News & Current Affairs

September 10, 2008

The Afghan-Pakistan militant nexus

The Afghan-Pakistan militant nexus

Mapping where militants operate in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, seven years into America’s self-declared war on terror. (Text: M Ilyas Khan)

Helmand, Chaghai

Kabul’s writ has never run strong in the remote southern plains of Helmand province. Further south, across the border in Pakistan, lies the equally remote Noshki-Chaghai region of Balochistan province.

Since 9/11, this region has been in turmoil. In the Baramcha area on the Afghan side of the border, the Taleban have a major base. The chief commander is Mansoor Dadullah. From there they control militant activities as far afield as Nimroz and Farah provinces in the west, Oruzgan in the north and parts of Kandahar province in the east. They also link up with groups based in the Waziristan region of Pakistan.

The Helmand Taleban, unlike comrades elsewhere in Afghanistan, have been able to capture territory and hold it, mostly in the southern parts of the province. They constantly threaten traffic on the highway that connects Kandahar with Herat.

Kandahar, Quetta

Kandahar has the symbolic importance of being the spiritual centre of the Taleban movement and also the place of its origin. The supreme Taleban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, made the city his headquarters when the Taleban came to power in 1996. Top al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama Bin Laden, preferred it to the country’s political capital, Kabul.

As such, the control of Kandahar province is a matter of great prestige. The first suicide attacks in Afghanistan took place in Kandahar in 2005-06, and were linked to al-Qaeda. Kandahar has seen some high-profile jailbreaks and assassination bids, including one on President Karzai.

The Afghan government has prevented the Taleban from seizing control of any significant district centre or town. International forces have large bases in the airport area as well as at the former residence of Mullah Omar in the western suburbs of Kandahar city.

But the Taleban have a strong presence in the countryside, especially in southern and eastern areas along the border with Pakistan. Afghan and Western officials have in the past said the Taleban have used Quetta, the capital of the Pakistan province of Balochistan, as a major hideout as well as other Pakistani towns along the Kandahar border.

Mullah Omar is probably in hiding in Kandahar or Helmand.

Zabul, Toba Kakar

Afghanistan’s Zabul province lies to the north of Kandahar, along the Toba Kakar mountain range that separates it from the Pakistani districts of Killa Saifullah and Killa Abdullah. The mountans are remote, and have been largely quiet except for a couple of occasions when Pakistani security forces scoured them for al-Qaeda suspects.

Reports from Afghanistan say militants use the area in special circumstances. In early 2002, Taleban militants fleeing US forces in Paktia and Paktika provinces took a detour through South Waziristan to re-enter Afghanistan via Zabul. Occasionally, Taleban insurgents use the Toba Kakar passes when infiltration through South Waziristan is difficult due to intensified vigilance by Pakistani and Afghan border guards.

Zabul provides access to the Afghan provinces of Ghazni, Oruzgan and Kandahar. There are few Afghan or foreign forces in the area, except on the highway that connects Qalat, the capital of Zabul, to Kandahar in the south-west, and Ghazni and Kabul in the north.

South Waziristan, Paktika

South Waziristan, a tribal district in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), is the first significant sanctuary Islamic militants carved for themselves outside Afghanistan after 9/11. Militants driven by US troops from the Tora Bora region of Nangarhar province in late 2001, and later from the Shahikot mountains of Paktia in early 2002, poured into the main town, Wana, in their hundreds. They included Arabs, Central Asians, Chechens, Uighur Chinese, Afghans and Pakistanis. Some moved on to urban centers in Punjab and Sindh provinces. Others slipped back into Afghanistan or headed west to Quetta and onwards to Iran. But most stayed back and fought the Pakistani army during 2004-05.

The eastern half of South Waziristan is inhabited by the Mehsud tribe and the main militant commander here is Baitullah Mehsud. The western half, along the border with Afghanistan, is Ahmedzai Wazir territory where the chief commander is Maulvi Nazir. The Mehsuds only live on the Pakistani side, while the Wazirs inhabit both sides of the border.

These sanctuaries directly threaten Afghanistan’s Paktika province, where the US-led forces have a base in the Barmal region and several outposts along the border to counter infiltration. Pakistani security forces also man scores of border checkposts in the region.

