Sunday, December 30, 2007

Prospects for 2008

The BBC has a sober analysis of the prospects for the coming year:

By David Loyn
BBC News, Kabul

After two years in which the violence in Afghanistan has become worse, it is hard to see signs of hope in 2008. ...

Failure to bring other meaningful development means that tactical victories, such as the symbolically important capture of the town of Musa Qala in northern Helmand, have little value in the overall counter-insurgency campaign.

It is hard to win the hearts and minds of people whose fields and homes are constantly fought over.

The Taleban found it hard to recruit three years ago.

Now they have significant influence across the countryside, although not the main roads and towns, in most of Afghanistan.

Given the frail reach of the national police and justice system, the Taleban have increasingly been called on to settle local disputes.

... Mr Karzai does not need to face the electorate again until 2009 but there is some speculation that he could call an election in 2008, to cut off the campaigns of a growing number of serious challengers.

Attempts to introduce democracy further down to district level have so far failed, and instead the international community is trying better to understand how traditional power networks operate - sitting down with tribal elders instead of insisting that they face elections.

Tribal militias

The idea that democracy can provide a solution on its own - the dogma of 2001 - has been abandoned.

Alongside tribal elders, tribal militias are being trained and encouraged to defend their areas against the Taleban, despite the obvious risks of this strategy giving more power to regional warlords.

Aid flows remain far smaller per head than in some other post-conflict countries, and co-ordination, either in the military or civilian sphere, remains a major challenge.

The influential think tank, the International Crisis Group, speaks of the "failure of Kabul's diplomatic and donor community to engage fully in the fledgling process".

The former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown has been negotiating terms for a new role in Afghanistan co-ordinating the international effort and its links with the Karzai government - a job locally nicknamed the "super gorilla".

He comes with experience from a similar role in Bosnia, but Afghanistan is a far larger task as he acknowledged recently, going as far as saying, "We have lost and success is unlikely". (link)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

German negotiations with Taliban revealed

Germany's leading weekly Der Spiegel will publish a report this weekend which reveals that German intelligence officials have held several secret meetings with Taliban representatives.

German-Taliban rapprochement in limbo after western diplomats' expulsion



The ongoing rapprochement process between Berlin and the radical Afghan Taliban militia remains in limbo following the recent expulsion of two UN and European Union diplomats by the Afghan government, the weekly Der Spiegel said in a report to hit the newsstands on Sunday.

German officials view the sudden expulsion of the UN and EU diplomats as a growing sign of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to confront western governments which are trying to open up political channels with the Taliban.

As part of these efforts, Germany's Ambassador to Afghanistan, Hans-Ulrich Seidt met last September with Taliban's former foreign minister, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil who stressed "many commonalities" with the German government. ...

Germany's foreign BND intelligence service held secret talks with the Taliban for several months in 2005 aimed at finding out whether the radical Afghan militia was ready to severe its ties with the al-Qaeda terror network. ...

The chancellery was reportedly informed of the secret meetings which took place in various places across Europe, among them at a Swiss luxury hotel.

According to BND, the Taliban sent "mid-level" officials to the talks which were broken off in late summer of 2005 after the Taliban representatives could not prove that they were authorized to negotiate on behalf of their leader Mullah Omar. ... (link)

Friday, December 28, 2007

NATO troops face war crimes trial in Poland

Zoltan Dujisin of Inter Press Service gives an excellent overview of the upcoming war crimes trial in Poland, where NATO soldiers are accused of an atrocity committed against civilians in Paktika province. (We blogged on this topic a month ago.) Although the case has received zero coverage in Canada, the story could be viewed as a strong warning to Canada and other troops working under US leadership. Allegations have surfaced that the troops were under US command and may have fired on the civilians on the orders of US officers. While the trial has received notice in the New York Times and LA Times, as yet it seems that no American newspapers have reported on the American connection.

Poland has woken up to the possibility that its troops in Afghanistan were involved in a war crime against defenseless civilians.

