Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Pakistan | Tags: Afghanistan, Afghanistan troop surge, counter insurgency, drones, Pakistan, peace, Pukhtoon
The President Obama – General McCrystal surge in Afghanistan is now in full motion. Last week US Marines, NATO, and Afghan forces attacked in Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan to set the stage for negotiations. The Pentagon and the White House hope that the show of force will create the conditions for the their eventual departure. Taliban resistance includes multiple improvised explosive devices (IEDs), also known as homemade roadside bombs, the weapons of choice for insurgencies today, and widely scattered landmines to inhibit foreign and Afghan government forces. By chasing down the Taliban and holding territory the US hope is that the occupying forces from abroad will weaken regional Taliban commanders and thereby force negotiations that can lead to normalization over the coming 18 months.
The multi-year strategy, the surge, attack, negotiate, withdrawal (probably with residual forces left behind) was outlined by President Obama at his West Point speech in December. This is a familiar strategy for nations when they see that a foreign occupation has become expensive, unwinnable and unpopular. Something like this was contemplated for Afghanistan by the Soviets 20 years ago, and 40 years ago by the US in Viet Nam. Both were intended to cover the negative consequences of a withdrawal where success was not achieved. In both cases the hoped for solution backfired and the imperial armies were pushed out by circumstances at home. A similar strategy is now proceeding in Iraq but we won’t know the real outcome for several years.
The process of winding down the Afghan war by means of a surge will be lubricated with generous financial incentives rumoured to be as much as 1.5 billion dollars, available for use by US commanders as encouragement to create the path for realignment. Despite Afghan President Karzai’s tenuous mandate to rule, the negotiations and leaky reconciliation effort will plod forward under his leadership. The Taliban movement is a loosely coordinated effort that does not function under unified command. Last year some Taliban leaders participated in an early attempt at conversations in Saudi Arabia. Most Taliban leaders, however, have sworn loyalty to Mullah Omar who is the closest to a human symbol of a unifying figure.
In the background veteran State Department diplomat, Richard Holbrooke who pushed through the Dayton accords precursor to the Bosnia surge, monitors progress, and provides stimulation for all the parties, Pakistan, India, Central Asia, the U N security council, NATO and other big powers. Holbrooke has estimated that 70% of the Taliban fight for local reasons or money and can be won over.
The Afghan Taliban leadership which is Pakhtoon will be weaned from their need for safe havens in Pakistan where two-thirds of the ethnic Pakhtoon population lives. American, Canadian and other officials hope that incentives like money and positions in Karzai’s Afghan government will bring Taliban commanders and their followers into Kabul’s orbit. There is plenty of precedent for incorporating Taliban-like warlords into Kabul’s government. In 2001 when the Taliban government, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan fell, the US supported forces were led by the Northern Alliance one of several warlord groups that had been beaten back earlier by the Taliban. Karzai’s government has consistently included warlord leaders who still command militias from non Pakhtoon, sectors of Afghanistan. Though the non Pakhtoon peoples make up only slightly more than half of Afghanistan’s population, the Taliban now has shadow governors in thirty-three of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces. However their real strength remains in the Southern provinces populated by Pakhtoon people.
In a November 2009 press release for the festival of Eid which celebrates the end of Ramadan Mullah Omar hinted at flexibility while urging fighters on with a jihad that will lead to peace. The “negotiations” last year between the Afghan government (by implications the US and NATO) and the Taliban may or may not have started to move things toward a longer term negotiating process. Renunciation of Al-Qaeda is probably Washington’s one non-negotiable demand despite the fact that U. S strategists believe Al-Qaeda’s strategic importance still centred in Pakistan is much diminished. The principal demand of the Taliban is that foreign forces must announce a timetable to leave Afghanistan. President Obama hinted at a 18-month timetable in his West Point address.
In December 2009 President Karzai called for a Laya Jirga to which the Taliban would be invited as a way to bring the insurgency to an end. A Laya Jirga or grand council in the Pakhtoon tradition has been used among the tribes to settle disputes going back to ancient times and is rooted in Pashtunwali, the code of ethics of the Pakhtoon people. Karzai is said to have insisted that Mullah Omar be invited to participate. The response of the international community, the language used by Karzai to refer to the Americans, was caution. In addition to demanding assurances that the Afghan Taliban have revoke any relationship with Al-Queda the international community urged that Karzai demand that the Taliban accept the Afghan constitution. This points to the debate about the role of Sharia law in a future Afghanistan. Karzai has also called for an end night raids and that all prisoners be turned over to the Afghan government. He has continued his criticisms of the use of bombing raids by international forces that lead to massive death for civilians. In Helmand province, the site of the current U. S. and allied offensive up to ten civilians were killed in a Hellfire missile attack by a drone last week.
