Posts Tagged ‘Pakistan’

The ultimate rent-a-war being fought in Syria

February 16, 2018

By Thomas L. Friedman

Two weeks ago, standing on the Syria-Israel border in the Golan Heights, I wrote a column positing that this frontier was the “second most dangerous” war zone in the world – after the Korean Peninsula.

I’d like to revise and amend that column. Having watched the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, where North and South Korean athletes marched last week into the stadium together in a love fest; and having also watched Israel shoot down an Iranian drone from Syria, bomb an Iranian base in Syria and lose one of its own F-16s to a Syrian missile; and after US jets killed a bunch of Russian “contractors” who got too close to our forces in Syria, I now think the Syria-Israel-Lebanon front is the most dangerous corner in the world.

Where else can you find Syrian, Russian, American, Iranian and Turkish troops or advisers squaring off on the ground and in the air – along with pro-Iranian Shi’ite mercenaries from Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan; pro-US Kurdish fighters from northern Syria; ISIS remnants; various pro-Saudi and pro-Jordanian anti-Syrian regime Sunni rebels and – I am not making this up – pro-Syrian regime Russian Orthodox Cossack “contractors” who went to Syria to defend Mother Russia from “crazy barbarians” – all rubbing against one another?

As The Washington Post pointed out, “In the space of a single week last week, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel lost aircraft to hostile fire” in Syria.

The term “powder keg” was invented for this place. But if this story has crept up on you and left you confused as to what United States policy should be, let me try and untangle it for you. The bad news and the good news about the war in Syria is that all the parties involved are guided by one iron rule: You don’t want to “own” this war.

This is the ultimate rent-a-war.

Each party wants to maximise its interests and minimise the influence of its rivals by putting at risk as few of its own soldiers as possible and instead fighting for its goals through air power, mercenaries and local rebels.

They’ve all learnt – Russia from Afghanistan, Iran from the Iran-Iraq war, Israel from south Lebanon, and the US from Iraq and Afghanistan – that their publics will not tolerate large numbers of body bags fighting any ground war in the Middle East.

The writer believes the Syria-Israel-Lebanon front is the most dangerous corner in the world; all parties in the conflict want to maximise their own interests and minimise the influence of their rivals by putting at risk as few of their own soldiers as possible and instead fighting for their goals through air power, mercenaries and local rebels. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

President Vladimir Putin wants to be able to tell Russians that “Russia is back” as a superpower and he’s the kingmaker in Syria – but he isn’t putting any Russian soldiers at risk.

Instead, Mr Putin is using Iran to provide ground forces and enlisting contractors, like those Cossacks from a private Russian company named Wagner, to fight and die – as dozens did the other day in a US airstrike – on the ground.

Iran, which just witnessed an uprising by its own people, demanding that Teheran spend its money at home, not in Syria, is subcontracting the ground war that Russia subcontracted to Iran to Iran’s proxies – Hizbollah and various Shi’ite mercenaries from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This way Iran can control Damascus and use Syria as a forward base to put pressure on Israel but pay “wholesale”, not “retail”.

US Special Forces are arming and advising Kurdish fighters from northern Syria to carry out the ground war against militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Turkey is using Sunni rebels to fight the same Kurds.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan all use various Sunni rebels to fight the pro-Iranian, pro-Shi’ite regime forces, and Israel is using the long arm of its air force.

In 2003, I had warned in a column in the run-up to the US toppling of Saddam Hussein: “The first rule of any Iraq invasion is the pottery store rule: You break it, you own it. We break Iraq, we own Iraq.”

So in Syria today, the abiding rule is: “You own it, you fix it.”

And because no one wants to own responsibility for fixing Syria – a gargantuan project – they all want to just rent their influence there.

There is something very 21st century about this war. But this is distressing. It means none of the local parties has enough power, resources – or willingness to compromise – to stabilise Syria from the bottom up, and none of the external parties is ready to invest enough power and resources to stabilise it from the top down.

The “good news”, sort of, is that because everyone is so “loss averse” in Syria, it’s less likely that any party will get too reckless.

The Iranians and Hizbollah will most likely continue to prod and poke Israel, but not to such a degree that the Israelis do what they are capable of doing, which is to devastate every Hizbollah neighbourhood in Lebanon and hit Iran’s homeland with rockets; Israel knows that its high-tech corridor along its coastal plain would be devastated by Iranian rockets coming back.

Maybe, eventually, the players will get tired and forge a power-sharing accord in Syria, as the Lebanese eventually did in 1989 to end their civil war.

