Bob Shepherd

Remember What Happened in Bosnia?

The assault this week on Mehran Naval Air Base in Karachi that left at least a dozen soldiers dead and destroyed anti-submarine/ marine surveillance aircraft is the strongest evidence to date that Pakistan is losing the battle against home-grown militants. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani described this latest attack by the Pakistani Taliban as a “cowardly act of terror”. While I certainly don’t condone the militants’ actions, as someone with 23 years military experience, I can say without reservation that last night’s raid was hardly cowardly. Unlike previous attacks, the Pakistani Taliban did not detonate a vehicle borne explosive device or take a few pot shots and run away. They staged a direct ground assault on a secure military installation. An operation of that nature takes supreme confidence, good organization and a healthy dose of fearlessness.

This is an extremely alarming development, especially given that Pakistan’s military installations have been on high alert since the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad earlier this month. Because, if the country’s security forces can’t stop insurgents from penetrating a well-fortified military base, why should anyone believe they can defend the nation’s nuclear assets against terrorists? It is more important than ever now that we examine the goals and motives of Pakistan’s insurgent groups and how the pursuit and/or realization of those goals would impact western interests in the region.

Islamabad is currently battling two significant home grown insurgent groups, both of which are trying to overthrow the state; the Pakistani Taliban and Baluch rebels in Baluchistan province (Pakistan’s largest and most resource rich). Though born in different eras and political climates, both insurgencies are, at their heart, ethnic rebellions against a central government and army dominated by ethnic Punjabis and Sindhis.

In my capacity as a security advisor in the region, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many ethnic Pashtun from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal belt; the breeding, recruiting and training ground for the Pakistani Taliban. The overwhelming majority of Pashtun I’ve encountered have felt hard done by the Durand line; the 1893 British drawn border which currently separates Pakistan from Afghanistan. The Durand line divided the Pashtun tribes between the two countries and it has long been a Pashtun dream to see it abolished and their homeland reunited as a nation in its own right—Pashtunistan. The Baluch rebels also desire to create their own nation by ending what they see as the illegal occupation of native Baluch lands by Pakistan and neighbouring Iran.

How could Pashtun and Baluch nationalist agendas impact western interests in the region and beyond? The answer pivots greatly on geo-political loyalties. There are currently two superpowers vying for hegemonic influence over Pakistan; China and the United States. While Washington’s relationship with Islamabad has been steadily declining, Beijing’s has been on the up, thanks to military cooperation and China’s development of an energy corridor through Pakistan. At present, China is Islamabad’s closest ally. Indeed some of the hostages taken during last night’s siege on Mehran Naval Air Base were Chinese “maintenance” workers (at least, that’s how Pakistan’s Interior Minister described them).

The jewel in the crown of China’s energy conduit through Pakistan is the deep water port in Gwadar, Baluchistan (which some analysts believe may double as a Chinese naval base). The development of this port has done little to benefit ethnic Baluch in the province and has even dispossessed many of their ancestral lands. Baluch rebels have plenty of reasons not to like Beijing. So should they get their longed-for homeland, it is entirely possible they’ll turn West toward their future, not East.

You only need to look at an atlas to see the potential benefits of a western-friendly Baluchistan. It would cement western hegemony in the oil-rich Arabian Gulf by moving Gwadar firmly into western-friendly hands, and help physically contain Iran (which has arms and energy deals with Beijing).

The potential benefits of Pashtun nationalism to the West are more difficult to gauge. On the downside, an independent Pashtunistan could become a haven for al-Qaeda foreign fighters and its formation would undoubtedly escalate the decades-long civil war in Afghanistan (the southern and eastern Afghan provinces are ethnically Pashtun). Furthermore, there’s a possibility that an independent Pashtunistan would fall into Beijing’s orbit given that China has already made significant economic inroads into Pashtun parts of Afghanistan.

Even so, many Pakistani and Afghan Pashtun warlords hunger for an independent homeland and western support of Pashtun nationalist ambitions could very well set the stage for a peace settlement with the Afghan Taliban; a necessary pre-condition for the full withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan; a development the United States, Britain and other coalition forces would welcome with open arms.

