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Archives for April 2009

Memo From Islamabad Pakistan Rehearses Its Two-Step on Airstrikes


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – With two senior American officials at his side, the Pakistani foreign minister unleashed a strong rebuke last week, saying that American drone strikes against militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas were eroding trust between the allies.

The Americans, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, and the special envoy, Richard C. Holbrooke, defended their strategy for Pakistan. Later, Mr. Holbrooke dismissed the salvo by the foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, saying it was to be expected.

Diplomatic Partners From left, Adm. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs chairman; Richard C. Holbrooke, special envoy; Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Pakistan last week.

Diplomatic Partners From left, Adm. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs chairman; Richard C. Holbrooke, special envoy; Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Pakistan last week.

In fact, both sides have grown accustomed to an unusual diplomatic dance around the drones. For all their public protests, behind the scenes, Pakistani officials may countenance the drones more than Mr. Qureshi’s reprimand would suggest, Pakistan and American analysts and officials say.

Why else would Pakistani military officials be requesting that the United States give them the drones to operate, asked Prof. Riffat Hussain, of the defense studies department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

His answer is that senior Pakistani officials consider the drones one of their only effective tools against the militants. Moreover, using the drones takes pressure off the Pakistani Army, which has proved reluctant to fight the militants, or incapable of doing so, in the rugged mountains along the Afghan border.

“If the government of Pakistan was not convinced of the efficacy of the drone attacks, why would they be asking for the technology?” asked Professor Hussain, who also lectures at the National Defense University, the main scholarly institution for the military.

Most of the aircraft, about the size of a Cessna, take off with Pakistani assent from a base inside Pakistan, American and Pakistani officials acknowledge. A small group of Pakistani intelligence operatives assigned to the tribal areas help choose targets, while the drones, armed with Hellfire missiles, are remotely piloted from the United States, they said.

Permission for the aircraft to strike in the tribal areas was negotiated by the Bush administration with the former president, Pervez Musharraf, and then with the current leader, Asif Ali Zardari. The Obama administration has renewed those understandings, American and Pakistani officials say.

The cooperation has been successful. Nine out of 20 senior operatives from Al Qaeda on a list compiled last year have been killed, according to American military commanders, a fact the Pakistanis do not dispute.

But as effective as the attacks have proved, the Pakistanis’ discomfort with the drones is real. The larger issue surrounding the drone strikes is the trade-off between decapitating the militant hierarchy and the risk of further destabilizing Pakistan – by undercutting the military and civilian government, by provoking retaliatory attacks from the militants, and by driving the Taliban and Al Qaeda deeper into Pakistan in search of new havens.

Then there is the matter of public perception, particularly over the civilian casualties caused by the drone strikes, which infuriate Pakistani politicians and the media.

The deaths make it difficult for any Pakistani leader to support the drones publicly. At the same time, the Pakistani disavowals only reinforce the popular notion that the war against the militants merely furthers America’s interests, not Pakistan’s own.

In public, President Zardari, who is portrayed in much of the Pakistani media as slavishly pro-American, chooses to deny Pakistani participation in the strikes. Despite having agreed to their use, he says the drones represent an infringement of Pakistani sovereignty that the government cannot tolerate.

About 500 civilians have been killed in the drone attacks, Talat Masood, a former Pakistani general, estimates. But, he said, the government fails to point out that many of those killed are most likely hosting Qaeda militants and cannot be deemed entirely innocent.

Last week, Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud, the two senior leaders of Tehrik-e-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban umbrella group, said the increasing tempo of drone attacks would drive them to respond with more serious terrorist attacks, even as many as two a week.

Another militant boss, Maulvi Nazir, threatened that the retaliation would include the capture of Islamabad, the capital. Last Thursday, in an interview with Al Sahab, the media arm of Al Qaeda, he said the drone attacks were the work of both the United States and the Pakistani Army.

As proof of his claims, Mr. Nazir’s group distributed a video showing young Pakistani tribesmen confessing to having been hired by the Pakistani military to pick targets for the drones.

The video was distributed and apparently shot in Wana, the main city of South Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold. As a finale, the video shows those who had confessed, including some from Mr. Nazir’s own group, executed for spying.