However, infiltration has continued unabated and the number of hit-and-run attacks on foreign troops has been one of the highest in this region. Militants based in the region are known to have carried out strikes as far away as the Kandahar-Kabul highway.

North Waziristan, Paktia, Khost

The North Waziristan region is dominated by the Wazir tribe that also inhabits the adjoining Afghan provinces of Paktika and Khost. North and South Waziristan form the most lethal zone from where militants have been successfully destabilising not only Paktika and Khost, but other Afghan provinces such as Paktia, Ghazni, Wardak and Logar. Groups based in Waziristan region are known to have carried out some recent attacks in the Afghan capital, Kabul, as well.

Tribal identities are particularly strong in Paktika, Khost and Paktia. During the Taleban rule of 1997-2001, these provinces were ruled by their own tribal governors instead of the Kandahari Taleban who held power over the rest of the country. In the current phase of the fighting they coordinate with the militants in Kandahar and Helmand, but they have stuck with their own leadership that dates back to the war against the Soviets in 1980s.

The veteran Afghan militant Jalaluddin Haqqani is based in North Waziristan. He has wielded considerable influence over the top commanders in South and North Waziristan. He is also reported to have maintained links with sections of the Pakistani security establishment and is known to have mediated peace deals between the Pakistani government and the Wazir and Mehsud commanders in the region. Mr Haqqani is now an old man, and his son Sirajuddin has taken over most of his work.

There are many Arab and other foreign fighters in North and South Waziristan. This is due to Jalaluddin Haqqani’s close links with the al-Qaeda leadership. He married an Arab woman in the 1980s.

In view of the sensitivity of Waziristan region, US-led forces have set up a large base in Khost from where they conduct operations not only along the Waziristan region to the south but also in parts of the border region in Paktia and Nangarhar provinces to the north.

Kurram, Khyber, Nangarhar

As the Pakistani military strategists who organised Afghan guerillas against the Soviets in the ’80s discovered to their delight, Kurram is the best location along the entire Pakistan-Afghanistan border to put pressure on the Afghan capital, Kabul, which is just 90km away. But because the region is inhabited by a Shia tribe that opposes the Taleban for religious reasons, the Taleban have not been able to get a foothold here. Analysts say this is the main reason why the Taleban have taken so long to improve their strength in areas around Kabul, such as Logar and Wardak.

Some militant groups in the Khyber tribal district have carried out attacks on foreign and Afghan troops in Nangarhar province. But the Pakistani government has kept a close watch on them. One reason may be to curb the ability of these groups to block the highway through Khyber which serves as the main conduit for supplies to international forces in Afghanistan that come via the Pakistani port of Karachi.

Mohmand, Bajaur, Kunar

Analysts have long suspected Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal region to be the hiding place of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other top al-Qaeda leaders. The Mohmand and Bajaur tribal districts are also believed to be the stronghold of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the main Afghan guerrilla leaders of the 1980s. Mr Hekmatyar fought the Taleban in 1990s, but after 9/11 started working with them. The actual extent of cooperation is not known. The groups in Mohmand and Bajaur are members of an umbrella organisation which is headed by South Waziristan’s Baitullah Mehsud known as the Tehreek-e-Taleban (Pakistan Taleban).

Militants based in Mohmand and Bajaur have been striking at installations and supply lines of international forces based in the Narai region of Afghanistan’s Kunar province. In recent months, they are also reported to have crossed the Hindu Kush foothills to carry out attacks on foreign troops in the Sarobi, Tagab and Nejrab areas around Kabul.

Oruzgan, Ghazni, Wardak, Logar

For a long time the Taleban were unable to maintain sustained pressure on the country’s south-central highlands. But with safe sanctuaries in the border region – from the Baramcha area of Helmand province in the south, to some parts of Pakistani Balochistan, the Waziristan country and Bajaur-Mohmand territory to the east – the Taleban finally have the capacity to challenge the government in this region. The roads in Ghazni and Oruzgan are not as safe as they were a couple of years ago and officials are losing the will to maintain the government’s authority.

Training camps run by al-Qaeda and Taleban groups have multiplied in secure border regions over the last few years. Safe havens have also afforded the militants endless opportunities to find new recruits. The Waziristan region is also known to be a haven for young suicide bombers and trained in remote camps. The Taleban also appear to have had access to sophisticated military equipment and professionally drawn-up battle plans.

