The AfPak Reader

September 4, 2009

WPFS – The Joshua Partlow File

Filed under: Journalist Chronicles,Summer 2009 — huntingnasrallah @ 6:20 pm

I first read Joshua Partlow’s work on the Washington Post in a story about Swat refugees returning to the Mingora Valley.  When I read the following lines, I was hooked and determined to follow this young writer in the AfPak…

“For two months, soldiers and insurgents have fought amid the rice paddies and apple orchards of this verdant valley. The fighting forced more than 2 million people out of what was once a tourist destination and into crowded tents and relatives’ homes in adjacent areas of Pakistan’s northwest. The military said it has driven the Taliban from the valley, and on Monday it began repatriating the first small batch of residents.

Ahead of these returnees, a convoy of provincial politicians and their armed guards toured the valley, driving into Mingora, the area’s largest city and the scene of some of the worst urban combat. Although most of the villages and towns in Swat seemed largely intact, albeit deserted, evidence of a battle here was plain to see.

Bombs and artillery shells have demolished houses and turned schools and police stations into rubble. There are fire-blackened storefronts and roll-down shop gates crumpled like foil. Around Green Square in downtown Mingora, windows of hotels and shopping plazas are blasted out.

“This is our main city,” said Khalil ur-Rahman, a leading politician in Mingora. The Taliban has “destroyed everything,” he said.

It was at the center of the square that Taliban fighters used to dump their victims’ bodies when they controlled Mingora. These gruesome killings initially occurred on Thursday evenings, Rahman said, but then became nightly affairs. Eventually, the area was dubbed Slaughterhouse Square.

“They gradually got stronger. They were given support because there was no opposition. The people used to think the army and the Taliban were friends, brothers,” he said. “Then they began slaughtering the people, police, public officials.”

The government has renamed the square, calling it Martyrs Square.”

Partlow’s July 14th account of the Mingora slaughterhouse square was a panoramic nightmarescape of the AfPak.  Interestingly, Partlow’s tenure in the AfPak began on Week 2 of Summer 2009.  Previously, he served as a foreign correspondent in South America.  It is interesting to see how this correspondent’s efforts improve as he learns the ropes in a new environment.

Below, you will find the Joshua Partlow articles of the AfPak Summer 2009 (Weeks 2 through 10).  Summer Weeks 11 through 13 will be issued as updates.


AfPak Summer 2009 – Week 2

Deadly Ambush Could Indicate Threat to Pakistan’s Army
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 29 — The Pakistani military is at war with the Taliban, but the ambush that killed 16 soldiers in the tribal region of North Waziristan on Sunday was still somewhat unexpected.

“There is no operation which was either planned or being conducted in North Waziristan,” Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a Pakistani military spokesman, told reporters Monday. “This attack was completely unprovoked.”

The Taliban assault on an army convoy passing through the village of Inzar Kas was one of the deadliest incidents for the military during its two-month-old offensive against the insurgents. But to some analysts, it also served as a warning of a bigger threat — the possibility that disparate Taliban factions might be closing ranks to battle the army in Pakistan.

The group that has asserted responsibility for Sunday’s ambush is led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, one of the many militant commanders in Pakistan and Afghanistan who fight — sometimes against each other — under the banner of the Taliban. In early 2008, Bahadur’s group struck a peace deal with the local administration in North Waziristan, a mountainous tribal region along the Afghan border where the Pakistani government exerts little control. But a spokesman for his group announced Monday that because of U.S. drone bombings and Pakistani military activity, that peace has been shattered.

“We will carry out attacks on the security forces,” Hamdullah Hamdi told reporters.

The failure of the accord in North Waziristan is a blow to the government as it plans a major operation in neighboring South Waziristan, home of Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan’s main Taliban foe and the man blamed for multiple suicide bombings and the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The region to the north is important because military strategists expect to use it as a transit route for ground troops and supplies.

Bahadur’s call to arms followed another announcement by a formerly pro-government Taliban commander in South Waziristan, Maulvi Nazir, who last week warned that his fighters intend to target the military in response to its offensive and the drone strikes.

“These two, Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, they were focused on Afghanistan,” said Mahmood Shah, a security analyst and retired Pakistani army brigadier with experience in the northwestern tribal areas. “What we’ve heard is they’ve called back their fighters from Afghanistan and are bringing them to Pakistan.”

Earlier last week, the government suffered yet another setback to its efforts to turn other fighters against Mehsud, when Taliban commander Qari Zainuddin, an enemy of Mehsud’s, was killed by one of his own security guards.

“It was too naive to think he could defeat Baitullah Mehsud,” Shah said of Zainuddin.

The string of developments suggests that the government’s new efforts to take on Mehsud in South Waziristan could prove more challenging than its recent push into the Swat Valley, where military officials say they have nearly regained the territory from the Taliban. For the past two weeks, aircraft have strafed Mehsud’s territory in preparation for a ground assault against his thousands of followers.

“The militants’ attacks on military convoys and installations in North Waziristan are part of a well-thought-out Taliban strategy to expand the war to other territories from South Waziristan, where the army is currently operating,” said Talat Masood, a defense analyst and retired general. “We will see more such attacks in coming days.”

Special correspondents Haq Nawaz Khan and Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.
U.S. Drone Targets Taliban in Pakistan, at Least 6 Dead

By Joshua Partlow and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 3, 2009 4:19 PM

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 3 — The followers of one of Pakistan’s most feared Taliban commanders, Baitullah Mehsud, came under a fresh round of U.S. drone attacks Friday in bombings that killed at least six people, according to Pakistani government officials.

The missile attacks targeted a suspected Taliban camp and a religious school used by fighters in the rugged tribal border region of South Waziristan, said a local official from the region and a resident, who said at least 13 people were killed. A Pakistani military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said he had no information about whether senior fighters had been killed in the attack.

Such American bombardments have become the focus of widespread, emotional outrage among the Pakistani public and an uncomfortable issue with the country’s civilian and military leadership, who privately support them but must be sensitive to the depth of public animosity.

The most recent attacks targeting Baitullah Mehsud’s network, however, suggest that there is a new level of coordination and common strategy between Pakistani and U.S. efforts at a time when both countries’ militaries are engaged in major operations against the Taliban.

American officials do not publicly comment on individual drone strikes as a rule. They are usually first reported by civilians or officials in the area of the attack and confirmed by Pakistani officials.

A common criticism about the drone attacks among Pakistani officials centers around the fact that U.S. officials have tended to target Taliban or Al Qaeda leadership that are central to their fight in Afghanistan and elsewhere, rather than the Taliban leaders, such as Mehsud, who cause havoc on Pakistani soil. But Friday’s strike followed another U.S. drone attack in South Waziristan on June 23 that struck a militant commander’s funeral in South Waziristan and reportedly came close to killing Mehsud. The attack left 50 people dead, but Mehsud reportedly left the ceremony shortly beforehand.

“That public posture is a bit of a shadow play,” said Shuja Nawaz, an analyst and director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “There is much greater collaboration and cooperation than they let on. Now that the U.S. is concentrating on Baitullah, I’m sure the Pakistanis are grateful.”

Mehsud, who commands hundreds if not thousands of followers, has become perhaps the single most important target for the Pakistani military, which has strafed their homes and hideouts on bombing runs in recent weeks and are preparing a possible invasion of ground troops into South Waziristan. Mehsud’s group is considered responsible for many of the more than 30 suicide bombings this year that have claimed hundreds of lives in Pakistan.

“Historically speaking all these suicide bombers we trace go back to South Waziristan. Our main leads always point to South Waziristan,” Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, said in an interview.

But U.S. and Pakistan’s interests in this fight against the Taliban do not always converge. As the U.S. Marines continue their major operation in Helmand province in Afghanistan, many Pakistanis fear that this pressure could force more fighters to seek refuge in Pakistan.

“We are concerned about that and it is a serious matter for us in the sense that we do not want infiltration of militants or extremists from across the border,” said Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesman, Abdul Basit. “We have been discussing this issue with the U.S., NATO and other foreign nations.”

The Pakistani military, which keeps about 50,000 troops on its western border with Afghanistan, said this week it will rearrange border forces to send more troops to the Baluchistan area of southern Pakistan across from Helmand to try to stem any influx. “They will want to run away from there,” Abbas said of the Taliban in Helmand.

But such an effort, on a lengthy and porous border, at a time when the Pakistani Army is stretched by fighting battles elsewhere, may be largely futile.

“The area is quite long, and its not possible to monitor the whole border line,” said Mehmud Jan, editor of the Baluchistan Tribune, a newspaper in Quetta. “It’s not necessary to get a visa. One can easily go from side to side.”

Such a flow of fighters, or of refugees, could also exascerbate ethnic tensions between Pashtuns coming across from Afghanistan and Baluch people in Pakistan, whose relations are already strained. “If large numbers of people flee the area and move across into Baluchistan, that could create a certain amount of volatility and destabilitze the border area,” said Rifaat S. Hussain, professor of defense and strategic studies at Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad.

As the fighting continued on Friday, a Pakistani army transport helicopter crashed down near the border of the Orakzai and Khyber tribal regions in northwestern Pakistan, killing 26 people on board, government officials said. A mechanical failure caused the crash, according to the officials, but a Taliban commander south of Peshawar, Tariq Afridi, told local journalists that the Taliban shot down the aircraft.

Special correspondents Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar and Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.


AfPak Summer 2009 – Week 3
Heading Home, in the Face of Lingering Fears
Refugees Trickle Back as Pakistan’s Government Deems Buner Largely Secure

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 9, 2009

CHENGLAI, Pakistan Those who cannot wait any longer have loaded themselves into rented trucks or passing cars or horse-drawn carts. They have balanced in these precarious caravans what little they fled with — a bundle of clothing, a plastic bucket, a goat — to begin a cautious journey back into what was until recently Taliban territory.

“We don’t know how things are further up the road,” said Sayid Dulamin, an appliance shop owner, his borrowed pickup parked on the shoulder of a one-lane mountain pass here in northwestern Pakistan. His wife, five sons and the motorcycle he escaped on two months ago filled the truck bed. “It’s just very difficult to stay away so long from your home.”

Over these hills and along the rocky stream beds, Taliban fighters advanced from their Swat Valley stronghold into neighboring Buner earlier this year. This audacious show of force, about 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad, sparked the Pakistani military’s ongoing offensive against the Taliban in Swat and nearby areas. The subsequent fighting has driven more than 2 million people from their homes and into relatives’ houses and vast refugee camps. Only a fraction of those who fled have risked returning.

The military now considers Buner largely cleared of Taliban fighters, but it estimates that fewer than 10,000 of the 67,000 families that left have returned, said Lt. Col. Waseem Shahid, a member of the special support group for the displaced people.

“I think the majority of people are waiting for the call by the government . . . to go back,” he said. “Of course, it is safe to return.”

In Buner, and among displaced residents still waiting to go back, there is far less confidence.

“The people are so scared. They are confused. The Taliban might come back. The government might attack,” said Ali Aqbar, 70, who has given shelter to more than two dozen relatives at his home in Buner.

Some of these relatives loaded bed frames and stacks of twine-wrapped blankets onto a waiting truck Tuesday afternoon. But they were not headed home. A bomb had exploded in the district the day before. Now they were fleeing farther away, to another relative’s home outside Buner and away from the fighting.

“That bomb forced us to rethink our plans,” said Hayad Mohammed, a 43-year-old farmer.

His initial escape in May followed artillery shelling and aircraft bombings that occurred perilously close to his home. Dozens of his wheat crop bundles burned. He counted his casualties: “Two water buffaloes, one ox, one cow, one calf.” His father, Gul Sharif, 75, tried to hold out, spending five nights alone under a rock outcropping on a hillside near his home. He left after some soldiers screamed at him and pointed their rifles. “They would have killed me,” he said. “They were ready to shoot.”

“God forgive me, it was a very strange time,” he said.

In some parts of Buner, where residents grow tobacco, mine rock quarries and tend to honeybee boxes, the rural tranquillity seems undisturbed. There is little obvious sign of damage from fighting or evidence of military presence. Some police checkpoints along a main road sit empty.

But it’s an uneasy quiet. The lack of overt protection worries several residents, who said they did not believe all of the Taliban fighters had been driven from the area. Some said they did not know whether to comply with the authorities’ orders to refrain from growing their corn crop along the roads — to deny the Taliban cover during their ambushes — or whether to accept government handouts and risk angering the fighters.

“There is a fear among the people that when they will go home, the militants will start attacking them, saying, ‘You have taken money from the government, you have taken food from the government against us,’ ” Sharif said.

Liaqat Ali Khan, a local councilman, said eight of the 27 jurisdictions in Buner are now stable. “Even in these eight, there was last night some fighting, and two or three houses were destroyed by army forces,” he said.

Several residents said they were willing to accept this upheaval in their lives if it drove away the Taliban, who quickly sought to impose their brutal rule when they arrived in Buner. Khan recalled a meeting he held with five Taliban fighters to hear their demands for a system of Islamic law.

“We told them, ‘Do not terrorize the people. If you have any message, you can go to the mosque peacefully and tell the people, but you should not terrorize them,’ ” he said. “The reply was that ‘we have been good to you people. Our orders were to butcher you and slaughter you from the back of the neck. And we’ve been slaughtering your people from the front.’ ”

Khan said a young boy who accompanied the fighters to the meeting, held about 10 days before the military operation began, was wearing an explosives-laden vest.

“If we did anything wrong or said anything wrong, they would kill us,” Khan said. Even though a relatively small number of fighters operated in Buner, he said, their influence was daunting. “People were paralyzed. It was like everyone was bitten by a snake.”

After two months away from home, however, some have decided the time has come to return.

Bakht Munir, 35, and his three brothers spent five days walking their herd of livestock out of Buner when the fighting got ugly, but keeping cattle at a relative’s house proved difficult.

“They go to other people’s fields; this bothers the neighbors. They destroy the crops. We’re having lots of problems,” Munir said, as he stopped for gas along his route home.

The women and children sat fanning themselves on the roof of the truck rented for the equivalent of about $100, while 10 cows, four goats and a donkey jostled in the bed below.

“Our children are sick. We’re not used to such hot weather; in the mountains, it is cooler. The medicine is not working. We need to go home,” added Munir’s brother, Bakht Zeb.

In the refugee camps, many more have chosen to wait. In the Shah Mansoor camp in Swabi outside Buner, some said delays in the registration process for a $300 government payment has forced them to wait. But the most pervasive sentiment was fear.

“Roads are closed. There are curfews. The people who are returning are taking extreme risks crossing into difficult areas on overnight journeys,” said Nawab Khan, 26, a camp resident. “How can people feel secure?”

Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.
Suspected U.S. Drones Kill at Least 44 in Pakistan

By Joshua Partlow and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 9, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 8 — For the second consecutive day, unmanned U.S. spy planes pounded suspected Taliban targets in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan on Wednesday, killing at least 44 people, according to a Pakistani official.

The deadliest of the two strikes targeted a convoy of five vehicles heading toward the Makeen area, thought to be the headquarters of Baitullah Mehsud, a top Taliban commander. At least 35 people were killed in the attack, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Earlier in the day, another suspected U.S. drone fired four missiles on a Taliban hideout in Karwan Manza, in the same mountainous area along the border with Afghanistan, killing nine people and wounding more than a dozen, the official said. The toll in both attacks was difficult to verify.

Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a spokesman for the Pakistani military, also confirmed Wednesday that Maulana Fazlullah, a top Taliban commander in the Swat Valley, was injured in an earlier bombing, but he did not give details.

Fazlullah was the leader of a Taliban push to establish Islamic law in the Swat Valley. His fighters’ violent tactics spurred the Pakistani government into a major military operation that has been underway for the past two months. Abbas said the operation in Swat, which has claimed the lives of more than 1,500 suspected fighters, was nearing completion.

The wounding of Fazlullah is significant because Swat Valley residents and Pakistani commentators have criticized the army for not eliminating the upper echelons of the Taliban; he is the highest-ranking commander to be wounded in the operation.

The drone attacks in South Waziristan were at least the fourth suspected U.S. bombing of Mehsud’s territory in a week and a further sign that the United States has stepped up efforts against the man many consider the strongest Taliban leader in Pakistan.

The U.S. government does not comment as a rule on whether it is involved in drone attacks in Pakistan. But American security officials monitoring events in Pakistan said there were no early indications that top Taliban leaders were killed in the bombings.

Although Pakistani officials privately support the U.S. attacks, Pakistani politicians across the spectrum criticize the bombardments.

“After all, it’s bombing; whether it’s militants or not, they’re bombing Pakistan,” Saleem Saifullah Khan, a senator from the party of former president Pervez Musharraf, said in an interview. “As a sovereign country, we’re not too happy about it. It’s counterproductive.”

Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.


AfPak Summer 2009 – Week 4
Tough Times for Smugglers at Pakistan’s ‘American Market’

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 13, 2009
PESHAWAR, Pakistan Not that they really have the right to complain, but these are also dire economic times for smugglers and gun runners.

Show up any afternoon at the Sitara Market on the western outskirts of this violent city and you can ask them yourself. This is a rogue’s bazaar, within 35 miles of the Afghanistan border. The locals call it the “American market,” and for good reason: A baffling array of battlefield detritus, from U.S. military camouflage kneepads to night-vision goggles, Oakley sunglasses to Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate muffin cake, can be procured here for a bargain price.

At 5 p.m. on this Tuesday, the first thing made clear is that it’s not advisable to actually be an American at the American market.