Even if the outlines of this precarious plan are successfully stitched together, it holds little promise of ending the work of the dragon, 9/11, whose fangs ignited this era of international terror, revenge and invasion. The end game leaves Afghanistan desperately poor and probably alone when the international community heads home as it will. The U. S. will finally have to attend to paying the sky-rocketing debt for its military adventures.
Surge, attack, negotiations have a ring of familiarity. Not all of us are confident that it will bring peace. What if the Taliban refuses to abandon their covenant with Al-Qaeda? What if Pakistan decides that an Afghanistan of warlords including Taliban warlords no longer tethered to Pakistan is too dangerous because India, its primary adversary, may exploit the situation?
What if the momentum of distrust and corruption can’t be stopped and the scaffolding for negotiations never develops? What if the better angels in Afghan culture and village life cannot be called forth to rescue everyone from the 30 year habits of violence? What if the external forces often called stakeholders, Pakistan, India, Iran, China, the neighbours to the North of Afghanistan, and the big powers including the US, NATO and Russia, all with interests in Afghanistan will not agree? What if violence, anarchy and warlords resurface with a vengeance as they did when the Soviets departed in the early 1990s? Will Afghanistan be turned back again to the warlords to compete for the spoils and grind the people down even more?
Stay tuned to this blog site as we explore some other approaches to Afghanistan and the region.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Detainees, Immagination, Pakistan, Peacemaker spirit | Tags: Afghanistan, digital war, drones, Las Vegas, Pakistan, robotic warfare
The invitation to a gathering of reflection on peacemaking in Las Vegas came several months ago. I was honoured to join the group for a day because the question of how to respond to America’s current wars, its plans for dominance in space and the unfolding movement of robotic warfare challenges all of us, young and old, to think in fresh ways. My time in Vegas would be completed with another adventure in contemplation in the desert sands where Creech Air Force Base trains pilots for robotic warfare.
The collapse of world wide finance and my lack of confidence in the big players may be creating a greater space for imagination. When I complained to one participant, Vincent Harding, that I still have little confidence in what to do he gave me a little pastoral advice from an African proverb. “How do you eat an elephant,” he asked. “One bite at a time.” I left Las Vegas where the demons of irrational luck seem to be in control determined to free up the mirage of powerlessness in my mind.
I am done with letting the big players and gaming machines control the culture. I know more than I have acted upon. Economics is also a matter of spirit. My mind’s deep freeze has kept me from the light within and the possibility of light in my opponents, the people who manage the remaining collapse of a world that takes care of the people who are “too big to fail”. Truth happens in experiments. It is backed by courage and preparedness for the teachable moments. My time in Las Vegas was one of the moments when I was taught.
My wake up call to finance capital was completed in the biggest detention center of Las Vegas. But first I had to go to Creech Air Force Base 45 miles northwest in the desert. I wanted to meet a commander at Creech to discuss the work of Predator I and II, the drones that I heard so much about from Pakistani people when I visited that Muslim country in June. I joined a group of seven. But, as we began to walk along the commercial entry way to Creech AFB we were detained by Clark County police behind a large movable cement barricade. We were placed in the care of military police with heavy belts who pointed their big black guns at us. It gave me a little extended time to think about the finances that pay the bill for Creech.
As we waited in front of the guns to be transported to Clark County Detention Center, two blocks from the Golden Nugget, one of Las Vegas oldest sanctuaries of luck, my colleagues asked me to redeem the time by giving a full voiced report on my recent trip to Pakistan for the benefit of my fellow detainees and our guard – caretakers. With apologies to my friends back in Pakistan for the absence of tea service I was able to represent truthfully some of what I learned about their fears of being the objects of Predator drones and their hopes for an unfolding of justice with peace in South Asia.
By midnight six hours after the pilgrimage into Creech began, I had been fingerprinted several times, questioned repeatedly, tested for TB, had my blood pressure checked, asked if I had recently tried to commit suicide, and I repeatedly spelled and corrected my last name for the vast criminal bureaucracy of the Las Vegas region. Somewhere along the way I was relieved of my shoes, socks, watch, ID, money, and everything but my pants and shirt. Later in the night I was pushed into a 10 foot by 20 foot holding cell where 18 other people were already making some kind of peace or silently plotting revenge at police who had shouted or insulted them on their road to detention.
