Tag Archives: Pakistan

Afghan-Americans to Pakistan: stop supporting terrorism

On August 14, almost 50 Afghan-Americans gathered outside the Pakistani embassy in Washington, D.C. to protest what they say is Pakistan’s ongoing support of terrorist organizations operating in Afghanistan. The protesters called for the United States Congress to stop funding the Pakistani government and for the Pakistani government to stop supporting terrorism networks operating in Afghanistan.

The human interest in Pakistani media

There’s a lamentation that floats around the foyers and dining room tables of those who are familiar with the American media product. Perhaps you’ve heard it. It goes something like:

“It’s important to me to stay informed, but there’s just so much junk out there — so much celebrity gossip nonsense. I can barely stand to keep the television on.”

It’s usually accompanied by a sigh or an eye roll before the utterer offers a nuanced critique of a recent Instagram post by Kim Kardashian or Taylor Swift.

I used to think this was the immutable condition of the media, something akin to the human condition in psychology. Just as the body must decay into nothingness despite the enduring idealism of the mind, so must the consumer of media crave a red carpet photoshoot despite good intentions to learn about tax code reforms in the Washington Post.

But the veneration of hard news and analysis at the expense of milder journalistic fare is not a media universal, as I learned recently on a trip to Pakistan. In fact, it’s very much an American phenomenon.

My j-school cohort was meeting with a delegation of seasoned Pakistani journalists at the Karachi Press Club, and I asked the group as a lark what they would change about the culture of Pakistani media if they had the power.

They thought about it for a moment, and then two journalists blurted out almost in unison, “More human interest stories!”

“More human interest stories?” I asked. Having spent the last year being inculcated with the values of free speech, governmental transparency and skepticism towards power, I found it a curious suggestion.

“What you need to understand,” explained Shabbir Sarwar, a business reporter for the Daily Times, a prominent newspaper in Pakistan, “is that we have an abundance of hard news in this country. Every day, there are major, major stories that would take the American media cycle a week or more to process fully.”

“Take this bomb blast yesterday,” continued Shabbir’s colleague and Wall Street Journal reporter Syed Hasan, referencing an attack on a Christian church in the north of Karachi. “If that happened in the U.S., you would have the initial reports for two or three days, then you would have the editorials, then the feature stories, then the talk shows, then the long form documentary pieces, and so on until you finally get it out of your system. Here in Karachi, we’ll probably have another blast or two this week.”

While Hasan’s statement is an exaggeration, his sentiment is spot on. Even a cursory glance at most Pakistani newspapers reveals a much higher concentration of newsworthy events and much less in the way of investigative and enterprise reporting.

For example, in the mere three days that our group was in Karachi, the papers were abuzz with the possibility that the city might shut down if the government went ahead with their execution of a captured assassin loyal to the country’s main opposition party.

What a story!

“What we need,” said Akber Ali, bureau chief of Dawn News, the country’s most widely read newspaper, “is less reporting of facts and events and more time to introduce Pakistanis to each other.”

“The fluff is the good stuff,” Shabbir chimed in. “It’s what binds the community. But, of course, our first responsibility is to tell people what’s going on and to make sense of it for them.”

The idea that gossip is a social adhesive has a long academic history in sociology and social psychology, one that has recently been applied to mass media by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who has studied the media in the same way that anthropologists study information dissemination among tribal groups.

Elite consumers of American media, however, have yet to give this notion any credence. The refrain that shallowness is on the rise and legitimate journalism is on the decline is stuck in our heads like a good pop song, too familiar not to be sung.

While Pakistan would certainly benefit from the relative newslessness of American society, we might also take a cue or two from Pakistan and appreciate the cohesion and intelligibility that is borne of a rich tradition of cultural journalism.

How strong is the human element behind drones?

War may be more automated than ever, but human fingers still pull the triggers.

Although President Barack Obama has adopted drones as the workhorse weapons system of his anti-terrorism strategy, full automation is unlikely in the near future.

“Drones don’t change the human dimension of war,” said Christopher Swift of Georgetown University, a leading expert on the anti-terrorism campaign in Yemen. The true philosophical quandary, Swift explained, comes with granting computers the power to shoot.

Replacing humans with computers in that capacity “seems like an incredibly bad idea,” said Josh Meyer, former chief terrorism reporter for The Los Angeles Times and director of education and outreach for Medill’s National Security Journalism Initiative.

While it’s unlikely that automaton UAVs would present a sci-fi threat akin to the Terminator series’ Skynet, the human element is still essential for effective use of drones.