Alas, though, it took the Lebanese 14 years to come to their senses. So get ready for a lot more news from Syria.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2018, with the headline ‘The ultimate rent-a-war being fought in Syria’.

Pakistan, Seeing New Pressure from the West, Moves Against a Militant Group

February 15, 2018

Islamabad hopes to avoid international terror financing watchlist as it seeks access to international financial markets

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JuD says it rejects ‘misleading and malicious assertions’ by the US State and Treasury departments [File-EPA]

Pakistan is hoping to head off an attempt by the Trump administration to exert further pressure over terrorism by putting the country on a global terror financing watch list, according to a senior Pakistani official.

Miftah Ismail, adviser to the country’s prime minister and Pakistan’s de facto finance minister, said that the country had in recent days undertaken a wide-ranging crackdown on the Jamaat-ud-Dawa group, which also is known as JuD and is blamed by the United Nations for the 2008 attack on the Indian city of Mumbai, which killed 166 people.

Washington has pressed Pakistan to take action against Islamist militants on its soil, and blamed the country for giving sanctuary to Afghan insurgents, announcing last month that it is withholding $2 billion in security assistance.

The international Financial Action Task Force, meeting in Paris next week, will consider a proposal by the U.S., co-sponsored by the U.K. and other Western governments, to put Pakistan on a list of countries that don’t comply with international regulations to squeeze financing of terrorist groups, said Mr. Ismail.

U.S. officials wouldn’t confirm that it had proposed Pakistan for the terror financing watch list, saying the process was confidential.

But the Treasury and other top Trump administration officials aired their concerns about Pakistan’s oversight of terror financing.

“The international community’s longstanding concerns about ongoing deficiencies in Pakistan’s implementation of its anti-money-laundering/counterterrorism finance regime are well documented,” a Treasury spokesman said in a statement.

A British official briefed on the matter echoed the sentiment. “It is important that Pakistan follows through on its FATF and UNSCR commitments to tackle the threat from terrorist groups,” the official said. “Whilst we recognize that Pakistan has suffered at the hands of terrorism, it has not made sufficient progress against the recommendations in FATF reports.”

Pakistan has seized some 200 properties belonging to JuD, including schools, religious seminaries, clinics and mosques. The government has taken over the group’s sprawling campus outside Lahore and, under a law passed this week, banned the group, said Mr. Ismail. The authorities also have seized more than 200 ambulances run by the group’s charity arm, he said.

“We’re taken the wind out of the sails of this proposal,” Mr. Ismail said, adding that the proposal focused on JuD. “We’ve basically done away with these organizations.”

In a statement, JuD said the government was closing down the group’s operations to please the U.S. and India. “This action has also affected thousands of poor people getting help from these institutions,” the group said.

It was unclear whether the Pakistan action, aimed at making Islamabad comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions, would satisfy Washington and the other sponsors of the nomination. Even if it doesn’t assuage them, Pakistan hopes to get enough support from other countries to block the nomination.

It wasn’t immediately apparent if JuD’s headquarters in Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city, was still functional. The group’s leader, Hafiz Saeed, who was released by a Pakistani court from house arrest last year, lives in Lahore. JuD’s new political arm has taken part in a series of by-elections in recent months.

Being put on the FATF watch list likely would complicate the country’s ability to access international financial markets, add further scrutiny to international banking transactions, and create more red tape for Pakistan’s exporters. Pakistan was on the watch list from 2012 to 2015.

Greater damage would likely occur to the country’s reputation, as it seeks to attract foreign investment and project an image of a more “normal” country, said experts.

Washington’s concern over JuD, which targets India, is separate from its demand from Pakistan for action against the Taliban and the Haqqani network, which fight in Afghanistan. President Donald Trump has voiced his frustration over Pakistan, saying they “give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”

Islamabad denies that there are any sanctuaries for militants on its territory and says that it has taken action against all groups “without discrimination”.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told U.S. lawmakers Tuesday that Pakistan’s recent operations against the Taliban and related groups operating within the country weren’t adequate.

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FBI Director Christopher Wray (from left), CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo testify before the Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“The actions taken thus far do not reflect a significant escalation of pressure against these groups, and are unlikely to have a lasting effect,” Mr. Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Pakistan-based militant groups continue to take advantage of their safe haven to conduct attacks in India and Afghanistan, including U.S. interests therein.”

Last month, the Trump administration levied new sanctions against several Taliban financiers who the U.S. Treasury said have been fundraising in Pakistan.