The sounds of the cell included broad sustained snores, other body noises and loud television, a cacophony that reminded each of us non sleepers that we had reached a peculiar moment of truth. By approximately four am a gruel like slop arrived for breakfast. Most of us could not face the Wonder Bread and whatever else there was. Nausea teased our stomach muscles. The guards had thoughtfully placed a large plastic bag in the middle of the floor and told us to put any left over food that we couldn’t eat or would not stay down into it. “If you make a ‘blankety blank’ mess,” screamed the guard. “You can plan to be in the holding area for two more weeks.”
By the time of my release the second and third “gruelling” meals had come and gone. As those hours passed, I got to know my cell mates. Several had been picked up for the high crime of jay walking evidently a matter of major concern in the city of mostly bad luck. Others were picked up for traffic violations. Everyone except me had some other kind of outstanding legal problem. For several men, simple records had never been updated.
My loss of shoes and socks became a matter of considerable concern since the temperature in the holding area of lucky town is just south of a cool fall day near the solar ice cap. While the street people slept through the fog like another day on the tracks, the rest of us shared our stories.
One man, a high roller was tracked for outstanding debts of $125,000 at two casinos when he was stopped on a traffic violation. A couple calls and he zipped up his $700 dollar shoes and was off to another race. He told me he once won $600,000 in two hours but admitted his career on the strip had lost his family a lot more than he had won. I managed to get a modest applause, enough to wake up the permanent sleepers when I told them I was in for “disturbing the war” at Creech AFB.
Actually I think I got lucky in Vegas because I was introduced to at least two angels in waiting. I haven’t had a chance to talk to them very much yet. You see angels always come to me in unkempt and upsetting ways. First, the angel of unearned and unconscious powerlessness showed up in the gathering to do peace visioning. I will be talking to that angel. The second appeared in both the shouts of the Clark County Sheriff’s officers and in the up close and personal discussions with other detained people. My cell mates were curious about Afghanistan and Pakistan but they also reminded me to watch out for bully behaviour wherever it shows up, in Afghanistan, in Las Vegas police uniforms, on the back streets of Vegas or on Wall Street. I will be having more conversations with this angel too. The light and dark of the desert has gotten me revved up again. I guess that is what a reflection session and retreat is supposed to do. Thanks!
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan | Tags: drones, Pakistan, peace, Pukhtoon, Taliban
A Pakhtoon representative for international aid groups travelled for two days by foot and bus from the his tribal area in South Waziristan, to meet with us in the Rawalpindi, the partner city of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. A kindly but firm man in his early thirties, he described his work. There was no edge in his voice as he outlined the lives of Taliban in the villages he knew best. People in his communities all know the Taliban because family members are Taliban, he told our five person delegation from Voices for Creative Nonviolence, visiting Pakistan in May and June of this year.
Our new friend’s voice rose with fear when he spoke of drones, his word for the remotely piloted US Predator I or II aircraft that occasionally are observed in the skies above tribal villages where he is at home. “Even the children have learned not to play in groups at the slightest sighting of a drone. They whisper that a Hellfire missile may target them.” For sixty years villages in his Pakhtoon tribal area have not experienced significant government presence from Islamabad. This policy is a continuation of British colonialism’s rule reaching back another100 years.
In May the Pakistan army entered the Swat Valley, the lush Swiss like mountainous home to more than two million Pukhtoon people. The army’s announced goal was to push out the Taliban who had consolidated their power and were beginning to extend their influence even further towards Islamabad. A banker I met who had fled the Swat valley with more than a million other people when the Pakistan military arrived was animated about the Taliban. “We must be rid of them.” he said, “I don’t care if they are chased out by the Indian Army or American drones. I want them out dead or alive.” The banker, an ethnic Pukhtoon, warned me not to listen to the attitudes of the poorer classes because they didn’t understand the real situation.
The Internally Displaced People (IDPs or refugees) from Swat Valley and other Pukhtoon tribal areas were tentative in speaking their minds. They may have been cautious about our peace delegation or worried about other Pakistanis listening in to our conversations. We were alarmed by their stories of a harrowing flight in the wake of Pakistani army commands. “We were ordered by Pakistani army people to leave immediately. We fled with nothing but the work clothes on our back,” said one farmer. Another refugee told of a neighbor women who asked her husband to grab her new baby sleeping in a blanket. Only after they had fled for some distance did the family discover that there was no baby inside the blanket. The husband had grabbed the wrong blanket. The family was prohibited from returning to find the child. Stories abound of parents separated from their children, spouses and other extended family members. Some IDPs have begun to return to the Swat Valley.
