Following Pakistan's Elections

Saba Imtiaz, a freelance journalist based in Karachi, has started a daily newsletter of updates relating to Pakistan's upcoming elections -- scheduled to take place this summer. She explains what she'll be offering in a recent blogpost:

Along with a round-up of the headlines and commentary from English, Urdu and Sindhi news sources, I’ll also be writing smaller profiles of candidates and major news issues, as well as doing smaller data dumps on voting patterns


View some of the updates here and subscribe to the newsletter via email here and via RSS here.

If you follow Colin Cookman's excellent Daily New Briefs then you'll probably want to subscribe to Saba's election update.

#talibantwitterfight: The News Story That Wasn't

The Taliban twitter account (sic) is back in the news again, this time courtesy of the US Senate:

"Senators want to stop feeds which boast of insurgent attacks on Nato forces in Afghanistan and the casualties they inflict. Aides for Joe Lieberman, chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said the move was part of a wider attempt to eliminate violent Islamist extremist propaganda from the internet and social media." (link)


The article then goes on to restate some of the usual assumptions and apparently unchecked facts of the story that have been mentioned in the more recent slew of press. I've rounded up links to most of these articles here for you; but seriously, don't waste your time.

I'll leave it to others to explain why the Senate getting excited about 'the Taliban twitter account' doesn't seem to make a lot of sense -- I don't claim any particular understanding of that world -- but I really hope reporting on the matter starts to improve. By way of example, more from that article by Ben Farmer:

"The Taliban movement has embraced the social network as part of its propaganda effort and regularly tweets about attacks or posts links to its statements. The information has ranged from highly accurate, up-to-the-minute accounts of unfolding spectacular attacks, to often completely fabricated or wildly exaggerated reports of American and British casualties."


I'm not sure what it takes for the Taliban to 'embrace' social media, but apparently not much. The Taliban set up some official twitter accounts back as far as 2009 and these accounts have been autoposting since then (more below). That's it. It would be more accurate to say that media reports have enthusiastically embraced reporting on the Taliban's activities on Twitter.

"Twitter feeds including @ABalkhi, which has more than 4,100 followers, and @alemarahweb, which has more than 6,200 followers, regularly feature tweeted boasts about the deaths of "cowardly invaders" and "puppet" Afghan government forces. Taliban spokesmen also frequently spar with Nato press officers on Twitter, as they challenge and rebut each other's statements."


No. Just no. The account @abalkhi appears to have nothing to do with the Taliban (see below). I'd also be interested to see the evidence for the statement that 'Taliban spokesmen also frequently spar with Nato press officers'. I have not seen a single instance of this. Every other story on these accounts repeats this claim. And it's presumably quite an important distinction: an official spokesman (we might assume it is a man) engaged in verbal attacks on the official ISAF account is a different thing from some fanboy in his bedroom doing the same thing.

So, in the hope that this story can die the death it should have MONTHS ago, here are some facts.

The following is a list of the Twitter accounts most frequently associated with the Taliban, presented in the order they were first created:


started: June 3, 2009 // regularity of tweets: 2 or times per week // language: Arabic // name: Majallat al-Somood

following: 10 // followers: 574 // number of tweets: 379

This was the very first twitter account that the Taliban seem to have set up. (Or, if they set accounts up earlier, they have not been used). @alsomood is the official account for one of the Taliban's magazines, al-Somood. This is an Arabic-language magazine that caters to audiences in the Gulf, for the most part. Printed copies of the magazine have even shown up from time to time. For the most part, however, it's just a PDF edition, released once every month. It mostly includes longer articles and commentary not found elsewhere on the Taliban's main site, although one or two articles are usually translated from al-Somood and shared via the main web outlet. The @alsomood account tweets once or twice a week in Arabic, and every single time these tweets are automated by twitterfeed. Twitterfeed is a site that allows you to automatically post a tweet every time something changes on your website, for example. You give it an RSS feed to follow, and every time there's a new link it autoposts. Which is to say, there does not ever have to be anyone operating this account. It is fully automated.


started: October 22, 2010 // regularity of tweets: stopped // language: English // name: Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan

following: 3 // followers: 50 // number of tweets: 6

This appears to have been an experimental account. It was only used for 6 tweets, and stopped on October 27, 2010.


started: December 19, 2010 // regularity of tweets: daily // language: English // name: Mostafa Ahmedi

following: 4 // followers: 6420 // number of tweets: 3014

This is one of the accounts that is followed by journalists. It is exclusively posted to by twitterfeed. There appears to be no direct manual tweeting on this account. This is an official account. It is also one of the two accounts that @ISAFmedia believe to "have some tie to the Taliban."


started: February 18, 2011 // regularity of tweets: stopped // language: English // name: Ahmad

following: 8 // followers: 14 // number of tweets: 4

This sees to have been another experimental account. It only tweeted 4 times, each of which were of a Taliban video.


started: February 21, 2011 // regularity of tweets: Irregular // language: English // name: Alemarah Media

following: 2 // followers: 30 // number of tweets: 36

This account was abandoned on March 11, 2011. There was some manual tweeting, including a mix of videos from the Pakistani Taliban. It appears to be unofficial.


started: May 3, 2011 // regularity of tweets: Daily // language: English // name: Afghanistan news

following: 296 // followers: 78 // number of tweets: 1090

This is another official account that runs off twitterfeed. There is no manual tweeting from this account. Moreover, when @alemarahweb updates, @hanif_hamad updates simultaneously with the same message. This means that they are running off the same RSS feed (and probably the same twitterfeed account). It was started the day after bin Laden was killed.


started: May 12, 2011 // regularity of tweets: Daily // language: English // name: Abdulqahar Balkhi

following: 24 // followers: 4293 // number of tweets: 865

This is the most well-known of the alleged 'Taliban' accounts, yet everything seems to suggest that @Abalkhi (and the account later created, @Abalkhii with two 'i's) is unofficial. He never tweets any material which isn't already up on the Taliban's website. He seems to speak Pashtu and/or Dari (translating material from the news section of the Pashtu site before it has been translated and uploaded on the English site). This might be (at a stretch) one reason why journalists continue to refer to his account as being 'official'. He also tweets completely manually -- presumably because he has no access to the official site's RSS stream (which is not provided to normal users of the website). He set up his account a week after the death of bin Laden, and my hunch is that the operator of this account probably doesn't even live in Afghanistan (or Pakistan).


started: September 20, 2011 // regularity of tweets: Irregular // language: English // name: Muhammad Zabiullah

following: 137 // followers: 46 // number of tweets: 27

This also seems to be an unofficial account. The user states their location as being in 'Paktia Afghanistan', but some of his tweets imply that he is outside the country (although seem to suggest that he is Afghan by nationality). He tweets a fair amount manually, sometimes only providing links, and other times corresponding with @Abalkhi. This account was set up relatively recently.


started: September 20, 2011 // regularity of tweets: Weekly // language: English // name: Abdulqahar Balkhi

following: 54 // followers: 54 // number of tweets: 80

This user has a very similar name to @Abalkhi, and it is possible both accounts are operated by the same person. The only difference is that @Abalkhi seems to update almost exclusively through the web app, and @Abalkhii seems to update mostly on his/(her?) iPhone. While @Abalkhi almost exclusively tweets stories from the Taliban website, @Abalkhii (created in September 2011) tweets stories from the international news media and engages in a fair amount of discussion with other twitter users. Moreover, the language style @Abalkhii uses is quite different from that of @Abalkhi.


