all the countries of the Middle East and Central Asia Iran is a caldron of conflicting forces. These populations are young, almost half of them under the age of twenty. Among them there is a high and rising incidence of drug use and addiction. There are more evidences of despair and hopelessness in their fiction (someone recently returned tells me); more signs of repression against rights of conscience.
It's hard to characterize a country. That's why we watch technical and demographic trends: Modern means of communication and transport, natural resources being put to use, population trends -- these can be sources of change.
But we can never anticipate how things will change. Today's NYTimes article on women pressing for their rights in Iran (with a confusing photograph about women demonstrating against the Israeli attack on Gaza) belongs in the list of trends -- important as they may be -- that can be read in different ways. Whatever they are, the influence of modern education, television, telephones, etc. have a lot to do with making them happen.

The New York Times February 13, 2009

Starting at Home, Iran’s Women Fight for Rights

. . . Women’s rights advocates say Iranian women are displaying a growing determination to achieve equal status in this conservative Muslim theocracy, where male supremacy is still enscribed in the legal code. One in five marriages now end in divorce, according to government data, a fourfold increase in the past 15 years.

And it is not just women from the wealthy, Westernized elites. The family court building in Vanak Square here is filled with women, like Ms. Qassemi, who are not privileged. Women from lower classes and even the religious are among those marching up and down the stairs to fight for divorces and custody of their children.

Increasing educational levels and the information revolution have contributed to creating a generation of women determined to gain more control over their lives, rights advocates say.

Confronted with new cultural and legal restrictions after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, some young women turned to higher education as a way to get away from home, postpone marriage and earn social respect, advocates say. . . .

Today, more than 60 percent of university students are women, compared with just over 30 percent in 1982, . . .

Even for those women for whom college is not an option, the Internet and satellite television have opened windows into the lives of women in the West. “Satellite has shown an alternative way of being,” said Syma Sayah, a feminist involved in social work in Tehran. “Women see that it is possible to be treated equally with men.”

Another sign of changing attitudes is the increasing popularity of books, movies and documentaries that explore sex discrimination, rights advocates say.
[Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company]

Click on the title for the original article

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Pakistan's shaky economy: Like the rest of the world

Syed Fazl-e-Haider has provided an assessment of Pakistan's economy. It doesn't look good, but what country's economy looks good these days? From Asia Times Online ["Pakistan recovery fragile at best"] here are some details:

  • The country got a US$750 million from IMF in order to manage balance of payment problems after reserves sank 75% and donor countries refused to help out. They are now hoping for a second installment of the same amount, and so far they have been able to stay within IMF stipulated requirements.
  • The World Bank plans to provide up to $2 billion in credit to Pakistan this fiscal year to support economic growth and the government's poverty-focused programs.
  • Inflation is declining but in January it was at 20.5%; it was 25% last October. The central bank interest rate is 15% and there is a chance of a cut in interest rate. It has “increased its benchmark interest rate five times in the past 18 months to tame core inflation (that is, excluding food and energy)”.
  • The trade deficit has increased 3.5% to $10.727 billion in seven months (July-January) of 2008-09 from the corresponding period a year earlier, mainly due to costly imports of oil, fertilizer, wheat and other essentials and a decline in the textile sector's dyeing exports. Moreover, “the $22.10 billion export target for the fiscal year ending in June seems beyond reach.”
  • Foreign exchange reserves have been falling.
  • The country is likely to miss its annual fiscal deficit target of 4.2% of GDP set for the current fiscal year ending June 2009. "If the current trends persist, and strong corrective measures are not undertaken promptly, the annual fiscal deficit target of 4.2% of GDP for 2008-09 may not be met," according to the Fiscal Policy Statement 2008-09 recently released by the Finance Ministry.
  • Domestic debt rose by 9.27% during the first half of the current financial year.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Russian geopolitics, gas pipelines, and underlying health trends in Central Asia

From the recent New York Review (Feb 12, 2009): Christian Caryl’s review of Edward Lucas’s book, The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West brings together a number of sensible insights about Russia today.

For one thing, there is the discussion of the practical entailments of producing and distributing gas as opposed to oil in Eurasia.