Write to Saeed Shah at, Ian Talley at and Dion Nissenbaum at

Pakistani Taliban kill four government paramilitary troopers in gun attack

February 14, 2018

Quetta is plagued by attacks from militant movements like the Pakistani Taliban, who are separate from but loosely allied with the Taliban movement that ruled neighboring Afghanistan in the 1990s. (Reuters)
QUETTA, Pakistan: Pakistani Taliban militants shot dead four paramilitary soldiers in Pakistan’s western city of Quetta, where last month seven security men were killed in a suicide attack, police and the militant group said.
The Frontier Corps troopers were patrolling the residential neighborhood of Langoabad on motorcycles when they were fired on by gunmen also riding bikes, said Naseebullah Khan, Senior Superintendent of Police for Quetta.
“The four men were shot in the head,” Khan said, adding that handguns were used in the attack.
Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the attack.
Quetta is the capital of Baluchistan province, rich in resources and at the heart of $58 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor stretching from the Arabian Sea to China’s Xinjiang region.
The province, the poorest and least developed in Pakistan, has suffered nearly a decade of separatist violence against the government.
The area also is plagued by attacks from militant movements like the Pakistani Taliban, who are separate from but loosely allied with the Taliban movement that ruled neighboring Afghanistan in the 1990s and has fought an insurgency against western and Afghan government forces since 2001.

In long Afghan war, U.S. Army tries new way to deploy trainers

February 14, 2018


FORT BENNING, Ga. (Reuters) – As a U.S. Army medic, Sergeant First Class Jonathan Ortega admits that when he gets to Afghanistan, his instinct will be to help care for any wounded Afghan troops. It is a feeling he will have to fight.

Sgt. Kyle Cabral, a combat medic with 3rd Battalion, 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, advises an actor serving as a member of the Afghan National Army as they tend to a simulated soldier supposedly injured by a vehicle-born improvised explosive device along the route to their unit’s mission during training at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, U.S., January 23, 2018. Picture taken January 23, 2018. Spc. Noelle E. Wiehe, 50th Public Affairs Detachment, 3rd Infantry Division/U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS

Ortega is heading soon to the 16-year-old war as part of a new kind of U.S. Army training brigade specifically created to mentor Afghan soldiers in the field and taught to resist taking over missions, even in the event of a Taliban attack.

“It would be hard for me,” acknowledged Ortega, 30, who treated wounded Iraqi forces when he deployed to Mosul in 2005 and 2006.

“But that’s a big piece … not to get my hands dirty. To step back (and advise them).”

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An Afghan child waves a flag at a member of coalition forces as he walks to a medical clinic led by Afghan national security forces in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, March 12, 2013. Coalition and Afghan forces held the clinic to promote improved security, governance and development. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Joshua Kruger

In America’s longest war, Ortega’s comments carry echoes of the many trainers who came before him, who wrestled with when to intervene directly, when to stand back and where to set expectations for Afghan soldiers who have long struggled against a Taliban insurgency.

But the U.S. Army is hoping that Ortega and his more than 800 colleagues are the start of something new, as members of the inaugural Security Force Assistance Brigade, or SFAB, whose creation aims to institutionalize and improve the advising of foreign soldiers that until now was more ad hoc.

The Army proudly points to the more rigorous training and deep combat experience of the brigade’s recruits, who are ready to deploy down to small-sized Afghan troop formations – bringing with them the ability to help direct U.S. air strikes.

Still, the brigade’s creation has drawn scrutiny and questions about whether it is deploying too quickly and if expectations are set too high for soldiers whose goals of mentoring Afghan forces are, by definition, long-term.

“It’s an evolution, not a revolution,” said Jason Amerine, an Afghan war veteran and a fellow at the New America Foundation think tank in Washington, who broadly supports the SFAB’s creation.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis expressed confidence in its readiness and acknowledged he had been keeping a close eye on the brigade’s development, part of his efforts to ease pressure on overstretched special operations forces.

“You’ll see more and more of this,” Mattis told Reuters after a visit to the troops last week at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The deployment in the coming weeks is another sign of deepening U.S. involvement in Afghanistan under President Donald Trump, even as critics warn his military cannot promise to defeat the Taliban anytime soon or overcome Afghanistan’s vast political divisions and entrenched corruption. More than 2,400 U.S. forces have died in the war.


Sergeant First Class Jeremiah Velez, 34, said he was well aware that his brigade’s creation had triggered some anxiety in parts of the U.S. special operations community. But he was not letting it get to him.

“In one ear, out the other,” said Velez, whose next deployment to Afghanistan will be his fifth.

A soldier from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division plays the role of the Afghan National Army during the 1st Security Force Assistance’s Joint Readiness Training Center rotation at Fort Polk, Louisiana, U.S., January 21, 2018. Picture taken January 21, 2018. Sgt. Joseph Truckley, 50th Public Affairs Detachment, 3rd Infantry Division/U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS

Last year, a photo of a green-colored beret that appeared to be a prototype for the SFAB drew unwelcome comparisons with Army Special Forces, known as Green Berets.

