How Pakistan deals with Americans trying to join the Taliban…


There was a revealing moment in the testimony of Zarein Ahmedzay last week in the trial of Abid Naseer. No-one else in the Brooklyn courthouse paid it much heed. But it gave this former Pakistan correspondent an opportunity for a wry smile.

Ahmedzay was one of three young American Muslims – two of Pakistani and Afghan extraction and one of Bosnian origin – who travelled to Peshawar with hopes of joining the Taliban. From there they set off to drive to Afghanistan but are stopped by police.

There’s a problem.

One of the men Adis Medunjanin can’t answer the officers’ questions for he speaks no Urdu or Pashto. To make matters worse, he shows them his US passport. Zarein tries to tell the officers they are merely tourists and that he is Adil’s translator.

This is August 2008. And the officers sense they are on to something big. Peshawar is something of a hub for foreign fighters joining the insurgent groups based along the border with Afghanistan. So of course they arrest the three on suspicion of being American spies…

They are told they are being taken to the local police chief. Ahmedzay tries to come clean…

“I told them that I was not an interpreter and Adil was not a spy. Adis started to recite the Koran, so they knew he wasn’t a kafir [unbeliever].”

Say this in front of the police chief, they are advised. When they do, they are promptly released.

Shortly thereafter they are recruited by al-Qaeda and two years later they were all arrested for their part in a plot to bomb the New York Subway.

Qatar, Al Jazeera and Islamists in Libya

Colle-and-McQuinn-final-for-web Another interesting nugget from The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath. One of the recurring themes of the first section, detailing the structure of the uprising itself, is the – at times – divisive role of Qatar. It seemed intent on establishing its own command centres as spheres of influence, working in competition with those liaising with the UAE, French and British.

The result was a deep tension within the revolution’s military forces, with Qatar fostering – very generally speaking – the more Islamist-minded in comparison with the more secular-leaning, former regime fighters that made up the backbone of the National Transitional Council’s force. A generalisation, as I say.

Anyeay, one particular aspect of Qatar’s role caught my eye in Mary Fitzgerald’s chapter, which details more completely the role of Islamists in the revolution and its aftermath. It describes how one Muslim Brotherhood leader was aided in getting around an Egyptian travel ban…

Alamin was sent by the Brotherhood’s exiled leader, Sulaiman Abd al-Qadir, to organise on the ground in Libya. Before crossing the Egyptian border on 1 March, Alamin stopped in Qatar to meet other Libyan Brotherhood figures, including Isma’il Gritly, who worked at Al Jazeera. He also met Sallabi, who had left the Muslim Brotherhood some years before but retained similar views and personal ties to leading Brothers. Alamin was concerned that his name was on Egyptian blacklists, then still enforced: Sallabi’s connections with the Qatari establishment facilitated Alamin’s travel with an Al Jazeera news team on a military plane taking humanitarian aid from Qatar to Egypt.

What happened in Libya?

Colle-and-McQuinn-final-for-web I’ll write more about this new book on Libya, the ousting of Colonel Gaddafi and what came next once I have finished reading it. But for those of us who were there in 2011 and haven’t been back, it puts together a lot of the snippets of info, rumours and hints into a satisfying narrative, one that joins plenty of dots.

For example, it is revealing on just how the Nato aerial intervention worked. Commanders – with a mandate to protect civilian populations – were at pains to ensure that British, French and Emirati planes did not simply become the air arm of the rebel movement. The chapter by Frederic Wehrey quotes a senior Nato planner:

“We were prepared to strike anti-Gaddafi forces if they had targeted civilians. Toward the end of the war, in Sirte, we came very, very close.”

The air war was hailed as a huge success at the time. And it is clear that close co-operation between Libyan rebels, advisers on the ground and Nato nations was crucial to that. Much of the rest of the book explains why pretty much everything else has been a disaster.

You know what you can do with your selfie sticks


Pleased to read that New York museums are banning selfie sticks. I can think of nothing more tasteless than standing in front of a breathtaking piece of art and taking a photo of yourself gurning in front of it…. except for maybe doing it front of the city’s 9/11 memorial.

