Archive for the ‘UAV’ Category
Los Angeles- On Friday evening (GMT), I appeared on BBC Arabic’s Newshour presented by Malak Jaafar to discuss reaction to that days Washington Post story entitled “U.S. ‘secret war’ expands globally as Special Operations forces take larger role” by Karen de Young and Greg Jaffe with Egyptian Brigadier General (retd.) Safwat al-Zayat. Thanks to my colleague Murad Batal al-Shishani for arranging this.
New York- I posted a new video on my still nascent youtube channel about covering a mass guerrilla funeral on August 17th, 2006 in Srifa, South Lebanon after the U.N. mediated ceasefire. My driver Kamal was from the neighboring village and was curious to revisit the area and check on the homes of his two brothers and their families who hadn’t left. Israeli UAVs buzzed overhead as the town buried its martyrs. Thirty coffins were interred in a mass grave which was then covered over with concrete slabs to seal the dead men into the soil for eternity. The heat and wretchedness of the event was the most intense thing I’ve ever experienced.While virtually all media accounts of the war described it as strictly between the IDF and Hezbollah, on the ground in South Lebanon, Harakat Amal-the armed wing of the “Movement of the Disinherited” and Hizb-i-Shuy’ui-i-Lubnani-the armed wing of the Lebanese Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) fought the IDF in united front to defend South Lebanon and the Litani river from the invading forces. The Israeli invasion enhanced social cohesion amongst groups that had fought one another and which there had often been a great degree of animosity. The LCP had once fought Amal in the context of the civil war and Amal had once battled Hezbollah. The LCP’s local party headquarters had been demolished by the IAF if one needs context as the LCP cadres’ participation in the conflict. What fascinated me was the Guevarist theme of the LCP fighters.
A few years later I was leafing through Gilles Kepel’s Beyond Terror and Martyrdom at Kramer Books in Dupont Circle when I happened to see a reference on page 71 stating that, “Che Guevara was rumored to be from southern Lebanon.” Of course I haven’t heard this reference anywhere else. The wikipedia entry on Guevara says he’s Castilian, Basque, and Irish.
In a strange personal footnote to my experience, while photographing the event there was a gangly European photographer who I assumed was either Dutch or Scandanavian. He stood out even more because it was standing in the raised plow of a backhoe photographing from above. I wondered briefly who he was and how he knew about the funeral. A few weeks later I was back in New York walking with a friend exiting the turnstile of the West 4th street subway, the same super tall Dutch looking guy from Srifa was coming through the next turnstile the other way into the station. I didn’t bother to tell my friend because knowing he knew nothing about the international journalism scene, my shock would be lost on him. A year later when the NOOR photo agency was founded around the time of the annual Perpignan festival, I pieced it together to realize it was Kadir van Lohuizen that had crossed my path in South Lebanon and the West Village in the course of a month in 2006. Weird. I seriously doubt he recognized me that evening in the subway.
I participated in a contentious debate on the BBC at the last minute today with Owen Bennett-Jones, author of Eye of the Storm, who was hosting a show from Islamabad. Initially, I didn’t realize I was on with a perennially controversial figure in Islamic politics in Pakistan Khalid Khawaja whom I met at his lawyer’s office in Rawalpindi last year. Pakistan is convulsing in the largest humanitarian crisis since the catastrophic Partition of British India in 1947.
The Pakistani army is waging a difficult battle against those it terms “Miscreants” which the Western media knows collectively as the Taleban. Meanwhile millions of civilians, much like those in Sri Lanka, are caught dangerously in the middle. If Islamabad treats its own citizens as badly as Colombo, there will be plenty of trouble ahead. The rifts within Pakistani society have become so deep that solutions, rather than traditional exchanges of blame and conspiracy theories, are desperately in order. The United States is attempting to partner with Asif Ali Zardari who many Pakistanis see as an integral part of the problem much the way Afghans now view Hamid Karzai. Siding with inept and inherently corrupt leadership further perpetuates insurgency in these two vital and very fragile state structures. Taleban ideologues proclaim foremost that theirs is a war against a fraudulent leadership and a vacant justice system marketed through a prism of rigid Islamic doctrine. The Taleban’s two-front war is not terribly differing from the massive Maoist insurrection being waged against the state in central India. Pakistan has yet to adopt a viable counterinsurgency strategy and huge parts of NWFP are being displaced as a result. Fighting a conventional war against furious Pashtun religious nationalists will fail unless Pashtunistan’s legitimate issues are addressed in the long term which, so far, Islamabad does not appear inclined to do.
Podcast link here…
I have a piece this week on the Huffington Post on where Pakistan was and where it is or could be going. Read it here…
On April 15th, Jamestown hosted and exhaustive conference on the subject of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and its Federally Administered Tribal Areas. There’s too much else to include for the number of people gathered and the all the topics covered under the umbrella of the larger concept of Pakistan’s tribal wars but here are some of the highlights.