Anger over the berets even led to an online petition with more than 88,000 signatures.

Retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, who once led commandos in Afghanistan, said the SFABs were expensive, unnecessary and risked mission creep into special operation forces’ (SOF) terrain.

“The whole thing smells of mimicking SOF,” said Bolduc, who served 66 months in Afghanistan.

The Army, which ultimately chose a brown beret for the brigade, has stressed the SFAB is not special forces, whose responsibilities typically include training foreign militaries, particularly commandos.

Soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division play the role of the Afghan National Army as part of the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade Joint Readiness Training Center rotation at Fort Polk, Louisiana, U.S., January 21, 2018. Picture taken January 21, 2018. Sgt. Joseph Truckley, 50th Public Affairs Detachment, 3rd Infantry Division/U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS

The SFAB’s debut reflects an attempt by the Army to deal better with open-ended counter-insurgency battles in a way that does not undermine growing U.S. focus on high-end military challenges from China and Russia.

    By creating six planned U.S. Army training brigades, the Pentagon hopes to let other brigades and special operations forces prepare for different missions.

Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley has championed the SFABs as a way to institutionalize a role the Army performed more haphazardly during the war, ripping apart brigades to find soldiers to train Afghans.

“We were pulling it out of our butts, so to speak,” Milley said at the brigade’s activation ceremony at Fort Benning last Thursday. “We made it happen. But it wasn’t as good as it could have been.”


First Sergeant Sammy Walker, who deployed four times to Iraq, bristles at the idea of walking away from Afghanistan or Iraq and points to the sacrifices of friends who lost their lives.

“Over the years, 16 years, you start counting back how many people you’ve known who have been hurt or killed. It’s a lot of people,” said Walker, part of a team of SFAB logistics advisers.

Trump long identified with war-weary Americans skeptical about the Afghan war, even advocating a pullout. But faced with the risks posed by the Taliban, he reversed himself and last August approved a more aggressive war strategy.

Yet a battlefield defeat for the Taliban seems distant.

“I‘m not entirely convinced that the SFABs are going to make a strategic difference in winning the war,” said Seth Jones, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said a best-case scenario would see the Taliban realize it cannot win, leading to peace negotiations.

Walker and his team are well aware of Afghanistan’s many shortfalls, including accusations of corruption. But they are taking a longer view.

“Everything takes time,” said Sergeant First Class Keisha Jumpp, another SFAB adviser. “It’s just baby steps, baby steps.”

Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney

Pakistani Taliban confirm deputy killed by drone strike

February 12, 2018


PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – The Pakistani Taliban confirmed on Monday that their deputy leader was killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike last week and said they had appointed a new deputy in his place.

A pair of suspected U.S. missile strikes killed the militant leader, Khalid Mehsud, also known by his alias Sajna, on Thursday last week in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, near the border with Pakistan, Pakistani security officials said.

Image result for Paktika province, map

But there were conflicting accounts of the drone attack from Pakistani intelligence officials and militant sources.

A spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, also known as Pakistani Taliban, who are fighting to bring down the Pakistani state, told Reuters the drone strike was in the North Waziristan region, on the Pakistani side of the border.

“We confirm that deputy head of the TTP Khalid Mehsud died in a drone strike,” said the spokesman, Mohammad Khurasani.

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Khalid Mehsud

He said Pakistani Taliban chief Mullah Fazlullah appointed a commander called Mufti Noor Wali Wali to replace their dead deputy.

Wali, like his predecessor, would lead militants in South Waziristan, a rugged mountainous region on the Afghan border which has long been home to Pakistani, Afghan and al Qaeda-linked foreign militants.

Militant sources said Wali, known by the nickname Ghar Starga, is a ruthless leader with experience working in Pakistani urban areas including the southern city of Karachi.

He studied in a seminary in Faisalabad city in the heartland province of Punjab and recently wrote a book eulogizing the founder of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a 2009 drone attack.

While U.S. and Afghan forces accuse Pakistan of failing to stop Afghan Taliban militants using safe havens on the Pakistani side of the border, Pakistani Taliban militants have been waging a campaign of bombings and other attacks on Pakistan’s security forces.

The Pakistani military mounted a major offensive against the militants in 2014, forcing many of them to withdrawn into Afghanistan.

The border region is off limits to journalists and verifying information independently is difficult.

U.S. drone strikes in the border region have picked up since U.S. President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, though they are a long way off their peak in 2010.

