Op-Ed: From Bad to Worse: Afghanistan’s Approaching Apocalypse

Photo Credit: U.S. National Archives & DVIDS

By Yan Graf
Contributing Writer


There is another crisis brewing in Afghanistan. Although Western media coverage of Afghanistan has declined following the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops at the end of August, that does not imply that the situation is improving. The newly reinstalled Taliban faces two related crises as they attempt to centralize power in the country: a massive economic implosion and a lack of international legitimacy. Failing to address these problems would plunge the country back into chaos and would likely trigger a massive refugee exodus on the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015.

Continue reading “Op-Ed: From Bad to Worse: Afghanistan’s Approaching Apocalypse”

THE LOST GIRLS OF NIGERIA’S FORBIDDEN FOREST

14116279234_e237e671a4_oBy Bailey Marsheck
Staff Writer

Earlier this month, after two and a half years of grief and uncertainty, 21 Nigerian families were reunited with their long-lost daughters.  An agreement was reached with the militant Islamic terrorist organization, Boko Haram on October 16 which placed the girls into the hands of the Nigerian government for a brief evaluation before they were finally allowed to reconnect with their loved ones.  Despite the encouraging appearance of this development on the surface, there are still 197 other families who are waiting in anguish to discover the fate of their kidnapped daughters.

The ordeal started in April 2014 when 276 teenage girls were staying at a government boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria in preparation for their final science exam of the academic year. During the middle of the night, members of Boko Haram razed the town, abducted its female students and loaded them onto trucks. Some were able to escape in transit by jumping off the vehicles but the majority of the girls still remain missing over two years later. Heart-wrenching stories told by parents who desperately trailed their kidnapped daughters in hopes of recovery suggest that they were taken to Boko Haram’s unknown base secluded deep somewhere within the 120 square kilometers that make up the Sambisa Forest. The fate of the remaining Chibok girls remains uncertain due to inner turmoil within the ranks of Boko Haram as well as the various challenges presented by the natural geography of the Sambisa Forest.

The terrorist organization was originally founded in 2003 by Mohammed Yusuf as a religious movement in response to the divergence between Nigeria’s Christian south and Muslim north. The group first came into conflict with the Nigerian government in 2009 when the movement transformed into a violent uprising. Boko Haram continued to become more radical and anti-government as Yusuf’s followers grew.  Eventually, a police operation led to the arrest of prominent members of the organization for possession of bomb-making equipment and other weapons. Yusuf was imprisoned and died in jail which aggravated the group’s anti-government philosophies beyond their breaking point. Boko Haram’s actions have only escalated since then, resulting in suicide bombings on government installations, kidnappings of both locals and foreigners, and allying themselves with the extremist group ISIS.

Boko Haram’s ultimate goal is to end the country’s religious division by creating a purely Islamic state. Their name translates from the Nigerian dialect of Hausa to mean “western education is forbidden,” but applies generally to include hatred for western culture and religion as a whole. The group rejects the notion of allowing women any form of education and made a conscious decision to abduct and transport the female students instead of simply killing them. In a message to the media, Yuusuf’s successor Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for the Chibok attack and encouraged girls to leave school to marry while additionally informing the public that the captured girls would be sold as slave brides. Captives who managed to escape have reported that many girls were in fact married off to the group’s soldiers and were forced to convert to Islam under the threat of physical and psychological abuse.

Despite conflicting sources regarding the agreement, the release of the 21 girls was confirmed to be facilitated by both the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Reports outlined payments ranging from cash sums to the release of Boko Haram commanders, the latter of which the Nigerian government vehemently denies. This negotiation seems to have opened up the possibility of future talks with Boko Haram, or at least with the faction responsible for the deal. The terrorist group underwent a complicated split in August, with a portion siding with original leader Abubakar Shekau while the other fraction opted to follow ISIS-backed Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the first son of Muhammed Yusuf. The dissonance is suspected to be over Shekau’s willingness to murder Muslims in pursuit of his end goals.