... In August separate Polish and US patrols were struck by explosive devices. Polish reinforcements soon arrived and opened fire on a nearby

The mortar attack on the village of Nangar Khel, close to the Afghan-Pakistani border, killed eight Afghani civilians and left three women crippled. A pregnant woman and a child were among the dead.

"We are very concerned about a possible war crime, a lot of Poles cannot believe our soldiers could commit such a crime," Jacek Przybylski, deputy foreign editor of the leading Polish daily Rzeczpospolita told IPS.

But many others in Poland want exemplary punishment for the soldiers, a formal apology to Afghanistan, and large compensation paid to the victims' families.

If the war crime is proven, six of the seven perpetrators, who have been held in state custody, could face life in prison. But more officers might be accused as the
investigation unfolds.

On Nov. 13 the military prosecution, citing secret evidence, ascertained that there was no exchange of fire, and that the civilians had been fired upon with the intent to kill them. The prosecutor's office filed charges against seven soldiers, who stand accused of violating international law.

The prosecution sees no mitigating circumstances in the case, and maintains that no error or hardware failure can account for the way the mortars were aimed by some of Poland's supposedly best soldiers.

No Taliban members are believed to have been in the village, though initially the soldiers accused reportedly told their commanders that they had been shot at from the village. The officers involved are also accused of hindering the investigation.

Citing unnamed sources, the prestigious daily Gazeta Wyborcza claims that the evidence could include video footage of a Polish soldier entering the bombarded village. According to this report, the behavior of the Polish troops was appalling.

... Questions have since arisen why commanders gave the order to open fire on the civilian settlement – and why these orders were followed. It remains unclear how informed the soldiers' superiors were on the details of the operation and what their level of responsibility is.

Military prosecutors apparently have not interrogated senior officers yet, though this is required by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) procedures, raising suspicion that responsibilities might be concealed and the soldiers used as scapegoats.

The daily Rzeczpospolita bases such claims on information given to it by an unnamed officer serving in Afghanistan.

The daily reports that the defense will consider responsibility by commanders and politicians, since it believes the contingent's commanders could have coordinated a version of the story with the soldiers, promising them the case would die out.

Citing court documents, Polish radio station RMF maintains that one soldier refused to follow his superiors' orders and left, and that later a deputy commander told the remaining soldiers they should not be concerned about rockets hitting the village.

The defense is also raising the possibility that the killing could have been caused by a faulty mortar gun or damaged ammunition.

"We have sources in the army that say that it was only an incident, and that they thought they were attacking the Taliban, getting their information from US troops," Przybylski told IPS.

The wives of two of the soldiers accused of war crimes have said the "suggestion" to open fire came from a US command.

According to the Dec. 3 edition of Rzeczpospolita, the Polish soldiers were told by the base "the village needs to be f***** up," but claim they were still aiming at the nearby hills where they supposed the Taliban members were hiding. It is believed that Taliban members often come down from the hills and hide among the civilian population in villages, especially at night.

The prosecution says there is no proof indicating US responsibility, but in Poland disillusionment with the US is on the rise.

Roman Kuzniar, head of the strategic studies department at Warsaw University, says that while the Polish contingent in Afghanistan is part of NATO's peacekeeping mission, Polish troops have been made subordinate to US troops, impairing the quality of the Polish mission.

"It was certain that our soldiers would soon adopt the methods of combat of their American superiors and colleagues. These methods involve ignoring completely all rights and limitations under international humanitarian law," Kuzniar wrote in the Nov. 21 edition of Warsaw Dziennik.

...A poll conducted shortly after the prosecution announced its findings shows that the Afghani mission has almost equaled the Iraqi mission in popularity, with 85 percent of Poles opposing both missions. (link)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

British negotiations with Taliban

On Christamas day, the UK Telegraph broke the story of British MI6 agents who, accompanied by British troops, held jirgas with Taliban fighters in Helmand province this past summer.

