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This week's editor

Olly Huitson, Editor

Oliver Huitson is Co-Editor at OurKingdom and a freelance journalist.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Washington's Iraqi 'surge': where are the Iraqis?

Iraqis themselves must be at the centre of any attempt to make President Bush's new strategy for their country a political success, says Reidar Visser.

Bush's surge, Iraq's insurgency

The decision to increase the number of United States troops in Iraq is a gift to al-Qaida.

Is this how humans behave?

While Saddam deserves no sympathy, says Anthony Barnett, the ugly gallows scenes confront us with our role in Iraq's horror: we let Blair and Bush lead.

Nuclear weapons: the oxygen of debate

The first months of 2007 bring an opportunity to open discussion on a subject that Britain's government would prefer to keep closed.

Telling Muslim tales

The British media loves stories about Muslims. But do they illuminate or mystify the reality of Muslims’ lives and predicaments? Mukul Devichand reports.

Afghanistan: the choice

Without a change of Nato strategy, the prospect for Afghanistan in 2007 is escalating violence.

Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat

The war between Hizbollah and Israel in Lebanon was a contest over the nation-state as the foundational unit of political action, says Hazem Saghieh.

The Kurds and the ISG: losing friends, losing the war

The implementation of the Baker report would be a betrayal of Iraq's Kurds and a defeat for the United States itself, says Dlawer Ala'Aldeen.

The dividends of asymmetry: al-Qaida's evolving strategy

A year without a major al-Qaida attack might suggest an organisation in retreat. Not so, says Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou.

Iraq out of sight

The Baker report is already history. A fundamental rethink of United States policy in Iraq and Afghanistan is still beyond the horizon.

Lebanon's two futures

The heated talk of revolution and civil war in Lebanon must be balanced by awareness of the way its people and institutions cope with political crisis, says Alex Klaushofer.

The Iraq Study Group report: an assessment

The Baker report's recommendations for future United States policy in Iraq cannot work while United States violence and coercion dominates so much of Iraqis' lives, says Tareq Y Ismael.

Lebanon on the brink - but of what?

Lebanon's internal political fractures combine with regional pressures to create a perilous moment for the country, reports Zaid Al-Ali in Beirut.

Iraq: not civil war, occupation

The Iraq Study Group has still not understood what people in Iraq well know, says Sami Ramadani: that it is the United States military occupation of Iraq itself that is fuelling the violence there.

The SWISH Report (7)

A fifth report from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics to the al-Qaida Strategic Planning Cell on the progress of the campaign.

Thank you for inviting us to deliver a fifth report to you on the progress of your movement. You will recall that our work for you commenced with an initial assessment in July 2004; a follow-up in January 2005; a further in February 2006; and our most recent report in September 2006.

Rendition and democracy: civil society's role

It was the worst kept secret in the world. The "extraordinary rendition" system, established by the United States, is a web of agreements with countries in Europe, north Africa, the middle east, and Asia to host secret prisons or to hold "outsourced" detainees for indefinite lock-up and torture. It is a system that allows the US to conduct its "war on terror" outside regular channels, without democratic or judicial oversight.

Pakistan: zero-sum games people play

The "hudood" law regulating Pakistanis' private and public morality is a focal-point of the country's great cultural and political divide, reports Irfan Husain.

Washington's Iraqi sandstorm

The meltdown of United States policy in Iraq is fuelling neo-conservative disarray in Washington. But will the Bush administration change course?

Anti-terrorism: new leadership, new strategy

A rights-based foreign policy is the best guarantee of national security, says Tom Porteous of Human Rights Watch.

Israelis and Arabs: the Sadat precedent

The historic visit of Egypt's president to Jerusalem in November 1977 holds a vital lesson for those seeking a middle-east peace settlement today, says David Govrin.

America in Iraq: stay or go?

The debate in the United States about its military strategy in Iraq and the deployment of forces there is intensifying. Morton Kondracke and William R Polk present sharply contrasting recommendations.

Afghanistan under siege

The west's military strategy in Afghanistan is proving counterproductive as well as costly.

Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed

The Arab world's passage from progressive secularism to conservative religiosity in the last fifty years is illuminated by the work of Egypt’s greatest writer, says Tarek Osman.

Iraq: divide or die

An ethno-sectarian solution is the only way to preserve Iraq as a coherent entity, argue Gareth Stansfield and Liam Anderson.

Iraq lives

The voices of Iraqi patriotism in Basra are a rebuke to western advocates of the country’s fragmentation, says Reidar Visser.

A curse on difference: gays vs zealots in Israel

Amid Israel's wider security crises, the aggravation surrounding a gay-pride march provoked fleeting religious unity and a sense of liberty besieged, reports Jan McGirk in Jerusalem.

Britain's war: evasion and reality

The head of Britain's security service shows more understanding of the political realities of the war on terror than the country's prime minister.

Sparing Saddam: beyond victor's justice

A US call to spare Saddam from the gallows could restore America's reputation for justice, and be a powerful gesture of reconciliation for the middle east, says John Sloboda.

The US votes: the road ahead for Iraq

United States politicians are rethinking their options in Iraq. But would a new policy resolve or intensify the war? Zaid Al-Ali assesses Washington's evolving agenda.

The campaign that should never stop

Amid the pain and blood of Gaza, Eyad Sarraj of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme calls on "all those who still truly believe in peace - Palestinians, Israelis and friends and allies all over the world - to unite their efforts in order to give reconciliation and peace a chance."

Kurdistan beyond Iraq

The political pressures in Iraq are pushing the Kurds towards independence, says Dlawer Ala'Aldeen.

Abqaiq's message to Washington

The al-Qaida attack on an oil facility in Saudi Arabia in February 2006, which came nearer to success than was reported at the time, has increased pressure on United States forces in the region.