One intriguing aspect of the drone attacks is that people living in the tribal region under the militants’ grip may be more accepting of them than other Pakistanis, according to a recent but limited survey.

The survey, described as unscientific, was conducted in four urban centers in North and South Waziristan and Kurram, all in the tribal region, by a group of academics belonging to the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, a small Pakistani research group.

Its organizer, Khadim Hussain, a professor of linguistics and communication at Bahria University in Islamabad, an institution backed by the Pakistani Navy, stressed that the survey was only “exploratory.”

Of 650 people approached for the survey, 550 answered, according to the institute, which is financed by 10 academics and human rights workers, most of whom come from the tribal areas.

The survey was conducted by 25 graduate students from Islamabad who visited the tribal areas from November to January, Professor Hussain said. The margin of error was three to five percentage points, he said.

Asked whether militant groups were hurt by the drone attacks, 60 percent of the respondents said yes, and 40 percent no.

Asked whether anti-Americanism in the area had increased because of the drone attacks, 58 percent said it had not; 42 percent said it had.

To the question of whether the drone attacks were accurate, 52 percent said they were; 48 percent said they were not.

The results first stirred debate last month when they were published in a daily newspaper, The News. They were publicized again last week by The Daily Times, a pro-government newspaper.

In an editorial in support of the survey, The Daily Times said local reporters from Orakzai, a tribal area recently hit by a drone strike, found that the people “would actually want the drone attacks to continue to lessen the severity of the Tehrik-e-Taliban control over them.”

One reason the drone attacks received support in the tribal region is that they mostly single out Qaeda leaders who are of Arab descent, Professor Hussain said.

The Arabs are widely disliked by the Pashtun tribes that dominate the area because they try to enforce their strict Wahhabi version of Islam, Professor Hussain said.

The missile strikes do feed the militants’ propaganda machine, he said. “But if the drone attacks stopped,” he added, “I wouldn’t be sure that they would refrain from the terror attacks they have been doing all along.”

source:The New York Times

Pir Zubair Shah contributed reporting.

Islamic Law Now Official for a Valley in Pakistan


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan has signed a measure that would impose Islamic law in the northwestern valley of Swat, in a move that was largely seen as a capitulation to Taliban militants.

Mr. Zardari’s approval came late Monday, after Parliament voted overwhelmingly for the measure, which would allow militants to administer justice through courts whose judges have Islamic training.

The local government in Swat agreed in February to allow the militants to impose Islamic law in exchange for a cease-fire. The deal came after months of fighting, during which the Pakistani Army was unable to subdue the militants.

Mr. Zardari had delayed giving the agreement a national stamp of approval, saying that the militants should first demonstrate that they would abide by the cease-fire. He signed the measure under pressure from conservatives, even though little in the valley has changed.

The deal has raised concerns in the Obama administration, which is pressing Pakistan to work harder to counter militants as the United States steps up its campaign in neighboring Afghanistan.

“We’re disappointed that the Parliament didn’t take into account the legitimate concerns around civil and human rights,” the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said Tuesday.

Residents of the Swat Valley, once one of Pakistan’s most popular vacation spots, have been terrorized by militants from the Taliban, who human rights activists say are using Islam as an excuse to extend their own power. In the past week the Taliban made inroads into Buner, a district only 60 miles from the capital and likely to be the next district to fall under their control.

“The conflict is political, not religious,” said Ibn-e-Abduh Rehman, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “They don’t want Parliament, they don’t want elections, they don’t want judges.”

A former interior minister, Aftab Ahmad Sherpao, said the government had no choice but to back the deal because its military campaign in the area had failed and civilian casualties had been mounting.

“This agreement was reached not from a position of strength but from a position of weakness,” he said.

The government now needs to press the militants by monitoring whether they hold up their end of the bargain to lay down their arms, Mr. Sherpao said.

Critics of the deal worry that it could simply provide the militants with a new haven from which they can carry out attacks. But Mr. Sherpao said the signing meant the militants had no excuse to use violence.

Source: The New York Times
Salman Masood contributed reporting.