“Do not say you are from the U.S.A.,” is the kind advice offered by Baz Mohammed, a vendor with nearly a decade of experience hawking smuggled goods to anyone willing to pay. Taliban fighters sometimes peruse these stalls. “We are scared of them. They tell us, ‘Don’t sell American things. They are our enemy.’ That’s why we can’t write on our shop, ‘U.S.A. goods.’ They come at any time and check what we’re doing.”

Mohammed, an Afridi tribesman from the Khyber district along the border, sits on a crumpled American flag cushioning his dusty swivel chair, behind a cracked-glass case from which he removes a U.S. Army Velcro name tag — of some poor “Davis” — and a large “Made in the U.S.A.” socket wrench that he claims is from a Black Hawk helicopter tool kit. He also sells gun holsters, gas masks, Sound Guard two-color disposable foam earplugs, Black & Decker power drills, extension cords, bolt cutters, welding glasses, corkscrews and a stand-up telescope. He does not feel like showing off the American firearms, but he insists they are not far away.

All this clutter might suggest a thriving trade, but Mohammed insists it’s the opposite.

“Business is zero these days,” he said, sipping green tea out of a porcelain dish. Earlier in the war, he could make more than $1,200 a day. Now he is happy with $60. “It’s now much more difficult to bring something in the old illegal ways.”

The vendors at Sitara Market do not like to spell out in detail their illegal ways, or explain how they acquire their loot. Some goods, they say, trickle over the border from what Taliban fighters scavenge off the battlefield, or from theft along the military supply route through the Khyber Pass. There are black-market deals in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and donations flipped for profit.

“Sometimes we go to Afghanistan, we buy a container, we don’t know what is inside, some mixed things,” Mohammed said vaguely. His story of the provenance of one U.S. military weapon he sold seemed unlikely even to him. “Someone told me the soldier dropped his pistol and it was picked up by someone on a road.”

Much of the stuff for sale here seems merely odd, but some is worrisome. For $650, a correspondent for the GlobalPost Web site earlier this year was able to buy a U.S. military laptop that appeared to belong to someone from the U.S. Army’s 864th Engineer Combat Battalion and held e-mail addresses for hundreds of military personnel. There are ancient and modern guns and full sets of camouflage fatigues.

Business has fallen off for many reasons, the vendors say, from the devaluation of the rupee to stricter border security making shipment more difficult. Bombs frequently explode along their routes. Rising violence in Peshawar and other parts of northwestern Pakistan have frightened away customers.

“People used to come from across the country to get the things that are made in America. People like American products,” Mohammed said. “No fakes. Good quality. Long-lasting. Doctors, fighters, engineers, they’d come here, and if they like it, they buy it. Everyone would come.”

In another stall, Fazli Allah, who is from near Tora Bora in Afghanistan, specializes in food. Nutri-Grain bars. Imperial’s Finest sliced yellow cling peaches in light syrup. Libby’s peas and carrots. “That’s American,” he said, pointing at his shelves. “American. American. American.”

“It was very good business five or six years back, but now with the situation inside Pakistan, with the terror attacks, that has made the business really suffer,” he said. “People don’t want to come here.”

Maybe it’s worse now, but trouble feels timeless around here. Just down the road are the crumbling mud hut ruins of the Afghan refugee camps from the time of the Soviet invasion three decades ago. That baking plain is now adjoined by fresh rows of U.N. tents for some of the millions who have fled the Pakistani military’s recent battles against the Taliban.

The late-afternoon sun slanted through the market, and this was not the best place to linger. By 6 p.m., it was time to cut to the chase. So where are those American weapons?

“Not now,” Mohammed said. “Come back tomorrow.”
Swat Refugees Begin to Head Home
Pakistani Government Deems Area Safe, but Challenges Remain

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

MINGORA, Pakistan, July 13 — The slender young man hung upside down, strung up by his feet from an electric transmission tower just outside the Swat Valley. The police officer who smiled next to him, and the villagers walking past, heeded the message taped to his shirtless corpse.

“If anyone takes down this body, he will meet the same fate. This is a warning to the Taliban.”

It was not clear whether the army or angry residents had strung up the corpse. But the point was unmistakable: A favorite Taliban intimidation tactic has been adopted by the Islamist militia’s opponents, reflecting the desire of at least some here in the Swat Valley and neighboring areas to ensure that the Taliban, now officially gone after a fierce fight, stays away.

A caravan of trucks and buses carrying hundreds of war refugees passed by the dangling man Monday on its slow procession to Swat. After fleeing the Pakistani military’s war with the Taliban and spending weeks away from their homes, the returning refugees were met by politicians throwing fistfuls of petals.

The politicians spoke of battles won and peace restored. But this did not feel like a particularly joyful day. None of the returning refugees could be sure exactly what they were coming home to. The valley has changed hands several times between the Taliban and the government in recent years. Residents remain fearful that the Taliban will be back, and they have little faith that the government will protect them.

“I hope God will make it safe,” Bacha Zada, a baker, shouted from atop a truck crossing into Swat. “This is our new life.”

For two months, soldiers and insurgents have fought amid the rice paddies and apple orchards of this verdant valley. The fighting forced more than 2 million people out of what was once a tourist destination and into crowded tents and relatives’ homes in adjacent areas of Pakistan’s northwest. The military said it has driven the Taliban from the valley, and on Monday it began repatriating the first small batch of residents.

Ahead of these returnees, a convoy of provincial politicians and their armed guards toured the valley, driving into Mingora, the area’s largest city and the scene of some of the worst urban combat. Although most of the villages and towns in Swat seemed largely intact, albeit deserted, evidence of a battle here was plain to see.

Bombs and artillery shells have demolished houses and turned schools and police stations into rubble. There are fire-blackened storefronts and roll-down shop gates crumpled like foil. Around Green Square in downtown Mingora, windows of hotels and shopping plazas are blasted out.

“This is our main city,” said Khalil ur-Rahman, a leading politician in Mingora. The Taliban has “destroyed everything,” he said.

It was at the center of the square that Taliban fighters used to dump their victims’ bodies when they controlled Mingora. These gruesome killings initially occurred on Thursday evenings, Rahman said, but then became nightly affairs. Eventually, the area was dubbed Slaughterhouse Square.

“They gradually got stronger. They were given support because there was no opposition. The people used to think the army and the Taliban were friends, brothers,” he said. “Then they began slaughtering the people, police, public officials.”

The government has renamed the square, calling it Martyrs Square.

On Monday, flak-vested soldiers and black-clad police officers stood guard throughout the abandoned valley. They have converted schools and offices into garrisons and blocked roads with logs, rocks and sandbags to slow potential suicide bombers, although no traffic circulated other than the patrolling military pickup trucks and armored vehicles.

Swat is still under curfew, so virtually all shops and offices remained closed. The few residents who chose to stay through the fighting carried white flags as they walked cautiously through the streets.

Shah Dawran, a surgeon, left his home during the fighting but stayed in the valley to keep working. With no insulin available, he concocted a homemade remedy to treat a diabetic. He took in patients with shrapnel and gunshot wounds and saved the ones he could. “Two people died due to huge blood loss in my presence,” he said.

Military officials said that more than 1,500 suspected Taliban fighters were killed in the operation, although just one of the top 27 Taliban commanders in the area is confirmed as dead. The army has said that Maulana Fazlullah, the leading Taliban commander, known for his fiery radio sermons, has been injured. Taliban spokesmen have denied that.

Encouraged by the improved security, authorities say Swat is secure enough for families to return home.

“Peace will soon be restored,” said Muhammad Idrees Khan, police chief of the Malakand district, which includes the Swat Valley. “The militants are not capable of challenging us now.”

The main challenge for the government involves restoring services, rebuilding the damaged structures and protecting villagers as they come home in a phased return expected to unfold over the coming weeks. One brigadier general who briefed the politicians said police morale remained a critical concern. When the Taliban took control of the area, the police put up little resistance. A new, 2,500-strong police force built around retired military officers is scheduled to begin work soon to bolster the ranks.

The security forces must also attempt to gain the trust of the returning families. The brigadier general said that he asked a group of people for clues about who destroyed a school in Swat but that nobody offered any help.

“Now we are trying to have people take us into their confidence,” he said.

Many displaced farmers were forced to abandon their crops before the summer harvest and are now worried that they would have difficulty providing for themselves. A minister for North-West Frontier Province who toured Swat on Monday, Wajid Ali Khan, said the government planned to provide food for five months for the returning refugees.

“We will try to focus on the problems of the people,” he said. “It is not 100 percent clear, but I am satisfied with the situation.”

By the late afternoon, the first buses finally crossed into Swat. Television cameramen crowded around the first vehicle and shouted questions at the passengers, who said they were relieved to be going home. Then the bus driver pushed through a crowd and drove under a white banner that read: “Welcome to your own homes.”

Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.
Gunmen Kill U.N. Worker in Pakistan

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 16, 2009 11:09 AM

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, July 16 — A senior Pakistani staff member of the United Nations refugee agency was shot and killed Thursday morning in an apparent kidnapping attempt while leaving a refugee camp near this northwestern city, according to U.N. officials.

Zill-e-Usman, 59, was one of three people in a marked United Nations vehicle on their way out of the Katcha Ghari refugee camp about 11:30 a.m. when another vehicle intercepted their path and gunmen opened fire, said Stephanie Bunker, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency.

Usman was shot several times in the chest and died. A second U.N. official, repatriation clerk Ishfaq Ahmed, was shot in the leg and was expected to survive. The driver of the vehicle is believed to have escaped unharmed, Bunker said. A guard with the Commissionerate of Afghan Refugees was also killed and another guard was injured in the shootout, according to a U.N. statement.

“It looks like it was a kidnapping that’s gone wrong,” Bunker said. “The intent was clearly hostile.”

Employees for Western and international organizations have been targeted and killed in the past in Peshawar, the violent capital of the North-West Frontier Province and a gateway to the tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters operate. Some agencies have moved employees to Islamabad, seeking safer confines.

Another official with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Aleksandar Vorkapic, died last month in the bombing of the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar. A Unicef official, Perseveranda So of the Philippines, was also killed in that blast. And Stephen D. Vance, who directed a workforce development program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, was shot and killed in Peshawar along with his driver last November.

Usman, who was married with four children, joined the U.N. refugee agency’s Peshawar office in 1984, and was chairman of the staff council there. The United Nations is working at several camps to help the roughly 2 million people who have fled their homes in the Swat Valley and the surrounding area to avoid fighting between the military and the Taliban. A small fraction of those refugees began this week to return to their homes in Swat.

“The UN community in Pakistan is once again devastated to have had yet another of its staff member a victim of a brutal attack,” U.N. resident coordinator Fikret Akcura said in a statement. “On behalf of the United Nations community in Pakistan, I strongly condemn this brutal killing, an unacceptable attack on our humanitarian workers.”
Political Rivals Agree to Work Together for Pakistan’s Sake

By Joshua Partlow and Aoun Sahi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 18, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 17 — Pakistan’s leading opposition figure, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, met with President Asif Ali Zardari on Friday, following a Supreme Court ruling that acquitted Sharif of hijacking charges during a coup against his government a decade ago.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court decision accelerated Sharif’s movement back into the spotlight and freed him up to run for office in the future and take advantage of his position as the country’s most popular politician. The four-hour meeting with Zardari suggested that there was new willingness for cooperation between two rival political parties at a time when Pakistan faces rising terrorist violence and orchestrates military operations against the Taliban.

The two leaders issued a joint 11-point statement after the meeting at Sharif’s country estate outside of Lahore. In the statement, they agreed that the problems facing Pakistan are “too stupendous to be resolved by any one political party,” that they should abolish an amendment of the constitution made during former president Pervez Musharraf’s rule that consolidated powers in the presidency, and that the insurgency in the southern Baluchistan region needed to be addressed “urgently.”

“Both sides agreed to cooperate for strengthening democracy,” said Raja Zafar ul-Haq, a senior member of Sharif’s party, Pakistan Muslim League-N, who attended the meeting. “Both sides agreed to continue with the fight against the menace of terror, as well.”

The court case involved charges that Sharif, who served two terms as prime minister in the 1990s, hijacked a commercial airliner carrying Musharraf on Oct. 12, 1999. The day of Musharraf’s flight from Sri Lanka to Pakistan, Sharif attempted to remove him as army chief. As the army mobilized in Musharraf’s defense, Sharif allegedly ordered the plane not to land anywhere in Pakistan. The plane eventually landed in Karachi, Pakistan, and the army took control, leading to a coup that brought Musharraf to power. Sharif argued he was trying to prevent a coup that was already in motion, but the following year, he was convicted of hijacking. He sought exile in Saudi Arabia before returning to Pakistan in 2007.

Sharif appealed his conviction in April, and the Supreme Court found no evidence for a hijacking and said the order to divert the plane was legal. The decision effectively lifts the ban on Sharif running for office in the future, and he is expected to run for a parliament seat later this year. He has not been explicit about his ambitions for higher office, and some politicians say Sharif wants to wait to see how Zardari governs during this difficult time. The next presidential election is scheduled for 2013.

“This decision is a victory for democracy and the people of Pakistan,” said Asif Karmani, an aide to Sharif. “This decision has enabled Nawaz Sharif to play his parliamentary role, as well.”

On Friday, Zardari offered his congratulations on the acquittal, saying in a statement that it leveled the playing field for political leaders and strengthened the democratic process. “It upholds the principle that political battles must be fought politically and in Parliaments and not in courts,” he said.

Zardari has come under intense public pressure in recent months over economic problems, inflation, power shortages and Taliban violence. Some analysts said that publicly embracing the popular Sharif could ease these tensions. “Zardari needs Nawaz Sharif to not pressure the government on economic issues” to avoid more popular unrest, said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an analyst and columnist for the Daily Times.

While the tension between the two leaders is well-known, in recent weeks, Sharif has supported Zardari on the major military campaign in the Swat Valley to take on the Taliban.

Sahi reported from Lahore. Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.


AfPak Summer 2009 – Week 5
Tribe Members Held Accountable
Pakistani Order Says Mehsuds Can Be Targeted Over Taliban Leader’s Crimes

By Joshua Partlow and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The Sina Diagnostic Center and Trust does not appear to be a menacing enterprise. The clinical pathology laboratory’s 15 staff members conduct ultrasounds, X-rays and CAT scans and run free hepatitis and HIV tests for poor people and refugees in this teeming northwestern city.

That did not stop about a dozen Pakistani government revenue officers and police from marching up to the lab’s second-story office this month to demand that the owner, Noor Zaman Mehsud, shut it down. They ushered patients and staff members outside, pulled down the metal gates and wrapped white cloth around the padlocks. Within 15 minutes, they were gone.

“They just said, ‘You are a member of the Mehsud tribe, and we are going to seal up this business,’ ” Mehsud recalled. “My crime is that I belong to the Mehsuds.”

Beyond the frustration of closing a business he ran for nine years and the sting of losing an income averaging $1,400 a week, the most vexing part of Mehsud’s situation is that he is on the wrong side of the law. The Pakistani government has declared war on Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud and his network of several thousand fighters in the nearby tribal district of South Waziristan. And under regulations formulated a century ago by British colonial rulers, Pakistan’s tribes are still bound by a legal concept known as “collective responsibility,” under which any tribal member can be punished for the crimes of another.

The crackdown on the Mehsuds was spelled out in an order from the top political official in South Waziristan, Shahab Ali Shah, on June 14. Because the Mehsud tribesmen had not handed over Taliban fighters, Shah wrote, he was satisfied that they had acted “in an unfriendly and hostile manner toward the state” and that the tribe’s “people and their activities are prejudicial to peace and public tranquillity.”

Senior government officials have said repeatedly that their target is Baitullah Mehsud and his followers, not his entire tribe, but Shah’s wording was broader. He ordered the “seizure, where they may be found, of all members of the Mehsud tribe and confiscation of movable/immovable property belonging to them in the North-West Frontier Province and the arrest and taking into custody of any person of the tribe wherever he is found.”

That sweeping order has led to the closure of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of businesses in towns such as Dera Ismail Khan, Tank and Peshawar in North-West Frontier Province, according to lawyers, human rights officials and residents. One South Waziristan political official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said 25 Mehsuds have been arrested in Dera Ismail Khan and Tank.

“This is the law of the jungle, not for civilized people. They are treating people like animals,” said Noor Zaman Mehsud, the 39-year-old lab owner, who denied he had any connection to the Taliban. “If I am a criminal, they should arrest me. But they are giving other people’s punishments to me.”

A few hundred thousand people in Pakistan belong to the Mehsud tribe, a Pashtun network divided into three major clans: the Manzai, the Bahlolzai and the Shaman Khel. Although they are scattered across the country, their home territory is South Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan and is a refuge for fighters operating in both countries. For a civilian, it is not a welcoming place, caught as it is between the repressive rule of the Taliban and the military’s preparations for a ground invasion. From the skies, Pakistani fighter jets and U.S. unmanned aircraft regularly bombard Taliban targets.

The violence has pushed tens of thousands of Mehsuds out of South Waziristan. But there is little respite wherever they turn.