Ground based teams commonly aid UAVs in finding their targets. There are also strong indications that the military is using manned aircraft in the sort of covert missions usually reserved for drones. Witness February’s fatal accident in Djibouti, in which an Air Force Special Operations U-28 with civilian markings crashed killing all 4 occupants.

But the level of reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is not to be underestimated. According to Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation, the Obama administration conducts a drone strike every 4 days. Under President George W. Bush, the average time between drone attacks was 40 days.

There are many reasons for the increased dependence on drones. One major advantage of drones over conventional aircraft is the UAV’s ability to remain in a holding pattern for a long period of time. This ability leads to “better precision [when conducting strikes]”, said Meyer.

Another advantage is political. Drone strikes have been ordered overwhelmingly in Pakistan and Yemen, countries where a conventional American military presence would likely create havoc. While Pakistan and Yemen have tacitly acquiesced to UAV operations over their territories, the strategy is not without flaws.

The strikes have successfully weakened Al-Qaida by killing off many within its leadership, especially those with battle experience. “It used to be that Al-Qaida had a deep bench,” said Meyer, “some killed aren’t easily replaceable.”

But the strikes aren’t 100 percent accurate. The collateral damage caused by drone attacks has at times alienated potential key allies on the ground. Swift claims drone strikes have multiplied the number of Al-Qaida militants in Yemen threefold.

The pressure for young Yemeni males is economic, Al-Qaida pays $200 a month in a $60 a month economy, and reactive: Signature strikes, attacks aimed at men behaving in a suspicious manner, have often hit undeserving targets. As Swift pointed out, “Not everybody with an Ak-47 and a turban in Yemen is al-Qaida.”

Most UAV missions are not signature strikes but targeted killings. Because of collateral damage, missiles mounted on drones have been modified over time to be more precise.



On WikiLeaks and Pakistan

Some Obama administration officials and congressional lawmakers in recent days
 have sought to downplay the significance of the massive leak of secret U.S.
military files by the organization WikiLeaks by saying it’s “old news,’’ or a 
rehash of what is already well known about the prolonged war.
 But why would they think such a dismissive characterization of the remarkable 
trove of documents makes things better, not worse?

If anything, what they are conceding is that top U.S. intelligence and 
policy-making officials know full well that at least some of the billions of dollars that they have given to Pakistan in recent years has gone to funding the very insurgency that they are trying to wipe out in Afghanistan – with little, if
 any success.

It’s true that Washington has long known that Pakistan has been playing such a
 double game, especially its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. The 
ISI essentially created the militant groups that became the Taliban to act as
their proxy fighting forces against India and, later, in Afghanistan. 
But the front-line troop reports and other documents posted online by WikiLeaks
 provide chilling and authoritative details about how U.S.-funded allied forces are
 literally at war with our own troops.

And they do so with the kind of specificity 
that the Obama administration and congressional lawmakers will find hard to 
 The really smart counterterrorism officials in Washington – who don’t dare speak 
publicly because it could end their careers – are hoping the new disclosures will 
finally force those in charge of Pakistan policy to do something that they
 have been unwilling to do in the past.
 They’re hoping the White House and Congress tie the billions in aid money flowing 
to Pakistan to verifiable efforts by the Islamabad government to slash the ties
 between its intelligence and military services and the Taliban and other militant
 organizations that they are in collusion with.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, some of them acknowledge that such
 “tough love’’ could be risky. When Washington cut off some aid to Pakistan after 
it clandestinely developed nuclear weapons capability, the Islamabad government 
intensified its ties to jihadi organizations. 
But given the intensity of the Taliban insurgency, they say, that is a risk that 
Washington can’t afford not to take.

Fallout from the drone strikes

Obama administration officials are strong supporters of the drone strikes, and the number of attacks on Al Qaeda leaders and militants in Pakistan has increased dramatically over the past year and a half, as a New America Foundation study has demonstrated.

Administration officials have also claimed only a couple dozen civilians have died in the attacks, and that the strikes have been helpful in the battle against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Anecdotally, it has long been clear that people in Pakistan, where nearly all of the drone attacks have taken place, see things differently. The Pakistani media has been critical of the strikes. And Thursday, the Pew Research Center released a study entitled “Concern About Extremist Threat Slips in Pakistan,” that includes data on Pakistani views of drones, and the results are clear. Ninety percent of people in Pakistan who are asked about drone strikes believe that they are killing too many innocent people, regardless of what U.S. officials have been saying about the attacks (see question Q107b).

Experts have already recognized that the strikes have helped Al Qaeda leaders recruit new members and have radicalized people in Pakistan as well as individuals who are from that country and are now living abroad. The Pew study shows that many people in Pakistan believe that they are killing innocent civilians – and offers more evidence that the strikes are hurting U.S. efforts in the global war of ideas. 

