July 30, 2008

Inside a living hell

Hindu, July 20, 2008


It’s been a week since the blast and yet I have been unable to delete the names of Brig. Mehta and Venkat from my phone. A strange and illogical reluctance as if removing the names would cut the last chord of the relationship. For the third per son I knew, much longer than the two diplomats, their driver Niamat, I had no contact number. But even knowing he was dead, I looked for his ready smile and Salaam when I walked into the embassy. In five years of living in Afghanistan I have witnessed much violence and seen its sure and steady escalation, but never has it invaded my personal space with the immediacy that it did on July 7.
The result was a mixture of horror, followed by relief and immense guilt. Horror at the death of three persons I knew, followed by relief for the persons who were still alive and then a crushing sense of guilt. Guilt both because of the relief and guilt at the fact that this was the first time in witnessing all this violence that I had been so shaken, imagining this is what it must be like for Afghans every day — only so much worse. The virulent attack reinforced both how close the violence was and yet, how insulated I, as a foreigner, was from it.
Increasing violence
Each year since the parliamentary elections of 2005, Afghanistan has seen a spiralling toll of human lives. Initially, the resurgent Taliban burst out once again in the southern provinces, where they had their stronghold, engaging the international forces in conventional warfare. The escalated fighting was explained away by the military forces who said they were going into “new” areas, an admission that the initial operations against the Taliban in 2001 had a very limited mandate. Operation Enduring Freedom under U.S. command and control was narrowly restricted to the task of dealing with the “enemies” of the U.S., the Al Qaeda and their Taliban supporters. Not only did this rule out the deployment of troops for area stabilisation, or putting in place peace keeping soldiers, it also meant rearming and empowering the former war lords and commanders, some of them with records of public depredations much worse than the Taliban. The price for both tactics was the security of the Afghan citizen, which worsened as a result.
Since then, much of the focus of the conflict — whether the war on terror or the war against insurgency — has been on the security of the Afghan State but not the citizen. This has allowed the international military forces to portray the Taliban’s use of terror tactics — explosions, bombing and suicide attacks — as a positive curve in the war, since it apparently shows the desperation of the insurgents.
Soon after the Kandahar jail was attacked by the Taliban last month, and its inmates, including hundreds of Taliban fighters released, the top Canadian general Richard Hillier described it as a “small splash in the pond”, since he assessed that the incident had not made the Canadian soldiers insecure.
Ignoring civilian safety
The focus on the safety of the State and the international military forces protecting it has not just neglected citizens but also had high costs for civilian safety. It has allowed for prioritising force protection to the extent that civilian casualties that result from this are viewed with greater tolerance. “Escalation of force” just translates to allowing international military forces to fire on unarmed civilians approaching them, should they fear a threat. Until now the “escalation of force” has not killed any insurgent or suicide bombers. It has, however, killed many Afghans who did not perhaps understand the commands of the international forces, delivered in a foreign language, to keep a safe distance. It has also allowed the extensive use of air strikes in support of ground troops. A day before the attack on the Indian embassy, civilians were killed in an air strike by U.S.-led Coalition Forces on a wedding party in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar. An investigation by the Afghan parliament put the death toll of civilians at 47, including the bride, one more than the death toll of Monday. Two days earlier, 22 civilians including women and children had been killed in a U.S. Coalition air strike on Nuristan.
According to U.N. figures for 2007, out of a total of 1,500 civilians killed, 700 civilians were killed by anti-government forces, 629 by pro-government forces while the deaths of the remaining could not be attributed.
Though the international forces always dispute the numbers of civilian killings as well as dispute that those killed were civilians, the problems related to aerial strikes were further underlined this week when nine British soldiers were wounded in “friendly fire” after they called for air support. The British army termed it a confusing situation and the wounded were rushed to medical aid. Is the admission of confusion leading to wrong targeting made when it is Afghans who are mistakenly hit? Or is there an attempt to insist that those hit were the enemy, given the greater difficulty of distinguishing ordinary Afghans from the Taliban fighters?
Terror tactics
Also increasing the number of civilian casualties is the escalating use of suicide bombings in crowded places causing maximum civilian casualties. The day before the country condoled those killed in the embassy bombing in a ceremony in the Indian ambassador’s house on July 13, 24 persons were killed in a suicide bomb attack in Uruzgan province. According to the ICRC statement of July 9, 250 civilians were either killed or injured in incidents since July 4, a period of four days.
Anti-government terrorism or fighting between the militaries are not the only causes of insecurity. The difficulty of establishing the rule of law has meant an increasing lawlessness that jeopardises citizens. Kabul, for example, is awash with guns. So much so that some public places, like restaurants, are forced to put up signs asking for guns to be deposited outside, much the way cloaks, umbrellas and other paraphernalia are, in other countries. The guns are owned not just by the State security apparatus but by private security companies and individuals. All major international institutions and organisations rely on private security companies, many of whom hire demobilised gunmen — the soldiers of private militia — training and arming them to a high degree. The law on private security companies which came into existence remains nebulous. The extent of the duties of these companies is not clear or their right to the use of lethal force. As it is, they force private citizens and their vehicles off the roads using the threat of guns, block streets and behave brutishly with ordinary Afghans, their untrammelled authority only reigned in by better armed gunmen more loutish than they. The U.N. uses them as do international forces for the protection of their own military camps and for intelligence gathering which could, on occasion, include interrogation and torture. Answerable only to their employers, the gunmen function with rampant audacity and impunity, the difference in their behaviour determined only by the professionalism of their client. Some rare organisations insist on no public display of arms while others are happy to have their security companies behave as brutishly as they wish since they can deny having direct control on their behaviour.
International companies justify the use of these hired guns, pointing to the complete lack of professionalism of the Afghan police. Though considerable effort has gone into building up the Afghan National Army (ANA), there has been scant attention to the police until recently. This, despite the fact that they are often the citizen’s first brush with governance.
Ill-paid, ill-trained and tasked with performing duties well beyond their capacity, the police are often seen as little more than thugs in uniform who are rampantly corrupt. Citizens in trouble try their best to resolve disputes, fearing they will have to pay a higher price if the police is involved.
The police on the other hand, have, as an institution, paid the single largest price, losing more men than the army and being targeted by anti-government insurgents, criminals and drug barons as the first line of defence and a soft target. Unlike the ANA which is largely deployed in secure military posts with the support and backing of the international forces, often following rather than leading the assaults, the police are deployed in insecure locations and have inadequate protection and equipment. Despite the well established linkages between crime, the narcotics trade and insurgency, it is the police who are tasked with anti-narcotics operations with virtually no support.
Violent face of the State
To many, the police unfortunately also represent the violent face of the State along with the judicial system. With rule of law extremely weak, it is customs, often violent, which underpin the functioning of the justice system, often penalising the victims or dealing out summary justice to criminals.
Women who run away from home are considered to have violated the customs of the country and put behind bars, including rape victims forced into so-called marriages from the age of as little as seven years. Torture in detention is now a well-recorded phenomenon in the jails and detention centres of the Afghan judicial and intelligence system.
Current levels of alienation with the government and pro-government elements is at its highest since 2001. To reverse this, the State will have to substantially prove its bona fides as a source of security rather than a source of violence whether this comes through “collateral damage” or the violence meted out through the institutions of governance.