The first panel consisted of Ahmed Rashid and Shuja Nawaz. Rashid sadly described the “surrender of the state” in the Swat valley to Sufi Muhammed and said that the Swati Taleban had taken over the instruments of the state in spreading their own version of Sharia law, which, Rashid said, differed markedly from historical Sharia that had been practiced in the area in previous decades. Rashid told the audience that that the Pakistani Taleban, the TTP, had an agenda of Islamizing all of Pakistan and challenging the army. Shuja Nawaz spoke pessimistically of a “battle for Pakistan” and described an army that was able to clear but not build and hold (one can think of the example of the Bajaur operations) which is critical in a COIN strategy (which every speaker described as non-existent in Pakistan’s military doctrine).
Mariam Abou Zahab, an expert on Sunni-Shia internecine conflict in Pakistan and co-author of Islamist Networks: The Afghan-Pakistan Connection presented a fascinatingly detailed background on this conflict within the broader turmoil occurring throughout Pakistan. Though it may be hard for outsiders to differentiate between the various contexts of carnage coming out of the country on a daily basis, Mme. Zahab told of the fitna, or sectarian Islamic warfare that has been shredding the fabric of Pakistani society since the 1980’s which was part of a proxy struggle between Iran and the al-Saud family. This sectarian warfare is relevant to the conflict in FATA and the historical context of the Afghan war for several reasons. Two of the seven tribal agencies, Kurram and Orakzai, have significant Shia populations and hence inherent conflict. Zahab states that the influx of large numbers of Sunni Afghan refugees during the Soviet era skewed the Sunni demographic in FATA well out of its historical balance. According to Zahab, this suited General Zia ul-Haq just fine. Zia was greatly annoyed by particular Shia tribes in crucial border areas refusal to let mujahideen cross their territory during the anti-Soviet war. For Zia these Pashtun Shia presented both a tactical and ideological issue. Zia’s “Islamization” of Pakistan was also a defacto Sunnization of the country as well. Skewing the tribal areas in favor of Pashtun Sunni clients was necessary to prosecute the war in Afghanistan. Outside of an historical Islamic context, the violent schism harks back to the British Raj when colonial officers divide et impera by favoring wealthy minority Shia landholders against the unwashed Sunni masses tilling the land. Within Pakistan’s unannounced civil war, mosques are detonated, captured Shia soldiers are beheaded and imams are assassinated. Sectarian outfits in Pakistan are, in the words of David Kicullen, “Fighting Smalls Wars in the Midst of a Big One.”
Stephen P. Cohen of Brookings spoke to Pakistan’s lack of a counterinsurgency strategy which most of the experts throughout the day agreed the country so desperately needs. Cohen described Pakistan’s enemy-centric war fighting strategy as self-defeating because it further alienated local populations which remains fervently counterintuitive to COIN doctrine. The army’s “ethnic mismatch” fails to represent the makeup of of the society at large being a heavily Punjabi dominated institution which leads to a deadly cultural gap when fighting Pashtun (or Balochi) militants. Cohen also criticized Pakistan’s civilian leadership for its “knowledge deficit” in the country’s military affairs which may be a product of the natural tension in the swinging pendulum between democracy and dictatorship for the past six decades. The Army, Cohen said, has no discernible interest in taken lessons from other campaigns from the Pakistanis could implement in their internal land war. Cohen mentioned various Indian COIN operations of yore that Pakistan’s army could seek to learn from. Not bloody likely…
Jamestown’s Andrew MacGregor, describing recent attacks on Peshawar’s freight terminals, gave an interesting presentation on NATO’s baffling choices for logistical supply routes presenting a region wide context. The cycle of supplying Western forces in Afghanistan has built-in instability with bribes being paid regularly to the Taleban. In order to let equipment pass through their jurisdiction, the Taleban exact payments from trucking syndicates which are used to fund a widening insurgency. Internally Displaced Person’s (IDP) camps sprouting up on the outskirts of Karachi as a result of the Pakistan Army’s operations have given cover to militants from FATA and NWFP now operating in Sindh where they threaten the formerly safe port for NATO supplies. While trucking military supplies through Pakistan are threatened (not to mention taking away legitimate income from the Pakistani trucking industry), other much more costly sounding and arduous supply routes are being considered like a South Caucasus-TransCaspian-Kakakh route, an old Soviet supply route beginning in the Baltics in Riga and continuing on to Central Asia through the Russian Federation. MacGregor spoke of the “Iranian Route” which would make the most sense logistically, especially considered Iran’s relative stability and wealth of infrastructure. Such a move would be highly improbable, at least for the United States, without a major overture from the Americans but may be doable for some EU militaries. Central Asian routes may give Moscow a degree of leverage over the authoritarian states it is trying to hold within its orbit and could likely be a great odds with NATO’s objectives in both Afghanistan and possible membership candidate states.