The release was negotiated with the ISIS-aligned faction, which has been much more willing to enter into talks regarding the release of prisoners since the two groups split. Since then, there have been efforts to expedite a proposed swap of 83 more girls.  However, doubts remain about whether the group is in control of the additional 100 missing girls as it is likely that the captives were split between the two factions. A further uncertainty in the situation persists over whether the remaining prisoners might be reluctant to return home in shame of their assumed forced marriages and potential pregnancies.

These diplomatic challenges are met by geographic ones too, as the Sambisa Forest serves as the last logistical obstacle to the rescue of the remaining girls. Boko Haram’s forces operate under the cover of brush so dense that it cannot be detected by aerial surveillance. Regular patrols by militants coupled with a minefield of Improvised Explosive Devices make penetrating the forest on foot a logistical nightmare. The Chibok abduction occurred near the height of Boko Haram’s power in 2014 and since then the Nigerian army has been reclaiming territory in the surrounding state of Borno city-by-city in a tiresome campaign that is only further prolonged by the sect’s propensity for guerilla tactics. The army has started pushing their forces into the forest in an attempt to oust Boko Haram from their final major Nigerian stronghold. Yet, progress is slow and has been further impaired as the group’s camps are often found already abandoned. On October 2, the Nigerian military launched “Operation Forest Storm” which was an airstrike offensive meant to cripple key bases within the forest. While this increased the possibility of collateral damage, the ground assault has simply taken too long and been ineffective. Nigeria’s government and citizens at large have grown increasingly eager to end Boko Haram’s harmful influence on the country and move past the years of armed conflict.

But questions still remain.  Where are the remaining Chibok girls located within the vast Sambisa forest? Are they with the Shekau-aligned portion of Boko Haram or the ISIS faction? Are they still alive? Have they been radicalized? Have they stealthily been whisked to another hidden location? Will a second deal for the additional 83 girls come to fruition, and if so, in what terms?

While the return of the initial 21 girls may have ended this tragic saga for a few, many more families are left to wait without answers. The only way to discover the true fate of the Chibok girls is to penetrate into Sambisa and retrieve Boko Haram’s secrets from within the darkness of Nigeria’s forbidden forest and cast them into the light.

Image by Michael Fleshman

 

TRAGEDY OR TRIUMPH: THE DEATH OF THE “POSTER BOY”


By Omkar Mahajan
Editor-in-Chief

On July 8, 2016, Burhaan Muzaffar Wani, along with two accomplices, was killed by Special Operations Forces of the Indian Police and Military in a standoff that lasted for nearly two hours.
Wani was the 21 year old “poster boy” of the Kashmiri separatist movement and the commander of the Kashmiri militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen. The Hizbul Mujahideen has been designated as a terrorist organization by India, the United States, and the European Union. Shortly after Wani’s death, ensuing mobocracy and mass ataxia erupted. Some saw his death as a triumph and were glad that a top terrorist leader was killed. Others viewed him as a misguided youth who traversed down the wrong path to terrorism. Regardless of whether it was a tragedy or a triumph, Wani’s death will do little to ensure peace in Kashmir and is instead more likely to cause instability, turmoil, and prolonged violence both in the near future and long term. Furthermore, it’s expected that many people in Kashmir will view Wani as a martyr and a freedom fighter.

Who is Burhaan Muzaffar Wani?
Wani was born in the city of Tral, Kashmir where he enjoyed a privileged childhood. His father, Muzaffar Ahmed Wani, was the principal of a local high school and a member of the notorious extremist group, Jamaat-i-Islami. In 2010, Burhaan Muzaffar Wani dropped out of school and joined the Hizbul Mujahideen after being allegedly harassed by police. He quickly rose through the ranks due to his leadership skills and savvy use of social media. He was also popular with the locals. In 2015, Wani became the top commander and leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen due to the deaths of many senior officials above him. During that same year, his older brother Khalid Muzaffar Wani was killed by the Indian Security Forces. The Wani family claims that Khalid Muzaffar Wani was not a terrorist and was killed because he was the brother of the top militant commander. According to the father, the body of Khalid Muzaffar Wani did not have any bullet wounds but rather looked as if it had been heavily tortured. On the other hand, the Indian Security forces report that Khalid Muzaffar Wani was recruiting youth to join Burhaan Muzaffar Wani’s extremist organization. Nonetheless, to many people of Kashmir, Khalid Muzaffar Wani’s death represents one of a multitudinous number of civilians eradicated at the hands of the police force.