"Can you repeat that?" Linguistics key to Afghan war effort

WASHINGTON–Last summer, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressed a group of 2,000 people who he located at the critical juncture and “at the heart” of the military’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“You are as important as any other undertaking in the US military right now,” Mullen proclaimed.
This wasn’t a talk of weapon systems or traditional war theory, but one centered on what might be the most undervalued tool in the military’s arsenal – language.
Mullen’s newfound indispensible manpower in an interminable and untraditional war are the students and staff at the Monterey, Calif.-based Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center.
Ten years ago, the DLIFC was solely in the business of training linguists for traditional roles.
“Now, we’ve had to branch out,” said Stephen Payne, DLIFC command historian. “We’ve been helping train troops since 2003.”
A premier institution since 1941 — when Japanese-American Soldiers were first trained to become translators and interpreters in World War II — DLIFLC teaches 24 languages to linguists from all four branches of the military, the U.S. Coast Guard and other Department of Defense agencies.
Due to rapid expansion, the DLIFLC hired over 1,000 new faculty members since 2001. Their budget has more than tripled, from $77 million in 2001 to $275 million this year. The center started offering predeployment training for Dari and Pashto in 2007. Since then, there has been a 500 percent increase in enrollment, with 15,000 service members trained in just 2009.
Most recently, the center partnered with the army to host “Language Training Detachments” to better prepare troops to meet the demands of an increasingly involved war in Afghanistan. Fort Campbell in Kentucky, Fort Carson in Colorado and Fort Drum in New York are the first installations to start the program. DLI hopes to add 14 permanent Language Training Detachments for the General Purpose Force in the next year.
Last weekend, 73 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell graduated from the first 16-week course in Pashto and Dari, the official languages of the South Asian country.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai capped his four-day US trip last month with a visit to the post. The United States already has sent three brigades to Afghanistan and three more are expected to deploy in the coming months, totaling around 20,000 troops.
Sgt. Audreuna Cleveland, the only female in the Dari class, was deployed to Iraq in November 2007 and served there for a year.
“I didn’t know any Arabic and I realized it was almost essential in winning the hearts and minds of the people,” said Cleveland, who will be deployed to Afghanistan in the next few months.
This time around, with a basic level of conversational language skills in her arsenal, Cleveland hopes the operation in Afghanistan will be different.
“If I at least know the language and culture, I’ll be able to establish relationships with the Afghan people.”
Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s call last November for more soldiers on the ground with language capabilities under the  “Campaign Continuity” initiative is expected to enhance the Army’s ability to partner with Afghan National Security Forces and local Afghan communities.
McChrystal, who commands all Afghanistan war operations, says his goal is to have one leader in every platoon who will interact with the Afghan population. We’re talking more than “hello’s” and “thank yous.” The concept calls for building rapport with Afghan nationals by engaging them in meaningful conversations.
“We didn’t take this approach in the first years of the present conflicts,” said Payne. “We went in with the idea we’d overthrow the governments and ‘Gee, it would be great.’ We had no training going in, and when the next phase hit, we weren’t prepared.”
Col. Danial D. Pick, the commandant for DLI, said McChrystal’s directive has ushered in a much-needed sea change.
“This might be the most systematic and intense language training provided to army units,” said Pick, “and it’s necessary in winning the war in Afghanistan.”
But complex is always the keyword in a conversation on Afghanistan.
The country’s terrain is as varied as its ethno-linguistic populations, with more languages and dialects than in Iraq.
Pick notes Dari and Pashto only truly came on the linguistic radar after 9/11 and sustaining access to high quality translators and interpreters has been more tenuous – both in America and in Afghanistan — than in previous wars.
And with a fabled history of invaders stretching back to Alexander the Great, Afghans are traditionally suspect of  foreigners.
“We’re still trying to figure out the best ways to tap human capital in Afghanistan,” said Pick.
The linguistic development of troops isn’t a skill that can be taught overnight.
“Commanders have to give us a valuable resource – time,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brian Lamar, the school’s spokesman. “And sometimes that’s difficult when you only have six months of training before deployment and you have Joe Private who doesn’t really know much about Afghanistan.”
A soldier in a war like Afghanistan that once seemed like a cakewalk, doesn’t just dodge bullets. He or she attends Shuras and talks to village elders about governance, economics, and security.
And when dealing with counterinsurgency doctrine under McChrystal’s direction, no training is more crucial to the military than education in critical languages and cultures.
“Just to be able to watch the Afghan news and know what people are saying means a lot to them,” said Army Captain Victor R. Vera, who’s enrolled in the Dari class at Fort Campbell.
The Department of Defense recently created a program, AFPAK HANDS, through which mid- and senior- level officers attend language training, usually in DC, for four months prior to deployment to Afghanistan.  The focus is on building a base of officers with language skills to work on Afghanistan and Pakistan issues, alternating between assignments overseas and in the US.
“Bottom line is we need to learn lessons from the past and soldiers need to realize they’re going into a completely different cultural situation where they need to be equipped,” said Pick. “They’re not in Iowa anymore.”
Staff Sgt. Genevieve Chase, who served in combat operations in Afghanistan in 2006, said she would have benefitted from more pre-deployment familiarization programs and language training.
“This is a war very much about relationships,” said Chase, who often went outside the wire and worked with tribal elders.
“We’re never going to win if we don’t even know how talk to the people.”

