It's officially jailbreak season. In a little over a week, inmates in Iraq, Libya, and now Pakistan have escaped from what were supposed to be secure prisons (the phenomenon has even reached Arkansas). Just this morning, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a statement promising to "spare no effort to free all our prisoners" held at Guantánamo Bay.
While jihadists have orchestrated several jailbreaks in the past year, the Washington Institute of Near East Policy's Aaron Zelin tells FP in an email, what's different now "is the scale and sophistication of these jail breaks and how it could affect the organizations and countries where they occurred." Of the recent string of prison breaks, he says, the one in Iraq is likely the most daunting. On Twitter, James Skylar Gerrond, an Air Force veteran who served at the Camp Bucca detention facility in Iraq from 2006 to 2007, described the jailbreak in Iraq as his "recurring nightmare for about 8 months." The escape "essentially erases all of the gains the United States made during the Sahwa [the "Sunni Awakening"] and Surge," Zelin writes, and will bolster the ranks of jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria.
Speaking on a 16th birthday that she nearly didn't live to see, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani education rights advocate targeted by the Taliban, called on an assembly at the United Nations on Friday to invest in educational opportunities for children around the globe and particularly for girls in the developing world.
She described her ordeal matter-of-factly, saying, "On the 9th of October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends too. They thought that the bullets would silence us. But they failed."
And she pushed back against her assailants' worldview. The Taliban thinks "that God is a tiny, little conservative being who would send girls to the hell just because of going to school," she observed. "The terrorists are misusing the name of Islam and Pashtun society for their own personal benefits. Pakistan is peace-loving democratic country. Pashtuns want education for their daughters and sons. And Islam is a religion of peace, humanity, and brotherhood. Islam says that it is not only each child's right to get education, rather it is their duty and responsibility."
But while the Taliban may have failed in its efforts to silence critics like Malala, Pakistan has made little headway in increasing access to education and halting violence against children in recent years. The most recent U.N. data, tracked by the Guardian, show that gender parity at all levels of education in Pakistan has plateaued, with 82 girls to every 100 boys in primary school and 73 girls to every 100 boys in secondary school -- and this does not include the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), where the Taliban has exerted the most influence.
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As the Obama administration considers what the residual U.S. force in Afghanistan will look like after its planned drawdown in 2014, the general consensus has been that some troops -- particularly special forces for counterterrorism missions -- will be staying behind. But amid a new spate of disagreements between U.S. officials and Afghan President Hamid Karzai following his withdrawal from tentative peace talks with the Taliban last month, the New York Times reported this morning that the Obama administration is increasingly considering the "zero option" -- a complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year.
Since a particularly contentious meeting with Karzai on June 27, the Times reports, "the idea of a complete military exit similar to the American military pullout from Iraq has gone from being considered the worst-case scenario -- and a useful negotiating tool with Mr. Karzai -- to an alternative under serious consideration in Washington and Kabul."
Or, then again, it could be a bluff. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that Washington has stared down its nominal ally in Kabul, or the other way around (despite Obama's insistence that he doesn't bluff). Just last year, Karzai told reporters that the United States was playing a "double game" and threatened to find a new weapons supplier, name-dropping India, China, or Russia.
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In his inaugural remarks as prime minister on Wednesday, Nawaz Sharif called for an end to U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. "The chapter of daily drone attacks should stop," he told the Pakistani parliament. "We respect sovereignty of other countries but others should also respect our sovereignty."
Sound familiar? It's hardly the first time Pakistan has called for an end to U.S. drone strikes:
It's worth noting that these quick snippets from news stories only scratch the surface when it comes to the convoluted politics of U.S.-Pakistani security relations. For example, despite the public outrage, some Pakistani officials were still quietly green-lighting U.S. drone operations in February 2009, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein publicly noted that some of the strikes were being launched from bases in Pakistan.
Pakistani political opposition to U.S. drone strikes grew as the number of strikes increased -- though the first strike took place way back in 2004, there were no more than a few strikes each year until 2008, when there were 37. That number grew to 122 in 2010 but has been declining since. Still, the decreasing number of strikes hasn't extinguished Pakistani opposition, and calls for an end to U.S. drone strikes were a rallying cry for populist candidates in Pakistan's recent election.