While there are certainly plenty of geo-political scenarios to ponder, the fate of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal eclipses all other considerations. After last night’s attack, anyone who doesn’t believe that the country is heading for a Yugoslavia-style, ethnic civil war is burying their head in the sand. The global community can no longer take Islamabad’s word for it that Pakistan’s nukes are one hundred percent secured, especially the tactical nuclear weapons that were test-fired last month. Not only is it in the West’s interest to do everything possible to force Pakistan to open its nuclear facilities to outside inspection, it is in China’s interests as well. Because though Washington and Beijing may have competing agendas in Pakistan, if the country’s nukes fall into rogue hands, East and West could end up paying a terrible price.

---Bob Shepherd


What's Next for Pakistan?

The death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of US forces will no doubt bring closure to many throughout the world who’ve lost loved ones to al-Qaeda’s terror campaign. But far from signaling the end of the battle for supremacy in South Asia, bin Laden’s demise only marks the end of the beginning. The United States reportedly launched the attack on bin Laden’s luxury Pakistani hideaway without informing the Pakistani authorities. The failure to gain prior consent lays bare the lack of trust which has characterized relations between Islamabad and Washington since the beginning of the War on Terror.

Speculation has been rife for years that Pakistan has been playing a double game with the West – posing as a cooperative ally in the war in neighboring Afghanistan while secretly aiding the Afghan Taliban which gave bin Laden sanctuary. Classified US documents posted online by Wikileaks repeatedly accuse the ISI, Pakistan’s most powerful intelligence agency, of supporting the Afghan Taliban.

Not surprisingly, Islamabad has vigorously denied all charges that it has or continues to help the Afghan Taliban, often citing its own fight against the Pakistani Taliban; a bogus comparison in my view given that the Pakistani Taliban is committed to the destruction of the government in Islamabad as opposed to the ouster of the US-led coalition from Afghanistan. Moreover, the location, scale and opulence of the compound where bin Laden met his end would seem to suggest that there are at the very least powerful elements in Pakistan’s establishment sympathetic if not supportive of al-Qaeda’s war against the West. The secured, luxury villa worth a reported $1 million was built five years ago in Abbottabad, an affluent garrison town firmly under the control of Pakistan’s military elite and home to its main military academy.

The fact that bin Laden was hunted down and killed just a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s version of West Point puts Islamabad between a rock and hard place. It is doubtful the civilian-led Pakistani government has the power to clean house and ruthlessly weed out Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda supporters in the military and security services without inviting a coup. And if they throw their hands up and claim that they had no idea bin Laden was living comfortably right under their noses, it will completely undermine claims that Islamabad can prevent terrorists from doing as they like in the country– including exploiting Pakistan’s most precious military asset; its nuclear arsenal.

For years, Islamabad has refused to allow outside observers to check the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, stating it will never allow any country to have direct or indirect access to its nuclear facilities. Whether Islamabad pleads ignorance on sheltering bin Laden or starts purging its military and security services of al-Qaeda sympathizers, it will be very difficult now for Pakistan to resist US offers to help secure its nuclear assets (especially if the US secures the backing of the United Nations for such a plan).

If the US can get its foot in Pakistan’s proverbial nuclear door, it will be the ultimate game changer. Contrary to popular belief, the US and Britain are not Pakistan’s most treasured allies. It’s China (not only have I blogged frequently about this strategic relationship over the past year; it serves as the backdrop for my forthcoming novel, The Good Jihadist). China has huge influence with Islamabad; selling Pakistan arms and investing billions in developing natural resources and energy routes through the country including highways and a strategically important port in Gwadar, Baluchistan.

The Sino-Pakistani nexus is not just commercially beneficial to both parties. By serving as a direct energy conduit between oil rich Gulf nations and Western China, Pakistan is vital to Beijing’s future security. In turn, Beijing offers Islamabad a powerful buffer against its most bitter enemy, India (whose nuclear ambitions are currently being supported by the US).

Just last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Pakistan’s prime minister was attempting to cut the US out of Afghanistan’s future by reportedly urging Afghan President Hamid Karzai to forget about a long-term US military presence in his country and instead embrace Pakistan and China as allies. The article went on to quote unnamed US officials, saying that ‘the idea of China taking a leading role in Afghanistan was fanciful at best.’