An intelligence source said: "The SIS officers were understood to have sought peace directly with the Taliban with them coming across as some sort of armed militia. The British would also provide 'mentoring' for the Taliban."

The disclosure comes only a fortnight after the Prime Minister told the House of Commons: "We will not enter into any negotiations with these people."Opposition leaders said that Mr Brown had "some explaining to do".

The Government was apparently prepared to admit that the talks had taken place but Gordon Brown was thought to have "bottled out" just before Prime Minister's Questions on Dec 12, when he made his denial instead.

... MI6's meetings with the Taliban took place up to half a dozen times at houses on the outskirts of Lashkah Gah and in villages in the Upper Gereshk valley, to the north-east of Helmand's main town.

The compounds were surrounded by a force of British infantry providing a security cordon.

To maintain the stance that President Hamid Karzai's government was leading the negotiations the clandestine meetings took place in the presence of Afghan officials.

"These meetings were with up to a dozen Taliban or with Taliban who had only recently laid down their arms," an intelligence source said. "The impression was that these were important motivating figures inside the Taliban."

The Prime Minister had denied reports of talks with the Taliban under questioning from David Cameron, the Tory leader, in Parliament.

The revelations have caused an uproar in the UK, as various commentators echo Conservative critic Liam Fox, who said "We cannot negotiate with people who are killing our troops."

Canadians will recognize this rhetoric as similar to the pro-war forces' dubbing the NDP's Jack Layton "Taliban Jack". Though countless commentators have noted the absurdity of such posturing - as if a war can be ended without negotiations - it is worth perusing the assessment of veteran British journalist Jason Burke. Though Burke supports the American-led occupation of Afghanistan, his comments are valuable:
For anyone who knows Afghanistan and its future, this sorry tale of manufactured outrage and grandstanding is depressing. The real motives for seeking the expulsion of western officials are revealed by an Afghan foreign ministry statement about "internationals" in the country having to "observe local law". The fact that Afghanistan - at least in theory - is a sovereign nation is often forgotten, with decisions about the country's future being made abroad.

More concerning still is the predictable outrage outside Afghanistan over reports that MI6 or the British government might be "talking to the Taliban". Of course they are talking to the Taliban, as various people have been doing for years. And they are right to do so.

The Taliban are far from homogeneous. Even the original leadership of the movement that seized power in 1996 included factions of varying degrees of radicalism. Some met US government envoys in 1998. It was a more moderate group - clearly all things are relative - that argued for the successful ban on poppy production in 1999 hoping it would lead to UN recognition. In the runup to the 2001 war, despite the Taliban's increasing extremism, contacts - often via third parties - continued. So talking to the Taliban is nothing new.

The post-2001 Taliban are even more diverse. There are hardcore ideological elements, with whom it would be impossible to negotiate. But there are many "fellow travellers" who will listen to anyone prepared to make them a better offer.

Frankly, this is just about the only strategy left. Militarily, there is a stalemate. All that our expensive and bloody commitment has done is to have contained the insurgency. The Taliban may be far from victory, but we are far from success. The only way to tilt the struggle in our favour is to scale back our aims, isolate the Taliban leadership, cut down their support base, and keep talking and fighting until there is a rump Taliban that is more of a nuisance than a genuine threat to the country's stability. All this will take a lot of money, time, political focus, jirgas and some basic reason, not manufactured outrage. (link)

Of course, the prospects for negotiations depend largely on the attitude of US officials. The American ambassador to Afghanistan, William Wood, has not objected to the British efforts. From the Associated Press:
William Wood said the U.S. is in favor of a ''serious reconciliation program with those elements of the Taliban who are prepared to accept the constitution and the authority of the elected government'' of President Hamid Karzai.''