“They are asking the people who are besieged, the people who have left their homes, ‘Why you are not tackling the terrorists?’ ” said Said Alam Mehsud, a doctor from the same sub-tribe as Baitullah Mehsud. “Just imagine, what a demand. It’s like if America asked me: ‘Why are you practicing as a pediatrician? Why have you not captured Osama bin Laden?’ ”

The move to arrest and seize property of “hostile or unfriendly” tribal people is allowed under Section 21 of the 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulations, a legal framework developed to help the British Raj control rebellious Pashtuns. The regulations, which tribal leaders have tried to repeal or amend for years, give vast powers to the top official in each tribal district, known as the political agent. Aimal Khan, a tribal areas specialist with Sungi, a Pakistani humanitarian organization, said political agents are popularly referred to as “kings without crowns.”

In the past, the regulations have been used to block tribal movements, recover hostages and punish those who attack government installations. Latif Afridi, a lawyer and expert on tribal laws, compared Shah’s order to economic sanctions against a hostile country. The current pursuit of Mehsuds is not particularly widespread, but it remains an affront to human rights, he said.

“This is an order which is a remnant of the colonial days. Mehsuds should be treated as Pakistanis, their fundamental human rights respected,” Afridi said. “It is a very cruel law, but so long as it is a law, I would definitely concede that the political agent has this power.”

Habibullah Khan, a senior government official for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, of which South Waziristan is a part, said the collective punishment policy does not mean the government will make “blanket arrests” of Mehsud tribesmen, but rather allows authorities to capture criminals. Another senior FATA official said five close supporters and financiers of Baitullah Mehsud had been arrested.

“We will be very choosy in our activities against the tribesmen in South Waziristan agency, as we know all of them are not terrorists,” Khan said.

In June, Abdul Karim Mehsud, a lawyer, filed a petition with the Peshawar High Court asking for Shah’s order to be repealed on the grounds that it is discriminatory and that taking such action in North-West Frontier Province is outside the jurisdiction of the tribal area political agent.

The FATA’s Khan argued that arrest warrants for Mehsud tribesmen from South Waziristan are applicable outside that region. Lawyers familiar with tribal regulations said the Supreme Court has been divided on the issue. Lawyer Mehsud said last week that his petition had been denied.

“The actions by the government against the Mehsud people are pushing them back toward the Taliban,” said Saleh Shah Qureshi, a senator from South Waziristan. “People are going back to Waziristan.”

Bilal Mehsud, 24, is not sure where to turn. His father’s cement business, Madina Traders in Peshawar, was shuttered last week by a South Waziristan official and tribal police. He lives in Saudi Arabia but is home on vacation. Now police have issued arrest warrants for him and his father, he said, adding, “I’m not sure what crime we have committed.”

Noor Khan Mehsud, who along with other tribesmen formed a volunteer committee to help displaced Mehsud families in Dera Ismail Khan, said local authorities have been slow to register the refugees.

“There is no government support,” he said. “Officials have closed doors for us, and we are considered militants. Where should we go?”

Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.
Pakistan Seeks More U.S. Military Aid
Prime Minister Gillani Petitions Envoy for Drone Technology, Real-Time Data

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 23, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 22 — Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani on Wednesday called on the United States to provide real-time intelligence, unmanned aircraft technology and other military assistance to help his country combat the Taliban without relying on attacks from U.S. drones.

Gillani raised the issue with Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, who is on his fourth visit here since becoming the U.S. envoy to the region, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office. Pakistan has asked before for the capability to carry out its own drone strikes, so as to avoid the public outcry that regularly follows attacks by U.S. unmanned aircraft.

The drone attacks in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan “have seriously impeded Pakistan’s efforts towards rooting out militancy and terrorism from the area,” the statement said. Pakistan has cooperated with the U.S. drone missions despite its public position against them, and many Pakistani officials privately say that the attacks are helpful.

Analysts have expressed doubt that the United States would comply with Pakistan’s request to share the drone technology. “America has been saying, ‘This is one of those technologies that is a critical technology, and we haven’t even provided it to other allies,’ ” said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general.

Weapons requests have long been a staple of Pakistan’s relationship with the United States, but some diplomats said concern has increased after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took steps this week to boost military sales to India. The measures could provide more than 100 U.S. fighter jets to Pakistan’s neighbor and nemesis.

“What Hillary is doing there is probably again going to start an arms race,” said one Pakistani diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Pakistan also raised concerns about other regional issues during Holbrooke’s visit, such as the U.S. Marine offensive in southern Afghanistan, which officials here say could force more Taliban fighters across the border into Pakistan. But some played down the issue. “It’s not really an irritant as such. But we do want to minimize any negative fallout in Pakistan,” said Abdul Basit, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.

The greater concern among Pakistani intelligence officials and diplomats remains India. Intelligence officials said the military cannot pull more troops off the eastern border with India, a limitation that hampers plans to expand this summer’s Swat Valley offensive into the tribal region of South Waziristan. During a briefing this week, Pakistani intelligence officials accused India of blocking the rivers that run from the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir into Pakistan, intensifying military exercises along the border, and training and funding insurgents in Afghanistan to launch attacks on Pakistan.

“We cannot afford to denude our eastern border,” one Pakistani intelligence official said. “How can we really move forward?”

Indian officials deny the accusations and say Pakistan continues to nurture Islamist extremists who have carried out major attacks across South Asia in recent years, including in the Indian mega-city of Mumbai in November.

Basit, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that many in Pakistan think there are “double standards being pursued by the U.S.”

“While on the one hand there is an appetite to help Pakistan in crushing militancy and terrorism, on the other hand there is no pressure being mounted on India to resolve the political conflict of Kashmir,” he said.

Despite the criticism, several Pakistani officials said they see signs of hope in the Obama administration’s emphasis on long-term economic development. Holbrooke announced Wednesday that $165 million in U.S. funding will be given to programs that assist Pakistanis displaced by the fighting in Swat.

Also Wednesday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered former president Pervez Musharraf to appear before the bench to answer questions about his decision in 2007 to oust dozens of judges, suspend the constitution and declare emergency rule. Musharraf, a retired general who now lives in London, could send a lawyer on his behalf. But the hearing has raised concerns about potential political volatility as the court considers criminal proceedings against Musharraf.


AfPak Summer 2009 – Week 6
Pakistani Pledge to Rout Taliban In Tribal Region Is Put on Hold
Waziristan Operation Delayed by Refugee Crisis, Focus on India

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 27, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Soon after Pakistan launched its offensive against the Taliban this spring, President Asif Ali Zardari declared that the mission would go beyond pushing the Islamist militia out of the Swat Valley. “We’re going to go into Waziristan,” he said.

More than two months later, that still has not come to pass. Instead, the planned invasion of South Waziristan, a Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuary along the Afghanistan border, has been delayed by the refugee crisis spawned by fighting in Swat, an overstretched military unwilling to let its guard down with India and the difficulty in isolating the Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, according to Pakistani and American officials.

Pakistan’s military has blockaded the tribal district and bombed it from the air, and it insists that the ground assault will proceed. But as the clock ticks, military analysts worry that fighting in the mountains will be more difficult as the weather turns cold in the fall. The delay has raised questions about Pakistan’s commitment to waging war against Taliban fighters the state has nurtured in the past.

“It’s an insane dream to expect anything different from the Pakistani government,” said Ali Wazir, a South Waziristan native and a politician with the secular Awami National Party. “The Taliban are the brainchildren of the Pakistan army for the last 30 years. They are their own people. Could you kill your own brother?”

Mehsud is believed to be responsible for the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, as well as many of the recent suicide bombings in Pakistan. American officials, however, said they have not urged Pakistan to launch the operation because of the scope of problems in the Swat Valley, where 2 million refugees were displaced by the ongoing military operation there.

“Baitullah Mehsud is a dreadful man, and his elimination is an imperative. However, the first imperative is to secure the areas the refugees are going back into,” Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to the region, said in an interview.

Although Holbrooke said it could be beneficial to have simultaneous offensives — the U.S. Marines on the Afghanistan side of the border and the Pakistani army in the tribal regions to the east — the greater concern is unfinished business elsewhere. “Why would I push them to start an offensive when they have 2 million people they have to protect first?” Holbrooke said.

The Pakistani military operation against the Taliban was planned to unfold in three phases, starting in April with the Frontier Corps paramilitary force moving into areas around the Swat Valley, the former tourist destination where the Taliban seized control. The following month, two Pakistani divisions, or about 40,000 soldiers, led a ground operation into the valley. They have since regained control, although fighting continues and the Taliban leadership there remains largely intact. The third and most difficult phase was to be a ground operation into South Waziristan.

But the offensive in Swat pushed some 2 million people from their homes, and the fighting damaged hundreds of schools, homes and businesses. The military now must orchestrate the return of thousands of refugees each day along with rebuilding and trying to prevent the Taliban from returning, as it has done in the past. The Taliban overwhelmed the police before the operation and residents are skeptical about whether the military can keep control.

American officials are concerned that the Pakistani military might not stay in Swat long enough to ensure residents’ safety. “Failing to hold in Swat would be a calamity,” said a U.S. official in Pakistan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I hope they’re thinking about it in terms of a plan and not on a timetable.”

One Pakistani diplomat said American officials are not happy with the level of coordination involved in providing money and services to the returning refugees. “In their heart of hearts, I think they feel that Pakistan will mess up the repatriation,” the diplomat said. “They feel . . . probably they’ll go overboard, they won’t resettle them, and you’ll have a potential quicksand where you’ll breed another strand of terrorist resistance.”

Pakistani officials insist that they are focused on the refugees and that they do not want to rush into opening new fronts against the Taliban. Pakistan has already launched two operations into South Waziristan in recent years that failed to dislodge the Taliban. Since 2007, more than 2,200 Pakistani soldiers, police and intelligence officers have been killed in Swat and the tribal areas, and more than 5,300 have been injured.

“We would not like to do anything haphazardly. If you open so many fronts at the same time, then the danger is you will not achieve success on any front. So we would like to move with utmost circumspection,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit. The tribal areas are “a different ballgame and we need to understand how difficult it is.”

Part of the reason the Pakistani government is wary about launching the Waziristan operation is that there is little appetite to remove more troops from the 140,000-strong force that mans the eastern border with India. Two brigades have already left to join the Swat operation. “That leaves us very little,” a Pakistani intelligence official said.

Fighting in South Waziristan also poses a much greater challenge than in Swat. More than 400,000 people live in the tribal district, which is a bit larger than Delaware. Baitullah Mehsud commands about 10,000 to 12,000 fighters, including 4,000 foreign fighters, according to Pakistani intelligence officials. He pays his foot soldiers $60 to $80 a month, higher than the average local policeman’s salary. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, has increased its focus on uniting the Taliban and other radical Islamist groups in the fight against Pakistan, betting its success on the survival of the Taliban, according to intelligence officials.

“It will be longer and bloodier,” another intelligence official said of the fight against Baitullah Mehsud. “He’s been made into someone 10 feet tall.”

Mehsud’s stature has grown in part because of recent decisions by other Taliban commanders, such as Maulvi Nasir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who once cooperated with Pakistan but have announced their intention to fight security forces. Their representatives said they have been outraged by missile strikes from unmanned American aircraft. Instead of being able to rely on rival Taliban commanders to assist the army, the drone attacks have unified them against the state, intelligence officials said.

To add to the tactical problems, it is unclear whether the army would be greeted in South Waziristan with the same degree of public support it enjoyed in Swat. The government there has angered Mehsud tribesmen by arresting people and shutting down businesses under regulations that allow punishment based on tribal affiliation.

The initial stages of the South Waziristan operation have begun. Pakistani aircraft, along with unmanned American planes, have attacked Mehsud’s territory in recent weeks. Soldiers have deployed into neighboring North Waziristan and have imposed an economic blockade, trying to withhold food and supplies from the Taliban, said a U.S. defense official in Washington.

The official said Pakistan likely wants “to make sure they have everything working in their favor before they actually pull the trigger on a ground assault.”

“It’s the hardest nut to crack,” the official said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington and special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.
As Violence Hurts Business, Pakistanis Debate U.S. Help
Restrictions Make Textile-Export Bill Useless, Some Say

By Joshua Partlow and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A concrete wall already encircles Mohsin Aziz’s office, but workers are making it higher brick by brick. Kalashnikov-wielding guards shadow the industrialist everywhere he goes. A chase car tracks his black sedan through thick city traffic.

Even with such precautions, Aziz said, his family considers him a “madman” for keeping his business in Peshawar, the violent capital of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. Military-imposed curfews keep laborers from his factories, and he sometimes has to beg his managers to come to work.

“I tell them, ‘I am here with you. I will not leave you behind, dead or alive,’ ” said Aziz, who manufactures matches, textiles, laminates and particleboard. “We will die together.”

Bombings and kidnappings by the Taliban and criminal gangs are strangling the economic life of this metropolis adjacent to the tribal territory along the Afghan border. Businessmen have fled south to safer provinces or left the country, slashed production, laid off employees, and closed down offices.

Government statistics show that large-scale manufacturing has contracted 7.6 percent across Pakistan in the past year, while a survey by the Industrialists Association of Peshawar found a 37 percent plunge in the industrial sector here. Business associations estimate that the number of industrial jobs, the main economic lifeline, has already fallen from more than 100,000 to about 25,000. Factories that ran round-the-clock now scrape by with a single shift.

“This is a recipe for disaster,” said Nauman Wazir, former president of the Industrialists Association. “This is going to have a spiraling effect into more unemployment and into more radicalism.”

The Obama administration has pledged to bring economic relief to these border regions dominated by Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. In March, the president called on Congress to pass a bill that would create what are known as “reconstruction opportunity zones” to “develop the economy and bring hope to places plagued with violence.”

That bill passed the House last month. It is intended to allow businesses in areas such as North-West Frontier Province, the tribal areas and a 100-mile border swath of Baluchistan in southern Pakistan to export textiles and apparel to the United States duty-free.

But Pakistani businessmen said limits on what textiles are covered — sought by U.S. business lobbyists — render the bill, and its pending Senate version, largely worthless.

Many products eligible for duty-free status are not items that Pakistan produces in large quantity, according to an analysis by the Citizens Voice, a Peshawar-based think tank of business and civic leaders.

“This is ridiculous, this is not going to work, this is a non-starter,” said Aleema Khan, chairman of Cotton Connection, a Lahore-based firm that buys textiles for large American companies. “Everybody’s rejecting it. Major industry is rejecting it. Buyers are rejecting it. This bill should not go through. The fact that they haven’t done their homework is what’s so scary.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), one of the sponsors, said that he would support expanding the scope of products eligible for duty-free status, “so long as that does not doom the prospects of the bill.”

“I always worry about making the perfect the enemy of the good. It’s important to get something started,” Van Hollen said. “One thing the president’s been clear about is that military force alone will not resolve the conflict in Afghanistan, you need to provide greater economic opportunities in these conflict-ridden regions. This is not something that happens overnight, and this is part of a sustained strategy.”

Van Hollen, citing a report by the Congressional Research Service, said the 38 textile and apparel categories included in the bill account for $1.4 billion of the $2.7 billion worth of goods that Pakistan exports each year to the United States.

Businessmen in Pakistan dispute those figures. Muhammad Atif Hanif, a manager at Dubai Islamic Bank in Peshawar and a member of the Citizens Voice, said that Pakistani textile exports tend to fall into six categories — including cotton pants, underwear, knit shirts and hosiery — and all are excluded from the legislation. The current legislation would benefit only about $200 million of the export industry, he said.

Said Mohsin Aziz: “We are supposed to produce swimsuits, we are supposed to produce neckties, we are supposed to produce handkerchiefs, we are supposed to produce silk gowns, which we have never produced, which we do not have the raw material for, which we do not have the expertise for. It’s just a game.”

Most people concede that developing significant industry in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas remains a long-term goal because the region is largely ungoverned mountain territory devoid of modern property rights or legal infrastructure and on the verge of a Pakistani military invasion. But trying to encourage textile investment in North-West Frontier Province also has generated skepticism here, as those industries’ hubs reside in Karachi and Faisalbad, outside this province.

“It’s not something they’ve ever done. I’m not going to buy from there, and I’m one of the most aggressive buyers in this country,” Khan said.

On the ground in Peshawar, debates over U.S. help that is potentially years away are overshadowed by the threats businessmen face each day. As many as 300 people a month, mostly businessmen, have been kidnapped for ransom in the province, said Muhammad Ishaq, vice president of the Frontier Chamber of Commerce. Two years ago, there were 2,254 industrial companies here. Today, 594 remain, the others driven out by war and power shortages, according to the chamber.

Earlier this year, anonymous letters believed to be from the Taliban, delivered to banks, insurance companies and other businesses, demanded that employees wear traditional Islamic baggy tunics and pants, known as a salwar-kameez.

“I am wearing this because bankers have been threatened not to wear suits,” one Peshawar banker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said of his tunic.

Ilyas Bilour, a senator and owner of a vegetable oil business in Peshawar, said he has shed 10 to 20 percent of his workforce, and the factories now operate only half the month. He moved his children and grandchildren to Islamabad to keep them safe.

“The insurance people are not covering terrorism insurance. We are ready to pay them more, much more, but they are not ready to accept our high offers,” he said.

Nauman Wazir, who owns companies that produce rebar, marble and hunting weapons, has a simple strategy to weather these violent times. “I travel fully armed. AK-47s. Pistols can’t save you. An AK-47 can save you. Fully loaded. I don’t take chances,” he said. He knows what he’s up against. A decade ago, kidnappers held him for 60 days.