Anyone who has been following China’s commercial progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan knows full well that Beijing is in a prime position to be the hegemonic power in the region. But by finally killing bin Laden, the United States has shown it is not about to abandon South Asia to forces beyond its control.

---Bob Shepherd

Does Egypt Pose a Threat to Israel? Well....

Beneath western praise for the Egyptian people’s stunning victory over autocratic rule runs a deep concern about how these events will impact America’s and Britain’s most treasured ally in the region; Israel. From Washington to Whitehall, pro-Israeli pundits have already begun sowing seeds of anxiety, warning that Egypt could tear up its peace treaty with Israel and/ or go the way of Iran and embrace clerical rule. It’s time for a little perspective.

It is far from certain that the Muslim Brotherhood will be voted into power (indeed, it’s a wide-open question whether the military government will even allow elections). But let’s assume for argument’s sake that the Muslim Brotherhood is swept into office by popular vote. It is unlikely that they will follow in Iran’s footsteps because the Brotherhood is not compromised primarily of clerics but professional men who embrace a profitable business climate as much as the Koran.

The yearning among Egyptians religious and secular for a more prosperous future is likely to ensure the peace treaty with Israel will continue to be honoured. Egypt has nothing to gain from invading Israel—the Sinai was returned after all. Moreover, the first whiff of aggression toward Israel would invite at best crippling economic sanctions and at worst, bombs. And don’t forget who’s been supplying Egypt’s armed forces. Most of their hardware and software is American. If it chooses, Washington can shut down the Egyptian military machine with a flip of the proverbial switch.

Of course, none of what I’ve written so far is terribly insightful. Even casual observers of Middle East affairs are familiar with these facts. So why all the scare mongering about clerics and broken treaties? The answer is simple. Israel does face a serious threat from Egypt’s revolution, but not the one the hawks in Tel Aviv would have us believe.

For six decades, Israel’s powerful propaganda machine has portrayed Arabs as violent, irrational and therefore incapable of summoning the civility and restraint a functioning liberal democracy requires. As the last line of defence against these lesser evolved societies, Israel demanded blanket support for any actions taken in the name of security. The events in Egypt this week have blown this myth wide open. The revolution launched by the young protestors in Tahrir Square was largely peaceful. If the military transition does midwife free and fair elections, Tel Aviv will lose its claim to being the only nation in the region that shares western liberal values -- especially if Egypt elects a secular minded leader. Not only would Cairo emerge as the civil and moral equal of Tel Aviv, it would have the political clout to pursue what has eluded the greatest powers on earth for decades; a credible Middle East Peace solution.

This is the real threat to Israel. Hosni Mubarak supported Israel’s apartheid policies toward the Palestinians out of deference to his American pay masters and fear of Hamas emboldening Egyptian Muslim groups. A democratically elected Egyptian government would not have such constraints. Indeed it is far more likely to reflect the will of its people. I would not be surprised if a civil government in Cairo were to fully restore the flow of goods and services over the Rafah border crossing thereby ending Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

Israel would no doubt raise the alarm and ask America to support maintaining the blockade. In the past, that would happen without question. But Egypt’s revolution is altering the rules of the game. It would be unwise of Washington to alienate a democratic Egypt in order to defend an Israeli policy that is illegal under international law. And if other Arab nations follow in Egypt’s footsteps, the US will face even greater pressure to end its blind endorsement of Israel’s colonialist policies. Imagine if Oman embraces democracy. The Straits of Hormuz are of far greater strategic importance to America than any slice of real estate in Israel.

The US and Britain need to break with the past and prove they are capable of being fair brokers in the Middle East. Failure to do so will risk ceding influence to a new hegemonic power. Remember, China already controls the port at Gwadar, Pakistan on the Arabian Sea—an asset it gained through diplomacy and economic incentives. Washington and Whitehall should put real pressure on Israel to pull back settlements that encroach on Palestinian lands (a suspension of credit lines should do the trick), appoint a credible envoy the Arabs can trust (Tony Blair’s appointment was tantamount to making Osama bin Laden mayor of New York City, in my view) and insist that Israel free jailed Palestinian political figures capable of uniting the West Bank and Gaza. Marwan Barghouti, Palestine’s Nelson Mandela, comes to mind.