Natural gas pipelines are immensely expensive. Once a line connecting a particular field with a particular consumer has been built, investors tend to be leery of putting money into duplicate or partially overlapping routes. And if the builder of the first pipeline refuses to allow it to be used by competing suppliers, consumers will be left with only one choice. This means that the monopolistic supplier can exploit its route to its own advantage in a myriad of ways—including, in the case of Russia, to exert political pressure.

And this, indeed, is precisely what Gazprom, Russia's powerful state-dominated gas monopoly, has done. Gazprom—whose chairman during much of the Putin administration was Medvedev, the current president and close Putin ally—doesn't just own most of Russia's gas fields; it also controls access to the pipelines that bring that gas to markets—above all to the European Union, which despite its status as the world's largest economy has relatively little in the way of indigenous energy resources and finds itself correspondingly dependent on Russian petroleum products. (By 2004, Russia was the sole gas supplier to Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and Slovakia; and the principal supplier to Germany, Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Turkey. Overall, it accounts for nearly 30 percent of the EU's gas supply.) Gazprom has already shown its willingness to employ its stranglehold over energy supplies as a political weapon, even if it often does so in the guise of dispassionate adjustment to market realities.

As we have seen in the startling recent dispute with Ukraine, governments that disagree with Russian policy have been punished by overnight price hikes or interruptions in service. The Ukraine standoff began in the last days of 2008, ostensibly over Russia's demand for a large increase in the price Ukraine pays for its gas; but the ensuing shutdown affected much of Europe, including leading nations such as Germany, and some analysts suggest that the standoff has been a way for Russia to warn the West about exerting too much influence in Ukrainian affairs. In fact much of the gas Russia sends westward actually comes from the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan, which is forced to sell to the Russians at bargain-basement rates since Gazprom pipelines are the only way the Turkmens can get their gas to market.

Another issue: He also points out a contradiction (possibly an emerging issue in the future?) between how the Russians view Ukraine and how the Ukrainians view themselves.

But the real flashpoint—the fulcrum of Eurasia's destiny, as the recent natural gas crisis reminds us—is Ukraine, a big and unstable country that has always been a focus of geopolitical competition. A large chunk of Russia's navy, the Black Sea Fleet, is still based in Crimea, and many Russians continue to regard Ukraine in much the same way that Serbs see Kosovo—as a heartland of their own national culture. At the same time, although more than 20 percent of the Ukrainian population are ethnic Russians, a large and apparently growing number of Ukrainians increasingly link their own national identity and historical destiny with Europe rather than their neighbor to the east.

And the contradiction is already imbedded in the Ukrainian cabinet: There has been a

long-running feud between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who recently traveled to Moscow for a round of surprisingly convivial negotiations with Putin.

Other details of interest:
“Russian spying in Europe and the US … has, in fact, reached levels comparable to the bad old days of the Soviet Union.” [p23]
“What he insists upon very strongly is that Europe must make every effort it can to reduce its dependency on Russian energy supplies by creating a Europe-wide energy market with diversified sources of supply. [He proposes that] … European countries should cooperate in developing pipelines that would connect their market with Central Asian suppliers such as Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan while bypassing Russian intermediaries” [p23] [That would be nice, but how effectively could they manage that, given that Russia, recognizing that possibility, seems eager to position itself as the hegemon in Central Asia? Russia has demonstrated its readiness to intervene in such affairs, as it already has for other reasons in Chechnya and Georgia.]
• “Russia, contrary to all the feverish talk about its presumed status as a revived superpower, is nothing of the kind. It is a rising regional power that enjoys the benefit of immense geographical reach and huge natural resources. Yes, it has a nuclear arsenal and a big army—but, as Lucas correctly notes, the former is outdated and poorly maintained, . . . Meanwhile, the financial crisis has dramatically highlighted the anemic basis of Russia's supposedly formidable economy. . . . Russia's international image has deteriorated sharply, and investors both domestic and foreign have bolted. . . . Russia's stock markets [have lost] up to 75 percent of their value …. Meanwhile, the country's extraordinary demographic decline—aggravated by a nationwide drug and alcohol epidemic, a catastrophically underfunded health system, and the rapid spread of AIDS—continues seemingly unchecked. . . . One good start, though, might be to exercise a bit more caution in how we employ historical analogies. In reality we are not entering a "New Cold War" or anything like it. What we are facing is the messy challenge of figuring out where a big, ailing, mournfully post-imperial Russia fits into the chaotic twenty-first century.” [p24]