Uncoordinated operation
I lost a brother, a son, a daughter and a nephew, all living in one family. Foreign troops raided our house some two months ago at midnight. They thought we were terrorists. But everybody knows I am with the government as a police officer but still fell victim to the pro-government troops. They have not coordinated the operation with the governor and local police.
Alif Din, 53, police officer with the border police in Khost,
Muqbil Wam village.
Confusing times
I was travelling from Kandahar to Kabul when the Taliban stopped the bus I was travelling in. The Taliban took me on their motorbikes to a mountainous area and we spent three nights in villages that I did not know.
They asked me if I was working with foreigners and I said I was just a local radio worker and that I am a good Muslim. I have grown a long beard and sympathise with the Taliban. They were suspicious until I assured them that I wouldn’t work with foreigners.
I was harassed. I saw (felt) my death in my own eyes. I was expecting them to behead me soon. I forgot everything in the world. I was just doing my best to know what they wanted from me and to know how to satisfy them. Death will come one day, but this kind of death by knife on my throat or shooting was the worst I could expect.
I feel that my own country and people are on the verge of death. Nobody is to be blamed. We kill ourselves. We don’t know who is our friend and who is the enemy.
Abdul Hadi Patmal, 29, from Kandahar city, working with radio Kilid, a
private radio, in Kandahar. He was kidnapped on July 12 by Taliban from the
Kabul-Kandahar highway.
Assault on dignity
I was detained for two months by the American troops. They raided our house last year. We have nothing to do with the Taliban, but the Americans said I was a Taliban fighter. The problem was that my father is an influential local tribal elder and somebody has misinformed the Americans about us. I was caught in an early morning raid on my home. My father, brothers and the children were beaten, insulted and threatened by the U.S. forces. I cannot forget the feeling for revenge when they were insulting my noble family that dark early morning.
I was taken to an unknown place, probably a local U.S. base in Ghazni, for interrogation. In the two months I languished there, I was asked why I was fighting with the Taliban and whether I knew the Taliban leaders in the area. I was deprived of sleep. I was tortured on the way and in custody. Later, when they found out I did not know any Taliban member and could not give them any information, they freed me.
That detention has made me change my mind about my life in my country. Living in my own land as a high-status family, we are still being attacked by foreign invaders. They are threatening our security and our dignity.
Mujeeb-ur-Rahman, 27, Ghazni province, Andar district, Khani Qala resident.
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July 25, 2008