Following the death of his older brother, Burhaan Muzaffar Wani utilized social media sites and apps such as Facebook and Whatsapp to disperse his videos urging others to join the separatist organizations. His vast presence on Facebook enabled him to recruit dozens of teenagers from various villages each. The Indian state classified him as a terrorist and placed a 1 million Rupee bounty on his head and even attempted several assassination plots. After all, in several of his videos, he announced plans to decimate Sainik colonies in Kashmir because he felt that they were altering the natural demographics of Kashmir. In another video, he expressed disapproval of Kashmiri Pandit relocation settlements and threatened to bombard the Pandit community and juxtaposed it to the situation of Israel. In several of his videos, he advocated attacks on the police and military. Many scholars state that his videos had a considerable following and heavily appealed to the youth of Kashmir.

In contrast to the labels of being a terrorist and a peril to society, the local populace elucidated quite a different picture of Wani. The fact that he was able to defy all odds and expectations and survive previous assassination attempts turned him into a legend. There were stories that he sometimes visited home dressed as a girl and left money behind for those that needed it. There were rumors that local girls from Kanpur desired to marry him and wrote his name in their blood. He was frequently discussed over cups of chai and the stories, myths and legends surrounding him immortalized him as somewhat of a folk hero and local celebrity with parallels to Robin Hood. Moreover, his young age set him apart from others and thus, he was seen as a champion to the youth of Kashmir. It’s rare to see someone at his age in a high position of power with significant influence over people. Despite many in the local community being sympathetic towards him, it should be noted that he was an extremist and the commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, which is a designated terrorist organization responsible for dozens of attacks claiming the lives of thousands over the years. The Hizbul Mujahideen also has more than 10,000 fighters and has massacred non-Muslims and people not supportive of it. In order to fully understand Wani’s role and the political situation in Kashmir, it is important to examine the history of Kashmir.

A Brief History of Kashmir
For numerous centuries, Kashmir was an independent state in South Asia. The present day state of modern Kashmir is landlocked in South Asia and is surrounded by India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, and Tajikistan. Even when Kashmir was ruled under various kingdoms and empires such as the Mauryan Empire, the Kushan Empire, the Ghandaran Kingdom, the Durrani Kingdom, the Mughals, and later Sikh Rule, Kashmir maintained its autonomy due to isolation in the north and the mountainous terrain that surrounded it. In other words, it recognized the authority of larger empires, but was practically an independent state since it exercised almost complete control over its own affairs and was relatively self-autonomous.

Additionally, rulers of Kashmir were of differing faiths and backgrounds throughout the years. Kashmir has been ruled by Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and others. Thus, it is not a surprise that people of various faiths were able to live peacefully together and intermarriage between different faiths was not uncommon. Due to this isolation from the rest of South Asia, Kashmir developed a culture distinct from the rest of South Asia. For instance, while much of South Asia had a relatively intransigent caste system and a patriarchal society, Kashmir did not have a rigid caste system and was relatively egalitarian with equal rights granted to even women. Furthermore, the language in Kashmir, Koshur, differed markedly from those spoken in South Asia and had more in common with Dari and Farsi. The cuisine, customs, and clothing were also dissimilar and antithetical from those of South Asia. The people of Kashmir developed a distinct culture and identity of their own and some saw themselves as their own independent state.