This last note on the internal decay of Russian society makes us wonder what’s going on in the other states of Central Asia, not only the “stans,” but also Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. If anything, health conditions in those countries are worse than in Russia. Even if, presumably, alcohol is less of a problem in those countries, we do know that drug consumption in some of them has been rising rapidly. A friend of mine has seen the figures on Iran: Iran has the highest incidence of drug abuse in the world.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The real reason Kyrghyzstan threw out the Americans [?]

Joshua Kucera has given us some insight into why the Americans were thrown out of the Manas airbase in Kyrghyzstan. His explanation seems consistent with the trends in Central Asia anyway: That is, that Russia holds the strategic cards and seems to be ready to play them aggressively. The effect could be to establish Russia as a formidable hegemon in the region between Europe and China, because it has the advantage of strategic location and a surfeit of energy reserves that are vital to the populations at both ends of the Eurasian continent. This is the connection of Russian activities in Georgia and before that in Chechnya.

The old arguments about the difficulty for the Russian- Soviet empires to define "where to stop" in their dealings with their frontiers seem still relevant; there are few natural boundaries eastward from the Russian metropol, and there is a continual worry about what can develop on the frontiers. Prudence under such conditions suggests that it is wise to address frontier issues aggressively before they threaten the integrity of the system, given that it is already threatened by many internal faultlines. For an empire that stands on feet of clay, geography still matters, even in this post-modern world -- and thus, geopolitics., Thursday 5 February 2009 15.00 GMT
Kyrgyzstan shows US the door, by Joshua Kuceea

More than a rent dispute, America's eviction from a key military base is fallout from Russia's fight with Georgia
The war between Russia and Georgia last summer has claimed another victim: the US airbase in Kyrgyzstan.

The details of the US's apparent ejection from its only remaining base in ex-Soviet Central Asia remain murky, but initial reports suggest that the US was simply outbid by Russia. Russia offered a $2bn aid package to Kyrgyzstan, and the US's $150m annual payments to Kyrgyzstan suddenly looked pretty paltry. Underscoring the point, the president of Kyrgyzstan made the announcement not at home, but while on a trip to Moscow.

So it's tempting to write this off as bazaar politics. But the seeds for this move were sown last August in Georgia, when the US failed to do anything substantial to support its close ally in its war against Russia. Georgia, remember, sent a quarter of its armed forces to Iraq, despite the presence of two festering conflicts on its own soil, solely to curry favour with the US. It enacted free-market economic reforms so quickly, and in spite of significant social dislocation, that it was named the top reforming country in the world by the World Bank.

So when Georgia went to war with Russia and the US stood by, it sent a strong signal to the rest of America's would-be allies in the former Soviet Union. (Remember also, while it's now clear that Georgia and Russia were both culpable for that war breaking out, as soon as fighting started US officials immediately blamed Russia.) If the US isn't going to defend Georgia, would it defend Azerbaijan, or Ukraine or Kazakhstan?

Kyrgyzstan has apparently answered that question for itself by jettisoning the Americans in favour of Russia. The US base has been controversial in Kyrgyzstan. There were disputes over fuel dumping, the shooting of a Kyrgyzstan citizen by an American base guard and the rent paid by the Americans. In 2007, Kyrgyzstan raised the rent from $2m a year to about $63m a year, and the US provides a total aid package to the country of about $150m a year. While Kyrgyzstan officials frequently complained about the base, US officials believed it was just a bargaining technique, intended to drive up the price. (Russia has its own airbase in Kyrgyzstan, for which it pays no rent.)

I was in Kyrgyzstan about 18 months ago, and one diplomat told me: "I don't think Kyrgyzstan is interested in driving out the base. … The US is providing about $150m a year in aid, and they have to expect that if the airbase leaves some of that will disappear, and Russia and China won't be able to compensate for it." Well, Russia has called America's bluff, again.

