Pakistan’s landmark election may change little

At Tehreek-e-Insaf Lahore Rally 23 March. Photo PTI

By Kiran Hassan, Research assistant, South Asia Programme

Pakistan is heading for an historic election on 11 May, in which one democratically elected government is due to succeed another for the first time in the country’s existence. President Asif Ali Zardari finally called the election on 20 March, after criticism from Imran Khan and other politicians that he was delaying the process. In fact, the PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) government headed by prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf completed its full five-year term on 16 March, necessitating the appointment of a caretaker administration in the run-up to the poll.

Retired senior judge Mir Hazar Khan Khoso, from the strife-torn province of Baluchistan, was sworn in as caretaker prime minister this past Monday. The 84-year-old was chosen by the election commission, after Pakistan’s main political parties failed to agree on a candidate.

The day beforehand Pakistan’s former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, had flown into Karachi airport after years of self-imposed exile in the UK and the UAE. Musharraf, who ruled Pakistan from 1999 to 2008, intends to run in the upcoming poll. However, he faces conspiracy to murder and other charges in Pakistan, and needed to arrange a ‘protective bail’ order to prevent being arrested upon his return.

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Life post-Taliban: solving local grievances key

Former Taliban members cut past ties, return to Afghan society during reintegration shura

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant Editor

As NATO prepares to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, a key part of the transition to Afghan security leadership will be persuading members of the Taliban insurgency to reconcile with the government in Kabul. The Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Programme (APRP) designed to do this has so far encouraged 5,000 insurgents to give up their weapons, according to Major General David Hook of the Royal Marines.

Hook told the IISS this week that only 20% of Taliban interviewed as they entered the programme claimed to be fighting for ideological reasons. Often, they were motivated instead by local grievances.

‘Part of the design of the APRP was to address these local grievances,’ said Hook. ‘If you address [the grievance] locally, you can pull them in.’ This was particularly important because analysis also showed that more than 75% of ordinary fighters remained within 20 miles of their village. About 78% of all those joining the APRP process said they did so because they were tired of fighting.

The APRP, an Afghan-led social reintegration process backed by international funding, is one of three related reconciliation-and-reintegration ‘tracks’ in Afghanistan, alongside political negotiations towards a ‘grand bargain’ between the government and Taliban leaders, and so-called ‘high-level reintegration’ seeking to persuade insurgent leaders to stop fighting the government and support it instead.

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Afghanistan – A bloody weekend, but not necessarily a tipping point

A soldier from the Mobility Recce Force of 1 Royal Welsh is pictured on patrol with colleagues from the Afghan National Army (ANA) in Nad-E' Ali, Helmand.

A soldier from the Mobility Recce Force of 1 Royal Welsh is pictured on patrol with colleagues from the Afghan National Army (ANA) in Nad-E’ Ali, Helmand. Photo Credit:UK Ministry of Defence

By Brigadier Ben Barry, Senior Fellow for Land Warfare

It has been a week of bad news from Afghanistan, after further ‘green-on-blue’ attacks, fallout from video protests sweeping the Middle East and NATO announcing a temporary retreat. But in reality, the picture is more nuanced and there are reasons to be optimistic – provided tensions arising from the video can be diffused.

The headlines have suggested setbacks to the joint NATO/Afghan strategy of transition to Afghan leadership of security and withdrawal of NATO combat forces by the end of 2015.  In addition to the violent protests against the provocative ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video, there was a well-planned and determined attack on the UK/US base at Camp Bastion in which six US and UK troops were killed by men in Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) uniform.

NATO’s announcement that ‘in response to elevated threat levels…ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] has taken some prudent, but temporary, measures to reduce our profile and vulnerability to civil disturbances or insider attacks’ has resulted in a reduction of low-level tactical partnering with the Afghan forces below battalion level has caused a predictable flurry of commentary and speculation in Western media.

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Mullah Omar’s Eid message

Muslims from throughout the world gather at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Nov. 16, for the start of Eid al-Adha, a religious holiday beginning after Hajj.

Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Eid al-Adha 2010. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/isafmedia

By Hameed Hakimi, Research Assistant, Armed Conflict Database

A statement released by Taliban leader Mullah Omar to mark the end of Ramadan conveyed a tone of optimism for the Taliban’s tactical achievements, as well as a vision for the future and a statement of commitment to the Afghan people.  In the following weeks, facts on the ground have challenged both Mullah Omar’s assessment of Afghanistan and his claims about the Taliban’s intentions. But these realities should also serve as a reminder that ordinary citizens face conflicting messages and broken promises from both the Taliban insurgency and Afghanistan’s political leadership.

Mullah Omar’s Eid-ul-Fitr message was published on the Taliban’s website on16 August 2012.  In 34 points, it set out his vision for a post-2014 Afghanistan, and reiterated the movement’s criticisms about the presence of Western troops and the government in Kabul.  For those who lived under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a direct message from the reclusive Mullah Omar is a rarity. During its control of the country until 2001, the Taliban leadership’s communication with ordinary Afghans was restricted to public order commandments and moral judgments on points of Sharia law.

