Ahmed Rashid is best-selling author of several books about Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, most recently ‘Pakistan on the Brink’.
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Ahmed Rashid is best-selling author of several books about Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, most recently ‘Pakistan on the Brink’.
China’s periphery is in revolt, from Hong Kong in the east to Xinjiang and Tibet in the west and south. Although this is not a co-ordinated revolutionary movement, it is the greatest challenge the Chinese Communist party has faced since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
Today the crisis for China is that its periphery is creeping into the debate about democracy, greater autonomy and the political future of the country for the first time, even as the millions in its cities appear to be satisfied by capitalist consumer gains and uninterested in greater democracy.
The sentencing of Chinese scholar Ilham Tohti to life imprisonment is a heinous injustice and incompatible with the rule of law on which China prides itself. Tohti, one of the best known Uighur scholars in the country, has spent a lifetime trying to build bridges between the alienated Muslim Uighur minority and the Han Chinese in order to end an escalating cycle of violence between the two communities.
In one of the harshest punishments meted out to a non-violent dissident, the court also ordered the confiscation of all of Tohti’s possessions, leaving his wife and two children with no visible means of support.
The US administration is trying to convince its populace and the world that it is successfully forging a new alliance in the Middle East in order to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis). What Americans tend to forget so easily, however, is that the US is distrusted, disliked and even hated by all the regimes it is dealing with and even more so by millions in the Arab street.
Nobody has forgotten America’s failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, its abandonment of the region after the failures of the Arab uprisings and the millions of refugees and homeless those failed wars have spawned. Arab leaders and their regimes cultivate long memories as much as they do conspiracy theories.
Severe political crises in Pakistan and Afghanistan, both mired in wrangling over recent election results, have obscured the fact that these two neighbours’ finances are rotten. Both are on the verge of economic meltdown but the billions needed in international bailouts are unlikely to be forthcoming until their respective political elites stop fighting among themselves and start to act more responsibly.
In Pakistan, opposition politician Imran Khan’s blockade of Islamabad for more than two weeks, and his demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government, have backfired. His opponents have been able to mobilise many sectors to condemn him: business people, lawyers, journalists and aid workers. Meanwhile, groups from across the political spectrum have organised counter protests. After extensive talks between Mr Khan and the government, a minister announced on Thursday that the government had agreed to five of his six demands but drew the line at Mr Sharif’s resignation. The stand-off continues.
What is it about political leaders installed by America in third world countries? It seems they never want to leave office. It started in Vietnam in the 1960s, where the CIA ruthlessly removed Vietnamese leaders who at first were useful to the US occupation, but refused to step down when they were not.
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan was a darling of Washington after the attacks of September 11 2001. Now he is a hate figure in the US capital, alleged to have allowed rigged elections that have plunged the country into an ethnic crisis that pitches Pashtuns against Tajiks.
Barack Obama’s decision to bomb the forces of Isis – in order to blunt the danger of a genocidal mass killing of tens of thousands of Christians and Yazidis seeking shelter in the mountains of northern Iraq without food and water – reflects a much-needed change of policy, but could be too little too late.
Never before in modern Islamic history has a group such as Isis so mercilessly set out to not only undo long-standing frontiers in Iraq and Syria, but also to carry out mass killings of Muslims and non-Muslims (Isis do not consider Shia as Muslims and has been executing them at will).
The most strident debate among western intelligence agencies is whether the reported thousands of foreign fighters involved in fighting in Syria and Iraq, which include 3,000 Europeans and Americans, are going to return home and bomb their own countries.
A more important question may be whether the war launched by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, and other militant groups is primarily a Sunni extremist campaign against Shias – in other words, a war internal to the Muslim world. In this case, the key players who need to be restrained are not those fighting, but their sponsors Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia in particular has a wider responsibility in the Islamic world to act as a bridge between the sects rather than fuel Sunni extremism.
For the first time since 2009. a major offensive against Islamic militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas has been launched with close coordination between the military and the elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The military campaign in North Waziristan, one of the tribal regions where Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and a whole host of foreign jihadis have lived for years, started two weeks ago with a bombing campaign.
This week saw the start of a ground offensive, with troops going house to house in the regional capital of Miranshah. Some 30,000 members of Pakistan’s military have been based in and around the city for years, but they never interfered with the activities of the militants who controlled at least half the town.