“Either I’m going to kill him or I’m going to get killed. I’m not having any of this kidnapping business.”
Pakistani Ruling Rebukes Ex-Leader
Musharraf’s Acts Declared Illegal

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 1, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 31 — Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled Friday that former president Pervez Musharraf violated the constitution by declaring emergency rule in 2007, a verdict widely viewed as a rebuke to the retired general’s military regime.

The ruling, which prompted jubilant chants by the crowd in the packed courtroom, raises the possibility that the federal government could bring treason charges against Musharraf and further volatility to this unstable nation. The decision also invalidated judicial appointments made by Musharraf under a provisional constitution during the six weeks of emergency rule.

“I think this is a decision that has established independence for the judiciary in Pakistan,” said Hamid Khan, former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, who represented the group that filed a petition against the emergency order. “It will certainly be a boost for our democracy and will block the way for any future military adventurer.”

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, an opponent of Musharraf, described the verdict in a statement as “most welcome” and “a triumph of the democratic principles, a stinging negation of dictatorship.”

The verdict was delivered by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who was sacked for the second time in November 2007, along with dozens of other judges, when Musharraf declared emergency rule, suspended the constitution, shut down television stations and imprisoned opponents. At the time, Musharraf justified his actions by citing growing extremism in the country, but many saw the actions as an attempt to ensure his political survival, given that court was deliberating whether to disqualify him from proceeding with a second five-year term.

Musharraf’s moves fueled a protest movement of lawyers and civil society advocates that swept the country and brought about the reinstatement of the chief justice and other judges in March.

“After these two years of the movement, there’s a change in the mindset of Pakistan. They do not want any military intervention. They want matters to be moving according to the constitution,” said Athar Minallah, a leader of the lawyers’ movement. “This will have far-reaching consequences,” he added, referring to the decision.

Chaudhry delivered the verdict Friday evening in a 45-minute speech that the assembled crowd strained to hear over the rain that hammered down on the Supreme Court building’s vaulted roof. But the words “illegal” and “unconstitutional” were heard frequently enough that the result was clear, and the crowd celebrated with chants of “long live the Supreme Court!” Television news footage showed people reveling in the streets in Pakistani cities.

The court did not invalidate the decisions made by the judges Musharraf appointed, but said their jobs no longer exist. It also said that Parliament should decide which laws passed under emergency rule would stand.

Musharraf, who now lives in London, stepped down in August 2008 after nearly nine years in power, facing the threat of impeachment. The Supreme Court summoned him to discuss the case this week, but neither he nor an attorney attended.

The federal government could now prosecute Musharraf, according to lawyers at the courthouse. Nazir Ahmed, a member of Britain’s House of Lords who was present for Friday’s verdict, said that evidence was being gathered in London on possible breaches of international law “relating to abductions, torture and war crimes committed by the former dictator.”

Minallah, the activist lawyer, said, “If the people of this country want the prosecution of Musharraf, the entire pressure will shift to the Parliament and the federal government. So that will be the first impact of this decision.”

Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.


AfPak Summer 2009 – Week 7
3 U.S. Soldiers Killed By Afghanistan Bomb
Toll Continues to Rise After Deadly July

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 2, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 1 — After the deadliest month yet for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, three American soldiers were killed Saturday in a bombing in a southern province, and a French soldier died in a separate attack north of Kabul.

The U.S. servicemen were killed when two roadside bombs exploded while they were on patrol in Kandahar province, the military said in a statement. The increased use of such powerful bombs by Taliban insurgents has been a major factor in the U.S. military’s rising death toll, which reached 43 in July, the highest level since the war began in late 2001.

A U.S. military spokeswoman in Afghanistan said no other details about the blasts would be available until the families of those killed had been notified.

“Their sacrifices, although very difficult to accept, were not made in vain,” Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, a military spokesman, said in a statement.

In a separate incident in a valley north of the capital, a French soldier was killed and two others were wounded during sustained fighting with insurgents. The soldiers came under attack by the Taliban while patrolling with Afghan soldiers, the French military said, according to news services.

The killing raised France’s death toll in Afghanistan to 29 soldiers, and President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office issued a statement that reiterated “France’s determination to fight, alongside the Afghan people,” against terrorism.

U.S. casualties have risen since President Obama ordered tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan to stage an offensive against the Taliban in the southern province of Helmand. Military analysts have predicted more violence as the soldiers push into areas long held by the Taliban. The insurgents have fought back with a range of weapons, including mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, in addition to the bombs planted for passing convoys.

Some observers say violence could spike before this month’s presidential election, a test for Afghanistan’s fragile democracy. With five months to go in the year, 2009 is already the second-deadliest year for Americans in the Afghan war: So far, 133 Americans have died, compared with 155 in all of 2008, according to the Web site, which tracks military deaths.
‘They Want to Destroy Christians’
Spasm of Religious Violence Leaves a Pakistani Minority in Mourning, Frustration

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 3, 2009

GOJRA, Pakistan, Aug. 2 — They do not want to bury the Christians. They want the nation to see them.

By nightfall Sunday, hundreds of residents of the Christian enclave here stood in defiant vigil around seven particleboard coffins neatly aligned on the train tracks that run through town. They had demands: Until the government investigates the killings and finds those responsible, they will not remove the bodies.

Police waited warily in the street. A man on a loudspeaker bellowed the villagers’ sentiments, which included anger at provincial authorities for not stopping the killings.

“Death to the Punjab government!”

A spasm of religious violence came to this rural town in the shape of an angry Muslim mob Saturday morning. The Muslims marched to avenge what they believed was the desecration of a Koran one week earlier. When it was over, dozens of houses were torched and Faith Bible Pentecostal Church lay in ruins. Two villagers were shot dead, residents said. Five others, including two children, burned alive.

Killing has become commonplace in Pakistan. But this attack startled the country both for its ferocity and for its stark message to religious minorities. Many saw the violence as further evidence of the growing power of the Taliban and allied Islamist militant groups in Punjab province, home to about half of Pakistan’s population.

“They have made up their minds to crush Christianity. They always call us dogs of America, agents of America,” said Romar Sardar, an English teacher from the area. “There has been no protection by the police. Nothing.”

The conflict apparently began with a wedding. On the evening of July 25, a wedding procession for a Christian couple passed through the nearby village of Korian, according to a police report. Revelers danced and threw money in the air, as is local custom. In the morning, a resident told police he had picked up scraps of paper on the ground and found Arabic writing. “We examined them, and it was the pages from the holy Koran,” the man said in the report.

Four days later, the accused, a member of the wedding party named Talib Masih, faced a meeting of local elders, who demanded that he be punished. Instead of repenting, the report said, he denied the desecration, and as a result, “the whole Muslim population was enraged.” The house burning began that night and then quieted down until Saturday morning.

That day, Riaz Masih, 68, a retired teacher, grew increasingly worried as a crowd gathered, chanting anti-Christian slogans and cursing Americans. He locked his house and rushed with his wife and children to the home of a Muslim friend nearby. The crowd, some wearing black veils and carrying guns, turned down Masih’s narrow brick alley near the train tracks and into the Christian Colony, according to several witnesses. Residents and marchers threw rocks at each other, and gunfire broke out. Using what residents described as gasoline and other flammable chemicals, the mob torched Masih’s house.

“We have nothing left,” he said, standing in the charred remains of his living room, his daughter’s empty jewelry box at his feet. “We are trying to face this in the name of Jesus Christ. The Bible says you cannot take revenge.”

On Sunday, the scenes of wreckage and dismay played out in house after house. Residents tossed burned blankets and clothing, broken televisions, and charred beds into heaps on the street. Fruit seller Iqbal Masih, 49, stepped over his mangled carts on his patio and tried to assess what was left of his daughter’s dowry. The armoire, a refrigerator, the bedding were burned; the $675 for furniture had disappeared.

“I am out of my mind. I can’t look,” he said. “They have subjected us to severe cruelties. May God show them the right path.”

At least four of the dead came from a single house. As the mob approached, a bullet struck Hamid Masih, a builder, in the head as he stood in his doorway, said his son, Min Has. Has heaved his father onto a motorcycle and drove him to a hospital, while the rest of the family members crowded in a back bedroom. The house began burning, and smoked billowed into the rooms. At least three other relatives, including 5- and 8-year-old siblings, died in the flames, according to residents. “There was fire everywhere, and it was impossible for them to get out,” Has said.

“I know one thing. They want to destroy Christians,” said Atiq Masih, 22, a janitor who was shot in the right knee. “They were attacking everything.”

Christians, who make up about 2 percent of the Punjab population, have been targeted in other recent cases. In June, a mob attacked Christian homes in the Kasur district of Punjab for allegedly dishonoring the prophet Mohammed. In Pakistan, which has strict laws against blasphemy, people can be imprisoned for life or put to death for insulting Islam.

Residents in Gojra said that this was the first incident of its kind in the town and that Christians and Muslims have long lived alongside one another without serious problems. They blamed Muslim clerics for inciting anger over the Koran incident in mosque sermons and accused the Taliban and the militant group Sipah-e-Sahaba of involvement in the attack.

“The provincial government is not accepting that a large part of Punjab is suffering from religious intolerance due to the Taliban and religious outfits,” said Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, which issues an annual report on religious minorities in Pakistan. “They have been very negligent. This conflict was brewing for three days, and they were not receptive. They were not taking it seriously.”

Pakistan’s president and prime minister have called for investigations into the violence. By Sunday, police and paramilitary troops had taken up positions in the town. Provincial authorities said they have already made arrests and registered cases against 800 people. Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti denied that any Koran had been desecrated.

Police in Gojra said the violence Saturday was beyond their control.

“It happened all of a sudden. The police that were here were too few in number to stop it,” said policeman Kashif Sadiq. “It’s not fair to assume they let this happen intentionally.”

Special correspondents Shaiq Hussain and Aoun Sahi contributed to this report.
4 Marines in Afghanistan Killed by Roadside Bomb

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 7, 2009

KABUL, Aug. 6 — Four U.S. Marines were killed when a roadside bomb exploded near their convoy in western Afghanistan on Thursday, the latest attack amid escalating violence ahead of a presidential election here this month.

The death toll among American forces is rising as thousands of additional troops move into Taliban strongholds. At least 15 NATO troops have died so far this month, putting August on pace to surpass July, when 75 U.S. and allied troops were killed, the highest monthly toll for Western forces in Afghanistan since the war began in late 2001.

The U.S. military did not immediately release details of Thursday’s explosion.

Meanwhile, in the southern province of Helmand, where Marines have launched a major offensive, officials said Thursday that at least four members of an Afghan family driving to a wedding the day before had been killed when their tractor struck a land mine.

Daud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Helmand governor, said the explosion killed two women and two children, while two other women suffered injuries and were taken to a NATO base for treatment. In a separate incident elsewhere in Helmand on Thursday, a bombing killed five policemen and injured three others, he said.

“The Taliban is the enemy. They are doing their best to disrupt the election,” Ahmadi said. “Of course there will be more violence as we get closer.”

Election officials are concerned that violence will prevent people from going to the polls Aug. 20 and undermine the legitimacy of the election.

Jandad Spinghar, an official with the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, a monitoring group, said security around election facilities has deteriorated in recent days. Between July 17 and Aug. 3, he said, his organization tallied 12 violent incidents targeting candidates, election offices and monitors. At least three provincial council candidates have been assassinated, he said, adding that in several districts it will be “severely challenging” to open polling stations on election day.

Also Thursday, the U.S. military was investigating Afghan claims that civilians were killed when a U.S. attack helicopter fired on people in Arghandab district of Kandahar province earlier in the day. The military said in a statement that the helicopter fired after its crew spotted four suspected insurgents in an open field, “with weapons and plastic jugs,” at 1:30 a.m. There were also allegations that four other civilians were killed in a compound nearby.

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.
A Psychological Blow For Pakistani Taliban
Apparent Killing of Group’s Leader Expected to Disrupt Terror Operations

By Joby Warrick, Joshua Partlow and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 8, 2009

Without ever firing a shot at Americans, Baitullah Mehsud had managed to become something of an obsession for the CIA. Over 18 months, the agency tried three times to kill the stout, 5-foot-2-inch commander of the Pakistani Taliban, while spreading word of a $5 million bounty for his death or capture.

The agency apparently succeeded this week, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials said, when a missile launched by a CIA-operated unmanned aircraft homed in on the second-floor balcony of a villa in northwestern Pakistan where the reclusive, diabetic Mehsud was getting medical treatment.

The blast is thought to have eliminated a terrorist who was suspected to be behind the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto and who was at the top of Pakistan’s most-wanted list. Although Mehsud had been regarded primarily as a threat to that country, he was also a central figure in a network of South Asian and international terrorist groups whose operations had become increasingly coordinated in recent months. That alliance has exhibited an increasing ability — and interest — in striking targets in the West, former and current U.S. officials and terrorism experts said Friday.

“We were seeing different threat streams in the region, all coming together,” said a former senior intelligence official who helped plan counterterrorism operations. “Most of these groups had become linked under Mehsud.”

The apparently successful hit — U.S. officials acknowledged that conclusive proof may be impossible unless a body is recovered — was regarded by U.S. and Pakistani analysts as a devastating setback for the coalition of 13 Pakistani Taliban factions Mehsud had commanded. The confederation of tribally based groups was linked to a half-dozen suicide bombings in Pakistan that killed scores of people, including some Americans. . Terrorism experts say his apparent death will almost certainly disrupt Taliban operations inside Pakistan in the short term, while striking at least a symbolic blow against al-Qaeda as well as Taliban groups in Afghanistan.

It could also help ensure Pakistan’s backing for continued U.S. efforts to battle al-Qaeda and loosely allied Taliban groups across the border in Afghanistan, sources said.

“When you take out someone who is that well-known, it creates a sense that momentum is on the side of the good guys and against the bad guys,” said Paul Pillar, a former CIA counterterrorism official. “In these conflicts, people on the ground are looking to see who’s winning and losing, because you want to be on the side of the ones who are coming out ahead.”

The missile attack has launched a struggle for succession among the Pakistani Taliban factions, said U.S. and Pakistani officials, as well as Taliban members.

Although any one of a number of Mehsud’s deputies could fill the void, his apparent killing is likely to sow fear and suspicion among his followers, making unity elusive, said John McLaughlin, a former CIA deputy director.

“The survivors quarrel about tactics, strategy and future leadership, while worrying that someone ‘inside’ might have betrayed them,” McLaughlin said.

Neither the CIA nor the Obama administration has publicly confirmed the agency’s role in the airstrike, but U.S. and Pakistani officials familiar with it said the Taliban commander was killed early Wednesday by a missile launched from one of the CIA’s remotely controlled aircraft. More than 360 people have been killed in at least 31 such drone attacks this year. Although Islamabad has complained frequently about U.S. strikes, American and Pakistani officials have cited the string of hits on Taliban leaders and other insurgents, including foreign fighters, as evidence of improved cooperation between the countries’ intelligence agencies. Indeed, the news of Mehsud’s apparent death was widely welcomed in Pakistan.

“Pakistani and American officials are working closely to deal with a menace they both recognize,” Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, said in a telephone interview. “If indeed the reports about Mehsud being killed are fully confirmed, this will be one of many events that bear evidence to the usefulness of Pakistani-U.S. cooperation.”

According to Pakistani and American officials, as well as Taliban fighters reached by telephone Friday, Mehsud was staying at a house owned by his father-in-law in Zanghra, a village in the lawless border region of South Waziristan. Mehsud had summoned a local medic for help and was undergoing intravenous treatment for dehydration and stomach problems when the missile tore into the building, the sources said. Mehsud, his second wife and several bodyguards were killed, they said.

Taliban members confirmed Friday that Mehsud had been killed and was buried shortly afterward.

“Baitullah is no more with us,” one Taliban fighter said.

A Pakistani intelligence officer based in the nearby town of Makeen said Mehsud’s body had been “totally damaged except his head.” The atmosphere in the region was described as tense, as security officials braced for a possible backlash from Taliban fighters.

Many Pakistani officials said that Mehsud’s successor would be named quickly and that the group’s formidable organization would ensure that it remains a potent force. Among the possible contenders were Wali-ur-Rehman Mehsud, a Taliban commander and spokesman for Baitullah Mehsud, and Hakimullah Mehsud, another close aide who has been linked to sectarian attacks on Shiite Muslims as well as NATO supply convoys heading to Afghanistan.

Karim Mehsud, a lawyer in Peshawar who has met Baitullah Mehsud, said he doubted that killing him would fundamentally change the war. “Another Baitullah will emerge,” he said. “This is an ideological war, this is not a local problem.”

To those who studied his rise and fought with him — and against him — Baitullah Mehsud was no ordinary commander. From his base in the mountains of South Waziristan, he amassed a 10,000-strong army that worked closely with al-Qaeda operatives to impose a fundamentalist version of Islamic rule. Members waged a brutal war against troops and civilians who defied them.

While most other Taliban commanders trained their attention on NATO forces in Afghanistan, Mehsud pioneered the war against Pakistan, the country that helped create the Taliban movement in the 1980s.

In part because of the violence perpetrated by Mehsud and his lieutenants, Pakistan shifted its strategy from appeasement and negotiation with Taliban groups to military operations against some of them. In recent months, troops pushed into the Swat Valley to dislodge Taliban fighters, and regular Pakistani and U.S. airstrikes have pounded South Waziristan.

With reports of Mehsud’s death, some analysts voiced concern that Pakistan’s army may lose interest in pursuing plans to launch a ground offensive in South Waziristan.