You can view a timeline of when these accounts were created here.

At any rate, I hope this puts to rest the whole 'Taliban spokesmen are on the internet engaged in big twitter discussions with ISAF'. The truth is that they are not. There is one account which occasionally responds to @ISAFmedia, but (for reasons outlined above) it does not seem to be official.

In fact, the only people who seem to really be enjoying this all are @ISAFmedia themselves and the media outlets covering the story. Almost every day now, @ISAFmedia puts out a tweet to @Alemarahweb saying that something that was posted was wrong. This is one example:

And, in a way, it sort of represents the futility of a lot of what goes on in Afghanistan these days: someone sitting behind a desk in ISAF headquarters, tweeting away at a Taliban twitter account, hoping to goad someone in response, but there is nobody to respond to since @Alemarahweb is tweeting automatically without anyone needed to run their account.

Entropy and insurgent radicalisation: an ISAF goal?

Attacks in Kabul on Tuesday are believed to have been carried out by those from or affiliated with the Pakistani group Lashkar-e Jhangvi al-Alami. Much of the commentary so far has looked at the extent of past precedent for sectarian tensions and violence in Afghanistan. A piece by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad asks whether the attack reflects a Sunni-Shi’i dynamic or rather ethnic issues. And Anand Gopal usefully notes that “a unilateral LeJ-Alami attack would mark a significant erosion of the Taliban’s control over the battlefield.” The Afghan insurgency has long been -- to a greater or lesser degree -- a hodgepodge of different groups and actors. This is a situation the Taliban’s central leadership have previously been willing to tolerate; more affiliate fighters means more violence directed at the foreign forces, even if these groups often turn their guns on other insurgent fighters or the general population at large. Periodically, the central leadership will attempt to clamp down on some of those who claim to fight under the Taliban banner. Several mass-casualty incidents in Kandahar involving large numbers of civilians dead and wounded last year saw an effort by the leadership to reinforce command-and-control structures. Similarly, the layeha or rulebook issued by the leadership every year or two has increasingly concerned itself with these issues of power retention.

The usual confusions of a messy conflict fought among the people mean it is difficult to penetrate all the inner machinations behind these events, however one thing is clear: the Taliban’s central leadership (based, for the most part, in Karachi) have been steadily losing control over the violence in Afghanistan. This is not to say that they are a spent force, nor do I meant to imply that there aren’t insurgency command structures that function more or less as intended.

For a variety of reasons -- best explored elsewhere for reasons of brevity -- there has been a steady erosion of the ability of the old-generation leadership based in Pakistan to control the use of violence by the fighters that nominally pledge allegiance to the Taliban or ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’. This is no great secret; the layeha itself implicitly acknowledges this diagnosis. In fact, the imagined breakup of the Afghan insurgency was one of the reason many outside parties and figures have sought an acceleration of ‘political solutions’ instead of continuing to rely on military options.

In case it needs repeating, the conflict in Afghanistan is a political conflict, one with a strong military dimension, to be sure, but also one whose seeming intractability reflects a yawning political entropy that grows with each day.

But do the current means of addressing this conflict really address the fundamental political issues or are they actually accelerating the very entropy they seek to avoid? I have argued elsewhere (together with my colleague, Felix Kuehn) that one of the things bearing significant responsiblity for this fragmentation of the insurgency are capture-or-kill raids carried out by ISAF and Afghan security forces. Quite apart from the question of whether they are effective or not -- a report written for the Afghanistan Analysts Network raised some of those issues -- they have played a significant role in removing mid- and lower-tier Taliban leaders from the battlefield.

The capture-and-kill raids have been a quantifiable tool in the hands of ISAF to target the insurgency, but have they ended up radicalising the Taliban movement as an unwanted side-effect? There are numerous indications that this is the case. The insurgent commanders who replace those removed from the battlefield in ISAF operations are, for the most part, younger and often of a different ideological bent than their older predecessors.

The extent to which this is a goal of the ISAF campaign or just a side-effect remains a significant question, however. Off-record briefings with American military officials or reports of conversations with special forces in the field relatively frequently elicit admissions that it is an explicit goal of the capture-or-kill raids to “radicalise the insurgency.” The idea seems to have come over from the US military experience in Iraq. Sidestepping the extent of US agency in radicalising actors in that conflict, a more radical Taliban would supposedly carry out more atrocities and, in so doing, would themselves drive a wedge between the insurgency and the people. In effect, the idea is a hangover from the golden days of counterinsurgency rhetoric.

International political and military actors didn’t come to Afghanistan with malign intentions, but the unintended consequences of their actions constantly threaten to overturn the very few unambiguously positive effects of their presence. Foreign money -- in all its different forms -- has arguably had more of a corrosive effect than the war itself.

Yesterday’s attack on an explicitly sectarian target may turn out to be yet another unintended consequence. The more radicalised the younger commanders become, the more they're willing to tolerate people from Pakistan coming in to 'help out'; just take a look at Kunar and Nuristan today. By the same token, the less control the Afghan Taliban’s central leadership has over things inside Afghanistan, the more chance we have for violence on the ground to be hijacked by external groups with their own agendas: witness the Rabbani assassination.

A radicalised mid-level leadership that claims less and less allegiance to a senior leadership may be what the ISAF campaign intended to promote, but it can only harm the Afghan civilian population.

Those '40 al-Qaeda insurgents'...

I never really thought I'd be writing something in semi-solidarity with the Long War Journal, but this jogged my mind. 10 days ago, ISAF put out a press release following the killing of Sabir Lal, someone who was said to be a 'key affiliate' of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. You can read more about him here and here (watch how those headlines start to resemble chinese whispers).

I've been working on a report for the Afghanistan Analysts Network relating to ISAF's press releases these past few months, as those of you following me on twitter will already know. A pleasant byproduct of that research is the database of press releases that I've put together, one that allows me to isolate, for example, all the instances where ISAF went after someone they thought was associated or affiliated with al-Qaeda in some way.