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Reading between the lines of Taliban poetry

Listen to a snippet of Taliban poetry (translated below)

A time is coming, a change is coming,
A revolt of white banners is coming.
A caravan of turban-wearers is coming from all directions.

Many British readers were recently surprised to learn that the turban-wearers mentioned in the above verse – the Afghan Taliban – are avid composers and consumers of poetry. The release of Poetry of the Taliban, a compilation edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, has also generated controversy, with one British commander accusing the publishers of giving terrorists ‘the oxygen of publicity’.

But at the IISS this week, the book’s editors argued that if this aspect of Taliban life had been largely overlooked, it suggested other elements were missing in the West’s portrait of its adversaries in Afghanistan. ‘At a time when, internationally, people are trying to engage politically with the Taliban … we think it’s important to bring this all together in terms of understanding who these people are,’ said Strick van Linschoten.

Not everyone will necessarily agree with author William Dalrymple’s back-cover assessment of the ‘black-turbanned Wilfred Owens of Wardak’. However, Kuehn contended that the volume’s 235 verses – touching on love, nature, combat, nationalism, suffering and discontent – might read less like propaganda than people imagine.

Poetry plays an important role in everyday life in Afghanistan, the authors explained, where it is an oral tradition. People keep poems on their cellphones, swap MP3 files and even use couplets ‘to decisively win an argument’. The Taliban are often thought of as lacking in culture, with their bans on music and films, and their destruction of the huge Bamiyan buddhas. As a consequence ‘the omnipresence of these aesthetic and cultural elements in people’s lives often goes unnoticed, at least in international coverage’, said Strick van Linschoten.

He and Kuehn, the co-founders of online research and media-monitoring service AfghanWire, first became acquainted with Taliban poetry while in Kandahar working on Mullah Zaeef’s memoir, My Life With The Taliban. The pair have also written An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan 1970-2010.

Their latest collaboration draws on verses published on the Taliban’s website and older pre-9/11 recordings, plus several specially commissioned poems.

Listen to the full discussion: Poetry of the Taliban

Why Pakistan is on the brink

Ahmed Rashid

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database, IISS

The supply of gas to the Lahore home of renowned Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid was cut off six months ago. While hardly one of the most severe problems faced by Pakistanis today, regular energy shortages are but one element of the multidimensional crisis afflicting their country. As Rashid explained during his address to the IISS, behind the international headlines on security and strategic issues lies ‘a dire economic situation’ that is exacerbating regional instability.

According to Rashid, ‘Pakistan’s foreign policy has undermined the state itself, it has created even more splits in the ethnic makeup, it has divided the country.’ Its political and military leadership had failed to implement economic and foreign-policy reform after the Cold War. Instead Pakistan had continued to support proxy armed groups in Kashmir, as well as aiding elements of the Taliban – despite its ongoing fight against different elements of the same group on its territory.

Both the security threat from Islamic militants and the poor outlook for the economy were ‘symptoms of things going very wrong’, stated the author of Pakistan on the Brink: The future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West. His bleak assessment of the situation on the ground both in Afghanistan and Pakistan came in the aftermath of two bold moves by the Taliban: a series of coordinated attacks across Kabul and three eastern Afghan provinces and ‘the biggest jailbreak’ in Pakistan’s history, in which almost 400 prisoners were released from a prison in the northwestern town of Bannu.

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The myth of ‘Tal-qaeda’

Felix Kuehn and map of al-Qaeda's globalist struggle

By Sarah Johnstone, Assistant editor, online

The poetry of the Taliban. The concept seemed to capture the audience’s imagination and may have derailed a less well-chaired discussion. Felix Kuehn and Alex Strick van Linschoten came to the IISS this week to discuss the ‘Myth of the Taliban/al-Qaeda merger’, but after they mentioned they would soon publish an English volume of translated Mujahadeen verse, several extra questioners raised their hands.

The book’s cover is semi-psychedelic, and the speakers’ central argument – that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are less inter-connected than often believed – was cleverly illustrated, too.

The Taliban, Kuehn and Strick van Linschoten said, projecting a photo of the dilapidated White Mosque in Kandahar where founder Mullah Omar taught during the late 1980s, was an insular group. The product of a city with then just two newspapers and one radio station, these relatively young followers of the hierarchical, literalist Hanafi tradition had ‘a very limited concept of the wider world’ and a ‘very nationalist outlook, even to this day’.

Al-Qaeda founding members, by contrast, tended to be older and much better educated. Engineers, architects, doctors, they saw themselves involved in a pan-Arab, pan-Islamist globalist struggle. This was depicted by a network of lines criss-crossing a world map (above), slightly reminiscent of the infamous McChrystal Afghanistan slide. ‘Fairly confusing,’ Kuehn conceded, to laughter.

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