Others said there is a danger that Mehsud’s successor could draw the army into a deeper conflict by undertaking a major attack inside Pakistan to avenge the commander’s apparent death.

“The army may now try to pressure groups in South Waziristan to break with Mehsud’s party and reassert their own domination,” said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Institute, a Washington research group. “August will be a very hot month on the frontier.”

Partlow reported from Kabul; Khan and special correspondent Shaiq Hussain reported from Islamabad. Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.


AfPak Summer 2009 – Week 8
Power Struggle Ensues After Taliban Chief’s Apparent Death
Potential Successors Trade Words, Fire

By Joshua Partlow and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 9, 2009

KABUL, Aug. 8 — In the power vacuum created by the apparent death of Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, a gun battle broke out Saturday between Taliban leaders vying to seize his mantle in the tribal borderlands, Pakistani officials said, the first indications of a struggle that could prompt fighters to move across the border into Afghanistan.

The effect of the apparent death of Mehsud, who deployed his fighters mainly against Pakistani targets, “could be to free up militants to come into Afghanistan,” said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in that country.

“Baitullah Mehsud was putting such pressure on the government of Pakistan that I don’t know if his successor or successors will do the same,” McChrystal said in an interview Saturday, emphasizing that it is difficult at this point to predict how Mehsud’s fighters will react.

The prospect of more fighters flowing into Afghanistan comes at a particularly challenging time for U.S. and NATO forces, as Marines battle the Taliban there in the southern province of Helmand and insurgents threaten to unleash further violence ahead of the Aug. 20 presidential election. The U.S. military has picked up reports that in addition to suicide bombings and other high-profile attacks, the Taliban plans to intimidate voters into staying away from the polls, McChrystal said.

There have been reports that “people who show up with ink on their finger will have their finger cut off,” he said. “They probably have the intent to try to disrupt the election. But they also are scared of the election, because they wouldn’t try to do it if the election was nothing to them. Last time, they didn’t pay it much mind. This time, I think they’re clearly concerned” about Afghans’ growing acceptance of governance.

For at least the second consecutive day since the U.S. missile strike Wednesday that Pakistani and American officials say they believe killed Mehsud, Taliban fighters gathered in the South Waziristan tribal district Saturday to choose new leadership. During the meeting in the Sara Rogha area, an argument and shooting broke out between two potential successors to Mehsud, Wali-ur-Rehman Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud, according to two Pakistani officials.

“The exchange of fire, reports suggest, took place between two important contenders for the Taliban chief’s slot,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik said in an interview. “According to information, one of them has been killed, but as of now we can’t say who it was.”

A government official in South Waziristan said intelligence reports indicate that the man killed Saturday was Hakimullah Mehsud, a close aide to Baitullah Mehsud who has been linked to attacks on NATO convoys. However, the Associated Press reported receiving a call from Hakimullah Mehsud on Saturday morning.

In another potential sign of disarray within the Pakistani Taliban ranks, some fighters called reporters Saturday insisting that Baitullah Mehsud was alive. A Taliban fighter called a Washington Post reporter to say he was 100 percent sure of it, although he could not provide evidence.

A former National Assembly member from South Waziristan, Maulana Mirajuddin, also said he received a call from a “very trusted associate” claiming that Mehsud was alive.

However, another leader of the Mehsud tribe from the area said such assertions were merely attempts to sow confusion, adding that “the Taliban are trying to hush up the matter to keep the loosely connected Pakistani Taliban intact.”

Mehsud’s suspected death could have far-reaching implications for the Pakistani army’s fight against the Taliban, with some observers suggesting that the army might suspend plans for a ground invasion of South Waziristan to pursue a less confrontational policy.

“A new Taliban leadership with a softer image will be introduced to get public support in the country,” said another Mehsud tribal leader from South Waziristan who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The army might try to “bring in some moderate leadership,” he said.

A Pakistani intelligence official said the fate of the South Waziristan operation hinges on how Baitullah Mehsud’s fighters react.

“If there is again a surge in suicide bombings and subversive acts,” he said, “then the offensive could be launched soon.”

Khan reported from Islamabad. Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.
U.S. Officials Talk New Post With Karzai Rival, Aide Says

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

KABUL, Aug. 10 — Senior American officials are expressing renewed interest in a post-election plan for Afghanistan that would establish a chief executive to serve beneath President Hamid Karzai if he wins a second term next week, Afghan officials said Monday.

The latest U.S. overtures have focused on Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister who is challenging Karzai for the presidency. A campaign aide to Ghani said Monday that both Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and regional envoy Richard C. Holbrooke had made recent visits to explore the idea, a sign that the United States might be interested in an Afghan government with a more technocratic bent.

American officials have grown increasingly disenchanted with Karzai’s leadership over the past five years, amid rising Taliban violence, rampant corruption and an ineffective bureaucracy. The idea of a chief executive for Afghanistan has circulated before in recent months, and speculation at one point arose that former U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan American, was in the running.

Ghani, a former finance minister with a doctorate from Columbia University, has worked for the World Bank and has a reputation as a competent technocrat. His work on Afghanistan’s currency and budget during his time as a finance minister has drawn positive reviews, although colleagues have sometimes found him abrasive. As one of the main challengers to Karzai, who is the clear front-runner, Ghani has no plans to drop out of the race before the Aug. 20 election. He has been actively campaigning for president and plans to visit six provinces in the next eight days.

“I’ve been approached repeatedly; the offer is on the table. I have not accepted it,” Ghani told reporters over the weekend, according to Reuters. He has not ruled out a position in the government if he loses.

Ongoing Negotiations

A spokesman for Karzai, Wahid Omar, would not confirm the specific offer from Karzai, but said there have been ongoing negotiations between the two campaigns. “Karzai does believe it is a good idea that someone like Ghani joins the team, and as a result the future government would be a stronger government,” he said.

An Afghan official familiar with the negotiations said that Ghani expressed willingness to serve in a Karzai government, but that he wanted power to implement his own programs. The official, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, said negotiations on the issue were ongoing.

In a poll released Monday, Karzai led with 45 percent of the vote among decided voters, compared with 25 percent for Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister. The U.S.-government-funded poll by Glevum Associates, conducted July 8-19, had Ghani fourth, with 4 percent of the vote.

During the campaign, Karzai has courted support from warlords, such as his running mate, Marshal Mohammed Fahim, the powerful Tajik leader, and Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum, an Uzbek commander accused of slaughtering Taliban prisoners in 2001. American officials have said they are concerned that important jobs after the election may be given away in patronage without a focus on competence.

An Antidote to Karzai?

Some see Ghani as a modern managerial antidote to Karzai, who is known more as a dealmaker among rival factions.

“Karzai doesn’t think in terms of growth in GDP in Afghanistan, unemployment, more services or security,” said Haroun Mir, director of Afghanistan’s Center for Research & Policy Studies. “He’s a consensus builder. As long as he could win a consensus of important power brokers, he thinks he’s a very successful man.”

The jockeying came amid further violence in Afghanistan, which has intensified ahead of the elections.

Taliban fighters using assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades attacked the governor’s office and police headquarters in Logar province, killing at least six people, according to Afghan officials.

The attack set off hours of urban combat in the provincial capital of Pul-e-Alam, about 40 miles south of Kabul.

About half a dozen Taliban fighters staged their attack from a building adjacent to the governor’s compound, firing automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades beginning about noon. A car bomb also exploded during the fighting, said Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a U.S. military spokeswoman, while others described evidence of a suicide bombing. Din Mohammad Darwish, a spokesman for Logar’s governor, said two policemen died along with four Taliban members.

“It was very serious fighting. We could hear a lot of machine-gun fire,” said Abdul Hakim Suliamankhel, head of the provincial council in Logar. “The people are really scared now.”

The Afghan National Police led the counterattack against the Taliban, eventually surrounding and entering the building, which they found rigged with explosives, according to a U.S. military statement. The police killed three Taliban fighters inside the building, Darwish said.

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.
With Karzai Favored to Win, U.S. Walks a Fine Line
Criticism Tempered To Avoid Hostility

By Joshua Partlow and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 14, 2009

KABUL — The last time Hamid Karzai ran for president, in 2004, he was clearly America’s man in Afghanistan. U.S. military helicopters shuttled him between campaign stops. At his inauguration, Vice President Richard B. Cheney was there to hail the day as a major moment “in the history of human freedom.”

With a new round of voting one week away — and Karzai favored to win another term — a less-enamored Obama administration is looking for ways to lessen U.S. reliance on the Afghan president by working more closely with favored ministers and bolstering the authority of provincial and local leaders, according to American and Afghan officials.

The goals reflect frustration among U.S. officials over Karzai’s performance in the past five years, particularly his seeming indifference to the widespread corruption within his government. But as it increasingly appears that Karzai will be its partner over the next five years, the United States has also sought to preserve a relationship with him.

“Because they couldn’t construct a plan to replace Karzai, I think they toned down the criticism and kept the option open of working with Karzai, should he get reelected,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. “I think some administration officials realized that by being so openly critical of Karzai, they faced the risk that they could get a Karzai who was not only reelected but was hostile to the U.S. because of how he had been treated.”

The United States is “actively impartial” in the Aug. 20 vote, said Jane Marriott, a senior adviser to U.S. special representative Richard C. Holbrooke. But according to Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, U.S. officials back the idea of a new chief executive position under Karzai to add coherence and competence to his struggling bureaucracy.

“I know that in Washington this idea has strong supporters,” Spanta said in an interview, adding that installing a “shadow prime-minister” would pose constitutional problems.

U.S. officials have discussed the proposal with a key Karzai challenger, the technocratic former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, though they have not endorsed him for the job.

Rather than “just pouring money into building the government,” Holbrooke adviser Barnett R. Rubin said, the administration is focused on “rebuilding the relationship between subnational authorities and local communities.” Rubin stressed that such activities were being undertaken in cooperation with the central government in Kabul.

Critical of some of Karzai’s cabinet choices, the administration has praised the competence of presidentially appointed local leaders such as the governor of Helmand province, Gulab Mangal. Plans by the U.S. Defense and State departments call for installing American “mentors” and liaisons in Afghan ministries in Kabul, a policy that was heavily used during the early years of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq.

President Obama has called the Afghan election, the second since the Taliban regime’s ouster in 2001, the most important event of the year in this country. Originally scheduled for April, the vote was postponed during what Holbrooke called a “crisis” period of Afghan constitutional and security upheaval. As a result, Holbrooke said, the Obama administration was forced to defer other priorities in Afghanistan and spend “most of the spring” sorting out the electoral crisis.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new U.S. military commander here, has postponed completion of his review of the security situation, originally due to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates this weekend, in part because of the upcoming presidential and provincial council elections. “This is our main effort. I don’t want anybody to think we’re not anything but completely focused on this,” McChrystal said.

“Until the election legitimizes the government, whoever wins, we have to focus on that,” Holbrooke said. Holbrooke, Marriott and Rubin spoke at a media event in Washington on Wednesday.

U.S. officials here said their primary interest now is a fair and free election campaign in which the candidates — 3,324 people have registered for 420 provincial council seats, and 41 are vying to be president — debate the issues. The officials also say they want a vote unmarred by fraud or violence, results that Afghans accept as legitimate and a government that responds to the needs of the people.

“We’re very careful not to conjecture. What we’re clear about is regardless of who comes into power, there needs to be much greater demand for accountability,” said a U.S. official involved in the election process.

Of the leading presidential candidates, Karzai remains the clear favorite. A U.S.-funded poll released this week found that 45 percent of decided voters favored him, compared with 25 percent for his closest rival, Abdullah Abdullah, an ophthalmologist and former foreign minister. The margin is significant because Karzai, who won in 2004 with 55 percent of the vote, would need to clear 50 percent to forestall a runoff.

The question of who, if anyone, the United States backs has been important from the beginning, although candidates have had to walk a fine line in simultaneously portraying themselves as acceptable to Americans and able to keep U.S. funding flowing, but distant enough not to be seen as an American puppet. Four prominent Afghan politicians, including Abdullah and Ghani, the former finance minister, attended Obama’s inauguration in January. Karzai, however, was absent, and a narrative developed early on that Obama was eager for a change at the top in Afghanistan. Ghani and Abdullah have told people privately that the United States gave them the green light to run for president, according to a former U.S. official here.

Karzai was angered when U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry appeared beside Ghani and Abdullah at news conferences in June, although Eikenberry stressed impartiality in his remarks. A week and a half after Karzai failed to show up at Afghanistan’s first televised debate, against Abdullah and Ghani, Eikenberry published an op-ed in The Washington Post calling for “serious debate among the candidates.”

Despite the administration’s denials, many in Afghanistan view these developments as a message that the Americans favored Karzai’s rivals.

“The U.S. has certainly tried to undermine Karzai’s leadership,” said Haroun Mir, director of Afghanistan’s Center for Research and Policy Studies. But the failure of rival candidates to unite on a ticket dashed what appeared to many observers to be a U.S. hope of an opposition coalition.

“I think the greatest pressure on the United States has been to convince Afghans and all the candidates that it is not interfering in the election one way or another,” Vali Nasr, a senior Holbrooke aide, said in an interview. “What the U.S. has consistently said is that it wants an election that is free and fair, and does not lead to indecision, confusion or violence, that the elections would be followed quickly by getting back to business.”

Concerns persist about Karzai’s leadership on many levels, including his ability to address corruption, to project his power nationwide, to help stem rising Taliban violence and to outline a clearer plan for a peace process. U.S. officials have been critical of his decision on the campaign trail to surround himself with infamous commanders such as his running mate, the powerful Tajik leader Mohammed Fahim, and several others Karzai has courted in an attempt to secure ethnic and regional voting blocs.

Karzai has at times been critical of the U.S. presence, especially over the issue of civilian casualties in U.S. military operations. But in a speech this week, he said that he valued American sacrifices in the war and that “we will not only keep this strategic partnership with the U.S., but we also will improve it.” At the same time, he demanded that coalition troops stop arresting Afghans and close all foreign prisons here.

Karzai’s rivals describe him as paranoid about foreign intrigue.

“He considers everybody part of that big plot,” Abdullah said. “In the meetings with elders and political leaders who have talked and spoken to me, he says this, ‘We should unite. You know, there are plots, Americans, British,’ and so on and so forth.”

“His relations with the Americans?” Abdullah said. “What do you think? Everybody is stuck with him.”
Afghan Hopeful Has Penchant for Details
Presidential Candidate Offers Slew of Proposals to Combat Official Corruption

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 15, 2009

KABUL, Aug. 14 — Ask presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani how he would curb the corruption permeating the ranks of the Afghan government — the “cancer that is eating through our society,” as he puts it — and the answer is a barrage of detailed plans and programs.

If elected, Ghani said, he would require 3,000 civilian and military leaders to disclose their assets. He would mandate thrice-yearly “citizen report cards” for officials from district-level administrators up to cabinet ministers. He would link the salaries of civil servants such as teachers to growth in state revenue and decline in corruption.

And he would require that within five years, 50 percent of government jobs be turned over to people younger than 30, who constitute the majority of the population, in an attempt to dismantle nepotism and patronage networks.

“There’s no vision as to where this country should go,” he said of the current government in a recent interview, as he reclined on cushions in his garden in Kabul. “There has been no leadership.”

Ghani, a 60-year-old author, former finance minister and professor with a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University, is the most cerebral of the candidates running in Thursday’s election. He moves from clipped, precise English to the Afghan languages of Pashto and Dari, and he speaks some French and Arabic.

U.S. officials are partial to Ghani, a politician in the mold of Iraq’s articulate Kurdish deputy prime minister, Barham Salih, or Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad — Western-educated leaders who can describe their people’s problems to Americans in English. Ghani has attracted American campaign volunteers and brought on Democratic strategist James Carville as an adviser.

But for Ghani, who spent 24 years abroad, including a long stint with the World Bank, this ease with the West does not appear to have translated into wide popularity at home. Two recent polls by U.S.-based firms have him running fourth in the election, with 4 and 6 percent of the vote, respectively. President Hamid Karzai remains the front-runner, with approval numbers in the mid-40-percent range.

“Ashraf Ghani has the complete solution, but he’s off-putting to a large number of the Afghans, and not for ethnic reasons,” said one U.S. official in Afghanistan. “Too much of Ashraf Ghani’s campaign is in the West.”

Ghani disputes that, saying he has spent more time than his opponents listening to the problems of average Afghans.

“The problem is that the West sees me at the side that they know,” he said. “I speak to you in English. If I spoke to you in Pashto, I’ll be incomprehensible. But when I speak Pashto, or in Dari, my Afghans see me operating as an Afghan.”

He dismisses the polls, saying they were conducted before his televised debate against former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah on July 23 (Karzai chose not to participate). Ghani’s campaign took a hit this week when Abdullah pulled out of a second planned debate. “The two campaigns are hiding behind advertisements in a way that is not advantageous for the nation,” Ghani said in a statement Friday.

“The polls have never gotten anything right in Afghanistan. I would like to see one prediction by foreigners that has come true in Afghanistan,” Ghani said in the interview. “I know this country more intimately. I’d like to challenge anybody who has as detailed a plan for every province of Afghanistan as I do, or as detailed a level of knowledge.”

His technocratic background has made him a leading candidate for a potential chief executive position, should Karzai win reelection. Karzai has offered him the position and U.S. officials have discussed it with him, Ghani said, but he has so far rejected it.