Relations between the United States and Pakistan have been strained since Jan. 1 when Trump’s denounced Pakistani “lies and deceit” over its support for the Afghan Taliban and their allies.

Last month, the United States suspended about $2 billion assistance to Pakistan.

Pakistan denies sheltering militants.

Additional reporting by Saud Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan; Writing by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Robert Birsel

Single Taliban infiltrator kills 16 Afghan government militiamen

February 12, 2018


LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) – A Taliban infiltrator killed 16 members of a pro-government militia force in the insurgency ridden southern province of Helmand when he turned his gun on men who he had worked with for months, officials said on Monday.

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The Afghan security agency had set up the militia to infiltrate the Taliban, a security official told Reuters, though a spokesman for Helmand’s governor was unable to identify the group.

“We know that a Taliban fighter killed 16 militiamen fighting alongside government forces, but who these forces belong to, we don’t know yet,” said the spokesman, Omar Zwak.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the killings in the province’s Gereshk district on Saturday, saying two of its fighters were involved.

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A security official, who declined to be identified, said the suspected gunman had worked with the militia for months and took arms and ammunition after killing the men.

Helmand is one of Afghanistan’s most violent provinces, and also a major source of opium, the narcotic used to make heroin.

The Taliban, fighting to re-establish strict Islamic rule in Afghanistan and drive out international forces backing the government in Kabul, control large stretches of the province.

Reporting by Mohammad Stanekzai; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

Can the U.S. End Pakistan’s Double Game?

February 11, 2018
A Q&A with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steve Coll on America’s forever war against the Taliban.
U.S. commanders say they’re turning the tide, again. Photographer: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Steve Coll’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ghost Wars” laid out in gut-wrenching detail the chain of events that led from one modern war in Afghanistan — against the Soviets — to the Sept. 11 attacks and the brink of another conflict. When the book came out in 2004, the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda seemed on the wane, at least compared to the then-raging insurgency in Iraq. Soon, however, with the aid of their longtime sponsors in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the Taliban would reconstitute their movement and seize control over great swathes of the Afghan countryside, dueling the U.S. and the Afghan Army to a stalemate. If current trends hold, the U.S. will in the not-too-distant future be sending soldiers to the “graveyard of empires” that hadn’t even been born on 9/11.

Coll’s new book, “Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” tells the story of this new war in equally magisterial fashion. The narrative is punctuated by folly, frustration and hubris, with the U.S. striving unsuccessfully to convince the Pakistanis to abandon support for their Islamist proxies — tools, generals in Rawalpindi believe, to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan — and to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield. It comes out just as a series of horrific attacks in Kabul have reminded the world how ineradicable the Afghan insurgency remains. I spoke with Coll about where he thinks America’s longest war is headed and how it might, finally, end. The following is an edited and condensed version of our conversation:

NISID HAJARI: Now that the Trump Administration has released its “new strategy” for Afghanistan, including an increase in the number of airstrikes, you’re starting to hear U.S. commanders talk again about gaining momentum and reaching a “turning point” in the war. After retracing the first 15 years of this conflict, what do you think when you hear such comments?

STEVE COLL: Well, the history is dispiriting when you excavate it because it’s so repetitive. And some of the reason is what you suggest, that new commanders come in, they don’t stay for longer than two years in high military command, sometimes shorter. Not to be too cynical about it, but their career depends on a narrative of achievement. I remember Eliot Cohen, who was a counselor to [then-Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice during the Bush Administration, recounting how he discovered that the six-month command rotations had a common pattern: A new commander would come in and say, “This looks like it’s going to be very, very difficult.” And then, six months later, he’d say, “We’ve irreversibly changed the momentum of the war.” As a writer, it was a narrative challenge, because at a certain point I would think, “Haven’t I already told this story?”

NH: Do you see anything materially different in the Trump administration’s strategy compared to those that have been tried in the past?

SC: Well, yes and no. Yes, the administration has been more explicit about challenging Pakistan, and the decision to withhold [military] aid conditionally is a significant departure. Unfortunately, I don’t see the case that it’s going to be decisive in changing Pakistani conduct because the amount of aid, while significant as a top-line dollar figure, is not significant from the perspective of Pakistan’s political economy, especially because they have this deep, deep relationship with China.

Also, the problem is not just that American influence has diminished but that the Trump Administration has taken up the same line, in only a slightly varied form, of the Bush and the Obama administrations, which is, “Yes, we understand that there is no military solution to this war.” And yet what they resource, what they prioritize is military action without any predominant or even parallel political strategy. Trying really to get the Chinese to put pressure on Pakistan, having a clear idea of what you’re asking Pakistan to change about its conduct — I don’t see any of that happening.