It's unclear if the country's new prime minister will make much headway on this front, or if he'll even try. The New York Times suggested that Sharif's comments today may be more political doublespeak, noting that "Mr. Sharif's rhetoric may have been driven by political considerations, with some suggesting that he may be more pragmatic toward the United States once I office." But Sharif has also positioned himself as a counterweight to the Pakistani military establishment -- which forced him from office when he was prime minister in the 1990s -- and might challenge the cadre of generals who have been more permissive of U.S. strikes than elected officials. Today's announcement, though? It's nothing new.
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You can't even blame this one on Murdoch (we think). The Taliban denied today reports that its leader, Mullah Omar, had died. Spokesmen for the group said their mobile phones, email accounts, and a website they operated had been hacked into, and false messages were sent to media outlets.
Text messages sent from phone numbers belonging to Taliban spokespeople said, "Spiritual Leader Mullah Mohammad Omar Mujahid has died" and "May Allah bless his soul."
The Taliban in recent years has expanded its media presence with websites, mobile phone ring tones and social media accounts. The group updates its websites frequently and sends messages to media outlets in several languages publicizing their attacks, according to Reuters.
"This is the work of American intelligence, and we will take revenge on the telephone network providers," a Taliban spokesman told Reuters.
A statement said that the "technical workers of the Islamic Emirate's Information and Cultural Commission" were looking into the matter. Yes, apparently the Taliban has an IT department.
The group also said there would be an investigation into the hacking. Hopefully, they will do a better job than Scotland Yard.
The case of Bibi Aisha, the young girl who graced the cover of TIME Magazine after her nose and ears were cut off, has been dropped. The only arrested suspect, Aisha's father-in-law, was released in Afghanistan, according to government officials. Aisha has been living in the United States for the past two years following her dramatic recovery, so there is no one available to press charges against Haji Suleiman. The provincial attorney, Ghulam Farouq, maintained that the suspect was innocent since he did not actually cut the young girl. But Suleiman is far from innocent -- he was accused of holding a gun to 18-year-old Aisha while several other men mutilated and left her for dead. He then marched around the village with the young girl's nose in hand. Aisha's father, Mohammedzai, relayed his anger, saying:
"We don't know who released him. We don't know at all. It's either government weakness or our weakness. We don't have money to pay the government and we don't have someone in the government to support us."
Aisha won the hearts of readers around the world with her horrifying tale of survival. She was a servant, a child bride fleeing the brutal abuse of her in-laws who would make her sleep with the animals as if she was an animal herself.
Aisha's father feared what the Taliban would do if Aisha spoke out. But she ignored his advice to keep quiet:
"My father told me not to tell anyone the full truth, that I was given away, that I went to jail for two or three months, not to tell anyone anything. But I will tell them all these things because I am not such a person to lie. I will tell them because I think my story must be told."
Aisha quickly became the face of the Afghan woman's plight -- the United Nations estimates nearly 90 percent of women in Afghanistan suffer from domestic abuse. The haunting photograph of beautiful, but disfigured Aisha draped in a purple scarf, won the 2010 World Press Photo of the Year.
Her attackers may never be brought to justice, but Aisha continues to recover. She is currently studying English in New York City.
Nisa Yeh via Flickr Creative Commons
Makers of the video game Medal of Honor announced today that they were removing the option of being a Taliban soldier in online multiplayer. Electronic Arts had come under fire for the insensitivity of creating a virtual world in which gamers could act as virtual Taliban and shoot virtual U.S. troops.
Of course, EA isn't actually removing the option of playing as Taliban, they've merely renamed them to "Opposing Force." Wow, a game set in Afghanistan, an opposing force -- hey, EA's letting you play as al Qaeda, too!
It also should be noted that gamers have long had options of playing as terrorists long before Medal of Honor came around. The issue was ignored because ultimately there were a lot more pressing problems.
Amid last week's carnage in Lahore and Quetta, Pakistan is saying they've cleared Orakzai Agency of militants. They said the same thing barely three months ago (see here for more on June's "victory"). On Friday, militants blew up a girls school in Swat, seven months after announcing the district was "mostly clear", and a year after the army announced it had swept the district clean of Taliban.