The base is a supply hub for US operations in Afghanistan, and the implications of its closure on the US effort there would likely be dire. The US has already been kicked out of one base in Central Asia, the Karshi-Khanabad air base in Uzbekistan. And the US – about to double its footprint in Afghanistan – was already struggling to figure out how to get the extra supplies there, even before Kyrgyzstan's announcement.

Which makes the apparent Russian hand behind this move all the more puzzling. Conventional wisdom about the base said that Russia, while occasionally complaining about it in public, privately wanted it to stay. Russia was just as afraid of Islamist extremism as was the US, this logic went, and was perfectly happy to have the US spending its blood and treasure defeating the Taliban.

According to Russia's Nato representative, that logic has now been reversed, arguing that the US presence in Afghanistan is actually fomenting instability there: "Americans' failure in Afghanistan is creating a bigger threat to neighbouring countries. Military actions, which are being aimed against civilians, helped those who were not going to take sides with the Taliban movement and other extremists," he said, by way of explaining the Kyrgyzstan government's decision.

It's not clear whether we should take this statement at face value. Were Churchill alive for Putin's Russia, he surely would have added a couple extra layers of inscrutability to the "riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" line. The second part of Churchill's quote, though, is less often remembered: "But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest." Russia has apparently decided that thwarting the US military presence in Central Asia is now more in its interest than supporting the US in Afghanistan.

But Kyrgyzstan should be able to stand up to Russian threats or bribery, as long as it has a little backup. What the US showed in Georgia, though, is that in the end Kyrgyzstan is on its own.

[Joshua Kucera: The real reason the US is being evicted from its airbase in Kyrgyzstan] This article was first published on at 15.00 GMT on Thursday 5 February 2009. It was last updated at 15.00 GMT on Thursday 5 February 2009. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Swat's descent into chaos

The Pakistani government -- which is essentially the army and the civilians it has deigned to allow to hold office -- has been claiming to fight extremists for many years but the practice seems so different from the claims that one wonders if anything the Pakistan government says could be true. The harder they claim to be fighting extremism the stronger the extremists become. Shame. In the mean time there are many diligent and brilliant Pakistani journalists who have to put up with the double-dealing and distortions of truth that the army leaders have become notorious for. Until there is an attempt at honesty by the army of Pakistan the whole region is at risk, including the army itself. Here is BAsim Usmani in the Guardian on the topic. [Thanks to my friend S. for sending this to me.]

Taliban militants have taken the Swat valley in Pakistan – why is the
country turning a blind eye?
Basim Usmani Wednesday 4 February 2009 20.00

Swat, once a resort for Pakistanis on holiday, has fallen to the Taliban. The battle for Swat began in 2007, while the country was distracted by ongoing operations in the tribally administered northern areas and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Now, President Zardari's preoccupation with the Mumbai attacks has given the militants in Swat, Tehreek-e-Taliban, a chance to rap up their bombing campaign of girls' schools.

The Tehreek has blow up 170 girls' schools in Swat to date. Oblivious to Swat's descent into chaos, the government has been busy cracking down on Jamat-ud-Dawa, the humanitarian organisation that operates allegedly with militia in Kashmir, in a series of enthusiastic measures to abate Indian pressure post-Mumbai.

A week ago, the government took control of Jamat-ud-Dawa's public schools in their headquarters in Muridke, a small pit-stop city economically dependent on neighboring Lahore, the capital of Punjab. The Dawa's influence is striking: truckers coming through on the "Grand Truck Road" found no cigarettes or chewing tobacco, which have been banned from sale in accordance with the organisation's edicts.

Despite Jamat-ud-Dawa's standing, the protest that accompanied the government's takeover only consisted of peaceful faculty staff and students. There were no death threats issued to prominent politicians in Punjab and administrators of the Dawa's school system and adjacent hospital expressed hope that the change of heads would lead to more financial support from the government.

Interestingly, this is after the government handed over all girls' schools in the Swat valley to the Taliban, after being complicit to the militant's 15 January ban on female education. Currently, the "third phase" of military operations in Swat is taking place and live coverage of the military battling the Tehreek-e-Taliban is hopefully going to highlight the urgency of the situation. The military got wise to the media attention and the chiefs of the army, navy and air force held a meeting bright and early on Sunday morning where they praised their "operational readiness".