For 2011, operations against al-Qaeda in eastern Afghanistan amount to the following:*

1. January 7, 2011 [2011-01-S-091] - 'Several' (minimum 3) suspected insurgents killed in an airstrike in Pech Valley, Kunar, while pursuing an "al-Qaida-associated Taliban leader". Later 'confirmed' that he was 'Qari Baryal, an al-Qaida-associated Taliban leader'. [Total: 1 'associated leader' killed]

2. January 8, 2011 [2011-01-S-099] - One suspected insurgent detained in Chaprahar, Nangarhar while in pursuit of an 'al Qaida-associated Taliban leader'.

3. April 11, 2011 [2011-04-S-039] - Taliban leader detained in Behsud district, Nangarhar province. "The leader operated for al-Qaida and the Taliban." [Total: 1 leader captured].

4. April 11, 2011 [2011-04-S-042; 2011-04-S-047; 2011-04-S-079] - Several 'al-Qaida insurgents, including the suspected al-Qaida leader in Kunar province' killed in Dangam district, Kunar province, in an airstrike. Editorial comment notes 25 leaders and fighters killed between March 14-April 13 [Total: approx 3 killed].

5. April 19, 2011 [2011-04-S-060] - 17 insurgents killed 'including foreign fighters' and one detained while searching for a senior al-Qaida leader in Dangam district, Kunar province. [Total: 17 killed, no indication who is AQ or not]

6. June 23, 2011 [2011-06-S-079] - 5 detained in Gailan district, Ghazni province, with suspected ties to al-Qaida. [Total: 5 detained on suspicion of having ties to AQ]

7. September 2, 2011 [2011-09-S-002] - Key AQ affiliate killed in Jalalabad district, Nangarhar province. [Total: 1 killed and several (minimum 3) suspected insurgents captured]

TOTAL 22 killed and 10 captured from the above numbers

Note first of all, that the numbers don't even reach the minimum '40' claimed in the press release, EVEN if we assume that all those listed were 'al-Qaeda insurgents'. As Bill rightly notes in his post, "what is the intelligence community and the military's definition of al Qaeda?" A lot of the people in the list above will have been Afghans, and many are simply noted as having been 'suspected ties'.

I hope that all the discussion about this magical number '40' ISAF put out has made it back to whoever wrote the press release on Sabir Lal's killing. I suspect not. It goes to something deeper about the things we read about the war in Afghanistan, namely that the 'metrics' used to define and claim success -- remember when the war was all about metrics? -- are, in various ways, false metrics, or at the very least highly misleading.  I'll have more on this in my report.


*[Note that for all of Afghanistan there were 13 operations mentioned, several of which captured only 'Afghan insurgents' and 3 of which took place in either Zabul or Balkh. I didn't really feel Ghazni (see #6 above) qualified as 'eastern Afghanistan', but I gave ISAF the benefit of the doubt on that one since technically Ghazni is part of RC-East.]

Photo Credit: © Philip Poupin

ISAF Press Release Word Clouds

...and we're back here again. I know I said I'd hold off on posting, but these charts will never make their way into the final report so I'll just put them up here. These are word clouds of the common terms used in sets of ISAF press releases.  As with all word clouds, the larger the word, the more times it occurs in the press releases for the particular period.  This first one covers the entire set (November 2009-May 1st, 2011):

The following images I split up the data into chunks. The first four months: (Nov 2009-Feb 2010 inclusive)

This covers March-June 2010 (inclusive:

This covers July-October 2010 (inclusive):

This covers November 2010-February 2011 (inclusive):

And this covers the last two months (March and April 2011):

More data on 'Kill-Capture' Raids

Last week I charted the numbers of press releases that ISAF have put out relating to "security operations" of one kind or another. I promised to split this data up into numbers of incidents mentioned in those press releases (since some press releases contain multiple incidents). The data from last week showed a decrease in the numbers of press releases (particularly in 2011). When these numbers are split up into individual incidents, however, you can see that there hasn't been a decrease in incident numbers. Actually, April 2011 had almost as many operations as September 2010 (the highest for the data set). Of course, all of this is just a picture as presented by ISAF, but since they don't release these figures in aggregate form to the public/media it's all we have to go on. Here's the new chart:









A word on the title: the incidents here are collected from ISAF press releases that refer to an event where an Afghan (or a 'foreign fighter') was killed or captured. Sometimes this happened while troops were on patrol, but more often was the result of a targeted raid/operation.

I'm working on something longer that will go into the specifics of this data set in more detail (incident data by type/province/month etc) so this will probably be my last post on the subject until the report is released.

Kandahar Prison Escape: the Taliban's Tale

The Taliban issued a new edition of their Arabic-language Al-Somood magazine a few days ago.  You can view the original on Aaron Zelin's excellent Jihadology website. The most interesting articles, I found, were the two relating to the Taliban's recent prison escape from Sarpoza jail. There has been a lot written about the escape, but we've heard relatively little from escapees. These two articles offer a fair amount of new detail. Of course, al-Somood needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, but the accounts are interesting nonetheless. Accordingly, full translations of the two articles are presented below, exclusively to this website.


{Part 1: pp12-14 of al-Šumūd (Steadfastness), 5th year, volume 60, Jumada al-Thaniya 1432AH/May-June 2011}

The Prison Break Story

How Fiction Became Reality

By Abd al-Ra'uf Hikmat

Kandahar Prison

Kandahar's main prison lies in the Sarposa area, north of Kandahar-Herat highway. It is considered the largest state prison in south Afghanistan with its capacity to hold thousands of prisoners. It comprises a main gate and multiple segments; it is also surrounded by high and impenetrable walls.

This prison has essentially been built professionally, with the establishment of high surveillance and watch towers in its four corners. It is also surrounded by a number of underground walls, further to its high [overground] walls, to prevent digging tunnels to the outside.

Notwithstanding this impervious building and tight security measures, this prison has become the scene of a fascinating story not only in the Afghan domain but internationally as well. Over the past eight years, political prisoners have been able to escape on three occasions. The first time saw in June 2003 inmate mujahideen of the political ward digging a tunnel from within the prison to the outside, thus freeing all of this ward's prisoners who totalled 45 via the tunnel. Then in June 2008, the Islamic Emirate launched militant martyrdom attacks on this prison that caused the death of all the prison's guards and released close to 1,200 inmate mujahideen. Subsequently, Americans and Kandahar officials took care of maintaining this prison; Canadian forces trained special policemen to guard the prison; watch towers were increased and monitoring cameras installed; all the prison was encircled by a deep and wide trench. Despite all these measures, the mujahideen were able for the third time to release 541 prisoners following a long planning on the 25th of April of this year, 2011.