Turkey’s soft power

Middle Eastern politicians increasingly recognise Turkey as key player in the region, with potential to play a constructive role

Al-Jazeera invited almost a dozen Turkish scholars and journalists to its Fourth Annual Forum last month in Doha. It was the first time so many Turkish participants attended. Why did al-Jazeera invite so many Turks to an event focused on the Arab world? More generally, why do people in the Middle East pay attention to Turkish perspectives on their affairs?

The answer is Turkey’s soft power. Middle Eastern politicians recognise that Turkey is working to resolve Middle Eastern problems. And because these problems have global implications, the rest of the world is paying attention to Turkey, too. The combination of Turkish politicians’ political will at home, and receptive audiences abroad, means Turkish soft power is in ascendance.

Turkey’s soft power emerges from its on-the-ground influence, coupled with its political, cultural and economic abilities. Turkey’s soft power fits the classical understanding, unlike Joseph Nye’s US-style smart power, which mainly brings soft power elements to the fore while limiting hard power measures in foreign policy. Turkey has gained the status of a soft power by experimenting with its foreign policy and demonstrating achievements on the ground.

The Caucasus crisis and the Gaza war have shown the limits of the international system’s ability to resolve conflicts. In both cases, the hard powers tend towards softness, while the soft powers seek solutions by developing hard power capabilities. With trust in the usual conflict mechanisms on the wane, Turkey’s peace-making attempts attracted attention. Turkey emerged as a peace-maker on the periphery of the international system. The US administration began to consider Turkey as a potential partner in issues such as Iraqi stabilisation and the Middle East peace process. This change in US policy reflects Turkey’s new image in the west.

Turkey’s rising soft-power status is rooted in the regional context. Its active diplomacy during the Gaza war and the Davos incident raised Turkey’s importance in the eyes of US and European policymakers, while winning the hearts of the people on the Middle Eastern street. The political halls of a number of regional states are not particularly enthusiastic about Erdogan’s rise in the Arab street. However, they hesitated to reflect discontent with Turkish policies. Turkey also prioritises good relations with world powers. Turkish policymakers enjoy being able to bring regional issues to international attention.

Subsequent visits to Turkey by US special envoy George Mitchell and secretary of state Hillary Clinton endorsed Turkey’s status as a regional power. President Barack Obama’s visit further strengthened Turkey’s self-confidence and regional image as a peace-maker in the Middle East.

There are three reasons for Turkey’s rising soft power.

One, Turkey’s modernisation, its social and cultural achievements, its economic development, its political and economic stability, and its democratisation and good governance made it an attractive civil-economic power to the countries of the region. As an example, Turkish TV series gained considerable popularity in the Arab countries. The rising interest in Turkey in the Middle East prompts more visits to Turkey by citizens of the regional countries.

Two, Turkey’s ability to pursue an active foreign policy, which pays attention to international legitimacy and regional concerns, with the aim of resolving the region’s serious problems increases the country’s prestige in the Middle East. Turkish politicians obeyed popular will in 2003, when they prevented the entry of US troops to Iraq through Turkish territory, and prime minister Erdogan did so at Davos, when he expressed a feeling shared by the majority in the Muslim world against Israel’s President Peres. The masses in the Middle East considered these actions as courageous stances in support of their causes. This perception made Turkey a rising star in the minds and hearts of the peoples of Middle East. Arab and Iranian intellectuals appreciate Turkey’s role and urge its greater involvement in regional issues.

Three, Turkey pursues its diplomacy carefully and modestly. Turkish policy aims to include all related actors, forming a broad coalition to solve problems and develop initiatives. Turkish policy-makers keep an equal distance from all actors and avoid taking part in any regional alliances or groupings. Turkey’s all-inclusive policy and equi-distance policy satisfy the concerns of regional actors and assure them of the constructive nature of Turkish policies.

As a result, Turkey’s foreign policy has acquired strategic depth in the Middle East, where Turkish policy-makers have the self-confidence and political will to play a soft-power role. There is a receptive audience in the region. There is also international backing, which became more visible during and after Obama’s visit to Turkey. There is also no guarantee that Turkey will play an effective role in solving the chronic problems, since many others failed in previous decades. However, Turkey’s ruling elite is willing to take the challenge. In the years to come, we will see more Turkish involvement in resolving the Middle East’s protracted problems.


Bulent Aras, Tuesday 14 April 2009 10.30 BST

Permanent Mission of Afghanistan