“I hope first to beat him. But if there is a need for a national government, we need to think about it. Those issues are premature now,” he said, noting that Karzai had approached him with similar offers over the past three years. “If Mr. Karzai wins and wanted me to be a part of his government, he would have to sacrifice a lot of his bad habits.”

Ghani has called for reforming Afghanistan’s judicial system and closing the detention center at Bagram air base and all other international prisons in the country within three years. He also says that boosting the numbers of U.S. troops here is necessary to make up for the Bush administration’s neglect of Afghanistan. For now, he said, his focus is on alleviating the problems of women, young people and the poor.

“The government is not a source of enrichment for me,” he said, adding that his candidacy is “strictly driven by service.”


AfPak Summer 2009 – Week 9
Pre-Vote Blast in Kabul Signals Taliban Intent
Insurgents Seek To Keep Voters From the Polls

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 16, 2009

KABUL, Aug. 15 — A suicide car bombing outside the U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan’s capital Saturday was the most serious indication yet of the Taliban’s designs to disrupt Thursday’s presidential election through violence.

The Islamist militia, which is fighting NATO and Afghan forces for control in wide swaths of the country, has fired rockets into Kabul in recent days, but the attack Saturday was the most brutal in the heart of the capital in six months. At least seven Afghans were killed, and more than 90 people were wounded.

If such violence succeeds in scaring voters away from the polls, Afghanistan faces a serious long-term problem. A low turnout, particularly in Taliban strongholds in the south, could cast doubts on the legitimacy of the election results.

“It is the Taliban who are trying to deny Afghans their political rights,” said a senior U.S. official in Afghanistan, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “That’s a lesson that ought to come home to all of us.”

President Hamid Karzai, the front-runner in the election, said in a statement that the attack was an attempt by the nation’s enemies to “create fear among the people.” But he added that Afghans “are not afraid of any threats, and they will go to cast their votes.”

Guarding voting sites and securing roads to the polling places has become the top priority for NATO forces. Of the 17 million registered voters, a turnout of more than 50 percent would be considered high, some U.S. officials say. In recent days, American military officials have received intelligence reports warning of suicide bombings and other catastrophic Taliban attacks, as well as quieter acts of intimidation. Insurgents issued similar threats of violence, and carried out some of them, ahead of elections in Iraq.

“Letters at night, threats and that sort of thing to try to dissuade people from going to the polls,” the senior U.S. official said. “My impression is frankly there’s much more in the way of intimidation than actual violence.”

In the heated environment of the campaign’s final days, the bombing became a political issue, with Karzai’s rivals arguing that he is responsible for the escalating violence in the country.

“I’m absolutely sure that we cannot bring peace in Afghanistan when the criminals of war are in power in Afghanistan,” said Ramazan Bashardost, a presidential candidate. “I believe the Taliban war is not against American or British troops as much as it is a war against the Taliban enemy, which means” Karzai.

The Taliban quickly asserted responsibility for Saturday’s car bombing at the security checkpoint outside the diplomatic compound that houses the U.S. and NATO military headquarters and the U.S. Embassy. Reached by telephone, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said a fighter named Ahmed detonated his four-wheel-drive vehicle carrying more than 1,000 pounds of explosives in order to kill Americans and disrupt the election, which he described as an “American process.”

The bombing occurred at 8:30 a.m. about 30 yards from the main compound entrance on a heavily guarded street. The explosion blew a hole in the road, crumbled concrete walls and shattered windows of buildings hundreds of yards away. The less-fortified row of buildings opposite the compound sustained the greatest damage, including the office of the Afghan Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation and the government television and radio station.

Mohammad Rafi, 22, a cook at Super Burger, was preparing a salad when the explosion shattered the plate glass window of his restaurant. He fell to the floor as shards rained down.

“Only God knows why they did this. I pray that God destroys them,” Rafi said. “We just hate the suicide bombers.”

Diplomats said that windows were shattered inside the compound but that damage was relatively light, with barriers mitigating much of the force of the blast. Indian ambassador Jayant Prasad wandered out of the compound surrounded by guards and said the windows of his residence and those of the Spanish ambassador’s were blown out.

Western military spokesmen said that “several” international troops were injured but that none was killed. One U.S. military official said it appeared that no Americans were seriously injured.

Many of the wounded Afghans were taken to a nearby hospital. Raz Muhammad Alami, the technical and operations deputy minister at the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, said 57 people from his ministry were injured, 36 seriously.

In the crowded recovery room for women, bombing victims moaned in pain and some appeared unconscious. One ministry employee, Freshata Nazami, 21, said she was walking along a window-lined hallway and fell to the floor when the blast occurred. “It was such a disastrous day,” she said from her hospital bed, with dried blood spots on her face and shirt. “My head was injured. I was running to the basement. When I got to the basement, I lost consciousness.”

“All our friends and colleagues were injured, and I don’t know where they are,” she said.

Officials said they expect more pre-election violence. The bombing prompted the United Nations to restrict movement of its personnel in Kabul, but the measures were lifted by the end of the day.

“Incidents like this were probably to some extent expected, although you can never predict where they will happen,” said Adrian Edwards, a U.N. spokesman in Afghanistan. “This is probably one of the most complex elections attempted anywhere, and, unfortunately, insecurity is part of that complexity.”

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.
Karzai Faces 2 Rivals in Debate
Answering Criticism of His Rule, President Says of Troubled Afghanistan: ‘I Saved It’

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 17, 2009

KABUL, Aug. 16 — After failing to show up for the first televised debate of the campaign, President Hamid Karzai took on two rivals Sunday night who described his government as mired in corruption and deficient in bringing jobs and security to Afghanistan.

In the nearly two-hour debate against former finance minister Ashraf Ghani and former planning minister Ramazan Bashardost, Karzai calmly defended his record and sought to portray Afghanistan as vastly improved since he took over leadership of the country in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban. Karzai will face off with Ghani, Bashardost and others in a field of 41 candidates who are vying to win the presidency in Thursday’s vote.

“Afghanistan, which has suffered a lot, was totally lost. I saved it,” Karzai said.

The event Sunday, sponsored by Radio Free Europe and held in an auditorium operated by Afghanistan’s national television station, marked the first time during the campaign that Karzai has publicly debated his opponents. But the candidate considered the strongest challenger to Karzai, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, chose not to participate.

Bashardost, an ethnic Hazara who has been running his campaign from a tent in Kabul and has vowed to operate without security guards if he wins, was the most colorful candidate Sunday. He attacked government corruption and incompetence and said Afghans are attracted to the Taliban’s style of swift, brutal justice because they receive no help with their problems from local officials. He said he would throw out the officials who “are just putting dollars in their pockets.”

“There is a hole in their pockets that will never be filled,” he said. “We should have a president who has integrity and who will not be the slave of the foreigners, but rather respect the national interest of Afghanistan.”

Karzai attempted to shift blame for the nation’s problems away from his government. He said Western troops helped incite Taliban violence in recent years through invasive searches of Afghan homes and by causing civilian casualties. He also stressed his view that Afghanistan’s problems with violence and terrorism come from outside countries and are not a homegrown problem.

He emphasized how Afghanistan’s budget revenue and per-capita income had grown during his tenure. “The lifestyle has gotten better in this country,” he said.

Karzai said that if he was elected, he would convene a grand council, or loya jirga, including the Taliban and other militant Islamist groups, to try to forge a peace deal. Bashardost questioned whether the Taliban is ready to negotiate.

Ghani, a candidate praised for his technocratic and managerial skills, emphasized the need to reform the government and improve coordination between Afghan and international security forces. He said that billions of dollars have been spent on the Afghan police but that there is little to show for the money. He reiterated his plan to have 3,000 senior Afghan officials declare their assets publicly to help prevent corruption. And he stressed the need to improve job opportunities for women, vowing to renew the government’s focus on women’s affairs.

All three candidates said they want to wean Afghanistan from its reliance on foreign soldiers and push Afghan security forces into a leadership role, although they did not specify a time frame for when they want U.S. forces to depart.

The debate, while civil, was not completely smooth. Karzai stopped his first answer short when he still had a minute left, then later told the moderator that “two minutes is not enough” when he wanted to answer another question at greater length. More than an hour into the debate, Karzai called for a break so the candidates could pray. The debate resumed after about 10 minutes.

Recent polls indicate that Karzai is the front-runner, with support in the mid-40 percent range, followed by Abdullah, with about 25 percent, and then the other candidates. Karzai would need to break 50 percent to win a second term in Thursday’s first round of voting. If he does not, there will be a runoff scheduled for about six weeks later, involving the top two vote-getters.

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.
Militia Commander Campaigns for Karzai
Dostum’s Record on Human Rights Is a Concern for U.S.

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

KABUL, Aug. 17 — One of Afghanistan’s most notorious militia commanders took to the campaign trail for President Hamid Karzai on Monday, another sign of Karzai’s dependence on Afghanistan’s old guard of political musclemen as he seeks reelection this week.

After months spent living in Turkey to avoid arrest after an altercation with a rival commander, Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum, the leader of an Uzbek militia, held a rally on the last day of the campaign in the northern Afghan city of Shebergan to urge his followers to vote for Karzai. The endorsement from Dostum, who remains popular among Uzbeks despite a record of human rights abuses, could provide a significant late boost to Karzai as he tries to secure a majority in Thursday’s first round of voting.

But Karzai’s reliance on regional commanders such as Dostum has concerned U.S. officials and others who fear that Karzai is too willing to legitimize people with poor human rights records in order to secure votes. Among other allegations, Dostum is accused of allowing hundreds of Taliban prisoners to suffocate in shipping containers in 2001.

“We’re obviously going to be encouraging Karzai to not let Dostum have a formal role in the government,” said one U.S. official familiar with Afghanistan policy. “Until he came back, we were still saying: ‘We don’t think he should come. Don’t bring him back.’ Karzai, of course, is making his own calculations.”

Analysts estimate that Dostum, who won 10 percent of the vote when he ran for president in 2004, could deliver Karzai 400,000 to 600,000 votes, perhaps more than any other regional or ethnic strongman backing Karzai.

Sayed Noorullah Sadat, a leader of Dostum’s political party, said that Karzai has not offered Dostum a specific job in a future government but that it is possible Dostum could serve as a governor or cabinet minister. Before being placed under house arrest in Kabul and seeking exile in Turkey, Dostum held a largely ceremonial position in the Afghan military. Afghan political observers speculate Dostum is interested in serving as governor of the northern province of Balkh, home to the city of Mazar-e Sharif. The current governor, a longtime Dostum rival, has backed Karzai’s main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Karzai has dismayed U.S. officials and human rights activists by steadily gathering around him regional commanders in his campaign for president, including his running mate, Mohammed Fahim. The possibility that such leaders could play a larger role in the next government “does undermine a fair, transparent democratic process in Afghanistan,” said Ahmad Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

“It’s mainly a question of political survival for these leaders who feel there is no other way for them. Through a democratic process they may not be able to hold on to power, so that’s why they try to make these deals,” he said. “Of course Afghans want to move on — they don’t want to go back to the same old structures.”

Afghan officials say they expect that the commanders will demand payback from Karzai if he wins, asking for such things as government jobs or pardons for their jailed associates.

“Everybody who is campaigning for Karzai will ask something from Karzai,” said Roshanak Wardak, a parliament member who opposes Karzai but said she will not vote Thursday because of poor security in her native Wardak province. “They will not campaign freely. I knew these people from before. They are corrupt, thieves, criminals.”

Also on Monday, an American civilian working with the military was killed when a patrol was attacked in eastern Afghanistan, and a roadside bomb in the south killed an American military serviceman. At least 22 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan in August as Taliban violence continues to rise.

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.
10 Killed, 55 Injured By Bomb Near Kabul
Coverage of Pre-Election Violence Banned

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

KABUL, Aug. 18 — A suicide bomber blew up a car near a NATO convoy on the dusty outskirts of Kabul on Tuesday, and mortars or rockets struck near the presidential palace, as the Afghanistan government moved to stop the media from reporting on violence during this week’s presidential election.

The government issued two decrees calling for a ban on news broadcasts about violence as voters go to the polls on Thursday in an attempt to keep Afghans from being frightened away from voting.

“We have taken this decision in the national interest of Afghanistan in order to encourage people and raise their morale to come out and vote,” a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai told Reuters.

Such a decision seems unlikely to have much impact at a time when scores of reporters from local and international media are closely following developments in Afghanistan, including the ongoing violence before the election.

The car bomb Tuesday exploded about 1 p.m. near a convoy by Camp Phoenix, a British military base on a dusty road outside Kabul leading to Jalalabad, killing 10 people and wounding 55 others, officials said.

NATO said that one Western soldier, whose nationality was not released, was killed and two others were injured in the explosion. Seven Afghan civilians were also killed, along with two Afghan employees of the United Nations.

“The people are still ready to go and vote,” said Zamaray Bashari, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, who added that 18 vehicles were damaged or destroyed in the explosion.

The separate attack involving rockets or mortars that crashed down near the presidential palace caused no serious damage and neither Karzai nor anyone else was injured in the explosions, deputy presidential spokesman Hamid Elmi told the Associated Press.

The Taliban has warned repeatedly it would carry out attacks to try to disrupt the election process and scare people away from the polls on Thursday. On Saturday, the Taliban took credit for another suicide car bombing outside the entrance to U.S. military and NATO headquarters in Kabul that killed seven people.

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.
‘We Don’t Have Any Alternative to Karzai’
Afghans’ Low Expectations Ensure Incumbent Is Favorite in Presidential Race, Despite Poor Record

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

BATI KOT, Afghanistan, Aug. 18 — From the gravel lot where he repairs cars, Babarak Shinwari can see the spot where the suicide bomber killed three of his cousins last year. At his home nearby, where his four children live without electricity, he says he prays to God for a president who can bring peace and security.

But on Thursday, Shinwari plans to vote the same way he did five years ago: for Hamid Karzai.

The fact that Karzai remains the favorite to win Thursday’s election, despite his government’s poor record on security and the economy over nearly eight years in power, says much about the mind-set of Afghans as they prepare to go to the polls. In interviews with more than a dozen residents Tuesday near the eastern city of Jalalabad, heavily populated by Karzai’s fellow Pashtuns, all said they planned to vote for the incumbent, even though many were critical of his performance.

That paradox reflects Afghans’ deep suspicion of anyone promising change. In recent decades, Afghans have lived through periods of horrific violence and destruction, with each successive regime bringing greater deprivation than the last. Many Afghans reason that although Karzai’s government has been disappointing, it could always be worse.

“We don’t have any alternative to Karzai,” Shinwari said. “We are afraid of what the other candidates might do.”

Indeed, low expectations may be Karzai’s greatest ally.

“During the Taliban, we had dirt roads. There were few vehicles. Women couldn’t go outside. There were no televisions, no mobile phones, no hotels, and now we have all those things,” said Jalil Jan, 30, who owns two gas stations near Jalalabad. “It is true that violence has increased, and the Taliban is stronger, but Americans can’t even stop the Taliban — how is Karzai expected to? He’s trying his best.”

Many Afghans also have misgivings about Karzai’s most prominent opponent, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik whose ethnicity makes him unacceptable to a large number of Pashtuns, the nation’s dominant ethnic group. Abdullah has campaigned on his history of involvement with the armed resistance, first to Soviet occupation in the 1980s and then to Taliban rule in the 1990s. Although the message resonates with some voters, it alienates others who do not want to revisit such violent periods.

There are more than 30 other candidates, but none besides Karzai has a wide following. A poll by the International Republican Institute released last week found that 44 percent of Afghans plan to vote for Karzai, compared with 26 percent for Abdullah. The third leading candidate, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, trailed well behind.

“People still support [Karzai] because despite the high number of contenders, they don’t see a real alternative,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a nonprofit research group. Abdullah and Ghani “were part of Karzai’s policies, so they’re also responsible for the failures linked to them,” Ruttig said.

Before Karzai came to power, Khaiyal Wali, now 27, earned about $2,000 a year growing poppies for the drug trade. During Karzai’s tenure, local elders forced him to stop, and now he earns about one-fifth as much cleaning fuel tanks. The U.S.-financed alternative agricultural development programs he had heard about brought him nothing, he said: “That was just on TV.”

But he still supports Karzai, if for cynical reasons. Corruption is endemic to politicians, he said, and Karzai and his cronies have had years to enrich themselves.

“The empty bags he brought with him have already been filled. It will take a long time for new people to fill their bags of money,” Wali said. “It’s impossible for the government to stop corruption. It is everywhere.”

Afzal Khan, an elderly farmer who was tending his 17 cows as they grazed on government pastureland, said he is happy with Karzai primarily because he has been left alone. When the Taliban ruled the country, Khan said, the regime’s enforcers would beat him with sticks for bringing his cows to government land.

“In every government we were farmers. Only during the Taliban period were they giving us a hard time. The Taliban have beaten me so many times in the legs I still feel the pain,” he said. “I feel so secure and peaceful with this government.”

Others pointed to improvements in local infrastructure and services: new paved roads, schools and clinics. They blamed the rising Taliban violence primarily on U.S. troops, not on Karzai.

“Americans make the security situation worse because they bomb the wrong houses,” said Abdul Ahad, a 22-year-old shopkeeper from a village on the outskirts of Jalalabad. “We are voting for Karzai and, God willing, he will be successful. He has promised that he will remove all these foreign forces.”