Pure Fantasy

One of the surprising mujahideen squad in the city of Kandahar, who by his connections gained full knowledge of the inside and outside of the prison, pondered one day whether it could be possible to dig a tunnel from the inside of a house on the other side of the street to the prison as a means to releasing the prisoners. This fantasy and imagination seemed laughable at first even to its owner; he dared not share his opinion with others. But, after more time and continued thinking, he reached a conclusion. On one of these days, while he was riding a motorcycle with two of his comrades, he shared that view with them. They thought it impossible initially and deemed it a fruitless, dangerous attempt. Finally, they placed their trust on God and shared their opinion with the mujahideen high command in Kandahar. With guidelines from the command, the aforementioned four revealed [to] their trusted comrades their decision to implement this plan regardless of its risks and even if it looked impossible.

Concrete Workshop

Six months ago these committed mujahideen rented a house opposite the south corner of Kandahar prison. The old house rooms were in disrepair. Initially they built a new room. Then they brought in all necessary [equipment] and machines to make concrete, hiring a number of workers who worked during the day. But in the afternoon, when the workers left, the mujahideen stayed under the pretence of guarding. It was during that time that they proceeded to dig the tunnel from within the room they had just built.

Hard Labour for Four Months

At first, four mujahideen were plodding through this operation. Their work method was the following: one was to hit with the pickaxe, digging the tunnel, while the other three were to move the soil. The tunnel was narrow, the soil could not be moved out by wheelbarrows, so some operation planners went to the market and bought a number of children bicycles, removing their small wheels and fixing barrows on them. They were able to prepare wheelbarrows that suited their task. Now they filled these barrows with soil, pulling them by a rope to the tunnel opening and collecting the soil there before moving it to the lorry. In the morning, when the soil lorries headed to the city for its sale, mujahideen would bring in their soil-filled lorry and sell it, thus getting rid of it.

For two months, four mujahideen were working in the tunnel digging. Then their number increased to eight mujahideen. Now they were digging four meters every night. When their continued work reached 100m, they faced the issue of ventilation and lack of oxygen; nevertheless they carried on until cutting a distance of 150m. At this point it was terminally difficult to continue working, due to oxygen lack, and work carried on no further. In the beginning they tried a ground fan; it resolved the ventilation issue but it was winter and the cold weather caused headache. Then they made an air-pumping machine, delivering air by a pipe from the outside to the inside of the tunnel. This was the best method to resolve the ventilation and lack of oxygen – the machine worked quietly by a charged battery. But they then realised the risk of their digging a tunnel under the road that carried the heavy enemy vehicles to the inside of the prison: There was a possibility of a tunnel collapse under intense vehicle pressure. The question was how deep was the tunnel to be dug to exclude that possibility. As an experiment, they parked a lorry atop the tunnel; it suffered no damage, assuring them that it would not suffer because of enemy vehicles. The tunnel was 2.5m deep between the house and the public road, but as a precaution they deepened it further. Four months passed and the tunnel went 220m, a well iron pipe surprised them before realising it was not a prison pipe but a pipe to a village south of the prison. In fact, the tunnel diggers, having no map, deviated from the correct path to the right, crossing the road and reaching a village close to the prison. Here they recognised that the target could only be reached with the prison map and distance measuring tools.

One and a Half Months of Efficient Work

The tunnel diggers who lost their way and made an extra 120m now downloaded the prison map off the internet and by which were able to pinpoint the prison location. Using earth measurement tools they re-dug at the distance of 100m of the tunnel directly towards the prison. However, with the passing of the winter, night was shorter. Consequently they increased the number of labour mujahideen until they reached twenty-one. Furthermore, earth evaporates less in summer, so ventilation was a lesser issue, work faster and more effective. By digging 166m they reached the middle of the prison (it must be added that the Islamic Emirate's site mentioned the distance dug by mujahideen including the distance dug by error, giving a total of 360m, when the precise distance, excluding additional distance, was 266m. Noteworthy to add the tunnel's 70cm height and 60cm width).

The prisoner mujahideen were in two separate locations within the prison: Most were in the political ward, where they numbered 530, but a small number was in a room called 'Tawqif Khanah' [arrest room]. The tunnel was dug first towards Tawqif Khanah room, as it held a linked mujahid aware of the case. He used to hit the ground for a reason and no reason in order for the tunnel diggers to recognise whether they were ahead or behind or at the target. Thus they were able to pinpoint the place, but for verification they raised a blade to the room, until the prisoner assured them of hitting the target. They moved on to the political ward. Five days produced further 23m, reaching the political ward where its room 7 held two linked prisoners aware of the case. The aim was to take the tunnel to room 7. Here again the tunnel diggers wanted to raise a blade to ascertain and avoid any error when opening the tunnel to the prison. The mujahideen were hesitant: were they under room 6 or 7? To keep the matter secret when the blade would be raised, the two prisoners held a Qur'an completion [session]; all the rooms were vacant, the two aforementioned prisoners left, one to room 6 and the other to room 7. When the blade was raised they realised they were under room 6, contrary to their expectation. Then two further meters were dug until reaching room 7. Now they could not vacate the rooms with the Qur'an completion excuse again, so the mujahideen used the afternoon time when prisoners would go out to washing rooms and get prepared for the noon prayer; the blade was raised and it made it successfully to room 7. The opening place was specified for the escape operation day. It should be added that the blade raising operation was made subsequent to a wise and interesting plan: The prison ground was about 2.5m above the tunnel, with the tunnel's height of 70cm, how a long blade could fit through this tunnel to reach the prison ground? The mujahideen cut iron blades of 50cm length and joined them together; when they were raising a blade 50cm by a car lift, they would fix to it another blade and raise it by the lift. Thus they prepared for the dismantling of blades a machine that would be attached to each blade then hit by a hammer downwards. This was how they were able to pinpoint the location precisely.

Prison Release Plan

Following the tunnel digging to the desired target, the persons responsible for digging finished their work. They requested from the Islamic Emirate's high command guidelines concerning the prison release planning. The Kandahar Province's and high ranking Islamic Emirate's officials held continuous consultations for the secure and successful delivery of the release operation. Subsequent to consultation, the following plan was adopted.

The mind behind this operation, who on his own hit the pickaxe laboriously to dig 300m of the tunnel, would himself be the commander of the prison release operation as well. He would adopt during the operation ad-hoc plans as needed. The high command would tell him about whatever might happen. The operation would be kept secret until the last moment of execution. Links would be established with the linked brothers within the prison; they would be prepared inside the prison to take the responsibility of organising and moving out the prisoners according to the plan. Similarly all decisions were taken, delegating the operation command to the aforementioned person.