Populaire en lastige procureur, presidentskandidaat

Door Aunohita Mojumdar

Kabul, 19 juli. @Met zijn lange witte baard en witte haar viel de Afghaanse procureur-generaal Abdul Jabar Sabit altijd al op. In de twee jaar dat hij de post bekleedde verwierf hij de naam van een individualist. Voor sommigen is hij een Don Quichotachtige corruptiebestrijder die bestuurders en politici heeft laten vervolgen, voor anderen een egoïst die zijn positie gebruikte om degenen aan te pakken met wie hij in aanvaring kwam. Weer anderen zien hem als een nul, die om binnen- en buitenlandse politieke redenen was aangesteld. Deze week ontsloeg president Hamid Karzai hem, nadat Sabit had bekendgemaakt dat hij zich kandidaat stelt voor de presidentsverkiezingen van volgend jaar. Volgens Karzai kan de procureur nu niet meer neutraal zijn werk doen.

Toen Sabit aan de baan begon, kondigde hij een harde campagne tegen corruptie aan. Dat maakte hem mateloos populair. Veel Afghanen vinden dat zij onvoldoende profiteren van de miljarden dollars die buitenlandse donoren in het land pompen. Een recente peiling van de Asia Foundation toont aan dat 74 procent van de Afghanen corruptie een probleem vindt, en dat ruim de helft denkt dat het toeneemt.

Enige tijd leek Sabit overal te zijn: hij liet een districtshoofd en een politiechef in Bamiyan arresteren, drie ambtenaren bij het ministerie voor Stedelijke Ontwikkeling ontslaan, en gelastte de arrestatie van een directeur van het ministerie van Binnenlandse Zaken. Hij stond bovendien aan het hoofd van de commissie tegen immoraliteit, en vervolgde persoonlijk de eigenaren van restaurants die alcohol verkochten en pensions die dienst deden als bordelen.

Veel van Sabits hellevuur was incidenteel en willekeurig, wat het bredere probleem van het Afghaanse bestuur weergeeft dat individuen boven instituties stelt. Lagere bestuurders kwamen onder zijn aandacht, maar corrupte bestuurders op hoger niveau waren ondanks veel dreigementen nooit echt een doelwit.

Soms overtrad Sabit zelf de wet, bijvoorbeeld toen hij ontevreden was over een nieuwsbericht op het invloedrijke televisiestation Tolo TV. Hij liet gewapende mannen een inval doen, wat leidde tot een slepend conflict met de zender. Hij weigerde voor het parlement te verschijnen, maar liet wel hoge functionarissen voor verhoor verschijnen als hem dat uitkwam.

Sabit bleek bruikbaar voor onprettige karweitjes, zoals het ontslag van Karzais chefstaf, de krijgsheer Dostum. Die had duidelijk de wet overtreden door de ontvoering van een vroegere collega, maar Karzai hield zichzelf buiten schot door het ontslag aan Sabit over te laten. Mede door zijn vloeiende Engels kon hij als mascotte worden ingezet bij de internationale gemeenschap, die steeds harder riep om beter bestuur.

Volgens Ahmed Idrees Rahmani, directeur van het Center for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul, heeft Sabit „geen enkele poging gedaan om een einde te maken aan corruptie op het hoogste niveau, terwijl die de Talibaan in de gelegenheid stelt om te profiteren van de strijd tussen stammen over lucratieve deals." Sabit, zegt hij, „was niet aangesteld om corruptie echt te bestrijden, maar vooral om Hezb-i-Islami gunstig te stemmen."