NH: I was in Lahore recently, and among middle- and upper-class Pakistanis, there seem to be two narratives: One is that Pakistan no longer needs the U.S. because of China, and the other is that, in fact, Pakistan is quite vulnerable economically and may need to return soon to the International Monetary Fund, and that Chinese support isn’t unconditional. Which narrative do you favor?

SC: I think the assessment that Pakistan is vulnerable to IMF pressure and that China is ambivalent about Pakistan’s dysfunction and accommodation of militants is correct. That, at least theoretically, is an opportunity, although when really pressed to choose sides, the Chinese have been reluctant to do so — not necessarily because they think that Pakistan should be defended against all critics, but because the U.S.-Chinese relationship has so many other priorities and friction points.

Pakistan, I think, would actually prefer to have a balanced relationship with China and the United States. In the current international environment, where there is a lot of uncertainty about America’s role in the world, I think making a bet on China seems likely to be an easier decision [laughs] than it did 10 or 15 years ago. But, if you’re a small country like Pakistan is, and you’ve got great powers in your orbit, the natural strategy is to have access to both, to keep both in balance and try to use that equilibrium as a space to grow.

NH: What would it take to enlist Chinese help in changing Pakistani behavior?

SC: During the Obama administration, I participated in these Track 1.5 meetings with Chinese specialists on Afghanistan and Pakistan. You’d meet with these people that had been engaged in the region for a long time and try to have these conversations about exactly the question you asked. And I took away a couple of observations. One was that the specialists in China who thought about Pakistan and Afghanistan just weren’t influential enough to be heard over issues like South China Sea, future of North Korea, future of U.S.-China trade, great power balancing. We were on the C-list in U.S.-China relations.

And then secondly, when you did get around to Pakistan, they did have an interest in suppressing transnational Islamist movements that could inflame populations in western China. Definitely concerned about that. Definitely not opposed to U.S. counterterrorism efforts against transnational militant groups. But, their main interest was Pakistani stability and prosperity. And I remember one meeting where one of our Chinese counterparts said, “We used to track your strategy because we couldn’t figure out how to improve Pakistan. We noted that you switched from a centralized approach to a more of a province-by-province approach. Then we decided to switch from a centralized approach to a more province-by-province approach. And at the end of a couple of years we concluded that neither you nor we were succeeding.” [laughs]

NH: The unofficial Pakistani defense for supporting the Taliban has always been that India is the one destabilizing the situation, by seeking to dominate the Afghan government and thus encircle Pakistan. Do such claims have any merit?

SC: Well, it’s a complicated picture. Let’s start with the hardcore Pakistani allegations — for example that NDS [the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence agency] is an Indian project, or that the disposition of Indian consulates and the activities of Indian citizens in Afghanistan are really just a massive cover for destabilization operations inside Pakistan. That’s exaggerated if not entirely fanciful in my assessment. I mean, the NDS is a CIA operation. It has Iranian connections. It has Russian connections. It has a few Indian liaisons. But the idea that NDS is a proxy for RAW [India’s Research and Analysis Wing espionage service] is just incorrect.

You know, the Indians have been very careful about the kinds of things they do in Afghanistan — building hospitals, roads, a little bit of military training. From time to time they get a little bolder. Does India sponsor or run sometimes in cooperation with Afghan clients, covert action against Pakistan? Yes, they do. They clearly have their fingerprints in Baluchistan [the site of a long-running separatist insurgency]. When the war got really nasty and there was NDS collaboration with elements of the Pakistani Taliban, as a tit-for-tat response to Pakistani collaboration with the Afghan Taliban, was India aware of that? Did it perhaps support it at some level? Maybe. But NDS was in this game for its own reasons.

India asserts, and I think any reasonable person would recognize, that it has a right to provide aid to support Afghanistan’s recovery. Does it take satisfaction that this annoys Pakistan? Yes. Is it the most important priority in Indian foreign policy? Not at all.

NH: Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, and the sanctuary it provides Taliban leaders, is obviously critical to prolonging the war. But there’s an endless list of other contributing factors as well, from government dysfunction in Kabul to corruption to the drug economy. How would you rank them in terms of their importance to ending the conflict?

SC: I think the most important one, and it may be as important as the Pakistani sanctuary and ISI support, is the political crisis in Afghanistan among the elites. It’s kind of a paradox because Afghan nationalism is very strong and has been strengthened by the experience of Pakistani interference. I mean, the main thing that ISI has accomplished in Afghanistan, apart from seizing some territory through the Taliban, is to rally Afghans around a national idea greater than ethnic identity.