Release Operation

For the best execution of the operation, precautionary measures were checked and preparatory processes were taken again to solve the ventilation problem inside the tunnel. A powerful machine to pump air was operated while the pipe laid inside the tunnel was holed in ten places to deliver air to all parts of the tunnel. Forty-five lamps were also switched on for illumination of the tunnel. As a precautionary measure, a team of to-be-martyrs were sent to the prison neighbouring areas to launch a militant attack if necessary.

For the operation concealment and fear of being exposed, the operation-tasked person chose five mujahideen, out of the 21-mujahid team as stated before, on the operation day, so he would not lose all his friends, God forbid, if some bad thing were to happen. Subsequently, the release operation team was six persons. These six told the three linked mujahideen within the prison at 9am, one of them was in the Tawqif Khanah room and two in the political ward, that the coming night would be the date of executing the operation, God willing, in order to be prepared. The two linked persons in room 7 of the political ward, for the purpose of telling the rest of prisoners about the case at an appropriate time, prepared some hospitality in their room and invited one or two persons from each room.

The operation commander planed as follows: four brothers of the six would enter the tunnel, two would start working to open the tunnel to the Tawqif Khanah room and two would work to open a tunnel to the political ward; the remaining two would be outside the tunnel. The mujahideen would extend a telephone wire inside the tunnel, establishing a connection between brothers outside and brothers inside and allowing exchange of information e.g. where the work reached and what need be done, etc.

The four brothers entered the tunnel with car lifts and] solid iron [poles]. They started opening the tunnel to the "Tawqif Khanah" room and the political ward. At about 10 o'clock they easily opened the "Tawqif Khanah" room floor with the lift. The prisoners exited. But as they had among them two spies from the prison administration disguised as prisoners, one was made unconscious by the mujahideen and the other taken out via the tunnel handcuffed to prevent him from causing noise.

As for the ground of the political ward, its construction was heavy-duty and it took the mujahideen long to make a hole through. The lift was raising the (cement) concrete ground but due to blocked air in the tunnel it was difficult to hole. After many trials the mujahideen were able to smash the ground. After cutting a huge hole to the ward's room 7, the brothers down the tunnel gave four pistols and four daggers to the linked brothers for use in the operation. They also gave them a telephone handset to establish a connection with the brothers out of the tunnel. Thus the prisoners went on to exit until 1.30am (April 25th, 2011); approximately 250 prisoners exited this way. But the work team realised that if exiting would carry on as such it would last until 2 o'clock, while the plan was for the prisoners not to wait long [outside] as waiting till dawn would be dangerous leading possibly to a botched operation. Therefore, the team postponed the exiting of prisoners for half an hour. They started letting prisoners out again at 2am. By 3am no prisoner was in this ward.

We would like to add that all prisoners were being inspected at the entrance and exit of the tunnel. When entering, their luggage boxes would be taken as carrying them would have caused their delay and risked their re-arrest. When exiting, any money surplus to 3,000 rupees would be withheld and granted to those with no money.

While leaving, it was properly organised. The tasked brothers would wake up the prisoners of each room in turn and guide them to the tunnel. At the exit they would ride the lorries parked at the house; each lorry would carry 36 persons. It was 3:10am when [all] the prisoners left and lorries were allowed to depart. The lorries left from the yard but some brothers headed to the town suburbs on foot – they were instructed to cut a distance before returning to the Kandahar-Herat highway after daybreak and to leave the yard using taxis.

It must also be added that two of these lorries that were transporting the prisoners made two journeys to transport them. By 3:30 or 4:00am no prisoner was in the prison neighbouring areas. It is noteworthy to say that by God's favour and then the mujahideen carefulness and sagacity, the enemy felt nothing throughout concerning what was going on next to it – the house used in the operation was about 20m from the enemy's watch tower that oversaw easily the middle of the house. A surveillance camera was also installed facing the house door. Nevertheless and thank God, it noticed nothing.

The Operation's Expenses

We must add that there were no body losses and the mujahideen shot no bullet. Furthermore, the financial expenses were much lower than expected. According the person in charge of the operation and its planner, the expenses during the operation's five months reached about 900,000 Afghanis (i.e. US$20,000). These included the house fees, mujahideen food, lorry charges and other equipment the mujahideen left in the house after the operation.

On the last day of the operation, the person in charge who built the concrete workshop for the operation execution stated: we sold during the five months 150 concrete blocks, making much profit. He added: After the operation and the final exit, when the house gate was locked, we left the air pumping machine, 45 lamps, 10 concrete blocks, a pole valued at 50,000 Afghanis, 2 power generators, 2 wheelbarrows, 2 car lifts and some building material; but this historic house benefited us much that these expenses seemed nothing.


{Part 2: pp24-25 of al-Sumud, 5th year, volume 60, Jumada al-Thaniya 1432AH/May-June 2011}

Story narrator: Muhammad Idris

Editor: Habib Mujahid

I was the Second Person to Exit

(A Prisoner Tells his Story)

Muhammad Idris, a 23-year old Kandahar resident, had for many years been launching surprise operations in Kandahar city under the Islamic Emirate's command. He was caught 7 months ago by the enemy in Kandahar city and sent to Kandahar prison. He said he had yet to be tried. Since his captivity, he lived in room 9 of the huge prison with other 15 mujahideen. He was the second, out of hundreds, to exit the prison via the tunnel dug from the known house to the prison.

Let us allow Muhammad Idris to tell us his story himself:

The Kandahar prison is thus established: in the middle of the political ward there is a vast yard. All room doors open to this yard; so the ward's main gate is always locked while the internal room doors are always open. Therefore, prisoners are able to enter other rooms with no difficulty; they gather for the communal prayers as well.

The prisoners of the room that the tunnel reached hosted on Monday night their friends and invited from each room one or two persons. To the hospitality this ward's prayer imam, a scholar prisoner, was also invited, while I represented my room. So to the supper we went.

We had our supper. Then Mawlawi, the prayer imam, started talking. After some beneficial advice, the sheikh [imam] started telling the persons present about the release operation plan. None of us knew anything about the subject until then. During his talk he told the prisoners sitting in the room: "Tonight an operation to free and release us will be made; we better be ready for it". "Anyone of you exiting is ordered not to operate his mobile until tomorrow afternoon. If he talks on his mobile he must be careful not to mention how he got out," he added. Following these guidelines he told us: "Keep mentioned God sincerely so he brings this operation to success." We all started mentioning God. Within half an hour all brothers were busy with praises and prayers. Then the brothers who were aware of the plan came to the mentioned room. They cleared the items and mat in a particular part of the room. Moments later the cleared area was knocked at, and the brothers in the tunnel under the area put a car lift underneath. They continued the pressure until breaking the (cement) concrete ground. As this place was low, they brought with them many robust poles in order for the lift power to reach the concrete [ground]: they would place the poles on the lift then raise it. They repeated this two or three times until a huge hole was opened in the middle of the room.