Perhaps it's time to invent a term for the amount of time between a Pakistani declaration of victory over the Taliban in a district/province/city, etc., and when the Taliban reappear in the "cleaned" area. How about a "Kayani Unit"?
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U.S.-Pakistani relations tend to be defined by a certain set of core issues, which include the ISI's double-dealing with the CIA, the 2005 Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement, and Pakistani nuclear security. While these issues are undoubtedly important, sometimes it's refreshing to see something new crop up, if only for variety's sake.
This is just what happened at Reagan National Airport on Sunday, Feb. 7, when a delegation of Pakistani legislators visiting Washington to meet with senior administration officials refused to submit to a full body X-ray scan. As a result, the legislators, who had already concluded their business in Washington and were attempting to fly to New Orleans, were prohibited from boarding the airplane. Insulted, the legislators promptly left on the next flight for Pakistan, leaving behind a public relations nightmare for the State Department, which had assisted the American Embassy in Islamabad with organizing the trip.
While the fallout from this episode is certain to be short-lived, the anecdote nevertheless serves as a nice illustration of the challenge the United States faces in trying to balance its national security interests with its need to improve relations with the Pakistani government.
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In order to return to doing something, you needed to have been doing it before.
That was the point made in the media scrum after the Pentagon reported last spring that 14 percent of released Guantanamo detainees went "back to the battlefield." Numerous commentators -- including Peter Bergen at the New America Foundation -- noted that there was little evidence that the released detainees were ever really terrorists at all. For instance, Andy Worthington estimates that 93 percent never had anything to do with al Qaeda. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, picked up on the battlefield or sold into U.S. detention by warlords.
So, I was incredulous when yesterday Bloomberg News reported that the Pentagon said 20 percent of released Guantanamo detainees had "returned" to the fight -- offering no raw data about that jarring statistic.
What it really means: The number is simply not reliable, and the term "recidivism" is not useful. If someone were legitimately a terrorist they should never be let go. For the United States to release even a single real terrorist is a terrifically frightening possibilty -- more frightening than the idea a radical might return to radicalism after a spell in prison. And if the released detainees weren't terrorists before and became terrorists once released -- that's something very, very different indeed.
If you are like most people who heard Afghan President Hamid Karzai's re-inauguration speech, you are wondering about a few choice words:
Here I would like to invite all presidential candidates, especially my brother Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and my brother Dr. Ashraf Ghani, who is present here, to make joint efforts for fulfilling serious national duties and for a united, proud and developed Afghanistan."
Wait, is he making overtures to the opposition? Would Abdullah and Ghani go for it?
Well, for Ghani's part at least, the answers seems a near-certain no. Speaking as part of a joint FP and Oxfam America event today by Skype at the Newseum, Dr. Ghani responded to queries about Karzai's mention.
What does it mean? That Karzai is interested in having "my name," said Ghani, but "not my ideas." He went on to say that he had "strict conditions" for entering the government, and was "not inclined" to join "unless those conditions are met."
So, looks like the powering-sharing option is still out. But alas, that should come as no surprise.
The Pakistani military reported that they entered and largely cleared the "Taliban headquarters" in South Waziristan today. The reported success is part of a large-scale offensive in the region, which is a stronghold of Tehrik-i-Taliban, an umbrella organization of Pakistani Taliban factions drawn together under the leadership of (the recently-killed) Baitullah Mehsud. The "headquarters" referred to is the town of Makeen, which had been Mehsud's hometown.
How important is it to clear Taliban headquarters, whether in Waziristan or Balochistan? In an interview with FP, Sameer Lalwani, a research fellow at the New America Foundation, argues the answer largely depends on what comes next:
[Makeen] might have been the center of TTP [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan] organization, but I suspect that at some level, ‘headquarters' doesn't mean as much to an insurgency that's able to melt away and reappear down the road at different locations and continue operations... it certainly disrupts the organization of the group. [But] it's a very fluid network, they have alliances with other neighboring tribes, they're able to parlay their way, probably, for a safe haven within Afghanistan, or in the mountains, for a period of time.