The strategy appears to be the same as in 1980s – ‘death by a thousand cuts’. Sporadic attacks on the security forces and the police have grown more frequent over the years, and have also crept closer to Kabul. At the same time, the Taleban have destroyed most of the education infrastructure in the countryside, a vital link between the central government and the isolated agrarian citizenry.

Oruzgan has mostly come under pressure from groups in Kandahar and Helmand. These groups, as well as those based in the Waziristan-Paktika-Khost region, have also moved up the highway via Ghazni to infiltrate Wardak on the left and Logar on the right. Safe and quiet until less than two years ago, both these provinces are now said to be increasingly infiltrated by Taleban fighters. The same is true of militants putting pressure on Kabul from Sarobi and Tagab in the east, with their tentacles stretching back to Laghman, Kunar and Bajaur.

Swat

A former princely state, Swat, in northern Pakistan, was governed by a British era law which a court declared unconstitutional in early 1990s, triggering a violent campaign for the introduction of Islamic law in the district.

The insurgency was effectively put down in 1994, but it re-emerged after 9/11, and was joined by many battle-hardened militants from Waziristan, Bajaur and the neighbouring district of Dir. During a 10-month long operation that still continues, the security forces have disrupted the infrastructure of the militants but is still to clear them out of the area. The militants have been targeting the security forces, the police, secular politicians and government-run schools.

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August 30, 2008

Gustav strengthens off west Cuba

Gustav strengthens off west Cuba

Hurricane Gustav has strengthened into a “major” category three storm as it nears western Cuba, US forecasters say.

Cuban civil defence forces have been put on alert, and a mass evacuation is under way in low-lying coastal areas, where mudslides and floods are feared.

Gustav has already struck the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, killing more than 70 people.

It could become a category four storm over the weekend as it passes over warm waters and heads for the US Gulf Coast.

Predicted route of Hurricane Gustav (29 August 2008)

Cuban authorities have evacuated more than 60,000 people from low-lying coastal areas in Pinar del Rio and Isla de la Juventud before Gustav hits, and have mobilised medical and emergency rescue teams to deal with the possible aftermath.

All buses and trains to and from Havana have also been suspended until further notice.

The Caribbean island has one of the most efficient disaster preparedness and evacuation organisations in the region, but that the poor condition of housing in the capital could pose additional risks in a major storm.

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency has said it expects a “huge number” of residents will be told to leave the region over the weekend.

Gustav’s approach came as New Orleans buried some of the last unidentified victims of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city in 2005.

Cuba concern

As of 1000 GMT on Saturday, Gustav had become a “major” category three hurricane with wind speeds of up to 185km/h (115mph) as it passed about 220km (135 miles) south-east of Isla de la Juventud and about 410km (255 miles) east-south-east of the western tip of Cuba, the US National Hurricane Center said.

We look ahead to a better day, as we also prepare ourselves for another threat
Ray Nagin
Mayor of New Orleans

The storm will move away from the Cayman Islands on Saturday morning at about 19km/h (12mph) before passing through western Cuba later in the afternoon and into the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday.

Gustav has already claimed the lives of at least 59 people in Haiti, eight in the Dominican Republic and four in Jamaica, where heavy rains caused flooding and strong winds tore roofs off houses.

There have so far been no reports of any casualties from the Cayman Islands, where storm surge and heavy rains flooded streets overnight.

The government did not impose a curfew, but urged people to remain indoors to avoid interfering with emergency workers.

Gustav’s projected path also takes it over the oil-producing Gulf of Mexico, where workers have been evacuated from several rigs.

Katrina compassion

New Orleans buried the last seven unclaimed bodies of Katrina at a memorial site on Friday as the biggest storm to hit the region since approached.

A memorial service in New Orleans for victims of Hurricane Katrina (29/08/2008)

New Orleans buried the last unclaimed bodies from Katrina on Friday

“We look ahead to a better day, as we also prepare ourselves for another threat,” said Mayor Ray Nagin.

Later, Mr Nagin said an evacuation order was likely, though not before Saturday.

Gustav is forecast to make landfall on the US Gulf Coast anywhere from south Texas to Florida by Tuesday, prompting four states to plan large-scale evacuations.

