Hakimullah Mehsud: dead or alive?
At least three Pakistani Taliban sources report that Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), died over the weekend near the northwestern Pakistani city of Multan while en route to Karachi to receive treatment, though for what is unclear (Dawn, CNN, LAT). Speculation over Hakimullah's status has been rampant for nearly a month after a suspected U.S. drone strike in mid-January reportedly injured him; if confirmed, Hakimullah's death would be an important success for the drones program.
There are several contenders in the running to be Hakimullah's successor: Maulvi Noor Jamal, also known as Toofan, a commander from Kurram and Orakzai who allegedly "kills humans like one will kill chickens;" Qari Hussain, who runs the group's suicide bombing training program but also has been rumored killed; Wali ur-Rehman, the TTP's chief military strategist and leader in South Waziristan; and a handful of other Mehsud commanders (The News, Reuters, NYT). After Hakimullah's predecessor Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a drone strike last August, the TTP delayed announcing his replacement for several weeks during reported Taliban infighting.
On Saturday, the Pakistani Army seized control of the town Damadola in the tribal agency of Bajaur from the Taliban, as part of an offensive revitalized in late January 18 months after it was first begun (NYT, Dawn, AP/CP). More than 250,000 people have since fled Bajaur, the agency where al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al Zawahiri, is believed to have sought shelter in 2006. And 15 Pakistani troops were killed in ongoing fighting in South Waziristan (The News). The governor of the NWFP claimed that the TTP is spending almost 3.6 billion rupees on 15,000 fighters in Pakistan, funding he said it gets from the opium trade in Afghanistan (Dawn).
Political and militant violence in Pakistan
A former federal information minister now running for a seat in Pakistan's National Assembly was apparently targeted by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles in the garrison town of Rawalpindi late Monday evening, and four others were killed (NYT, Geo, The News, Dawn). Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a bitter opponent of Pakistani politician Nawaz Sharif and who is believed to have the covert support of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's political party, escaped with a leg wound, and his supporters believe the attack was politically motivated though militant involvement can't be ruled out.
Pakistani police reportedly foiled an attack on a five-star hotel in Lahore, the country's cultural capital, by arresting six suspected Taliban militants including a 14-year-old boy and a prayer leader from Khyber with a suicide vest and hand grenades yesterday (AP, Dawn, AJE). The would-be attackers reportedly told police they were planning to target the Pearl Continental Hotel, the Peshawar branch of which was attacked last June, though they didn't know for sure if any U.S. citizens were currently staying there.
Sabrina Tavernise has a sad story describing the death of a 12-year-old maid in a wealthy Pakistani household in Lahore, and Dexter Filkins narrates the treacherous stretch of road crossing the Kabul Gorge between the Afghan capital and Jalalabad, one of the most dangerous highways in the world (NYT, NYT). In northern Afghanistan, at least 60 people have been killed and hundreds stranded by avalanches in the Salang Pass, which connects Kabul with Mazar-e-Sharif (Pajhwok, AP, AFP).
Corruption, kinetics, and conscription?
Afghan authorities have arrested two officials in the past week on suspicion of aiding the Taliban and corruption charges: a district police chief in the Bala Murghab district of Badghis province last Thursday, and a deputy police chief in Kapisa over the weekend (WSJ, Quqnoos, CP, Pajhwok, LAT, AFP, BBC, Reuters, ISAF). Atahullah Wahaab is accused of being a facilitator for the Taliban's IED network in Kapisa, and Aminullah of passing sensitive information to militants in Badghis. Roadside bombs are the biggest killer of international troops in Afghanistan, and a militant spokesman recently claimed to have developed an undetectable bomb the movement has dubbed "Omar" in honor of the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar (AFP).
As hundreds of civilians are fleeing the town of Marjah in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, the Taliban appear to be digging in for the coming fight with Afghan, U.S., and international forces, reinforcing their strongholds with rocket-propelled grenades and heave weapons (Reuters, AP, McClatchy, AP, AFP, NBC, LAT, AP). On Sunday, U.S. aircraft dropped leaflets over Marjah warning militants of the coming offensive, and a Taliban commander told NBC that the militants plan to dress as civilians, "not fight them face-to-face," while the militants today have prevented civilians from leaving Marjah, prompting coalition officials to warn them to "keep your heads down."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai told a security conference in Munich on Sunday that he is considering instituting conscription for the Afghan security forces, service in which was compulsory until 1992 (AFP, AP, Quqnoos). And the U.S. is reportedly bringing in former foes, veterans of the Soviet-backed Afghan military of the 1980s, to serve as commanding officers in the growing Afghan army, and the U.S. is also making small programs giving a two-week crash course in warfighting to Afghan soldiers, police, and intelligence officers a priority (WSJ, Wash Post).
Heidi Vogt describes in detail the problem of providing electricity in Kandahar, a southern Afghan province that is a stronghold for the Taliban, where 90 factories sit vacant due to intermittent power, the main sources of which should be the Kajaki Dam in neighboring Helmand and two diesel generators from the United States (AP). Joshua Partlow reports on small incremental progress being made in southern Afghanistan (Wash Post).
U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Amb. Richard Holbrooke said Sunday that the United States is not in "direct contact" with Taliban militants for negotiations, which are fraught with risks for both sides (AFP, AJE, Reuters). And the United Kingdom passed a somber milestone in Afghanistan yesterday as the 256th British soldier was killed, by a roadside bomb in Helmand, pushing the country's death toll in the Afghan war above the 255 Britons killed in 1982's Falklands conflict (AFP, Reuters, Guardian, Independent).
And finally, Joby Warrick and Peter Finn round up the competing images of al Qaeda -- one, a group hard hit by the loss of its leaders in drone strikes and other operations, and the other, an "agile foe slipping past U.S. defenses" and still determined to strike the homeland -- and find them both "completely accurate" (Wash Post).
A third gender
Pakistan's community of khusra, which loosely translates to "eunuch" though the word encompasses more than castrated men in Pakistan, is seeking greater rights in the country and the Supreme Court has suggested adding a third gender to state identity cards (AP). Though there are no official figures for khusra, one estimate puts the number at "hundreds of thousands."
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