Isis has gone further than al-Qaeda in its aim to wipe out Shia. Whatever atrocities it commits will reverberate widely across the Islamic world, where sectarian tensions are already high. Certainly nothing could be worse than the destruction of the holy sites in Karbala and Najaf, a move that could be comparably worse than Genghis Khan’s destruction of Arab cities in the 13th century.
This looming catastrophe calls for a united response from the Muslim world but it is nowhere in sight. Iran, the leading Shia state, and Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni state, where the Prophet Mohammed is buried, should immediately put aside their squabbles and address the crisis.
The horrifying suicide attack on Karachi airport by Pakistani Taliban will place the government on a direct collision course with both militants and the military – unless it is prepared to change its weak-kneed response to terrorism.
On Sunday night militants blasted their way into the cargo terminal of Pakistan‘s largest airport and fought a five-hour gun battle with security forces, setting alight the terminal and damaging aircraft. At least 29 people were killed, including 10 terrorists. The attack was later claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, which has begun a nationwide offensive against the government. On the same day a Sunni extremist group allied to the Taliban massacred 23 Shia civilians on a bus in Baluchistan province.
For a country of 200m, with a modern economy, an elected democratic government, nuclear weapons and one of the largest armies in the world, today’s defining image of Pakistan is that of the principal global incubator of polio – a disease that disables children and was on the verge of being wiped out before Pakistan’s lack of governance got in the way.
The World Health Organisation’s declaration of a global emergency, and its stipulation that all Pakistanis travelling abroad after June 1 must show they have been vaccinated against polio is considered by many a disgrace to the nation.
However it is tiny Kyrgyzstan – landlocked between the mighty powers of Russia and China, and surrounded by unstable neighbours such as Afghanistan and Uzbekistan – that is feeling the heat most. America’s military bases, and its enlarged diplomatic presence in the region will be wound up this year, along with its presence in Afghanistan.
At the behest of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan has made a strategic shift from its so far neutral position on Syria’s civil war – to one that portends to back the Syrian rebels and even provide them with arms through Riyadh.
The shift will have serious regional consequences as it has already deeply antagonised Iran, which supports the Syrian regime, and angered Pakistan’s large Shia community which could prompt further sectarian conflict. It is also bad news for Afghanistan, where Pakistan-Iran rivalry may restart once US troops leave that country.
An intense debate has broken out among western law enforcement officials, intelligence agencies and academics about who or what today constitutes al-Qaeda. It is an important debate because AQ – the network and the ideology – remains a potent force and still one of the greatest threats to global stability.
The US intelligence chief James Clapper said last month that 7,000 foreign fighters have joined AQ affiliates and other groups in Syria to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime. AQ now officially recognises branches of its network in seven new regions in Africa and the Middle East, while major European cities have become AQ recruiting centres for disaffected Muslim youth.
Just when Pakistanis, foreign diplomats and the world were bracing themselves for a “let’s get serious” speech in which finally — finally — after months of dithering and delay Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would announce an offensive against the murderous Pakistani Taliban, he stunned everyone by offering the insurgent group another period of grace for talks.
The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan this year is almost as worrying to the country’s neighbours as to the Afghans themselves. The five central Asian states – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan – fear an upsurge in Islamic terrorism, increased flows of heroin and a flood of refugees. The US-led intervention, which aimed to uproot al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, may instead have scattered the seeds of jihadism over a wider field.
In private, Russian officials express nervousness about the withdrawal. But Moscow is also using the political vacuum as an opportunity to reassert itself in a region that it has always considered its backyard. The Kremlin has promised tiny Kyrgyzstan $1.1bn in military aid and debt relief worth a further $500m. In return, Bishkek has agreed to shut down a US air base in the country. In Tajikistan, parliament voted in October to allow Russia to station 6,000 troops inside the country for another 30 years.
There has been widespread repression of Uighur and Islamic sentiments in the Western Chinese province of Xinjiang. The latest Chinese measure, according to the Reuters news agency, is a November announcement that Uighur college students will not graduate unless their political view are approved by the authorities, who admit that they are in “a life-and-death struggle” for people’s minds.
This is all incredibly similar to the brutal tactics that Stalin used in the 1930s in central Asia to try to crush people’s belief in Islam and prevent them performing traditional Muslim rites. Stalin clamped down hard on all religious practices and rites such as public prayers and fasting. Mosques were few and far between and the state-trained Ullema were considered by the public to be government stooges. Islam and its rituals went underground where they continued to flourish.