However, the situation of Kashmir drastically changed during the British occupation of South Asia. In 1947, when the British left and granted South Asia its independence, they partitioned it into two states of a Muslim majority Pakistan and a Hindu majority India. Kashmir, being located between India and Pakistan, was expected to join the Muslim majority state of Pakistan since Kashmir had a majority Muslim population in many parts. However, the king of Kashmir, Hari Singh, desired to maintain an independent state of Kashmir. Unfortunately for him, Pathans from Pakistan who disagreed with his idea of independence invaded Kashmir. After receiving help to fight off the invaders, Kashmir was forced to make a decision of whether to join Pakistan or India. Prime Minister Mehr Chand Mahajan made the controversial decision to join India in late 1947 viewing it as the safer option. Ever since then, the conflict was never fully resolved.

Kashmir Today
Today, in some parts of Kashmir, over 95% of the people desire an independent state.[1] On the other hand, both Pakistan and India claim that Kashmir belongs to each. Border skirmishes and wars between Pakistan and India over Kashmir have been recurrent throughout the years. In fact, this remains the oldest unresolved United Nations conflict. In 1999, the conflict nearly escalated to nuclear war. Kashmir is the sole natural gas provider to Pakistan and has a huge agriculture industry that India profits from.[2] Both nations are unlikely to yield their holds over Kashmir anytime in the near future. As a result, this has inflamed numerous people living in Kashmir since they are caught between the conflict of India and Pakistan. Individual Kashmiris sometimes find themselves harassed and mistreated by the armies and police of Pakistan and India and they’ve seen their homeland transform into a warzone.

There are currently 153 militant organizations operating throughout Kashmir.[3] Kashmir’s poor and undeveloped infrastructure, along with large areas being warzones, has enabled Kashmir to turn into a hotbed and breeding ground for militant radicalism. Oppression by both sides has fueled negative sentiments towards Pakistan and India with many people resenting the police and military. History has shown us that when people are oppressed, a backlash will occur once oppression reaches a certain point. The lack of opportunities in Kashmir compels many youth to join militant organizations where sadly, many are brainwashed into not only attacking the police and military, but also performing atrocities and targeted acts of violence on innocent civilians. As troubling as this is, there isn’t anything to celebrate about the deaths of brainwashed youth.

Although the commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen is dead and his death is seen as a victory for those fighting against terrorism and militant radicals, others see it as the story of a lost child brainwashed into a killing machine. The oppression in Kashmir has led many to sympathize with militant commanders in Kashmir.  In fact, over 20,000 people attended Burhan Muzaffar Wani’s funeral and the number of youth that will now join militant organizations is expected to increase exponentially. Already, there have been mass protests regarding his death and dozens of innocent bystanders have been killed in the ensuing turmoil in the past few days. Wani is now seen as a martyr and it’s likely that the people will never forget about him.

Following these mass protests, the entire state of Kashmir was placed on lockdown and under curfew. Additionally, internet access and telephone communications were suspended. While the Chief Minister of Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, believes that Wani’s death will not have a long lasting impact on Kashmir, legislative assemblyman and former Chief Minister of Kashmir, Omar Abdullah disagrees. On twitter, Abdullah voiced his concerns that the intended effects and goals of the operation to kill Wani will fail in the long run. “Mark my words. Burhan’s ability to recruit in to militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media,” Abdullah tweeted.

This attempt to control violence and suppress the chaos backfired and instead more protests and attacks occurred resulting in more deaths. Violence has escalated and hopes of peace reaching Kashmir now become a distant unlikely reality as brutality and pandemonium materialize. After all, violence usually does not quell down violence but in a state in which people are oppressed, a lack of resources is present, and violence is constantly occurring, it seems as though violence is indeed inevitable. Many can disagree on the significance of Wani’s death and whether it was a tragedy or triumph but many will agree that his death will lead to more violence. Perhaps Wani should have been captured alive.

[1] Robert Bradnock, “KASHMIR: Counting in Kashmir.” The World Today 66.6 (2010): 27-28. JSTOR.

[2] S.D. Surendra, “Explaining Social Mobilization in Pakistan: A Comparative Case Study of Baluchistan and Azad Kashmir.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 29.2 (2009): 246-58.

[3] K. Santhanam, Jihadis in Jammu and Kashmir: A Portrait Gallery. New Delhi: Sage, 2003. Print.

Image by Kashmir Global