But having said that, ethnic factionalism and the failure to create a unity government after the 2014 elections has left Afghanistan in a grave position. And the other thing that’s new is social media, which has really modernized the country and plugged in a new generation, but also exacerbated factionalism and ethnic polarization. It’s really a virus.

NH: Really? You see something similar in Myanmar and other developing nations, of course, with Facebook and WhatsApp and other platforms being used to spread hate speech and vicious rumors about targeted communities.

SC: Yeah, yeah, it’s really rough. I happened to visit Afghanistan in September 2016 to report the epilogue for the book. I was in Kabul, and there was a violent dispute in the city between Uzbeks and Tajiks over the reburial of a forgotten Afghan king. I was sitting with some Panjshiri friends [ethnic Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley], and they were all on their phones, all day long, rallying [their followers] over this incident. And when I asked them about the role of social media in ethnic polarization, they were very clear that this is where people speak, it’s where they mobilize and there’s a lot of hate speech in those spaces.

NH: You mentioned earlier that you see no signs of a political or diplomatic push to try and end the war. What might one look like?

SC: The most interesting aspect of the negotiations that took place during the Obama years was the question, “What do the Taliban really want?” I think part of what [Taliban negotiators] were saying then was, “We learned from our last experience in power that we need to find legitimacy in the international system. We need a more capable government. We need a transition period. We are prepared to share power. We need a broader ethnic balance in Afghanistan; we can’t just be the Pashtun radical movement. We see that there are lots of different ways that Islamist movements like ours participate in politics, as in Egypt after the Arab Spring.” And, you know, you could dismiss that as the musings of a negotiator. But it’s evidence that the Taliban are a more internationally sophisticated, more internationally aware movement than they were in the days of obscurantist policies and isolation in Kandahar.

If this war doesn’t end with a victory ceremony, then the question is, how can the shared interests of the United States, China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and India in an Afghanistan that is not engulfed in chaos, that is not a font of transnational violence — how can that be realized, even incrementally, even if it just involves reductions of violence rather than a full-blown peace treaty? As long as nobody attempts that kind of diplomacy, there’s really no reason to think that the structure of violence that we see in Afghanistan now is going to change. And that just feels grotesque.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Kashmir: 30 Hour Gun Battle Between India and Pakistani Rebles Winds Down

February 11, 2018

Jammu army base attack: Five soldiers, civilian dead; army kills four attackers

At least 10 persons, including soldiers, women and children, were injured.


Image may contain: 1 person
Jammu army base attack: Five soldiers, civilian dead; army kills four attackersJammu, Publish Date: Feb 11 2018 12:17PM | Updated Date: Feb 11 2018 12:36PM File Photo


Government forces on Sunday killed one more militant who had taken cover inside an army camp in Jammu after a group of militants attacked the military station, killing five soldiers and a civilian on Saturday.
With this, the number of militants killed in the attack has risen to four, defence officials said. At least 10 persons, including soldiers, women and children, were injured.

The deceased were identified as Sub Madan Lal Choudhary, Sub Mohd Ashraf Nir, Hav Habibullah Qureshi, Naik Manzoor Ahmed, Lance Naik Mohd Iqbal and his father.

The officials said the operation was still on even as no more gun shots were fired at the shootout site after the death of the fourth militant. Searches are now going on to sanitise the camp.

A group of heavily armed Jaish-e-Muhammad militants entered the Sunjuwan army base station around 4.45 a.m. on Saturday.

The militants managed to enter the Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) quarters inside the camp.

Para commandos from the Army’s Udhampur-headquartered Northern Command were airlifted to tackle the militants. The Air Force provided aerial surveillance.

Indian Army chief Bipin Rawat arrived here on Sunday to review the operation that lasted for nearly 30 hours.

Israel-Syria-Iran Flare-up: With Newfound Confidence, Assad Moves From Threats to Action — Slippery slope toward growing war

February 10, 2018


If it turns out Iranian soldiers or ‘advisers’ were killed in the Israeli strike, the situation may go from bad to worse

.Netanyahu and cabinet ministers on the Golan Heights, February 6, 2018

Netanyahu and cabinet ministers on the Golan Heights, February 6, 2018 קובי גדעון / לע”מ

The incident Saturday on the Israeli-Syrian border signifies a grave escalation in the ongoing conflict between Israel on one hand and Iran and the Assad regime on the other. The threats have been replaced by actions – the exchange of fire on the border and deep within Syrian territory – and these tensions have no end in sight.