Thereafter, the brothers inside the tunnel gave the linked prisoners a number of pistols, daggers and knives. They also gave them a box containing a telephone headset, video camera and other devices that I did not recognise. I looked to the tunnel and saw two mujahids: one who gave the box and another. Both retreated and headed to the other opening. At this point the prisoner release operation was delegated to the prisoner mujahideen who were aware of the operation. They linked the telephone headset with the wire, establishing a connection with the mujahideen on either side of the tunnel: inside and outside of the prison.

These operation-aware prisoners distributed then the arms among themselves, adding a number of trusted mujahideen to them. This ward was holding 2 rooms of criminal prisoners [as well]. There were also a number of state spies among the prisoners. So the decision was made if such spies were to cause trouble or attempt telling the prison guards we would kill them by these arms and knives. They said that such an operation would be difficult to comprehend; if any brothers would not trust it and refuse leaving, we would force them with these arms to exit.

Meanwhile, the operation-aware prisoners said to persons present prior to going down the tunnel: "When you go out on the other side of the tunnel, you will meet a number of mujahideen. They will take surplus money from you, mobiles and other items. They will allow you neither to talk nor to leave; listen to them in whatever they say to you." Alright, will do, we said. Now I was the second in turn in the group sitting in the room to the tunnel, the first prisoner went down and I followed. The tunnel was wide, but not very much, I mean we could walk kneeling or crawl easily. But the mujahideen dug it fantastically: Every 15m there was a lamp, it was very bright. Similarly the mujahideen laid a 6″ diameter plastic pipeline along the tunnel for ventilation. At its start they operated a device for pumping air in, and made small holes in the tunnel. We thus felt no lack of air in the tunnel. Additionally two wires were laid in the tunnel: One was for the telephone and I did not know whether the other was for electricity or otherwise. We went about 15 minutes inside the tunnel until reaching the other side: One went in front of me and a large number were behind me. Upon reaching the tunnel exit there were 15 armed mujahideen. They meticulously inspected all people exiting from the tunnel, taking from all their mobiles and sim cards. If one had money they would leave 3,000 rupees to him and take the rest. There was a coat where they would put the money they took from us in. As for prisoners with no money or less than 3,000 rupees, they would give them from the collection in order to have 3,000 rupees. This was the best method for everyone to have money that would help with errands until reaching their destination. After exiting I saw three mujahideen I knew, so they joined me to them in the operation execution. In the house were six transport cars. The brothers told us to make anyone exiting from the tunnel get in the cars after inspection and ordered them to say nothing but mention God discreetly, as close to the [house] yard was a prison tower; if disorder was to occur the enemy could notice. This way the prisoners exited from the tunnel and we made them ride the cars. Whenever a car would be full we would cover it. When all brothers finished, some friend said: "Not much space is left in the cars. Brothers who know the area and town alleys should go on their feet to the town suburbs". The house gate was facing the prison while its back faced a residential area. We made a hole in the back wall and through which the brothers who could not be taken by cars walked to the town suburbs.

But I and four of my friends who were of the city residents discussed it between us and agreed to go to the city. At this point the cars left the house and the five of us left minutes later to the street. We waited a little while on the pavement until a taxi came that was heading to the city. We rode it. It was 4am. Upon heading to the city the police stopped our car at "Dand" roundabout then told us by his hand to go. The same inspection process was repeated at "Madad" roundabout; the policeman said nothing. We reached the city and we had our rescue; salvation.

I need add that the prisoners in the political ward of Kandahar prison are all mujahideen. Nearby there was another ward called Tawqif Khanah where a prison room held mujahideen. From the main tunnel the mujahideen dug a secondary one to that room, allowing 10-15 prisoners of mujahideen to exit that room, thank God.

In the morning, when I walked about the town and was following the news, in my view until 8am the enemy felt nothing concerning the runaway mujahideen from the prison, as I saw no mandatory checks being carried out in the city. After 8am, the enemy started action. The prison guards used to count us twice: at 8am and in the afternoon. I think that when they arrived to the political ward at 8am to count the prisoners, they found none. Then they started searching and looking for them.

To my knowledge, not a single mujahid remained in the prison's political ward, but there was a room for the mentally ill and they remained inside the prison. As for the other wounded and sick prisoners, all were freed. There was even a wounded prisoner with two iron bars in his legs, during his walk inside the tunnel the two bars were broken and he fainted of extreme pain. Nevertheless, the mujahideen carried him in this condition, got him out of the tunnel and transported him by car.

'The Kill Team'

I've been thinking about the so-called 'Kill Team' over the past few days, prompted by a disturbing article in Rolling Stone magazine. I'll try to write something later this week, but for the moment, I'd strongly recommend two books (both out of print, I think, so use to locate a copy) to help put it all in some sort of context. They're both oral history sources for the experiences of Soviet soldiers who fought in Afghanistan (and one also offers the additional comparison point of US soldiers in Vietnam). At any rate, give these two books a read:

I've just finished another round of edits of An Enemy We Created, so have a bit more time to take my head out of the sand and blog here and at Current Intelligence over the next few days hopefully.

Helmand Refugee Appeal Update - Distribution Day


Photo: © Philip Poupin

Thanks to the many kind donations of over a hundred readers of this blog, twitter followers and others, we completed the distribution of materials to those living in two camps in Kabul on January 18th and 20th. By the time we stopped taking donations, we’d raised $9118 from 124 individuals (see at the bottom of the post for a full list).

It’s easiest if I simply give the floor to Orzala, who organised the distribution with help from her brother, Sohrab:

“The story begins with me sitting at the library busy with my studies, while part of me is still thinking about home, people, news and everything else that is happening back at home. Alex sends me a report with some pictures published in a newspaper about the life of internally displaced people coming from southern Afghanistan and living in Kabul …

Staying in the UK for the last 4-5 months, Helmand has become a place I hear the most about, from politicians. I hear most often, success stories and how wonderfully everything works out there. From journalists I hear about war and their pictures of the UK forces in the field, yet the least can be found about the voices of people…. This story struck me in two ways: 1) I found a voice which I could identify with, given my own life experiences as a refugee running away from violence and war, so I couldn’t be passive about them. 2) I thought, I am in danger of being ‘spoiled’, living a comfortable life, warm heated, good shoes, good living conditions and everything I want available for me here, while I just read news about others in challenge and that I have become a typical ‘consumer’ of the news and information.

So I got back to Alex and told him, I am ready to help, if he is to support too, because of all deadlines and too many other priorities on my list. So the idea develops, I start contacting with various friends and organizations dealing with refugees etc. to get a picture about their numbers and also on what organizations are involved for assistance, as usual, the official response is bureaucratic, while a personal response recommends the best option as simply going there and doing it on our own.