Syria's quagmire, al-Assad's tunnel

The Damascus regime has survived the fallout of war in Iraq and turmoil in Lebanon, but a closer look suggests that Bashar al-Assad's time is running out, argues Carsten Wieland.

Israel's paralysis

The Israeli novelist David Grossman marks the eleventh anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin with an impassioned plea to his compatriots and political leaders.

Pervez Musharraf: in a vice

The circumstances surrounding the destruction of a madrasa in Bajaur, which killed up to eighty-five people on 30 October 2006, demonstrate yet again the tricky nature of President Pervez Musharraf's current balancing act. In particular, the involvement of the United States in the assault, and the nature of the protests in its aftermath, reveal Musharraf to be caught between the hammer of Washington's demands and the anvil of his people's rising anger.

Each time Musharraf acts to crack down on the jihadis proliferating across the tribal badlands that divide Pakistan and Afghanistan, the political dangers to him multiply. On this occasion, a seminary in the village of Chingai was targeted by helicopter gunships that levelled the building, killing everybody inside. The seminary, in the tribal area of Bajaur, was just a couple of miles from the poorly marked Afghan border.

Across the frontier is the Afghan province of Kunar, another lawless area that is giving both the government in Kabul and Musharraf's Nato supporters sleepless nights. Pakistani government spokespeople say that the army had evidence that the madrasa was being used to train young militants, and that it was also a base for launching suicide-attacks.

Government critics - and they include all the Islamic parties - insist that disproportionate force was used by the army. If there was any evidence that there were armed militants in the building, they should have been arrested and tried. But Major-General Shaukat Sultan, head of the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) department, defended the army, saying that had the madrasa been approached by road, many of the militants would have escaped. He left unsaid the fear that such an operation would almost certainly have resulted in heavy casualties. The army has suffered over 600 dead in clashes in the tribal belt over the last two years.

In January 2006, when a CIA Predator drone carried out a similar operation in the village of Damadola Burkanday in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP), killing up to eighteen people (alleged militants but also civilians, including four children), protests went on for weeks. This incident has already provoked similar levels of fury. Indeed, one MP from the ruling Muttahida-Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance of clerics running the NWFP has already resigned.

In Bajaur as well as Waziristan, there are a number of jihadi groups armed to the teeth. People in these defiantly independent areas have been long accustomed to living beyond the reach of the federal government, and deeply resent recent incursions by the army. Those fighting the army include Chechen, Arab, Uzbek and Uighur 'holy warriors'.

Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan.

Also by Irfan Husain in openDemocracy:

"Kabul vs Islamabad: a war of words"
(16 March 2006)

"Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)

"The state of Pakistan" (22 May 2006)

"Hell in Helmand"
(18 July 2006)

"Lebanon: the view from Pakistan"
(7 August 2006)

"The Baluchi insurrection"
(4 September 2006)

"How democracy works in Pakistan"
(29 September 2006)

At the frontier

The madrasa in the eye of the storm was run by the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-Muhammadi (TNSM), a fanatical Sunni outfit that boasted of sending 8,000 volunteers into Afghanistan to fight the Northern Alliance alongside the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11. Its leader, Sufi Muhammad, is in jail on a number of charges. Earlier, he had set up a number of Islamic courts in Bajaur. His deputy, Maulvi Liaquat, died in the Chingai attack, together with his sons. But his ally Maulvi Faqir Mohammad survived the attacks at Chingai and Damadola, and could well become a thorn in the government's side.

One problem the Pakistan government faces is that it is unlikely to get local corroboration of whatever evidence it had about the presence of militants in the Chingai madrasa. Bajaur is a closed society to outsiders, and the tribal code of conduct, known locally as the Pakhtunkhwa, is as rigid as anything the cosa nostra ever conceived. Moreover, quite apart from the question of honour, anybody seen talking to the government is a dead man walking. There have been a number of killings of "traitors" in the region, and people are terrified to be branded a "government agent". So when critics and opposition politicians demand "evidence", the army cannot really produce anything that would stand up in a court of law. In all probability, it was tipped off by the Americans who have the border area under very close electronic and aerial surveillance.

Indeed, according to early reports of the incident, the madrasa was levelled by Hellfire missiles fired from a CIA Predator drone. The charge, denied strenuously by both Washington and Islamabad, is impossible to verify. Reporters have been denied permission to travel to Chingai, but locals insist the explosions occurred several minutes before the army helicopters arrived overhead.

At risk is the precarious agreement forged on 5 September 2006 in North Waziristan between the government and tribal leaders, under which troops were withdrawn from their forward positions. In return, foreign fighters were to be denied shelter, and there were to be no cross-border incursions. While Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, and Nato commanders remained deeply sceptical, they agreed to let Musharraf go ahead to see if his border diplomacy could work. After taking heavy casualties, the Pakistan army was prepared to return to the old carrot-and-stick method of ensuring peace along the frontier.

An unreported sum was paid to tribal leaders as part of the agreement. Now, a number of tribal leaders have said they will not abide by the accord unless the Pakistani army guarantees it will not carry out similar attacks. And in response to pressure from Nato to increase security on the Afghan-Pakistani border, Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesperson said on 6 November that the country is proposing to build a fence and implant mines in the area.

This places Musharraf in a dilemma. If he gives any such assurances to the tribal chiefs, he will be accused by Washington and London of not doing enough in the "war on terror"; but if he cannot reassure the mullahs and the tribal chiefs, they will return to the warpath and make life very difficult for him. While his options are limited, he can still reduce his political dependence on the religious parties by co-opting secular politicians to his side. So far, he has allowed his personal dislike for Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to keep them in exile and out of the political arena. But as he is pushed into a corner, he may discover that he has no choice but to start talking to his old enemies.

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