The only place where we have concern would be the members of the Taliban with close connection to al-Qaida, the reason being that al-Qaida is an international threat, it is a global threat and we don't believe that there should be separate peaces with al-Qaida,'' he said. (link)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Corpwatch on security contractor USPI

We blogged a couple of months back about United States Protection and Investigations (USPI). Corpwatch has done an excellent report on them. Excerpts:

The Gunmen of Kabul
by Fariba Nawa, Special to CorpWatch
December 21st, 2007

In September, on a tree-lined street in the most expensive neighborhood in Kabul, dozens of men rolled out of armored vehicles in front of a little-known U.S. security company. Backed up by Blackwater guards, Afghan authorities and Americans from the FBI and the U.S. State Department quickly headed for the offices of United States Protection and Investigations (USPI). Once inside, they arrested four of the Texas-based company’s management team and confiscated 15 computers. The two Americans arrested were later released, while the Afghan managers remain in custody.

The September raid was one of the first attempts by President Karzai’s government to crack down on private security contractors in Afghanistan. Afghan police say they plan to shut down about 14 contractors, and so far, have closed 10 Afghan and foreign firms.

What made the USPI raid unusual was the U.S. government’s role. The State Department and FBI spearheaded the operation and accused the company of defrauding the United States, according to USPI guards in Kabul and Afghan officials who did not want to be named because the investigation is classified.

Ironically, the United States used private security guards from Blackwater -- the same company under scrutiny for the September death of 17 Iraqi civilians -- to carry out the USPI raid. ...

One foreign private security contractor, who would only speak off the record, counters that the police crackdown is really a witch-hunt to extort money from Western companies. An Afghan journalist who is researching the issue and cannot publicly comment, points to the fact that many of the companies, such as Afghan-owned Khawar, are back in business. If the right people in the government are bribed, he said, the contractors have no problems re-opening.

According to a high-level contractor who worked for the U.S. embassy in Kabul, the crackdown may be targeting legitimate companies along with rogue and unlicensed operations. Some businesses may have been shut down after high-powered government officials issued false charges arising out of vendettas. ...

There has also been little progress in efforts to control the expense of or to monitor the private security industry. Two years ago, the Afghan government hired a Canadian consulting company to help formulate legislation to regulate the companies, but the effort has not generated effective laws. This December the U.S. Congress passed a bi-partisan bill requiring contractors to provide more information on how they are spending aid money. The legislation creates the post of a special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) to monitor American assistance to Afghanistan. President Bush has yet to sign it. ...

Many of the private security companies, including USPI, have hired Afghan guards who fought in previous wars and were supposed to be disarmed. According to the joint United Nations and Afghan disarmament group, there are still 2,000 private militias in the country employing some 120,000 men, many of whom work for private security contractors. The largest companies are either U.S. or British, and include DynCorp, USPI, Armour Group, Saladin and Global Risk Strategy.

... in 2002, USPI planted itself in Afghanistan and collaborated with former Mujahideen commander Din Mohammed Jorat.

Jorat, a notorious warlord accused of killing the aviation minister in 2002, was head of security in the Ministry of Interior and headed a militia that became part of the Afghan police. His officers were paid a low salary, $70 a month, but offered the opportunity to boost it by working as guards for USPI. They remained Afghan government employees and received a $3 to $5 per diem for USPI’s on-the-job training. By claiming to train, rather than actually employing the moonlighting police, the U.S. contractor was able to provide the cheapest security option for its clients in Afghanistan. The scheme effectively turned a large sector of the Afghan police into a private quasi-militia.

In a matter of months, USPI became USAID’s second biggest security contractor in Afghanistan (after Virginia-based Dyncorp). USAID awarded the company $36 million for four and a half years to protect infrastructure projects, such as a road-building project awarded to Louis Berger, a New Jersey engineering company. USPI also made money from contracts with other foreign companies and NGOs to protect their offices and staff in Kabul and the provinces. At its peak, the company employed some 4,000 Afghans.

By September 2007, according to one USPI Afghan guard in Kabul, the company’s guards no longer worked for the government, and had become direct employees of USPI, which pays their salaries. Jorat, who is no longer head of security at the interior ministry, had opened his own security company, Khawar, and no longer collaborates with USPI, according to the guard. ...