Emergency officials have warned that a tidal storm surge up to nine metres (30ft) is possible along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

US President George W Bush has declared a state of emergency in Louisiana and Texas, allowing the federal government to co-ordinate disaster relief and provide assistance in storm-affected areas.

Gustav is the second major hurricane of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season.


Have you been affected by Gustav? Are you preparing for its arrival? Send us your comments and experiences

August 26, 2008

Huge statue of Roman ruler found

Huge statue of Roman ruler found


Marcus Aurelius ruled over the empire for 19 years

Parts of a giant, exquisitely carved marble sculpture depicting the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius have been found at an archaeological site in Turkey.

Fragments of the statue were unearthed at the ancient city of Sagalassos.

So far the statue’s head, right arm and lower legs have been discovered, high in the mountains of southern Turkey.

Marcus Aurelius was portrayed by Richard Harris in the Oscar-winning 2000 film Gladiator and was one of the so-called “Five Good Emperors”.

He reigned from 161AD until his death in 180AD.

In addition to his deeds as emperor, Marcus Aurelius is remembered for his writings, and is considered one of the foremost Stoic philosophers.

The partial statue was unearthed in the largest room at Sagalassos’s Roman baths.

The cross-shaped room measures 1,250 sq m (13,500 sq ft), is covered in mosaics and was probably used as a frigidarium – a room with a cold pool which Romans could sink into after a hot bath.

It was partially destroyed in an earthquake between 540AD and 620AD, filling the room with rubble. Archaeologists have been excavating the frigidarium for the past 12 years.

The dig is part of wider excavations at the ruined city, which was once an important regional center.

Imperial gallery

Last year, the team led by Prof Marc Waelkens, from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, uncovered fragments of a colossal marble statue of the emperor Hadrian in the rubble.

This month, the researchers found a huge head and arm belonging to Faustina the Elder – wife of the emperor Antoninus Pius.

Archaeologists now think the room hosted a gallery of sculptures depicting the “Antonine dynasty” – rulers of Spanish origin who presided over the Roman Empire during the second century AD.

Foot of Marcus Aurelius statue (Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project)

The emperor wore army boots decorated with lion skins

Early on 20 August, a huge pair of marble lower legs, broken just above the knee, turned up in the debris.

They also found a 1.5m-long (5ft-long) right arm and hand holding a globe which was probably once crowned by a gilded bronze “Victory” figure.

But it was the giant marble head which identified this statue as the young Marcus Aurelius. The colossal head, which is just under 1m (3ft) in height, is said to bear his characteristic bulging eyes and beard.

Prof Waelkens said the pupils were gazing upwards “as if in deep contemplation, perfectly fitting of an emperor who was more of a philosopher than a soldier”.

He added that this was one of the finest depictions of the Roman ruler.

The emperor wore exquisitely carved army boots decorated with a lion skin, tendrils and Amazon shields.

The torso was probably covered in bronze Armour filled inside with terracotta or wood. When the niche’s vault collapsed in the earthquake, the torso would have exploded.

Bath complex

The statue of Hadrian was found lying halfway down in the frigidarium‘s rubble.

This initially led archaeologists to think it had been hauled in there from another part of the huge bath complex, perhaps to remove its gilded bronze armour, or to burn the huge marble pieces to make cement in a nearby lime kiln.

However, they now think sculptures of Hadrian, his wife Vibia Sabina, another Roman emperor Antoninus Pius, his wife Faustina the Elder, and Marcus Aurelius all once adorned niches situated around the room.

There were three large niches on both the western and eastern sides. The fragments of Hadrian’s statue were found near the south-west niche.

The front parts of two female feet were discovered in the opposite niche, on the room’s south-eastern side.

Arm and hand of Marcus Aurelius (Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project)

The remains of a globe can still be seen, cupped in the right hand

The archaeologists now think these belonged to a colossal figure of Vibia Sabina, who was forced into marriage with the homosexual Hadrian at the age of 14.

Remains of the statue depicting Faustina the Elder were found further along, on the eastern side.

In the opposite niche, they found the front parts of a pair of male feet in sandals, which could belong to her husband, Antoninus Pius – who succeeded Hadrian as emperor.

The experts suggest Antonine emperors occupied niches on the western side of the room, while their spouses stood opposite, on the east side.