Israel will probably resist any significant changes in US Middle East policy. Perhaps that’s the biggest threat of all posed by Egypt’s revolution. Old-style hawkishness can no longer guarantee Israel’s security and indeed, could run counter to it. In the new Middle East, a just and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine is the best way to ensure the Jewish state survives.

---Bob Shepherd

Who Are the Libyan Rebels, Redux

Film@11 Note: We are very happy to have Bob Shepherd's opinion back with us, now that he has finished his latest book. A former SAS soldier, Shepherd spent many years in private security throughout the Middle East and Asia. I’ve never made breakfast for myself in Libya (the litmus test for claiming ‘expert’ status on a nation). Indeed, I’ve never visited the country nor interacted with its various tribal groups; hence why I would never be so arrogant as to believe I could manipulate the outcome of a military intervention in Libya to my advantage. If only Downing Street would admit the same.

Even before the first Western missiles rained down on Gaddafi’s military infrastructure, my gut reaction to the no-fly zone operation was that it will compromise British national security. Though my heart goes out to the innocent Libyans who’ve been persecuted and oppressed by Gaddafi’s regime, I am not prepared to endorse airstrikes that could very well invite revenge attacks on British interests and open Libya to exploitation by anti-British, anti-western elements.

The most important question to ask about the no-fly zone is: who exactly is it benefiting? Britain’s coalition government and most of our media keep referring to the anti-Gaddafi rebels as ‘pro-democracy forces’; an image promoted by the Benghazi-based Libyan Interim Transitional National Council. This 31-member rebel group which claims it will guide the country toward free elections has cleverly appointed Mahmoud Jibril, an American educated professor, as its special envoy.

With a western-friendly interlocutor making the rounds, decision makers in the US, Britain and France have grown more confident that there is a democracy-loving, freedom fighting government-in-waiting to take the helm once Gaddafi is gone. But not all members of the opposition are as palatable as Jibril. The Telegraph reported that Libyan rebel leader Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi admitted to an Italian newspaper that not only had he recruited around 25 al-Qaeda fighters from eastern Libya to fight coalition forces in Iraq but that some of those jihadists are now fighting on the frontlines of the anti-Gaddafi rebellion. This corroborates what we already knew from the so-called Sinjar records: al-Qaeda documents seized by US forces in Iraq which establish conclusively that the epicentre of the Libyan revolt is an al-Qaeda breeding nest.

As a general rule, Islamic fundamentalists reject the western liberal democratic model on the grounds that it gives non-Muslims a voice in government. Perhaps Mr. al-Hasidi has grown more tolerant and is genuinely prepared to embrace universal suffrage. Perhaps not. All I know is that if a post-Gaddafi power struggle ensues, my money won’t be on the political science professor with fond memories of his American university days. It’ll be on the hard-boiled Islamic jihadist.

When I see the amount of attention Washington and Whitehall are lavishing on Jibril and the ITNC, I can’t help but be reminded of Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress member who fed the US a boatload of false intelligence on Iraq in order to spur an invasion. A savvy PR opportunist, Chalabi styled himself as the man who could deliver Iraq to a peaceful, democratic, western-leaning future once the evil dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted. It turned out Chalabi had zero influence in post-Saddam Iraq and the country swiftly disintegrated into a sectarian civil war. In the end, not only did the US-led coalition not get the Iraq it had hoped for; its sacrifice of blood and treasure backfired in the worst possible way by enabling Iran to become a major power broker in Iraq’s internal affairs.

Is the West once again placing its trust in a charlatan who can’t deliver? I really hope not. But common sense tells me our political leaders are in no position to judge. Look no further than the botched British secret mission to make contact with Libyan rebels that resulted in the arrest of an MI6 officer and his Special Forces escort team (all of whom were fortunately released unharmed). Sure, you can fob it off as a misunderstanding. But the episode says volumes about Britain’s lack of understanding when it comes to Libya’s internal affairs.