"[USPI managers] made deals with the devil and their guys could do anything they want: shakedowns, drug dealing. [They were] thugs who liked mafia-type operation,” said the U.S. embassy security contractor. He said USAID was not happy with USPI, but it had spent too much money mobilizing the company to let it go. ...

In 2005, a U.S. supervisor for USPI allegedly shot dead his Afghan interpreter and was flown out of the country the next day, according to Afghan officials.

Despite these issues, USPI continued to get contracts because it underbid its competitors for projects and remained the cheapest option, the American contractor said.

Paktiawal, the policeman in charge of criminal investigations in Kabul, was present during the USPI raid and told CorpWatch that the FBI and USAID are both investigating the company. Until the investigation is complete, he said he could not release more details about the charges.

USPI could not be reached for comment, but in October, the Associated Press reported:

“USPI faces accusations of overcharging USAID by billing for employees and vehicles that did not exist, said a U.S. security official with close ties to the company who wasn’t authorized to release the information. The overbilling could run into the millions of dollars … Blackwater held U.S. and Canadian citizens at gunpoint during the raid, said the U.S. official. Blackwater ... helps provide security for the U.S. Embassy.” (link)
**N.B. See also a more extensive report on Afghanistan by Corpwatch here.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Press freedom trampled in Afghanistan

We have blogged before about Afghan government repression of journalists (here, for example). Now, the International Federation of Journalists has expressed its "concern" over a series of attacks on journalists in Afghanistan.

An IWPR article outlines the issue. Excerpts:

By Wahidullah Amani in Kabul and Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Mazar-e-Sharif

Afghanistan’s media have enjoyed remarkable degree of freedom over the past six years, making this one of the most visible achievements of the post-Taleban era,. But increasingly, as security deteriorates and the public mood sours, media outlets are coming under pressure from government and other powerful elites.

In addition to intimidation and assault, reporters face obstruction from officials who routinely deny them access to information, in clear violation of the law.

In recent incidents, five staffers from a popular Afghan daily were arrested and interrogated after the security services took exception to a letter to the editor they published. Armed men arrived at the office of another newspaper to arrest the editor after he published an analysis that some deemed insulting to a national hero. A journalist was beaten for trying to record the aftermath of a suicide bombing. ...

Fazel Rahman Oria, the editor of the Erada daily in Kabul, was forced into hiding after his newspaper published a five-part analysis that contained a reference to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the mujahedin leader widely hailed as an Afghan national hero. After the author, Azam Sistani, called Massoud a “warlord”, armed men arrived at the paper’s office to take Oria away.

“I hid,” said Oria. “Then I was summoned to the committee for cultural affairs in the lower house of parliament, but I didn’t go, since they have no standing in this case. The upper house also summoned me, and once again, I refused to go.

“I told all of them that the Commission on Media Violations should ask me to present explanations. I finally to publish a piece in defence of Massoud, prepared by the Massoud Foundation, and thus I resolved the matter,” he said.

According to Rahimullah Samander, director of the Independent Association of Journalists of Afghanistan, 2007 has been the worst year for reporters since the fall of the Taleban.

“Violations against journalists are increasing year by year,” said Samander, adding that the government and parliament have been particularly active in threatening and censoring journalists.

The number of violations has jumped from about 50 in 2006 to more than 70 so far this year, according to Samandar.

He said he personally was threatened with arrest by the NDS after investigating some of these cases.

Such incidents fly in the face of Afghan law. Article 34 of the constitution states, “Freedom of expression shall be inviolable. Every Afghan shall have the right to express thoughts through speech, writing, illustrations as well as other means.”
Apart from direct threats, beatings and other abuses leveled at journalists, many Afghan government officials break the law by refusing journalists guaranteed access:
Article 5 of Afghanistan’s Public Media Code, meanwhile, requires the government to provide information requested by journalists or other citizens unless it endangers national security, the country’s territorial integrity or the rights of others. ...