Five good emperors

After the discovery of Faustina and her male counterpart, the archaeologists guessed the north-western niche would contain a colossal statue of Marcus Aurelius – the longest-surviving successor of Antoninus Pius.

The discovery on Wednesday confirmed this prediction, and suggests the north-eastern niche may contain remains of a statue depicting Faustina the Younger, Marcus Aurelius’s wife.

Archaeologists will get the opportunity to excavate this part of the room next year.

Lower legs of Marcus Aurelius statue (Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project)

The statue of Marcus Aurelius stood in the north-western niche

Despite his philosophical leanings, Marcus Aurelius had to spend much of his reign fighting Germanic tribes along the Austrian Danube where, inĀ  180AD, he died in nearby Carnuntum.

The part of Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator was one of Richard Harri’s last roles (the actor died in 2002). Although much of the storyline is fictional, it is set against an historical backdrop of the imperial succession from Marcus Aurelius to his son Commodus.

While Marcus Aurelius is considered, along with Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, as one of Rome’s Five Good Emperors, Commodus’s reign was marked by internal strife, cruelty and conspiracies.

Commodus took part, naked, in gladiatorial battles – which he always won. Opponents, whose lives were apparently spared, would eventually submit to the emperor.

He was murdered in 192AD – not by a general called Maximus, but by an athlete named Narcissus, sent by conspirators to strangle the megalomaniac emperor in his bath.

August 20, 2008

Deadly bombings hit Algerian town

Deadly bombings hit Algerian town

Map of Algeria

Eleven people have been killed and 31 injured by twin car bombs near a hotel and a barracks in Bouira, south east of the Algerian capital, state media say.

Witnesses said the blasts went off in quick succession.

The attacks come one day after a car bomb killed 43 people and injured a further 38 at a police college near Boumerdes, east of Algiers.

In recent months Algeria has suffered regular attacks blamed on Islamist insurgents linked to al-Qaeda.

The country has been rebuilding with the help of oil and gas profits after a brutal civil conflict in which Islamist militants led an insurgency against state security forces.

Many recent attacks have happened in the area east and south of Algiers, which borders the mountainous Berber region of Kabylia.

Passenger bus

Wednesday’s bombs went off near the Hotel Sofi and the military headquarters in Bouira, which is about 100km (62 miles) from Algiers, state media reported.

The blast at the hotel hit a nearby passenger bus, reports said.

One of the bombs ripped off the front of the military headquarters, and the blasts could be heard in a radius of several hundred meters, witnesses said.

Just a day earlier, a suicide car bomber drove a car packed with explosives into the entrance of a paramilitary police college in Issers, near Boumerdes, about 50km (31 miles) east of Algiers.

ATTACKS IN ALGERIA 2007-2008
19 August 2008: 43 killed by suicide bombing outside police college in Issers
10 August 2008: Eight killed by suicide bombing outside police station in Zemmouri
8 June 2008: French engineer and driver killed east of Algiers
5 June 2008: Roadside bomb kills six soldiers east of Algiers
January 2008: Suicide bombing kills four policemen in Naciria
December 2007: Twin car bombs kill at least 37 including 10 UN staff in Algiers
8 September 2007: 32 die in bombing in Dellys
6 September 2007: 22 die in bombing in Batna
July 2007: Suicide bomber targets barracks near Bouira, killing nine
April 2007: 33 killed in attacks on government offices and a police station in Algiers

That attack hit military police recruits who were waiting outside the building before an exam.

The government said 41 of those killed were civilians.

After Tuesday’s attacks, Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni said militants were trying to “loosen the net closing around them”.

Algeria’s government has long said Islamist insurgents are desperately seeking to raise their profile as they are isolated by security forces.

There have been no immediate claims of responsibility for this week’s attacks.

Previous bombings have been claimed by the North African branch of al-Qaeda, known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Those included twin suicide car bombings in Algiers – one against the offices of the UN – that killed at least 37 people in December.

In recent years, Algeria has been slowly recovering from a conflict that began in 1992 when the army intervened to stop hardline Islamists winning the country’s first multi-party elections.

Violence has been greatly reduced since the 1990s, but since last year there have been a series of devastating suicide bombings and several attacks against international targets.

The attacks have largely been claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which was formed from the remnants of Algeria’s insurgency and was previously known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat.


Are you in the area? Have you been affected by the explosion? Send your comment

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