So, it really depends on what the follow-up operations are.... I think this is one of the biggest demonstrations of Pakistani commitment, in their ground invasion of South Waziristan, and the most targeted, and probably one of the stronger efforts we've seen in recent years, but I'd still be apprehensive to say this is a categorical success, even [having] secured a few militant strongholds and, I guess, the center of operations, because the real question becomes ‘how long can they hold it?'"
The Taliban certainly isn't handing the territory off. Responding to Pakistan's recent military successes, a Taliban spokesman said simply, "We are prepared for a long war."
Photo: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images
We're two installments into New York Times writer David Rohde's five-part epic on the seven months he spent as a hostage of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I can't recommend it enough to anyone interested in the country. Here's one fascinating excerpt, from the first part:
Over those months, I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of "Al Qaeda lite," a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.
Living side by side with the Haqqanis' followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.
Rohde's revelations about his kidnappers themselves are even more interesting. The Times reporter, his driver, and his translator were on their way to interview a Taliban leader, Abu Tayyeb, when their car was hijacked. They were taken hostage by one Atiqullah, who said he had never heard of Abu Tayyeb. A few weeks into his detention, Rohde finds:
In conversations when our guards left the room, Tahir and Asad each separately whispered to me that Atiqullah was, in fact, Abu Tayyeb. They had known since the day we were kidnapped, they said, but dared not tell me. They asked me to stay silent as well. Abu Tayyeb had vowed to behead them if they revealed his true identity. Abu Tayyeb had invited us to an interview, betrayed us and then pretended that he was a commander named Atiqullah. I was despondent and left with only one certainty: We had no savior among the Taliban.
It's gripping, cinematic stuff -- and all the better knowing there's at least something of a happy ending. (Though Rohde is getting raked over the coals in his New York Times Q&A.)
With detail like this, the articles show the Taliban in all its diversity. Rohde notes that many members of the Taliban are far more religious and radical than they were 8 years ago. But the movement has fragmented and atomized. Rohde notes that his captors were in essence common thieves, not ideological warriors, driven by and even obsessed with money.
That's why initiatives to bribe and negotiate with Taliban leaders, paying them in exchange for security, seem so attractive to me. The sums of money wouldn't need to be great -- there's not much to buy in Afghanistan anyway. Plus, there are only around 10,000 members of the Taliban remaining in Afghanistan, only 3,000 of whom are full-time militants. (Note, for a sense of scale there: Afghanistan is a good-sized country with a population of 33 million.) And the strategy has worked well elsewhere.
In a talk given this afternoon at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, retired Gen. John Abizaid outlined his view of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. He argued that it is foolish to approach issues on a country-by-country basis, complaining that "we look at Iraq through a soda straw. We look at Afghanistan through a soda straw." Instead, says Abizaid, the United States must develop a regional strategy that accounts for the roles of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
For the same reason, he suggested, the debate over whether or not to send more troops to Afghanistan has been over-simplified; the discussion should be broadened to include the relative demands of Iraq, Afghanistan and the region at large.
Abizaid also emphasized the ideological nature of the conflict, and the need for soft power to address the root causes of radicalism. He noted that Baitullah Mehsud, the top Taliban leader, is referred to as "the commander of the faithful."
"While we may chuckle at that title," Abizaid said, "the people fighting for him do not." When asked whether there should be a shift to a counter-terrorism approach in Afghanistan that relies more upon targeted strikes than nation-building, Abizaid responded that such a plan is impractical. Stabilization in Afghanistan and Iraq is a precondition for effective counter terrorist operations, he argued, because it provides the infrastructure needed to develop the "superb, superb intelligence" needed.
The theme of the talk was that instability anywhere in the region is a serious threat to surrounding countries. With our "ground forces spread thin" and "our 24-7 forces totally engaged," the United States must more fully incorporate diplomatic, political and economic plans to get a handle on the region. A number of questions were directed to the resources required for such a broad regional approach, and towards the end of the talk, the retired general was asked if the situation would be better in Afghanistan had the United States not invaded Iraq.
"All's I know is that we did what we did, and we are where we are," he answered.
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