According to the Israeli army, this is what transpired: In the early morning, an unmanned Iranian aerial vehicle launched from the T-4 Syrian airbase near Palmyra in the south of Syria. The drone entered Israeli territory through the northern Beit She’an Valley and was shot down by an Israeli helicopter. In response, Israeli air force fighter jets attacked and destroyed the Iranian trailer in Syria from which the drone was launched.

During the strike, Syrian aerial defense systems opened heavy fire at the Israeli jets. One of them, possibly hit by Syrian fire, was abandoned by the view over Israeli territory. The pilots were taken to hospital, where one is in serious condition.

>>The threat of war between Israel, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah | Analysis <<

The dramatic and unusual fact that the pilots ejected from the F-16 will probably be talked about extensively in the media in the coming hours, but one must not ignore the bigger implications of the events.

Israel has, according to reports, already attacked a joint Syrian-Iranian weapons factory last September, followed by an attack on an Iranian militia base near Damascus in December. This morning, however, is the first time a manned Iranian target has been bombed. So far reports from Syria are few, but if soldiers or “advisers” were killed in the Israeli strike, it’s a different story altogether.

What does Iran want with the Israeli border? Since last summer, Israeli leadership has been warning of an Iranian attempt to gain a foothold in Syria, riding on the Assad regime’s success in the civil war. This attempt includes deployments in southern Syria of some 10,000 Shiite militia fighters from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, under the auspices of Iran; erection of weapons factories in Syria; and Iranian talks with the Assad regime to establish an aerial and maritime base in Syria.

The incursion into Israeli territory, which seems planned, is both a violation of sovereignty and a severe provocation. IDF spokesman Brigadier General Ronen Manelis used harsh words this morning, saying Iran is dragging the region into jeopardy and will pay the price. It seems, from his rhetoric, that this exchange is far from over.

The Assad regime has long warned Israel that it would respond to Israeli strikes against convoys and weapons depots tied to Hezbollah in Syrian territory. A severe warning of this sort was sounded last week, after a bombing – attributed to Israel – of a weapons development facility near Damascus.

The launch of anti-aircraft missiles on Israeli jets came as a response to Israeli incursion into Syria, but it is also an expression of the regime’s newfound sense of power. Last March, in the same area of Palmyra, anti-aircraft missiles were fired at Israeli jets. One of the missiles, which entered Israeli territory, was intercepted by the Arrow defense system. That incident took place shortly after the regime took control of Aleppo. Since then, Assad has retaken practical control of over 80 percent of Syrian territory. In recent weeks, the regime has been carrying out a brutal campaign against rebel strongholds, including in an enclave near Damascus. Syrian self-confidence is also manifested in its willingness to exchange blows with Israel.

The bombing of the Iranian trailer from which the drone was launched comes days after a publicized visit to the Golan Heights by Israeli cabinet ministers, armed with their uniform Uniqlo coats. But the signs of conflict have been felt in the air for months. The prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief have relayed warnings to Syria, Iran and Lebanon. A senior Israeli official estimated back in December that the advent of Shiite militias in southern Syria places Iran and Israel on a collision course.

This tension, more than ever, is pulling in the big powers. For Russia, which still has fighter squadrons and sophisticated anti-aircraft batteries in northern Syria, the Assad regime – and even the Iranians, to some extent – are part of Moscow’s camp, which has the upper hand in the Syrian civil war. The Trump administration has been signaling a more resolute stance towards the Iranians as compared with the Obama administration, which feared intervention in the country and was worried about thwarting what it perceived as its greatest achievement: The Iranian nuclear deal signed in Vienna in the summer of 2015. Did President Trump give Netanyahu a green light to engage Iran in the north?

We are in the midst of a day of fighting on the Golan Heights, but the sides are on a very slippery slope.

Police in Indian Kashmir say gunmen attack army camp

February 10, 2018

Indian paramilitary troops stand guard at a hospital in Srinagar, in this February 6, 2018 photo. (AFP)

SRINAGAR, India: A group of militants in Indian Kashmir opened fire Saturday inside an army camp in the disputed region, police said.

The attack began early in the morning and it was unclear how many gunmen were involved, said a police official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the media.
The camp is located on the outskirts of the city of Jammu. The area was cordoned off as intermittent firing continued.
Few other details were immediately available.
Image result for Jammu, kashmir, line of control, map
The Himalayan region of Kashmir is divided between India and archrival and neighbor Pakistan. Both claim the region in its entirety.
Several militant groups have been fighting for Kashmir’s independence from India or its merger with Pakistan since 1989. Around 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.
Anti-India sentiment runs deep among Kashmir’s mostly Muslim population, with most people supporting the rebel cause.