I participated in a World Have Your Say debate hosted by Madeline Morris on BBC World Service with guests Zahid Hussain, Times of London correspondent and author of Frontline Pakistan:The Struggle with Militant Islam, Walid Phares author of The Confrontation:Winning the War Against Future Jihad and Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and Pakistan People’s Party insider Wajid Shamsul Hassan. The show’s producers called me to react to Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States Hussain Haqqani’s recent comments on a his espousing of a “bailout” of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan rather than, say, AIG or GM. I, and I think most rational internationalists, agree that Pakistan certainly does need help but that of a nuanced and self-sustaining sort rather than thoughtlessly throwing further billions at the military while the feuding feudal kleptocrats Asif Ali Zardari and Mian Nawaz Sharif create a political smokescreen in their constant dust ups. As an asymmetrical civil war engulfs swaths of Pakistan’s geography and attempts to silence members of its civil society, a regional rethink is required by all parties. The United States and Pakistan have quite different objectives in regard to Afghanistan and South Asia as whole (not to mention China and Russia) and a modus vivendi by several sides will be necessary to solve the “Af-Pak” crisis.
As someone at a party in Karachi said to me last year,”Ten years ago we were being compared to India, and now we are being compared to Afghanistan. What the hell happened”?
The BBC podcast can be downloaded here…
Barack Obama is in office. Guantanamo is closing (though not immediately), America’s interest in Iraq seems to finally be fizzling and the new President gave a distinctive address to the people of the Middle East via al-Arabiya, al-Jazeera’s quietist rival. However one particularly disastrous bit of foreign policy President Obama has neither rebuffed nor assuaged the “Muslim world” are the missile strikes launched by UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) that have been unleashed on ungoverned spaces in Pakistan’s hinterlands. These pilotless planes buzz high in the sky above their targets waiting to launch Hellfire missiles on the inaccessible, mud brick compound of the CIA’s choice.
Although the aerial attacks have taken out several “high value targets” (a term used to create dissonance between the alleged terrorists and their humanity), they have also killed scores of Pashtun peasants in the Tribal Belt. The strikes create more problems than they solve for several reasons. The militant leaders and their acolytes know that the Pakistani government has let its sovereignty be eroded by both the Bush White House and the new administration in its infancy. As the death toll mounts, Islamabad is further emasculated in the eyes of furious tribesman who feel their own government does not have the bravado to directly confront them. While Pakistani ground forces have failed miserably to dislodge Taliban elements and the notorious Haqqani family from their ideological trenches, the fact that American forces cannot enter Pakistan (though it is understood they have occasionally done so) through an announced legal framework makes the air strikes a viable option. Almost…
Through the lens of Pashtunwali, the regional code of rigid masculinity and hospitality, the drones circling overhead are birds of cowardice. Obama is immediately stuck in a policy vice grip. He campaigned for renewed diplomacy and outreach yet must still smash his progressive fist somewhere on some godforsaken poor people in order not be ridiculed as a throwback to an exaggerated moment of appeasement that has never been relevant. It is a scenario that requires a studied rethink. American forces cannot effectively enter northwestern Pakistan en masse. Pakistani forces have sustained immense casualties when they have attempted to enter the region from the east meeting heavy resistance. Meanwhile, the current policy of war by video game is inflaming Pakistani public opinion and national pride. The Americans have had, with limited success, obliterated some of their long sought enemies. The overwhelming outcome of these attacks is more of the “smoking ‘em out” sort with negligible intelligence benefits.
Obama made waves in his campaign by stating he would be (possibly) willing to negotiate with contrarian states like Iran and Syria in order to achieve U.S. goals in Iraq and Palestine. What he did not say, however, is whether he would be willing to talk to non-state actors like the Taliban in order to achieve a modicum of regional stability in the Afghanistan-Pakistan cross border region known colloquially as Pushtunistan. In a term formerly reserved for the Kurds of the northern Middle East, Peter Bergen has said that the Pashtuns are in fact the world’s largest group of people without a state. Dealing solely with states is so twentieth century as we have painfully come to learn at the outset of the twenty-first. Ugly as it may be, the Taliban do represent some genuine Pashtun interest which has only more recently grafted with ideas of globalist holy war. The Taliban rose to power as a militant Pashtun nationalist movement with rather narrow domestic objectives under a democratically elected Bhutto administration in the mid-1990s in next door Pakistan. The UAVs will never accomplish a long term strategic reordering of Pushtunistan or eliminate al-Qaeda ideology from its mountain hideouts and humming online servers.
Pakistan is in a very fragile state with regard to its own domestic consciousness. Militants have killed so many innocents in the last few years, that while it may be difficult for people in the West to sympathize, normal Pakistanis live in fear from the day to day actual, unrelenting terrorism that has turned the public deeply against these barbaric groups. The other side of the equation has Urdu and English language national satellite new channels showing yet another missile impact killing children in the Frontier that Pakistanis are well aware their own elected government does not have the technological capability to carry out. The civilian population of Pakistan has something in common with President Obama. Both are in situations desperately in need of a third way. Escalating the overt war in Afghanistan and the covert war in Pakistan is a tired paradigm without a visible shift on the horizon.
Far more destructive to the confines of militant thought would be the financing of new roads and schools in a joint Pakistani-American venture, perhaps with the blessing of enlightened members of the local ulema (religious councils). The people of Pushtunistan would likely welcome decent state healthcare for their children and the financing of at least minimal infrastructure in the region if it was not peppered with condescending, Punjabi dominated governance. Doing the necessary work in Pakistan’s deteriorating northwest would require a long and perhaps initially dangerous commitment. Hearts and minds cannot be won with Hellfire.