Outpost attack in Afghanistan shows major boost in militant strength

By Aunohita Mojumdar | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
from the July 15, 2008 edition

Reporter Aunohita Mojumdar discusses what may be behind the greater sophistication of recent attacks by insurgents in Afghanistan.

Kabul, Afghanistan - A deadly attack on a remote NATO outpost in the eastern province of Kunar is being viewed as a serious escalation in the fighting between the insurgents and the international forces stationed in Afghanistan – and a possible shift in the insurgents' tactical capability. The high casualties sustained by international forces in recent attacks have also increased the prospects that international troops could launch cross-border strikes into Pakistan with increasing frequency.

In contrast to their traditional hit-and-run tactics and reliance on use of explosives, bombs, and suicide attacks, militants directly engaged soldiers at the outpost, in the village of Wanat, in a style that had not been seen for more than a year. A wave of insurgents attacked the outpost from multiple sides and some were able to get inside, killing nine US troops and wounding 15. The attack was the worst for US troops since June 2005, when 16 Americans were killed after their helicopter was shot down.

"The attack on Sunday was a carefully planned one, with upward of 200 insurgents, to give it weight of force," Capt. Michael Finney, acting spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, said in an interview. Captain Finney said the attack was ultimately repelled with on-the-ground fighting as well as air power.

Superior planning

But the battle, analysts say, exhibited the capacity of the insurgents, beginning early in the morning and continuing throughout the day with militants firing machine guns, rocket -propelled grenades, and mortars.

Haroun Mir, the deputy director for Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies, said the attack's superior planning was clear evidence of the presence of Al Qaeda troops in the area. Recent incidents have pointed to an increased capability of the insurgents, marked first by a major jailbreak in Kandahar in June and the influx of Taliban fighters into Kandahar Province in the south.

Analysts have also noted activity of the insurgent group Hezb-i Islami and the Taliban in Nuristan Province, which neighbors Kunar Province.

Mr. Mir said that "the recent attacks show that the Al Qaeda is involved in the planning and execution of the attacks. Until now the Taliban have been avoiding direct confrontation and after 2006 they were using IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and bombs. Now for the first time they are engaging directly. Once the bodies of the insurgents are recovered from the area I am sure Pakistani and Arab fighters will be found among them."

Mir argues that the sudden shift of tactics and the apparent rapid enhancement in the sophistication of the attacks by insurgents point to an external capability. The attack on Benazir Bhutto and the Serena Hotel in Kabul were indicative of better planning and coordination that could not have come from the Taliban alone, he argues.

"They are traditional fighters," he says. "Not thinkers. Recent attacks have also revealed the involvement of police and this is not the Taliban style at all."

Recent reports have indicated increased activity of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the bordering regions of Pakistan. Last week saw the death of a top commander of Al Qaeda in Khost Province in southern Afghanistan. Abu al Hassan al Saeedi was reportedly a Yemeni leader who was killed in fighting with American forces, according to the local news agency Pajhwok. Killed alongside him was Umer Haqqani, son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, considered one of the top militant leaders in Afghanistan.

Reports emanating from Pakistan also note the emergence of the involvement of Al Qaeda. Regional expert Kathy Gannon reported from Pakistan on Sunday that a conclave of militant and terrorist groups, held in Rawalpindi in June, had agreed to focus on Afghanistan.

The conclave included groups with a history of fighting in Kashmir against the Indian government such as Hezb ul Mujahideen, Jaish-e Muhammed, and Lashkar-i Tayyaba, the last two with links to Al Qaeda. Rawalpindi is where the Pakistani Army is headquartered.

Pakistan's involvement in fueling terror tactics across the border, or at the very least tolerating the use of its territory for the launch of these tactics, is increasing tensions between the international community and the Pakistan government.

"This is our biggest achievement: We have finally convinced the international community of the real role of Pakistan, especially its military and intelligence agency," an Afghan government spokesman said on condition of anonymity. International military forces stationed in Afghanistan on the Pakistan border have increasingly resorted to retaliatory strikes across the border.

Strong rhetoric by Afghanistan

The strong rhetoric of President Hamid Karzai last month regarding his right to hot pursuit as well as the unannounced visit to Islamabad by US Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen are being viewed as evidence that there will be more cross-border actions by international forces into Pakistani territory.

The increasing fears of cross-border strikes prompted Pakistan's new prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gillani, to remark that no country would be allowed to launch strikes in Pakistan.