I visited Kabul for a short time (even shorter because I was delayed in London for three days on account of the snow!) and most of you will have read my account of a visit to the first camp at Char Rahi Qanbar.

Just a day before leaving Kabul, I learnt that there is another camp, with refugees from (mainly) Helmand and also other southern provinces, around 300 families living in a far more desperate situation, as they get much less attention than the bigger camp in Charai Qanbar. Perhaps so far no report or anything is being published about this other part. I found the situation in some ways harder for them. With conversations I’ve had with around 10-15 men from village, some young, middle aged and some elderly, they all shared their sufferings and why/how they made it to Kabul…

I had to explain who I was and what brought me to see them. I’ve told them about the newspaper and the fact that some of the people who came visited them, read about their situation on the newspapers, decided to provide an urgent assistance, which is only for one time and is meant to at least keep them warm for part of winter if not for whole winter. They were very friendly and said thanks to anyone who is ready to support them in this hard time. One of them told me, we are not used to beg, if people come and help us, we’re grateful, otherwise, we just sit here. Another shared what I exactly also hear in camp one. ‘They are not giving us jobs here [he meant job as in daily labor], they say we look like Taliban’ he smiles. ‘It is not my fault to have the same clothes as the Taliban’!

The wakeel [elder] of the camp provided us with a list, he says there were 250 families before, now another 50 have joined very recently. They are all coming from areas where the military operations are going on. We write up the names of the additional 50 families, the names are given by 5 men who represent the families.

Choosing what to distribute:

The original appeal asked for charcoal, because some of the residents of the first camp mentioned this, and I too was thinking this is the best option working to keep tents warm. However, we faced some challenges: the challenge was the much larger number of refugees in camp one: 870 families in camp one and 300 in camp two. This meant our only charcoal option could not work for mainly financial reasons. We’d have needed at least $2000 to provide them with 50 kgs. On the other hand, we also realised that camp one is already receiving this package of winter assistance from a German NGO which also includes wood as part of that support. Residents and elders of camp two said they had not received this help so far. On the day I visited them, I saw bags of wheat being off-loaded in the camp; we could not 100% verify who brought it (some said it was the Afghan Ministry of refugees, others said it was Aschiana), but I observed they did have wheat for all families.

Taking this situation into account, we decided to provide the families of camp one with 5 kgs of cooking oil, which is one of the top two priorities for food right after wheat, and provide the residents of camp two with 25 kg of charcoal each. The goal for us was to contribute to every family at both camps. The whole decision on what to distribute is result of discussions among the camp residents, men and women whom I visited and spoke with.

Organizing the distribution:

My absence from Kabul made it bit challenging to organize the distribution, but nevertheless, thanks to my brother (the co-founder of Kabul Dreams, Afghanistan’s first indie rock band) who agreed to take the responsibility, it all went smoothly.

Our photographer friend, Philip Poupin, had kindly agreed to be present there as witness and also take photographs of the whole process so that it is documented. Also, Abaceen Nasimi, Alex’s friend, was there to observe the distribution.

Although initially I was thinking to put together a team of volunteers who could help with the distribution (as I had done in previous distributions of this sort), in the process, we found that it would be easier to involve the people themselves. One day before the distribution, Siddique visited both camps, verified the lists for final and identified all representatives for distribution. In camp one they have been pretty well-organized in this way: for the entire camp there were two wakeels. Each wakeel, then, has 10-15 representatives who each represents 5-10 families. The fact that in both camps refugees themselves volunteered to help with distribution confirmed my old message once again: people in difficult situations should not be seen as subjects, or helpless victims; if you give them hope and an opportunity to act, they can be active agents for a better life. This is far too small an example, but it can perhaps lead into a big one, some day!

Similarly, in camp two, people were far more organized than camp one. There were literate men among these refugees who had prepared a much better organized list of all families in the camp. Each 5-10 families (mostly related) were represented by one slightly elderly man. These representatives all gathered and identified how many families they represented. Based on this list the charcoal sacks were distributed among the representatives who would immediately carry them to the tents. If we (I mean myself here) were to organize this distribution, it would take us weeks and we would still miss some families. In a lucky coincidence, some people from the Ministry of Finance had gathered money and bought rice, grains and cooking oil that was being distributed among the families in camp two on the same day after our charcoal distribution was done.

One challenge as it seems was the fact that among distributors no woman was involved, so there may not be pictures of women from the camp. It is simply something we are not supposed to push for, given that most of the refugees are coming from areas where women are still covered and it is a sensitive matter. And women themselves prefer not to be in pictures either.

We would like to thank you all for being so generous in supporting this very important cause. This assistance maybe be too little to be sustainable or help the refugees, but at least a message is conveyed there that not all outsiders agree with the bombings and killings of civilians; not all outsiders are passive readers of the news and looking at their situations and… so, THANK YOU ALL who contributed to this little mission to be a success. We tried our best to make sure that each can of oil and each bag of charcoal entered into each family tent, and that’s best we could do. Our hope is to see them one day back into their fields, orchards and their own little houses.”

And I would like to add my own heartfelt appreciation for all those who donated and helped out in various ways with this appeal. I must admit I was initially skeptical that we would be able to raise the money; I had assumed others were as weary with the progress of the war as I am and that such a small effort, reaching relatively few people, would find little traction. As it turns out, we raised considerably more than our original target and were thus able to contribute in a more extensive way than originally imagined. We all need hope in these difficult times; the generosity of strangers demonstrated here fulfils our need.

[Update/Edit: It occurred to me (and I had some emails) that people might not want their names displayed here, so I took the list of donors down.]

UPDATED: An Appeal

It’s easy to talk in the abstract about war. The dead become numbers, the displaced are statistics, and slowly we begin to forget about the people who live through it all. Afghanistan is a case in point. Tens of thousands of words of commentary are written every day, but very few of these seem to accurately bring these day-to-day particulars across. Earlier this month, I read an article by Josh Partlow in the Washington Post on the situation for those who have fled the conflict in Helmand -- U.N.-speak = IDPs -- for an area near Kabul City. It was a detailed, movingly-described account of some of these ‘particulars’ of their lives:

“For those who have escaped Afghanistan’s worst violence, some things are hard to forget: the sight of a woman’s hair entangled in the mulberry branches, her legs strewn far away in the dirt. Or the sounds they heard as they hid in an underground hole, counting the bombs to pass the time, praying the American troops would leave. Some of those Afghans have tiptoed in the footsteps of neighbors to avoid the mines. They’ve been hit with shrapnel and tied with flex cuffs, threatened by the Taliban and frightened by the coalition, seen relatives shot and homes destroyed. And so they left Helmand province and made their way to this dirt lot on the outskirts of Kabul, where month by month the settlement expands with those who have come to wait out the war. “In a situation like this,” said Sayid Mohammad, a Helmand native who has spent the past year at the refugee camp, “how could I ever go home?”” [Read the full article here]

There’s nothing new or particularly special about this group of refugees from Helmand, but for some reason this piece said something to me. It’s easy to become passive consumers of the news coming out of Afghanistan, particularly when it’s often so frustrating to read. I first read the article in London, a place where everything is taken for granted: warmth, walking on the snow, heating in the house, electricity, water, you name it. But if you allow your imagination to drift, imagine living away from home, in a place far colder than what you’re used to, in tents and makeshift huts on account of a war taking place in the villages, one that you have seen sweep through with random but seeming deathly certainty and claim your friends and family. For another account of life in the camp, watch the documentary account made by Alberto Arce here.