Sadly, this readiness was nowhere to be found a week ago when the body of Pir Samiullah, a famous Swati and government loyalist who was purportedly encouraged by the military to organise a lashkar (independent army), was killed by the Taliban. After discovering the grave where Samiullah's family secretly buried him, the Taliban exhumed his body and hung it from a major crossing in the area. Before that, the vice-president of the Awami National Party (the party with a majority in the North West Frontier Province, where Swat is located) was kidnapped and killed. Maulana Fazlullah, an influential Taliban spokesman, issued death threats over his pirate radio station that broadcasts throughout the valley, naming 40 politicians, who have mostly fled the valley.

Fazlullah warned of an army of suicide bombers to attack the Pakistani state if military operations continue, something that could find Zardari back-pedalling to the government's position last May, when Asif handed over the valley to the Taliban to enforce their version of sharia law in return for a ceasefire. The Taliban then got organised, set up parallel courts and a brutal police force that has turned Swat into Kabul circa 2001. The spokesman for the military Major General Athar Abbas still blames the Taliban for flubbing up the May ceasefire. Those pesky Talibans, they always surprise you!

This inability to promptly drive the radicals out of Swat is reminiscent of Musharraf's sluggish six-day siege of the Red Mosque. The militants began like those in Swat, with warnings against "un-Islamic" activities such as vending DVDs or being dressed inappropriately. In Islamabad's case, the veiled and stick-wielding Jamia Hafza threatened transgressors with violence. Then they occupied a library, issuing edicts and promising suicide bombing. The government then waited for the group, which included many misguided teenage religious students, to set up a fortress in Lal Masjid, which had been stockpiled with weapons since the 80s by its imam, Maulana Abdul Aziz. When the siege was one day in, the country went into mourning. Musharraf's drawn out Operation Silence gave the media ample time to project the human interest angle of a mosque filled with misguided religious students under fire. If the Swat operation continues to be as fumbling, with the 12,000 troops deployed there continuing to accrue their civilian death count in search of 3,000 fanatics, the Zardari government will be disgraced as Musharraf was. And a war of sentiments is what the fanatics are waging.

The public has not protested Swat yet. The only people who have protested are residents of Swat when children there were killed in crossfire and police opened fire on them. In place of the Taliban in Swat, people in every district of Lahore have protested the Israeli assault on Gaza. Shortly after Gaza was struck, the sectarian Imamia Students Organisation held a 3,000-strong protest down Mall Road, with posters of Hezbollah and Nasrullah on proud display. Some time last week, heavily made-up and westernised college students became a common sight at pro-Palestinian demonstrations, which were taking place multiple times a day. It seems popular to pick up Palestine the way Darfour became the issue of choice for university students three years ago.

After the government took control of Jamat-ud-Dawa's school system in Muridke, the charity office they ran in Lahore was replaced. The new name for what was the Dawa office is Tehreek-e-Tahafouz-e-Qibla-Awal, and instead of collecting donations for Pakistani mujahideen they are asking for money for Gaza. Ostensibly, the office is run by the same people. Somehow Gaza remains a more passionate issue than Swat, which has yet to see any aid offered to its residents. Why are Pakistanis turning a blind eye? Is it because those who are killing Muslims in Swat claim to be Muslims themselves? Or is it because Lahoris are scared to speak up because they're scared of being blown up?

If it's the fear of being blown up that decides what Pakistanis do, then they can expect to do a lot less in the future. Bombs recently blew up outside al-Falah cinema, where Punjabi stage shows are held on Lahore's Mall Road. Before that, the World Performing Arts Festival, three juice stalls and the only Punjabi-language radio station were hit by bombs. And don't think Lahore, or any city in Pakistan, can't be host to a Lal Masjid-esque debacle. In October, CD and DVD vendors in the main electronics market on Hall Road already enforced a ban on the sale of "inappropriate CDs" in accordance with an edict sent from local Islamists.

Lahore isn't any less likely a target for the Taliban than Swat is. Maulana Fazlullah has already promised a new army of suicide bombers – words it looks like he will make good on. Lahoris need to speak out on behalf of Swatis living under the Taliban because they may need someone to speak out for themselves soon.

* © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009