More than anything the displaced people are confused. For two years they have watched Pakistani military units stand by as Taliban forces took over local police detachments and asserted control over schools and the local judiciary, and rolled back women’s opportunity in society. Some told of assassinations, particularly beheadings. A Pakistani photo journalist we met has been in hiding because she fears government reprisals since her pictures of the persecution of women in Swat Valley gained world wide attention earlier this year. Others described grass roots sympathy for the Taliban religious teachings. These teachings are disseminated by daily radio broadcasts. We were told by different people that the real enemy was Central Asian peoples with the Taliban, America, China, the Pakistan military, the Taliban, India, even Israel.
For the Pukhtoon people “Talib” means student. Taliban (students) are young boys who come from poor families and attend Madrasas, Islamic schools sometimes called seminaries. A Pukhtoon leader from Peshawar told me that a poor family has three choices for their children, “send them to government schools if they exist and let them remain hungry, stay out of school altogether and remain hungry, or attend a Madrasa where they memorize the Koran and eat decent meals”. Thousands have chosen the foreign financed Madrasas since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan 30 years ago. Many of those young students are now grown Taliban fighters in places like the Swat Valley and Afghanistan. The Taliban movement was a project of the military intelligence services of Pakistan. It began with generous support from US military and intelligence agencies.
The Taliban is not the only Pakistani movement pushing for stricter Islamic law. For example, the much older Jamaat-e-Islami has been hard at work expanding its support among Punjabi and Sindhi peoples where it has exercised significant influence in University student movements and led relief efforts for IDPs. “We want you to stop giving money to the Pakistani military now.” said one representative of the JI, “because your money makes our society more violent and it supports the Taliban.”
Other people representing a more secular thread of Pakistan are worried that the Taliban and militant Muslims of other stripes are gaining. “You actually have militants in the nuclear program,” a nuclear physicist told us. “The Taliban drift is a major problem. This will be a drag on us for at least a decade.” As the Taliban have taken their war of truck bombs and road side explosives from Pukhtoon country on Pakistan’s western border and Afghanistan into the majority population centers including Lahore and Karachi the mood in much of Pakistan has turned dramatically against the Taliban – so much so that the Pakistan military must get serious about confronting its erstwhile “asset”. The Pakistan military intelligence developed the Taliban in the early 1980s to provide security on its western border while its main units of the army faced India on the eastern Punjabi plains and Kashmir.
The cultural distance between Pakistan’s great urban centers and the remote villages that support the Taliban is enormous. Even sending the military into some of the tribal regions not under direct government rule like North or South Waziristan may be akin to sending out former Wall Street finance wizards to Iowa to run a tiny organic farm. A Human Rights worker told us, “The Taliban did deliver law and order where the government failed. Pakistan authority had not entered some tribal areas for 60 years and finally when it is entering those areas it is with a gun.”
Although Pukhtoon tribal society encourages revenge, elements of traditional modes of reconciliation survive in the village jirga (councils of elders). “If you go to the elders in civilian clothes they will welcome you with an honour and protection reserved only for guests.” The pattern of an eye for an eye, the ideology of all sides, can be broken with sincere words backed up by actions over time. I believe this is the partly the work of Richard Holbrook, the special US negotiator for Pakistan and Afghanistan. If he searches he will find Pakistanis in all parts of Pakistan anxious to be partners and give leadership. Such a movement needs support from inside and outside the Obama administration to overcome the residue of revenge that still survives from 9/11.
The ideology of a primitive reconstruction of law and religious order that is the record of the Taliban frightens Pakistanis and some Americans. For us in the US, Christian reconstructionism and Dominion theology reminds us that our faith can be hijacked too. By engaging with the hard face of Christian theology more deliberately we can at least become familiar with how “Talibanization” is not just a phenomena of western Pakistan.
Pakistan is gifted with a layer of South Asian wisdom that views the Taliban and all the world beyond the simplistic and confining categories of good and bad, light and dark. I was the recipient of some of that insight during my recent visit. Some of these voices will probably be silenced and imprisoned in the coming months as has been the pattern in Pakistan over the last 60 years but their influence will endure. Our delegation found discussions of peace and nonviolence welcomed by various religious and ethnic camps. There is a depth of conviction and hints of hope within Pakistan. Hopefully those in power will listen before the violence brings down another Pakistani government and perhaps its long time unreliable patron, the United States.
Our work on this side is to find ways to lift the veil of secrecy. This situation is complex but complexity should never deter us from working through the fog towards the cultural nodes that hold out promise for reconciliation. The US embassy is scheduled for a 736 million dollar face-lift in Islamabad with Marine guards, and civilian-military contractors. It will be protected by advanced digitized security gimmicks. A quirky Iraq-like US green zone in another Muslim country may in fact constrict the space so needed for experiments in peacemaking. Most of all Pakistan needs room to sort out its own priorities and determine how Muslim convictions in the context of the rainbow of Pakistani cultures can energize it into the future.