Diplomatic sources here suggest that while the issue of cross-border pursuit could be a gray area in international law, Afghanistan's use of "the right to self-defense" would be used as a justification should the necessity of entering Pakistani territory become a reality.

Shock And Awe

Outlook magazine/ July 12

Aunohita Mojumdar

The last security advisory from the Indian embassy in Kabul came on May 29, following an attack on an international military convoy. It was signed by defence attache Brigadier R.D. Mehta—it's the sort of mundane fact that gathers the force of irony in retrospect. The embassy routinely despatches such advisories after every major incident of violence, cautioning Indians on safety issues. What was not routine was the gap that followed the May 29 note. A diplomat based in Kabul for years told this correspondent, "It's been too quiet. It was about time for another incident."

That anticipated attack occurred on July 7, exploding with a ferocity that hadn't been seen even in Kabul earlier.

Blaming Pakistan discounts the depth of public alienation with the government and absolves it of all responsibility.

A suicide bomber with explosives packed in his vehicle rammed into an Indian diplomatic car carrying none other than the defence attache, Brig Mehta, along with political counsellor Venkateswara Rao, just as they were to enter the embassy compound. The impact of the explosion was such

that those in the vicinity either got incinerated or were thrown great distances and the ground was left cratered. Only a headcount enabled the embassy initially to narrow down the identity of the probable victims. Besides the brigadier, Rao and their driver, two itbp guards and 41 Afghans were killed and 141 wounded.

Suicide bombings, explosions, firefights and kidnappings are frequent occurrences even in Kabul. Though the bulk of the fighting between the insurgents and pro-government forces (including the international military) is confined to southern Afghanistan, the escalating conflict has spread instability countrywide. In fact, 2007 was the most violent year in terms of casualties and the first six months of 2008 (excluding the deaths in the last fortnight) have already seen the death of 698 civilians. Insecurity has restricted international agencies and NGOs from delivering humanitarian and development aid, particularly to those areas in dire need of help. Apart from anti-government insurgents, the climate of violence and the government's limited capacity to provide security have allowed criminals to operate with impunity.

The Afghan government was quick to analyse the Monday bombing as the work of a "regional intelligence agency", stopping short of publicly naming Pakistan or the isi only because of the difficulties of obtaining conclusive proof. The Taliban, who usually own up to their spectacular strikes, disclaimed any responsibility, lending credence to this claim. The president's spokesperson, Humayun Hamidzada, said the "specifications" of the attack, including the "materials" and the "timing", made it clear that it was the work of a "particular intelligence agency which has conducted such attacks in Afghanistan in the past". He said the name of the agency was obvious. A senior Afghan government official said intelligence intercepts hinting at an attack on the Indian embassy, which was passed on to the embassy earlier, corroborated the charges.

Yet Afghanistan's propensity to blame Pakistan for all violence must be taken into consideration in any evaluation of the origins of the Monday attack. Blaming Pakistan helps discount the depth of public alienation with the government and implicitly absolves it of all responsibility. Refusing to "speculate" on the identity of the perpetrators of the July 7 attack, Indian ambassador to Afghanistan Jayant Prasad however said, "The statements of the Afghan leadership should be taken at face value."

The Indian response to the attack has not been to hunker down and barricade itself, as is the case with most foreign missions and international agencies working here, but to pick up the pieces and move forward. Prasad told this correspondent, "This will not deter us from our commitment to the social and economic development of this country".He also pointed out that the Indian engagement here has been different from that of other missions, with a much greater public interface with locals that carried with it a certain risk.

Officials apart, other Indians too have extensive interaction locally. The cultural similarities and exceptional warmth towards India ensures that many Indians here find their national identity is to their advantage, as has Saurabh Naithani. He said, "Personally, I don't feel threatened but frustrated that after all the security advisories and plans, they seem to have the power to strike at will." Naithani, who has been in this country for over two years, working most recently with the Afghan government, is critical of the local security which places emphasis on "a physical show of force and is reactive rather than proactive".

The embassy, he feels, was targeted not so much because it was Indian but because it has become high-profile on account of India emerging as the sixth largest bilateral donor. Indian aid to Afghanistan currently stands at $844 million (committed). Agrees Mudasser Hussain Siddiqui, a senior staffer of ActionAid Afghanistan, "India is becoming a big visible player and the embassy provided a soft target." Mudasser, who has lived here for over three years, feels no more threatened than before. "I still see a lot of respect and affection from the people of Afghanistan. In fact, most people who condoled the loss were disbelieving. They asked: 'How could this happen to India?'"