So I decided together with a long-standing Afghan friend and respected NGO-practitioner -- she used to run HAWCA -- to try to find some way to contribute to bettering the lives of these refugees at the camp. Orzala explains more:

“We contacted the UNHCR office to find out about the numbers of refugees and how we can make sure that our possible help is going to reach the neediest. Their formal response was, it can happen through government or NGOs working with refugees. A good friend who also is part of an international organisation involved in the field advised small scale donations and funds to go through private initiatives rather than the formal ones. Additionally with my experience in the past, I believe the winter will be over if we follow the lengthy procedures. I visited the site itself a couple of days ago to talk with those living there and also to get a realistic sense of how many people were living there. A representative stated that there were 870 families living there at the moment, and we got an idea of what other organisations were working there as well (Aschiana, the World Health Organization, the Afghan Ministry of Public Health along with Welt Hunger Hilfe). It seems, however, that there is a shortfall in terms of the amount of assistance being provided, as well as the speed that this is happening.”

So in the short-term what we want to do is -- at the suggestion of those from the camp, but also an idea Orzala had had beforehand -- to raise some money to provide charcoal. People are accustomed to using this in the winter; and it’s neither heavy nor particularly expensive. 50 kilograms of charcoal costs about $20 and so to be able to provide around 20 kg of charcoal to everyone will cost just under $7000. I know it’s easy to just close this page and move on to something different, but I hope you’ll be able to donate something -- perhaps $10 or $15 -- via the paypal button below so that we can try to ensure that this group of people have at least some warmth to rely on when the snows come in Kabul.


Since the donate button doesn't display a running total, I'll do that myself here on the blog, and will of course keep you all updated with how things go once we have raised our target amount.

Final total raised: $9,118 from 124 people.

Deedee Derksen picks her 2010 books

This is a guest-post by Deedee Derksen, a Dutch journalist just out with a good book on Afghanistan that helps deflate many stereotypes commonly believed.  It's only out in Dutch at the moment, but I'll bet an English version will come out before not too long...

I love reading autobiographies and biographies.  A few I’ve read this year convey profound belief, be it in:

a.    creating the best rock band in the world (Keith Richards) b.    establishing the best Islamic Emirate in the world (Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef) c.    writing the best books in the world (Somerset Maugham, Patricia Highsmith) d.    great reporting (Martha Gellhorn, Hugh Pope) e.    himself (Tony Blair)

Keith Richards and Mullah Zaeef share more than their belief. They’re both icons of their time, or at least wingmen to icons. They were both part of a band that made headlines the world over. They both know a thing or two about the dangers of drugs and loose women. And they were both once wanted men – though the hordes of semi-naked girls and English bobbies after Richards probably weren’t quite as menacing as the war on terror justice unleashed on Mullah Zaeef.

Both excellent autobiographies offer rare insights to lives otherwise closed off, and often misrepresented.  Anyone doing anything Afghanistan related should read Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef’s memoir (My Life With The Taliban, ed. Alex Strick van Linschoten, Felix Kuehn), which provides a unique insider’s view on the Taliban movement. Keith Richard’s book (Life, co-author: James Fox) may not be as vital to world peace as Mullah Zaeef’s, but it’s nonetheless a lot of fun to read. For all the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll stories (and there are many), what struck me most was that Richards is, above all, an ambitious, hardworking guy.

Two biographies of writers that appeared in 2009, which I read in 2010 and which are unlikely to be bettered, are The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, by Selina Hastings, and Beautiful Shadow – A life of Patricia Highsmith, by Andrew Wilson.  Somerset Maugham’s short stories are among my favourites (as are those of Alice Munro, mentioned elsewhere on this blog), and this biography gives an account of the tortured, and often quite unpleasant, genius behind them. Like Maugham, Patricia Highsmith was a loner, according to the beautiful biography by Andrew Wilson.  I read her series of Tom Ripley thrillers again after reading about the author. They’re amoral, and gripping from the first page. Terrific.

Martha Gellhorn’s reporting on the Second World War is some of the most interesting. As a woman, she wasn’t permitted to embed with the American troops. So while reporters like Ernie Pyle and Gellhorn’s husband Ernest Hemingway were embedded, and thus subject to official censorship, Gellhorn wrote freely about the horrors in Europe (Gellhorn: a Twentieth-Century Life by Caroline Moorehead).  Now women reporters can go embedded, many consciously choose to work independently, like Minka Nijhuis from the Netherlands in Iraq and Afghanistan. Her beautifully written and very moving book on Burma -- Birma. Land van Geheimen (2009) -- won a well-deserved, and prestigious, Dutch award in 2010.

Many foreign correspondents find it difficult to convey to their editors images or impressions that contradict stereotypes at home. This is especially so in the Muslim world, as Hugh Pope explains in Dining with al-Qaeda.  Pope, after thirty (!) years reporting across the Middle East, has some tremendous stories to tell – and he does so with much empathy and wit.  A great read. I also liked People Like Us by the Dutch former-correspondent Joris Luyendijk, a Dutch book on Middle East reporting which was published in 2006 but translated into English in 2009. Luyendijk rightly shatters any lingering belief in objective coverage of the Middle East.

I haven’t yet started Tony Blair’s eulogy to himself. Judging from the bits I’ve read here and there, I don’t have high expectations. Not only does it beg for a good edit (I assume he made the fatal mistake of writing it himself as it reads like a column in Good Housekeeping). But Blair’s take on civil liberties would make Dostum blush (read Dave Eggers's wonderful Zeitoun, also out this year, for the sharpest antidote to Blair’s call for the suspension of Habeas Corpus). Perhaps just as offensively, Blair expresses no remorse over Iraq, and lumps all Islamists together, conflating Hamas and Hizbollah with al-Qaeda, and portraying them as an existential threat, the gravest ever faced by mankind, perhaps with the exception of Gordon Brown. And all this from one of most successful politicians of our times and the man currently entrusted to bringing peace to the Middle East. Now that’s a great piece of fiction.