The setting was as bizarre as it was stunningly beautiful – a luxurious seven star resort and spa built on the edge of the Empty Quarter – one of the largest deserts in the world where sand dunes are as high as mountains, falconry is a reactionary sport, dune buggies whizz you around the three-mile-long estate and the seafood is fresh from Gulf waters just two hours away.
Polio has returned to the Middle East in a devastating form as a result of war, terrorism, a collapse of services and a refugee crisis right across the region. Moreover, the strain that is already infecting Syrian children has probably arisen from Pakistan, which is witnessing the same symptoms of war and refugees.
At least 10 children have tested positive for polio in Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zour province with another 12 suffering from paralysis symptoms, according to the World Health Organisation, which fears a major regional outbreak of the disease is already under way due to the collapse of health services, not just in Syria but also in neighbouring Iraq and even parts of Lebanon and Jordan where local health facilities are overwhelmed by refugees.
When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meets President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday, their meeting will be critical for the future course of US-Pakistan relations. One issue at the top of the agenda – alongside the future of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s own much-weakened state and attacks by terrorist groups – will be the country’s nuclear weapons programme. Pakistan’s rapid development of battlefield nuclear weapons raises many questions in the region and abroad.
Pakistanis are sitting on a volcano. Unless the country’s principal stakeholders – the army, the politicians and the mullahs – get their act together and declare zero tolerance for violent militant behaviour, Pakistan will lose its war against extremism and terrorism.
Over 200 people were killed last week in terrorist attacks that included the killing of an army general, 85 Christian worshippers in Peshawar, housewives in Karachi. On Sunday a massive car bomb killed 40 people in Peshawar– the third terrorist attack in the city in a week.
There will be many catastrophic outcomes to the present political chaos in Egypt, but the one that every Muslim dreads which will have the worst consequences for the wider Arab and Islamic world will be the increasing spread of sectarianism and intolerance that will now flourish out of the Arab world’s most important state and Islam’s bastion of thought, learning and tolerance for centuries.
Even as the Muslim Brotherhood and the army continue to battle it out in Cairo’s streets, Egypt’s vulnerable Coptic Christians are getting the blame – for siding with the military or the US, or for just being different. Ten per cent of Egypt’s 85m people are Christian and they have seen dozens of their churches and other symbols burnt down over the past two years.
Is it a coincidence or an effective new strategy that a spate of astonishing prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan carried out by al-Qaeda has coincided with the movement’s leader promising to free its members worldwide – including those held in Guantánamo Bay?
Ayman al-Zawahiri, based in the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands, has been designated leader of al-Qaeda since the killing of his mentor Osama bin Laden in 2011. In his first audio recording for many months – posted on the internet at the end of July – he slammed US treatment of hunger striking inmates in Guantánamo and swore to free them all: We pledge to God that we will spare no effort to free all our prisoners … very oppressed Muslim everywhere.”
On becoming prime minister of a troubled Pakistan earlier last month, Nawaz Sharif and his cabinet spent 90 per cent of the first few weeks discussing how to turn around the plunging economy and the 18 hours a day of no electricity that has shut down industry and agriculture.
His first change of track as he realised the depth of the crisis was from defiantly rejecting all help from the International Monetary Fund to accepting a $5.3bn bail-out from the organisation and possibly $4bn more from other institutions such as the World Bank.
In December 2011, at a major conference in Bonn attended by ninety foreign ministers, the Taliban were on the verge of accepting US conditions that would allow them to open a political office in Doha. The Americans had held four rounds of direct secret talks with the Taliban that had started in November 2010 thanks to mediation mainly by German diplomats and Qatar.
However, at the last minute, Afghan President Hamid Karzai balked and refused to agree to the terms for opening the Taliban office, citing that he had not been adequately consulted by the US or Germans – which was untrue.
It has taken nearly two years for all the players to get back to where they were at Bonn that cold December and once again try and open a Taliban office in Doha. Yet the latest attempts to do so were shambolic – for which everyone, including the Americans, shares part of the blame.
President Barack Obama’s speech last week on counterterrorism may have proposed the end of one open-ended war for the US but it also signalled the start of a new war – albeit more restrictive and contained. The use of drones in the first got out of hand, but there is no guarantee yet that they will not do so in the new one.