Still, we seem to live in a society where we expect to insert ourselves in the centre of everyone else’s story. There’s a longer piece to be put together on what selfie sticks say about us… But I’d have to write about Brian Williams so let’s leave it there.

Sorry Aaron Rodgers, but it’s time for a new theory of change


This is how advocacy goes these days. Pick a cause. Boil it down to a few ABCs. Sign up a celebrity. Or a load of them. Change US policy. And then claim victory with some spurious research in your chosen country.

This piece on the Foreign Policy website shows how the focus on conflict minerals has had dubious results in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While the campaign might have produced the Dodd-Frank “conflict minerals” legislation, has it actually stemmed conflict and promoted peace?

At the beginning of September, 70 academics, researchers, journalists, and advocates published a blistering open letter criticizing Dodd-Frank and its backers, asserting that the groups and activists pushing to stop the trade of conflict minerals risk “contributing to, rather than alleviating, the very conflicts they set out to address.” Their campaign “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between minerals and conflict” in Congo, the signatories said. (Some critics have gone further still, charging that the advocates who sculpted and pushed Dodd-Frank have even misrepresented, in the name of what they see as a greater good, the situation on the ground in Congo.) Two months later, on Nov. 30, the Washington Post published a long investigative feature describing how Dodd-Frank “set off a chain of events that has propelled millions of miners and their families deeper into poverty.”

None of this should be a surprise. People I trust on DRC (such as those who have actually been there) always said the issue of conflict minerals was far more complicated than the campaigners at The Enough Project, for example, would have you believe.

The problem – also seen with Save Darfur, Kony 2012 and other celebrity-heavy campaigns – is that tactics that help attract attention and support at home, analyses that boil a complex problem in a simple solution, are rarely the ones that can make a difference on the ground.

In language the advocates would understand: It’s time for a new theory of change.

“Tactics that are akin to terrorism”

So, if you want to know why the US does not consider the Taliban to be a terrorist organisation, Josh Earnest, White House spokesman, has an explanation. A long explanation.

It’s an important point, one with all sorts of ramifications for how the US can and cannot engage with the Taliban.

But it gets complicated when someone asks how it is that the Treasury does consider the Taliban to be a terrorist group….

“The reason that the Taliban is listed on the (list targeting financial sanctions) — is for two reasons. One is they do carry out tactics that are akin to terrorism. They do pursue terror attacks in an effort to try to advance their agenda. And by designating them in the way does allow the United States to put in place some financial sanctions against the leaders of that organisation in a way that’s been beneficial to our ongoing efforts against the Taliban. Now, what’s also true, though, is that it’s important to draw a distinction between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Taliban has resorted to terror tactics, but those terror tactics have principally been focused on Afghanistan.”

This is the clear difference with Isil, for example, which has conducted its attacks predominantly in Iraq and Syria.

And why negotiations or a prisoner exchange is unacceptable with one, but not the other… Er, possibly.

The political marketplace

Fascinating interview with Alex de Waal, setting out how the “political marketplace” is a useful concept through which to understand conflict in Africa and elsewhere. Think about the political business manager, juggling incomings and outgoings. It seems to be a powerful tool to understand intervention and analyse the rise of groups such as Isil…

Take for example, a lot of attention has been given to the sources of finance to the Islamic State. People have been discussing about the ways it is generating money by way of taking hostages, or receiving money from Qatar, or by liquidating the assets in the region. But I have not seen anyone look at the other side of the story, which is expenditure. What is its political budget? What is its security budget? To what extent is it actually producing public goods? These questions matter because this particular group is not functioning like a regular terrorist group mainly because it controls territory and is functioning as a territorial insurgent. A territorial insurgent has to provide public goods. Without understanding these aspects it will be difficult to analyze the problem itself.

Well worth reading the whole thing (PDF), in Fletcher Security Review, published by Tufts.