Karzai has also relied heavily on tribal elders, local officials and regional commanders, such as the Uzbek militia leader Abdurrashid Dostum, to generate votes for him. Ruttig said there is anecdotal evidence of governors offering services to citizens groups, provided they support Karzai. Under the law, governors are not allowed to use public resources on behalf of any candidate. Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission last week imposed a $1,500 fine on Karzai’s second running mate, Karim Khalili, currently a vice president, for improperly using Defense Ministry helicopters for campaign events.

Karzai “effectively controls the administrative and provincial system, especially on the district level,” Ruttig said. “Then you get the tendency, of course, toward the winner. If the trend is set, the impetus is there. Then more and more people flock to the guy perceived to be the winner.”

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.
Taliban Gunmen Killed in Kabul on Eve of Vote

By Joshua Partlow and Javed Hamdard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 19, 2009 9:44 AM

KABUL, Aug. 19 — Three gunmen with grenades stormed a bank in downtown Kabul on Wednesday morning, creating a standoff with Afghan soldiers and police that ended with the killing of the gunmen, according to officials and residents.

The violence on the day before Afghanistan’s presidential election raised alarm across the capital that the radical Islamist Taliban movement or other fighters were intent on carrying out further attacks to disrupt the voting. In the days before the election, the Taliban has exploded car bombs in front of U.S. military and NATO bases, as well as launched rockets at the presidential palace.

The early morning standoff at the bank began when three men carrying AK-47 assault rifles, grenades and other explosives entered a Pashtani Bank branch in the capital’s old city, witnesses said. Police soon surrounded the building and cordoned off the neighborhood, and gunfire ensued at the bank. Police said that the three gunmen were killed. Many bank windows were shattered after the standoff.

Mir Agha, 32, a painter drinking tea near the bank at the time of the attack, said one of the gunmen was strapped with an explosive suicide vest, but it was unclear whether he detonated it.

Another resident, Hamidullah, said the attack sealed his decision to stay away from the polls on Thursday.

“I would never vote; nor will my family,” he said. “I don’t think that anyone will go out to vote.”

President Hamid Karzai’s government is desperate to avoid such sentiments and has asked the local media not to cover violence on Election Day in an attempt to avoid scaring people away from the polls.

The streets were quieter than normal, and many shops were closed Wednesday, the anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence from British rule. Many Afghans stayed home to avoid the risk of violence.
Afghans Vote, Against Backdrop of Threats
Low Turnout in Many Areas Could Raise Questions About Legitimacy of Election

By Pamela Constable and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 21, 2009

KABUL, Aug. 20 — Defying Taliban threats to bomb polling stations and maim voters, millions of Afghans cast ballots Thursday in a presidential election that was relatively peaceful and orderly despite widespread predictions of violence and fraud.

The day was marred by reports of low voter turnout in many areas, however, which could complicate efforts to declare the results legitimate. With no official tabulations expected for several weeks and a runoff likely between incumbent Hamid Karzai and his top challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, Afghans face the prospect of a drawn-out period of political tension and uncertainty.

Officials said nine civilians and 18 members of the Afghan security forces were killed in scattered incidents of election-day violence, including a foiled attack on a police station in the capital. Officials said that they thwarted numerous suicide attacks planned for Kabul in recent days and that security was effective in major cities and towns.

In rural areas nationwide, more than 800 polling stations out of about 7,000 were closed because of security concerns, but there were no reports of major insurgent attacks. Taliban leaders had threatened to carry out suicide attacks against what they called a “sham” and “infidel” election, but the strikes did not materialize.

“The Afghan people dared rockets, bombs and intimidation to come out to vote,” Karzai, who has led Afghanistan for 7 1/2 years, told reporters at his palace Thursday afternoon. “We regret the loss of civilian lives, but we are grateful for the sacrifices people made. It went very, very well.”

International officials also expressed satisfaction with the election. “So far, every prediction of disaster has turned out to be wrong,” Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said during a tour of polling stations in Kabul.

U.N. spokesmen here congratulated Afghan officials for organizing the vote in an “extremely challenging environment” and said voters had clearly demonstrated their “desire for stability and development.” More than 15 million people had registered to vote nationwide.

Nevertheless, a combination of fear and disillusionment with politics kept many people away from the polls, especially ethnic Pashtun voters in southern and eastern provinces where Taliban insurgents are a major presence.

There was much higher turnout and less violence in the northern provinces, which are dominated by other ethnic groups, potentially creating a regional imbalance in voting results and raising questions about the legitimacy of the election. Although there were no major complaints of fraud, international observers said it will take time to determine how many people voted and to what degree the voting was marred by fraud and violence.

“I think everyone has to guard against making judgments that 24 or 48 hours later may not hold,” said Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, speaking in Kabul late Thursday. He led a team of more than 100 Afghan and international election observers.

In some rural districts of Helmand, Kandahar and Logar provinces, which have been wracked by insurgent violence, very few people voted. In Kandahar city, however, officials said turnout was robust despite Taliban threats and the firing of 11 rockets. Zalmay Ayoubi, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said that one rocket killed three children but that most others did little damage.

In eastern Nangahar province, another heavily Pashtun region, several people waiting to cast ballots said their neighbors and relatives had refused to come out because the Taliban had threatened to cut off the purple-ink-stained finger of anyone who had voted.

“During the day, it’s the government of Karzai, but at night, it’s the government of the Taliban,” said Hamidullah Mohmand, a villager from Nangahar who traveled to the provincial capital, Jalalabad, to vote because he thought it would be safer. Afterward, he said he was eager to wash the dark ink off his right forefinger before returning home.

Even in Kabul, where more than 10,000 police officers were deployed to protect voters and vehicles were searched at every corner, some high schools used as polling places had received only a trickle of voters by midday, and election monitors sat idle for hours in some classrooms reserved for female voters.

Some residents said they saw no point in voting because they had become disenchanted with politics; had found no champion among the dozens of presidential candidates; and were certain that Karzai would win, even though his government has steadily lost popularity and is widely accused of corruption and incompetence.

Yet many of those who did turn out expressed strong feelings about the need to strengthen Afghan democracy and to send Taliban insurgents a message that they could not frighten civilians with threats of retaliation.

“We are here to decide our future. This is a first chance for us as a family to vote for a peaceful Afghanistan with good leaders, and we are not going to allow the Taliban to scare us away,” said Mohammed Ashraf, 37, a laborer who recently returned from a long exile in Iran and voted in a crowded high school gym in western Kabul, along with his wife.

Many polling agents and monitors seemed especially enthusiastic and proud of their roles, ushering local VIPs and bewildered villagers through the process with equanimity and flourish. Often they had to help voters make sense of the cumbersome paper ballot with its photos and symbols of 41 candidates for president, plus hundreds for provincial council seats.

“You see, this man cannot read, so I am going to guide him,” Rahir Ahmad, a polling officer, said loudly to everyone waiting to vote in a high school classroom. Then he took a confused-looking elderly man by the elbow and led him behind a cardboard voting booth.

A few minutes later, Abdullah, the major challenger to Karzai, arrived to vote with a huge entourage of security guards and camera crews. Strolling through the scrum with his wife and young son at his side, Abdullah smiled as he left the school and repeatedly held up his ink-stained finger for the television cameras.

In another school across the city, Karzai came to vote with his wife, a doctor who has rarely been seen in public. Karzai and Abdullah, although English-speaking and modern in their outlooks, had campaigned without their wives in deference to conservative Afghan traditions that require women to be hidden from public view.

Many voters remarked that the lines seemed much thinner than in 2004, when the first presidential election was held after the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime. The national mood was extremely upbeat at the time, and Karzai was easily elected with 54 percent of the vote. This time, polls suggest he will garner less than half the vote, with Abdullah picking up a quarter and other candidates splitting the rest. If none of the candidates reaches 50 percent, the top two vote-getters will face off in a second round in early October.

“I came here to vote for a real Muslim who can help save our poor country,” said Khair Mohmad, 55, a day laborer waiting to vote in Kabul. He said he had supported Karzai in 2004 and intended to do so again. “No one pressured me to come here today,” he said. “I came to vote for peace and security.”

Partlow reported from Jalalabad.

Karzai, Abdullah Teams Both Expect Election Win
Election Officials Urge Candidates to Wait for Final Results

By Pamela Constable and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 21, 2009 9:57 AM

KABUL, Aug. 21 — President Hamid Karzai and his top election rival both claimed Friday that they were comfortably ahead in Thursday’s nationwide polling and expected to win the presidency, while election officials admonished all candidates against making such claims until official results are announced.

The competing assertions of likely victory by spokesmen for Karzai and by his chief challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, came amid widespread tension and uncertainty over the legitimacy of the election, which was marred by low turnout and threats of violence in numerous provinces.

The major question is whether any candidate will obtain the simple majority of votes needed to prevent a run-off. Pre-election voter surveys indicated that neither Karzai nor Abdullah would be able to reach that goal, but that Karzai would probably win a second round of polling in early October.

“Based on the early reports from election officials and local media, we are ahead of every other candidate, and we expect to win,” Wahid Omar, a spokesman for Karzai’s campaign, said Friday. He added, however, that the president would wait for the official announcement by election officials and would respect the result.

Abdullah’s spokesman, Fazel Sancharaki, sharply contradicted that assertion. He declared on a national television program Thursday night that Abdullah had “about 60 percent” of the vote nationwide and a much higher percentage in four provinces. He also told news agencies Friday that Abdullah was “far ahead” in half of the country’s 34 provinces.

Election officials, meanwhile, urged all candidates to refrain from making premature claims and allow the vote-counting process to be completed. They said they expected all ballots to be counted by Saturday and that they planned to issue preliminary results on Tuesday. However, they said final results would take considerably longer because any challenges or claims of fraud must first be resolved.

“Any other announcement of results except ours are not credible. Let us finish the process, and we will announce the results,” Daud Ali Najafi, a spokesman for the independent election commission, said at a news conference Friday. He also cautioned against predictions based on vote counts from a few polling districts, saying they did not necessarily reflect nationwide trends.

Another sensitive issue is whether voter turnout will prove high enough to make the election credible. Election officials and observers said Friday that turnout varied widely and was extremely low in some southern regions where Taliban insurgents intimidated voters. But they also said they hoped the final turnout nationwide would be as high as 50 percent.

Defying threats from the radical Islamist Taliban movement to bomb polling stations and maim voters, millions of Afghans cast ballots Thursday in a presidential election that was more peaceful and orderly than expected amid widespread predictions of violence and fraud.

Officials said nine civilians and 18 members of the Afghan security forces were killed in scattered incidents of election-day violence, including a foiled attack on a police station in the capital. Officials said that they thwarted numerous suicide attacks planned for Kabul in recent days and that security was effective in major cities and towns.

In rural areas nationwide, more than 800 polling stations out of about 7,000 were closed because of security concerns, but there were no reports of major insurgent attacks. Taliban leaders had threatened to carry out suicide attacks against what they called a “sham” and “infidel” election, but the strikes did not materialize.

“The Afghan people dared rockets, bombs and intimidation to come out to vote,” Karzai, who has led Afghanistan for 7 1/2 years, told reporters at his palace Thursday afternoon. “We regret the loss of civilian lives, but we are grateful for the sacrifices people made. It went very, very well.”

International officials also expressed satisfaction with the election. “So far, every prediction of disaster has turned out to be wrong,” Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said during a tour of polling stations in Kabul.

U.N. spokesmen here congratulated Afghan officials for organizing the vote in an “extremely challenging environment” and said voters had clearly demonstrated their “desire for stability and development.” More than 15 million people had registered to vote nationwide.

Nevertheless, a combination of fear and disillusionment with politics kept many people away from the polls, especially ethnic Pashtun voters in southern and eastern provinces where Taliban insurgents are a major presence.

There was much higher turnout and less violence in the northern provinces, which are dominated by other ethnic groups, potentially creating a regional imbalance in voting results and raising questions about the legitimacy of the election. Although there were no major complaints of fraud, international observers said it will take time to determine how many people voted and to what degree the voting was marred by fraud and violence.

“I think everyone has to guard against making judgments that 24 or 48 hours later may not hold,” said Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, speaking in Kabul late Thursday. He led a team of more than 100 Afghan and international election observers.

In some rural districts of Helmand, Kandahar and Logar provinces, which have been wracked by insurgent violence, very few people voted. In Kandahar city, however, officials said turnout was robust despite Taliban threats and the firing of 11 rockets. Zalmay Ayoubi, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said that one rocket killed three children but that most others did little damage.

In eastern Nangahar province, another heavily Pashtun region, several people waiting to cast ballots said their neighbors and relatives had refused to come out because the Taliban had threatened to cut off the purple-ink-stained finger of anyone who had voted.

“During the day, it’s the government of Karzai, but at night, it’s the government of the Taliban,” said Hamidullah Mohmand, a villager from Nangahar who traveled to the provincial capital, Jalalabad, to vote because he thought it would be safer. Afterward, he said he was eager to wash the dark ink off his right forefinger before returning home.

Even in Kabul, where more than 10,000 police officers were deployed to protect voters and vehicles were searched at every corner, some high schools used as polling places had received only a trickle of voters by midday, and election monitors sat idle for hours in some classrooms reserved for female voters.

Some residents said they saw no point in voting because they had become disenchanted with politics; had found no champion among the dozens of presidential candidates; and were certain that Karzai would win, even though his government has steadily lost popularity and is widely accused of corruption and incompetence.

Yet many of those who did turn out expressed strong feelings about the need to strengthen Afghan democracy and to send Taliban insurgents a message that they could not frighten civilians with threats of retaliation.

“We are here to decide our future. This is a first chance for us as a family to vote for a peaceful Afghanistan with good leaders, and we are not going to allow the Taliban to scare us away,” said Mohammed Ashraf, 37, a laborer who recently returned from a long exile in Iran and voted in a crowded high school gym in western Kabul, along with his wife.

Many polling agents and monitors seemed especially enthusiastic and proud of their roles, ushering local VIPs and bewildered villagers through the process with equanimity and flourish. Often they had to help voters make sense of the cumbersome paper ballot with its photos and symbols of 41 candidates for president, plus hundreds for provincial council seats.

“You see, this man cannot read, so I am going to guide him,” Rahir Ahmad, a polling officer, said loudly to everyone waiting to vote in a high school classroom. Then he took a confused-looking elderly man by the elbow and led him behind a cardboard voting booth.

A few minutes later, Abdullah, the major challenger to Karzai, arrived to vote with a huge entourage of security guards and camera crews. Strolling through the scrum with his wife and young son at his side, Abdullah smiled as he left the school and repeatedly held up his ink-stained finger for the television cameras.

In another school across the city, Karzai came to vote with his wife, a doctor who has rarely been seen in public. Karzai and Abdullah, although English-speaking and modern in their outlooks, had campaigned without their wives in deference to conservative Afghan traditions that require women to be hidden from public view.

Many voters remarked that the lines seemed much thinner than in 2004, when the first presidential election was held after the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime. The national mood was extremely upbeat at the time, and Karzai was easily elected with 54 percent of the vote.

Partlow reported from Jalalabad.


AfPak Summer 2009 – Week 10
Karzai Opponent Alleges ‘Widespread’ Voter Fraud

By Pamela Constable and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 24, 2009

KABUL, Aug. 23 — The main challenger to Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Sunday that he has received “alarming” reports of “widespread rigging” in Thursday’s presidential election by pro-government groups and officials, but he called on supporters to be patient and said he hopes the problem will be resolved through the official election review.

“The initial reports are a big cause of concern, but hopefully we can prevent fraud through legal means,” Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, said at a news conference. He said his campaign has filed more than 100 complaints of ballot-box stuffing, inflated vote counts and intimidation at the polls by Karzai partisans, often in places where threats from insurgents resulted in low voter turnout.

The allegations of fraud, combined with the slow pace of vote tabulation and the cumbersome process for investigating complaints, are raising political tensions as the nation waits to see whether its second presidential election will produce a result that Afghans can trust. If not, there is concern that voter anger will unleash violence along the ethnic and regional lines that divide this fragmented society.

The election’s credibility is a major concern for the United States and other Western powers. Their citizens are tiring of a costly and protracted war against Taliban insurgents and are wondering whether to continue propping up a weak and corrupt government in Kabul after more than seven years of supporting Karzai’s administration.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters during a tour of several regional military bases Sunday that “of course there were some irregularities; that happens in the United States.” He added that he was pleased the election proceeded despite Taliban threats to disrupt it. “Before the official count, sometimes there are disputes,” the envoy said. “We will work with the government that is elected.”

Although Karzai was a favorite of the Bush administration, his relations with the Obama administration have been decidedly cooler. The United States did not back any of the dozens of candidates who campaigned for the presidency; Karzai is widely expected to win, though he may have to face a second round in October if he does not obtain at least 50 percent of the vote.

Official results from the first round are not expected for days, and perhaps weeks. Casualties in Afghanistan have continued to rise this summer even as thousands of new U.S. troops pour into the country. On Sunday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN the military situation is “serious” and “deteriorating,” as insurgents have grown more determined and sophisticated.

Karzai’s aides responded sharply Sunday night to Abdullah’s charges of fraud, calling them political propaganda and accusing Abdullah of trying to bypass the election-review process by taking his complaints to the media. The aides did not answer any of Abdullah’s specific charges but said they had received similar reports of election violations by Abdullah’s camp.