The fallacy and danger of the use of drones is not that they kill terrorists covertly. It is a good thing, after all, that they have decimated al-Qaeda. It is that, rather than being just one tactic in a wider US counterterrorism strategy, drones have become the strategy itself.
Even by the country’s dismal standards of rigged elections, military dictatorships and incompetent civilian governments, the polarisation, murder and mayhem on the streets is unprecedented. Coupled with the gross opportunism of all political leaders in ignoring issues on which the nation’s survival depends, this is causing immense international and public concern. The future after the elections will continue to look bleak unless the politicians can agree to work together on these crucial issues.
The US and Nato are more earnestly than ever trying to speed up peace talks between them, the Afghan and Pakistani governments and the Taliban. But they will falter again, just as they have done in the past until the US is prepared to make a radical break with the past format of negotiations and understand the importance of mediation.
But what we have seen in the on and off talks between the US and the Taliban is essentially that Washington acts as both the most powerful party in the conflict and as a mediator. The result has been that Kabul, Islamabad, the Taliban and others have put demands on the table which they expect the US to reply to as the lead party, but they also expect America to mediate each others’ demands so that both sides can reach a compromise and move forward.
Two upcoming elections will be critical for the future stability of south and central Asia and for the continuing success in the struggle to defeat Islamic extremism.
The first are the parliamentary elections in Pakistan scheduled for next spring to elect a new government. In the next few weeks President Asif Ali Zardari and the opposition have to agree to a neutral caretaker government that would be in place for three months and would be responsible for holding the elections.
Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US are already working closely together through meetings of what are called the core group. However now Pakistan and Afghanistan want to see a much clearer American indication of where the talks should lead before they offer any more concessions to the Taliban. The key question in everyone’s mind in the region is whether in his second term President Barack Obama will get serious about promoting a political settlement in Afghanistan.
Pakistan and Afghanistan look on the spectacular landslide re-election of Barack Obama for a second term as US president with some trepidation. Pakistan has just come out of a nine-month breakdown of all talks with the US, the worst state the two countries relationship has been in for 60 years. Pakistan thinks the US under Mr Obama has no strategy, while the US thinks Pakistan lies as it continues to harbour extremists. Mr Obama has frequently called Pakistan his biggest headache but he has been unable to come up with a satisfying painkiller.
Recent BBC polling in 21 countries showed that the majority of voters in all but one want Obama to win the Presidential election. Pakistan was that exception. Yet Mitt Romney has few fans either. Instead anti-Americanism is rampant and nobody in Pakistan really cares who wins the US election because for many people both candidates will continue to bash their country.
At the tail end of the first Obama administration, Pakistan has shifted from strategic ally of the US to pariah state and Syrians are fighting the bloodiest war ever in the Middle East against the foulest of dictators with no support. The Arab Spring has, by and large, succeeded in slowly changing the attitudes of societies that had lived under one man rule for so long. But there has been no coherent US response. The only consolation for the Muslim world as we look back on Barack Obama’s term in office is that a Republican win would be a much greater disaster for everyone.
President Hamid Karzai’s expected cabinet reshuffle signals a growing confrontation with Pakistan after the appointment of a hardline confidante as head of Afghan intelligence. Through a variety of Taliban proxies, Pakistan and Afghanistan have been involved in intense skirmishing on their border.
The startling change is the appointment of Asadullah Khalid as head of the powerful National Directorate of Security. As a fiercely anti-Taliban former governor, Mr Khalid faced several assassination attempts from the radical Islamist movement. He always blamed the attempts on Pakistan’s military Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Mr Khalid and the ISI hate each other with a vengeance.
After years of denial that militancy posed a threat to Pakistan and blaming outsiders such as India, the US and Israel for backing terrorist groups in the country, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani has admitted that “the fight against extremism and terrorism is our own war and we are right in fighting it”. His positive words will now require more actions.
What happens next? In these dire circumstances a confrontation between the courts and the government over whether Mr Gilani should resign or not, in which ultimately the courts call upon the army to intervene on their behalf could easily lead to the country’s fifth martial law. Mr Zardari may be trying to avoid that by calling upon his party to show calm and quickly nominating a new Prime Minister from the PPP, who will easily get sworn in by Parliament because the PPP and its political allies hold the majority.