--Bob Shepherd

Should Aid Workers Leave Afghanistan?

The death of kidnapped British aid worker Linda Norgrove during a rescue attempt by US Special Forces in Kunar has prompted much debate, especially after it was revealed that she may have been killed by a US grenade and not a Taliban suicide bomber as initially reported. Some are asking if the US military should have exercised more restraint or whether the operation was even necessary. If the goal of such questions is to prevent more aid workers from dying in future, this line of inquiry is counter-productive at this stage. I sincerely doubt the British government would have green-lighted the military option had Ms. Norgrove’s life not been in extreme danger. Hostage rescue is extremely high risk and there is always a possibility that the person or persons you are attempting to free could be killed during an operation, especially in a dangerous location like Kunar (parts of which are so untameable that US forces withdrew from them earlier this year). Instead of pinning blame on the rescuing party, a more useful question is why are aid workers being encouraged to come to Afghanistan when they are such obvious targets?

Militants in Afghanistan make no distinction between foreign NGOs and NATO soldiers. It doesn’t matter that aid workers are operating in a humanitarian rather than a military capacity. As far as the Taliban are concerned, anyone working on behalf of the coalition is the enemy. The US and British governments know this to be the case, yet they still rely on NGOs to help implement the coalition’s counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

The idea of using NGOs as “implementing partners” sounds good in theory; the military clears the area of insurgents and the aid workers follow up with development projects to win the support of locals. In practice though, this strategy falls down on two major counts. Firstly, the coalition isn’t fighting a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, it’s embroiled in a civil war. As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, having taken sides in that civil war, NATO hasn’t a prayer of winning the hearts and minds of Afghans on the other side of the divide no matter how many hydro-electric plants, girls’ schools, roads, canals and health clinics it builds.

The second and more devastating drawback of using implementing partners is that it destroys the firewall between military and non-military personnel working in Afghanistan; hence why the Taliban regard aid workers as an extension of coalition forces rather than a separate, neutral entity. The aid organization Ms. Norgrove was working for at the time of her abduction was Development Alternatives Inc, an NGO operating in Afghanistan on behalf of USAID. This association left her incredibly vulnerable. Indeed, DAI had already lost two foreign employees and a number of local workers when its offices in Northern Afghanistan were targeted by suicide bombers in July.

In the wake of that attack and the death of British aid worker Dr. Karen Woo in August, not to mention a rash of foreign journalist abductions, you’d think the FCO would advise against all travel to Afghanistan just as it has for Somalia (a country which security wise is on par with Afghanistan in my opinion). Yet incredibly, the FCO has banned travel in only certain regions of Afghanistan and has advised against all but ‘essential’ travel in others.

Politics should not dictate the FCO’s security recommendations but I suspect that is exactly what is happening here. So I’d like to offer a reality check. The security situation in Afghanistan has been steadily declining since 2004. In the past three years, it’s nosedived even in areas that were once considered relatively secure. I for one wouldn’t take a client outside Kabul at this time because the situation has grown so untenable that I cannot possibly provide them with proactive security. The best I can do is react to an attack. And as any security professional worth their salt will tell you, that’s just not good enough.

Politics aside, aid workers also need to keep in mind that they are soft-abduction targets in a country where kidnapping foreigners is a lucrative trade. It was reported that Linda Norgrove was the only long-term expatriate employee among 200 Afghans at her base location. How well were those local hires vetted? Who among them knew Ms. Norgrove would be traveling to Kunar that day, and who knew at the other end in Kunar? These questions may be politically inconvenient. They are undoubtedly politically incorrect. But they need to be asked.

Linda Norgrove died trying to make Afghanistan a better place. The loss of such a selfless and dedicated individual is beyond tragic. I hope something at long last is learned from it. The FCO and the US State Department should stop encouraging foreign NGOs to come to Afghanistan until the ground is genuinely secured. Until then, foreign aid workers be advised: you are a target.

Bob Shepherd is an ex-SAS soldier and bestselling author of The Circuit. His debut novel The Infidel, a modern-day Afghan war adventure-thriller is out now. To read more posts by him, please visit