“We have documented many cases of irregularities by Dr. Abdullah’s team, but we respect the process and we have taken them to the election complaint commission,” said Wahid Omar, chief spokesman for Karzai’s campaign. “To make these allegations in the media for political gain is disrespectful of the process and of the people’s vote. It is an attempt to hijack the process that is not helpful to democracy.”

Abdullah, 48, said he has faith in the election review process, which is being conducted by an internationally led team, but not in the national election commission, which is headed by a Karzai appointee. He said the election’s credibility will ultimately depend on “how much we are able to prevent big fraud, big rigging, which has been conducted by the incumbent and his team.”

Abdullah’s charges echoed concerns raised by election monitoring groups here. They have said they received numerous reports of irregularities and bias by polling officials, as well as of pressure on voters by powerful local figures.

Officials of the independent Free and Fair Elections Foundation said 1,500 polling stations opened late, dozens of rocket attacks frightened voters away, and some local election officials or influential local leaders pressed voters to support certain candidates for president and for provincial council seats. However, they said fraud was not widespread and not overwhelmingly in favor of any one candidate.

“Instead of rushing, it is better to take time and let the process work while the complaints are thoroughly investigated and verified,” said Ahmad Nader Nadery, chairman of the elections foundation. “The issues need to be cleaned up in order to make sure the election is acceptable.”

Grant Kippen, a Canadian elections expert who heads the Electoral Complaints Commission, said that his group has received more than 160 complaints of election-day irregularities and that it will take at least several weeks to investigate them. He said the group requires detailed evidence and testimony, and will not accept vague complaints of pressure or fraud.

“We know everyone wants results quickly, but if you have a huge volume of material, we have a responsibility to investigate it properly,” Kippen said. “People just have to be patient.”

Problems on election day seemed to be especially numerous in the volatile south, the heartland of Karzai’s ethnic Pashtun group but also the stronghold of Taliban insurgents who sought to undermine the election with violence. Abdullah’s support is based in the more peaceful north, which is dominated by Tajiks and other ethnic groups.

Abdullah described specific complaints of polling stations in the south, where as little as 10 percent of voters dared come out; he said official returns were inflated to show that up to 40 percent of registered voters had cast ballots, “with all results in favor of the incumbent.” He also described cases in which local former militia bosses used their homes as polling stations or bullied voters to support Karzai.

But there were also reports of irregularities in northern cities, according to officials there.

Holbrooke, who visited military facilities in four areas of the country over the weekend, heard from NATO and Afghan commanders that more military resources need to be focused on regions outside the south, where there are more than 40,000 NATO troops, including 23,000 Americans.

In the western region, however, there are 5,400 NATO troops for 3.6 million people. The number of roadside bombs in the west has nearly tripled in the past year, and the number of Afghan border guards is not sufficient to control the long, porous border with Iran. Afghan military officials also said they need more combat battalions in that region to fight the Taliban.

In the eastern region, which borders the Pakistani tribal areas that are a haven for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, U.S. Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said the independent Taliban network run by the Haqqani faction is expanding its territory. He called that group “the central threat” to eastern Afghanistan, and said it includes Uzbeks and other foreign fighters.
On Afghanistan, Political Test for Obama
Some Democrats Question Buildup Sought by Generals

By Scott Wilson and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

President Obama is caught between two important constituencies as he recalibrates his policy in Afghanistan — the generals who want more troops, and the base of his own party, whose tolerance for a worsening conflict is quickly evaporating.

As the Obama administration prepares for a report from its senior field commander that is likely to request additional forces, congressional Democrats, in particular, have begun to question the wisdom of further reinforcements on top of the 62,000 U.S. troops already deployed in Afghanistan, with an additional 6,000 scheduled to arrive by year’s end. The criticism comes as international fatalities in Afghanistan have risen to historic highs after a presidential election undermined by Taliban violence and low voter turnout.

The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan marked a grim milestone Tuesday when four American troops died in a roadside explosion near the volatile southern city of Kandahar. The attack brought the number of foreign troops killed in Afghanistan this year to 295, making this, with more than four months to go, the deadliest year for international forces since the war began in 2001. Americans account for 172 of the deaths this year, compared with 155 U.S. troop deaths in all of last year.

The domestic criticism is largely coming from those in the left wing of Obama’s party, who say the president’s plan to send more troops, monetary assistance and civilian advisers to Afghanistan does not include a well-defined exit strategy. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called this week for the first time for Obama to set a “flexible timetable” to withdraw U.S. forces, saying he is “not convinced that simply pouring more and more troops into Afghanistan is a well-thought-out strategy.”

During last year’s campaign, Obama made clear that he intended to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq to focus resources on winning in Afghanistan, despite the Democratic base’s consistent opposition to doing so. He removed Gen. David D. McKiernan as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan in May and replaced him with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who is expected to request as many as 25,000 additional troops in a report to the president due next week.

In a speech to veterans this month, Obama reiterated his view that the United States is fighting a “war of necessity” in Afghanistan. He said his strategy was to deny al-Qaeda and its affiliates safe haven in the region, protect nuclear-armed Pakistan from a Taliban insurgency and bring a measure of stability to Afghanistan. A number of congressional delegations visited the country during their legislative recess this month and are reporting back their findings.

Congressional Democrats’ calls for a strategic rethinking have coincided with a downward turn in U.S. public opinion toward the war, which will mark its eighth year in October. A Washington Post-ABC News poll published last week showed that a majority of Americans do not think the war is worth fighting and that nearly one-third think the United States is “losing.”

“Afghanistan is going to be a huge political challenge. There’s no doubt about that,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the military assessment is pending. “The key for us is to have a strategy and have the competency to execute that strategy. It’s going to be hard to convey this. And it’s never going to be popular.”

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated his concern Tuesday about the decline in U.S. public support for the Afghan war, which he called vital earlier in the week. But he invited a national debate over the conflict, saying it was better to take a “hard look” at the problem than to ignore it.

“I’ve seen the public opinion polls saying that a majority of Americans don’t support the effort at all,” Mullen told an audience of thousands of veterans at the American Legion convention in Louisville. “I say, good. Let’s have that debate, let’s have that discussion.”

“Let’s take a good, hard look at this fight we’re in, what we’re doing and why,” he said. “I’d rather see us, as a nation, argue about the war — struggling to get it right — than ignore it.”

Mullen said in an interview that with the “right resources,” the coalition could begin to make progress in quelling the insurgency within 12 to 18 months.

For Obama, the declining support for the Afghan effort threatens to siphon off energy and political capital at a time when he critically needs it as he pushes to reform the nation’s health-care system and carry out the rest of his domestic agenda. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who was in Afghanistan this weekend, told reporters in a conference call Monday that he had spoken to President Hamid Karzai and other key Afghan officials.

“To all of them, the message was clear: that American patience doesn’t last forever, that changes are necessary,” Brown said. “They need to show real benchmarks of success in the months ahead.”

The senior administration official said support for the Afghan and Iraq wars has often followed the public’s sense of the economy; when times are bad, concerns grow that too much money is being spent on foreign wars. As the economy begins to show signs of improvement, the administration thinks the case for remaining in Afghanistan may be easier to explain.

In addition, the official said, the administration is struggling to define the importance of the Afghan war after years of Bush administration preoccupation with the Iraq effort. If McChrystal requests more troops and Obama agrees to deploy them, the official said, the administration will have to explain to the American people “how this will accomplish our goals there faster.”

But Obama is also facing the political challenge of having stronger support for his Afghan policy from the opposition party than from his own. For years, Afghanistan has been perceived by the moderate left as the “good war” in contrast with the Iraq effort, which Obama himself has referred to as a war of choice. That appears to be changing. The Post-ABC News poll showed that fewer than 20 percent of Democrats support sending additional troops to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, a clear majority of Republicans said the war is worth fighting.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that “the president really has to face the fact that his own leadership here is critical. He really can’t just leave this to the Congress, to General McChrystal, and say, folks, sort of, discuss this, after the report comes in.”

The deaths of the Americans came amid further violence in Kandahar, a city of historic and strategic importance to the Taliban. An explosion in the center of the city Tuesday killed as many as 40 people and injured at least 100, provincial officials said. It also destroyed dozens of buildings, including houses and the offices of a Japanese construction company.

“People in Kandahar haven’t heard an explosion like this in the past eight years,” said Khalid Pashtun, a member of the provincial parliament.

The death toll for international troops has risen every year since 2003. U.S. military officials attribute this year’s rise in fatalities to a strengthening Taliban insurgency, coupled with the growing number of American troops battling them.

“It’s not the sophistication. That really hasn’t been a factor here,” said Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan. “Here you still are talking about very basic but very deadly IEDs — that’s the largest killer of the force,” he added, referring to improvised explosive devices.

A U.S. military spokeswoman, Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, said NATO forces are trying to deny the Taliban influence in population centers such as Kandahar and are fighting the group in drug-producing areas it relies on for financing.

“We are engaging an enemy in areas that the enemy needs to fight hard for,” she said.

Partlow reported from Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan. Staff writers Ann Scott Tyson in Louisville and Ben Pershing in Washington contributed to this report.
Accusations Of Vote Fraud Multiply in Afghanistan
Complaints on All Sides Threaten to Discredit Result, Hinder U.S. Policy

By Joshua Partlow and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 28, 2009

MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan — One week after Afghanistan’s presidential election, with the winner still undeclared, increasing accusations of fraud and voter coercion threaten to undermine the validity of the results, deepen dangerous regional divisions and hamper the Obama administration’s goals in this volatile country.

With U.S. popular support for the war in Afghanistan wavering, an election viewed as illegitimate by many Afghans would be a major setback for President Obama, who has increased U.S. military and economic efforts in a conflict central to his foreign policy. Officials worry that a Kabul government tainted by allegations of election-stealing or destabilized by a potentially violent backlash could derail U.S. efforts to beat back a resurgent Taliban and build Afghan security forces.

In interviews here in the capital of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan, the governor, election officials and residents described incidents of ballot-box stuffing and voter intimidation, particularly by election monitors. The many allegations of fraud add to the chorus of doubts from candidates and observers in other parts of the country about the fairness of the election process.

In a jailhouse interview, election monitor Abdul Hakim Ghafurzai, bruised and bloodied and slumped in his cell, said he knows how it feels to challenge election fraud in Afghanistan. “I am in pain,” said Ghafurzai, who alleged he was beaten and arrested after complaining that police outside this northern city shut down polling places because people were voting for President Hamid Karzai.

“Fraud has taken place by the Independent Election Commission, and there were also many threats,” said Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh, who broke with Karzai before the election and backed his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who is very popular in the north. “If this government wins through fraud, I won’t be with this government.”

All five leading candidates have filed complaints of ballot-box stuffing or destruction, intimidation and pressure on voters at polling stations, and ballots cast by phantom voters. One candidate, former anti-drug official Mirwais Yasini, personally delivered boxes full of shredded ballots to the foreign-led Election Complaints Commission. Yasini and five other candidates issued a joint statement this week saying the election was marred by “widespread fraud and intimidation” that threatened to “increase tension and violence in the country.”

Because the complaint process is slow and cumbersome, officials at the complaints commission office in Kabul said they do not expect to finish their investigations until mid-September, at least two weeks after the official election results are announced. That could create public tension and possible unrest, especially if Karzai is announced as the winner before the numerous complaints have been resolved.

Karzai and Abdullah have denied allegations that their followers committed systematic fraud.

In the past week, Abdullah has held two news conferences to allege “widespread rigging” by the Karzai administration, its campaign aides and employees of the Independent Election Commission. He has shown reporters thick blocks of ballots with identical check marks next to Karzai’s name and photograph, and shown videos of people sitting on the floor in closed polling stations and systematically marking ballot after ballot.

Legislators and other leaders in a number of provinces, especially those threatened by insurgent violence such as Kandahar, Khost and Wardak, have complained that at polling stations where very few people were able to vote because of insecurity, sealed ballot boxes inexplicably full of hundreds of ballots were sent to Kabul.

Election observers have described northern Afghanistan as a place where the election proceeded relatively peacefully, with as many as half of registered voters going to the polls — far more than in some Taliban strongholds in the south. But interviews with those monitoring the election here and looking into allegations of irregularities painted a bleaker portrait that implicated the followers of both Karzai and Abdullah.

“I was a witness to fraud, and I couldn’t do anything to stop it,” said a female election monitor at a voting site in Barga village, in this province, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. She said her fellow staff members voted at least 100 times for Abdullah and forced other residents to make the same choice. “I was really upset. The voting system was not good. People didn’t have the right to choose,” she said.

At least one polling center was set ablaze, destroying all records, and an election supervisor was gunned down while driving with boxes of ballots, said the top provincial election official, Dur Mohammad.

“Some candidates bought off the election officials. I think there were several cases,” said Mahgul Yamam, the head of the Election Complaints Commission in Balkh. “The system is not great in Afghanistan.”

In a jailhouse interview, Ghafurzai, 47, the top election monitor in the Chimtal district outside Mazar-e Sharif, said he received a phone call about 3:30 p.m. on election day that police were shutting down polling centers in his district because too many people were voting for Karzai.

“Police interfered with the counting. They didn’t let people vote; they locked the boxes,” he said.

Ghafurzai said that he alerted his provincial superiors about the problem, and that the next day, while counting votes at the Wali Asr High School, he was visited by the local police commander and three of his guards.

The guards “punched me and kicked me,” he said, showing his bruised arms and back and blood-speckled scarf. “I said, ‘Why are you arresting me? You have no documents.’ They didn’t say anything. They just handcuffed me and took me away.”

Ghafurzai is accused of assaulting the police commander, a charge he denies. Noor, the governor, described the matter as unrelated to politics and as a personal dispute between the police commander and the official, but he said he had formed a team to investigate the incident. Noor said Abdullah won 3,988 votes in the Chimtal district, compared with 2,287 for Karzai.

One tribal elder from Chimtal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Abdullah supporters collected registration cards from poor villagers and cast votes themselves. He said these supporters offered food — taken from Red Crescent aid supplies delivered to the area this year after a flood — in exchange for the voting cards.

“I am the elder of the tribe. People share their problems with me. I know this was going on,” he said.

Palwa Shah, a 20-year-old university student, said that the polling site she attended was decorated with posters of Abdullah and that the election staff members and police there told people to vote for him.

“That voting center was not free. People could not choose their own candidate. They were being forced; they were not happy,” said Shah, who voted in the Dehdadi district of Balkh. “They said, ‘If you don’t vote for Abdullah, the security situation could get worse, and you won’t be able to live here anymore.’ ”

At the Election Complaints Commission office in Kabul this week, teams of workers began sorting through thousands of brown envelopes filled with complaint forms. More than 80 percent were blank, officials said, suggesting that there were few problems with fraud or, more likely, that many people were reluctant to file complaints for fear of retaliation or because they were illiterate. Few forms have been received from the southern regions, where fraud is generally thought to have been the most widespread.

“One reason so few forms were filled in may be because people didn’t trust them,” said Nellika Little, a public information official at the commission. “They do have to be in writing. If someone is being intimidated at a polling station, are they really going to complain to the officials there?”

Little said the commission had received nearly 1,500 formal complaints, including 150 that it considers potentially serious enough to affect the result of the election. Those 150 cases are being investigated by teams of professionals, including some who are traveling to the districts where they originated to question witnesses and officials.

Commission officials said many complaints would be difficult to investigate because they are vague and contain little or no evidence.

“I’m really worried about the result of the election. All the candidates are complaining, and they are feeling there were many problems,” said Farid Muttaqi, a human rights worker in Mazar-e Sharif. “For sure the people will not cooperate with the government or feel they are a part of this government. And this could give a chance for the Taliban to come and do their work here.”

Constable reported from Kabul.
Attack Kills 18 Pakistani Officers
Suicide Bomber Struck at Main Crossing Point Into Afghanistan

By Haq Nawaz Khan and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 28, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 27 — A suicide bombing at the main border crossing for NATO convoys traveling between Pakistan and Afghanistan killed at least 18 Pakistani security officers Thursday, according to witnesses and officials.

The bomber detonated his explosives amid the government offices and barracks of the Torkham checkpoint in northern Pakistan as guards were preparing to break their daily fast for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan with an evening meal. Dozens of officers were injured, officials said.

The top political official in the area, Tariq Hayat, said the bomber was a young boy who had walked among the tribal police carrying water while they were preparing the meal. Hayat said he suspected that the Taliban had carried out the attack in retaliation for Pakistani military operations against the militant group in recent months.

Pakistani Taliban fighters are trying to regroup after the apparent death of their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, who officials and Taliban members said was killed this month in a U.S. missile strike in the South Waziristan tribal region where he operated.

Pakistani intelligence officials reported a similar strike Thursday afternoon in the same border district. Officials said three missiles were fired at a Taliban member’s house, killing about eight people.

“Local Taliban volunteers were seen engaged in relief activities, pulling out bodies and the injured from the debris,” said a tribesman from the area who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was afraid. “The house was completely destroyed in the drone attack.”

The Torkham checkpoint is on a busy road through the Khyber Pass and is frequently used by U.S. military and NATO supply convoys traveling between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Previous attacks have targeted the convoys, but officials did not say whether any of the vehicles were hit in the bombing Thursday.

A political appointee in the Khyber district administration said by telephone that the bombing killed 18 tribal policemen and injured more than 10. A doctor at a nearby hospital put the death toll at 21.

Saeed Khan Afridi, who lives near the checkpoint, said the attack leveled a single-story building that tribal security forces were using for residential purposes.

Partlow reported from Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan.


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