In an army of 150,000 US and Nato soldiers in Afghanistan one rogue solider who massacres sixteen civilians, including nine children, does not necessarily mean that discipline and morale of the whole force is breaking down. However, when the spate of recent incidents are put together – US soldiers burning copies of the Koran, footage apparently showing US Marines urinating on bodies of dead Taliban fighters and a spate of accidental killings of civilians during US attacks on the Taliban – the situation looks far more grim. There can be no doubt that the western presence in Afghanistan faces a grave crisis of confidence across the Muslim world and in their home countries.
The Afghan people are exhausted by a war that has gone on in one form or other since 1979, when most American soldiers now in Afghanistan were not even born. Increasing numbers of Afghans would agree with what the Taliban have been arguing for almost a decade: that the western presence in Afghanistan is prolonging the war, causing misery and bloodshed.
After the spate of incidents this year, there should be no doubt in Washington that seeking a negotiated settlement to end the war with the Taliban as quickly as possible is the only way out. Mr Obama has to put his weight behind this strategy to ensure an orderly withdrawal and to give the Afghan people the chance of an end to this war. A power sharing formula with the Taliban, which now appears increasingly unavoidable, and an accord with neighbouring states, to limit their interference, will be key.
The Taliban’s public declaration that they will hold talks with the US after eleven years of war is a major break through for the political process. It is also vital for Afghanistan’s internal stability and the relative peace that America and Nato will need if they are to leave the country in good order and without too much bloodshed in 2014. But all the major players have a great deal to do before the pieces can be put together.
The clandestine talks brokered by Germany, fostered by Qatar, and starting with direct meetings between US officials and Taliban representatives, will hopefully conclude with a reconciliation with the Afghan government. The Taliban’s insistence that they will only talk with the Americans will probably be watered down, while president Hamid Karzai’s contradictory statements mean that he is feeling insecure but not averse to the talks. They will go ahead because there is no other alternative to ending the war.
Pakistan’s deepening political crisis has escalated dramatically, with the Supreme Court initiating contempt proceedings against Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. The judgement could lead to the dismissal of Mr Gilani and eventually President Asif Ali Zardari, as the army appears to be giving full backing to the courts.
Since the 1950s every political crisis Pakistan has faced has been a result of civilians trying to wrest power and control from the military. This crisis is no different except for one important aspect – the military has no intention of seizing power. Instead it has allied with the Supreme Court in an attempt to get rid of a government that is widely perceived to be corrupt and irresponsible.
But in an era when hope of democracy is spreading through the Arab Muslim world and powerful armies in countries such as Thailand and Turkey have learnt to live under civilian control, Pakistan is an ongoing tragedy. Its military refuses to give up its huge stake in the economy and its privileges, while its politicians refuse to govern wisely or honestly and decline to carry out basic economic reforms such as taxing themselves.
The military cannot afford a coup now, nor do they need one. Once the courts order the expected dismissal of Mr Gilani and perhaps Mr Zardari, the army and opposition politicians can mount relentless pressure on the two leaders to accept the court’s verdicts and resign. What would follow would be an interim government followed by general elections within three months. That may not be such a bad thing but the tragedy is that nothing is in place to prevent such a crisis occurring again and again.
The collapse of relations between the US and Pakistan, and between Pakistan and Afghanistan, will threaten both the western withdrawal from Afghanistan and the stability of the region in 2012.
The possibilities are endless: a serious UK-Pakistani clash; further attacks by both the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network; the assassination of top leaders. The first casualty of escalating violence will be the peace talks between the Americans and the Afghans.
The US elections will further widen the divide between the US and Pakistan and, if the US begins withdrawing troops from Afghanistan early, it could set off a stampede among Nato members that will further demoralise the Afghan government. Afghanistan faces difficult days in 2012.
The daring night-time raid on one of one Kabul’s best-known hotels by Afghan militants on Tuesday, underlines once again how much depends on the secret talks with the Taliban . However the recent leaks by government officials in Washington, Kabul and London, are extremely dangerous and could scuttle the talks just as they enter a critical phase.
At stake is not just peace for Afghanistan, but the entire region including a deeply precarious Pakistan. The talks are premised on the essential realisation that neither a successful western withdrawal from Afghanistan nor a transition to Afghan forces can take place. In an attempt to avoid further speculation, I am laying out the bare facts of the talks as western officials have described them to me.
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