Questions to ponder over the CIA drone strikes

WASHINGTON – Drone attacks carried out by the CIA against “high-value targets” (aka terrorists and their financial backers), primarily in South Asia, have caused many to question the legal, moral and strategic ramifications of targeting hostile individuals.

A United Nations report last week that criticized the CIA’s targeted killings warned that officials involved in coordinating these attacks might be subject to legal prosecution. That includes the people involved in approving the missions, those flying the drones and even those manning the camera and weapons systems.

The report was issued shortly after al-Qaeda’s third-in-command, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, was confirmed dead by the terrorist organization after a Predator drone strike reportedly killed him in Pakistan on May 21.

The news of al-Yazid’s death coupled with the UN’s criticism reveals the conundrum facing the international community:

Clearly the UN does not trust the United States (or other nations that use drone strikes like Russia and Israel) to be judge, jury and executioner of those they consider to be a threat to domestic or global security. But by using these unmanned aerial vehicles, the U.S. has been able to take out terrorist leaders without putting much of its own personnel at risk (though some still carry out missions inside hostile territory).

From a moral and strategic standpoint, which intertwine in some circumstances, the use of drones brings up myriad questions. For instance, are these strikes worth the death of civilians who are accidentally targeted by drones, which can spur the recruitment of the affected population into terrorist organizations?

Reports vary widely on how many civilians have been killed by unmanned aerial vehicles. According to the UN, the number in Pakistan ranges from 20 to several hundred. Peter Singer, the author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century” and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said some Pakistani newspapers have claimed the number to be closer to 2,000.

Regardless of the exact figure, of which Singer is unsure, he said that public perception is key to the whole process, which can work to either help or hurt terrorist organizations in recruiting new personnel, depending upon the circumstances.

“There is a truth somewhere in (those numbers), but that actually is different from what the perception of the public in the two places is,” he said. “Essentially we may be operating with great care and precision, and I actually think that is a fact, but the reality 7,000 miles away is perceived as something different.”

“We’ve killed a lot of bad guys. The concern is are we getting into a cycle of ‘Whack-a-Mole,’ the carnival game where you’re knocking one guy down and another one pops up,” Singer said.

There are potential legal ramifications to the CIA drone strikes as well. According to a Washington Post opinion piece written by Gary Solis, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center:

“It makes no difference that CIA civilians are employed by, or in the service of, the U.S. government or its armed forces. They are civilians; they wear no distinguishing uniform or sign, and if they input target data or pilot armed drones in the combat zone, they directly participate in hostilities — which means they may be lawfully targeted.”

The UN report echoed Solis’ sentiment that the strikes may be unlawful. It said that targeted killings are only legal if they aim for civilians who “directly participate in hostilities,” which does not include individuals who only provide “financial support, advocacy or non-combat aid.”

Robert Young Pelton, a filmmaker and author who travels to conflict zones all over the world, said the use of drones for targeted killings is troubling in a different sense.

“These are probably the coldest executions created by mankind,” he said. “Lawyers, spies, all sorts of people make this the most lethal, most specific, most sanitized version of political assassination that I’ve seen.”

Despite the cold nature of the targetings, Pelton said the “drone strikes are the single most effective tool against al-Qaeda.”

With all the perspectives through which to view this controversy, there is one question that stands out above the rest: Will the drone strikes help bring an end to terrorism?

Civilian casualties, legal issues and moral dilemmas are all important issues to weigh, but the ability to fight terrorists without risking the lives of American troops, and without waging another messy land war is critical.

In this sense, Peter Singer has identified the biggest challenge of all: “The danger of the technology is that it’s very seductive,” he said. “The policy challenge is figuring out when it’s worth that blowback effect. It may be worth it for the No. 3 (terrorist in al-Qaeda), it may not be worth it for the (average terrorist) you can’t identify.