According to a survey carried out by the Independent Association of Journalists, 70 per cent of Afghan reporters return empty-handed when they go to government departments and ministries to collect information. ... (link)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Our invasion compared to the Soviets'

I trust that all readers of this blog are aware of Media Lens, a British website dedicated to holding journalists' and editors' feet to the fire. Their aim is to challenge those in the media who do not question propaganda put out by government and corporate power. In the process, they aspire to be civil, honest and relentless - indeed they even challenged left sweetheart George Monbiot for his failure to address the structure and function of liberal news media. Recently, they won a Gandhi Foundation peace award - richly deserved, I might add.

Last month, they ran a long analysis co-written by Nicolai Lanine, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980's. Lanine, who now lives on Vancouver Island, has done a mountain of work reading about that war and interviewing Russians who were involved. Most of this was done in Russian, so of course he had to translate it too. A herculean task, no doubt. (Spasiba balshoya, Nicolai!)

Lanine looks at Soviet government and media messages about the Afghan conflict and compares them to their correlaries in the West regarding the US/NATO project in Afghanistan as well as the invasion of Iraq. Below, we fast-forward to the good parts. Excerpts:

[On the Soviet Union's justifications for invading Afghanistan:]
Fearful of the “threat to the security of [the Soviet] southern boarders” (Lyahovsky & Zabrodin, Secrets of the Afghan War, 1991, p.48) and concerned that the conflict might spread to neighbouring Soviet republics - and so risk radicalising their dominantly Muslim populations (accounting for more than 20% of the Soviet population) - the Soviet government invaded. The invasion was a straightforward act of aggression, an attempt to crush a perceived threat to Soviet security and power.

Inevitably, the Soviet government portrayed its invasion as an act of humanitarian intervention initiated at the “request of the [Afghan] government”. (Pravda, April 27, 1980) The aim was “to prevent the establishment of... a terrorist regime and to protect the Afghan people from genocide”, and also to provide “aid in stabilising the situation and the repulsion of possible external aggression”. (Lyahovsky & Zabrodin, p.48)

Once the “terrorists” had been defeated, Afghanistan would be left to become “a stable, friendly country”. The invasion, then, was in the best interests of the Afghan people - the focus of the Soviet government’s benevolent concern.

The Soviet media presented the invasion essentially as a peacekeeping operation intended to prevent enemy atrocities. Krasnaya Zvezda [Red Star], a major Soviet military newspaper, reported in May 1985:

"Since the establishment of this [Soviet] base, [the Mujahadeen]'s predatory extortions, violence, [and] reprisals have stopped; and poor peasants are [now] working the land peacefully." (Krasnaya Zvezda, May 1, 1985)

... The invasion was also portrayed as an act of self-defence to prevent a “neighboring country with a shared Soviet-Afghan border... [from turning] into a bridgehead for... [Western] aggression against the Soviet state”. (Izvestiya, January 1, 1980) Soviet intervention was also a response to unprovoked violence by Islamic fundamentalists (described as “freedom fighters“ in the West), who, it was claimed, planned to export their fundamentalist struggle across the region “’under the green banner of Jihad’, to the territory of the Soviet Central-Asian republics”. (Lyahovsky & Zabrodin, p.45) The Soviet public were told they faced a stark choice: either fight the menace abroad, or do nothing and later face a much greater threat on home soil that would, geopolitically, “put the USSR in a very difficult situation”. (Sovetskaya Rossia [Soviet Russia], February 11, 1993) ...

In 2001, the then UK defence secretary Geoff Hoon insisted that, in Afghanistan, Britain “was acting in self-defence against Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qa'ida network”. (Ben Russell, ‘Parliament - terrorism debate,’ The Independent, November 2, 2001) ...

When George Bush declared: "we are not conquerors; we're liberators”, he could have been quoting one of the top Soviet generals in Afghanistan, who said:

“We didn't set ourselves the task of conquering anyone: we wanted to stabilise the situation.” (Varennikov, CNN Interview, 1998) ...

In both the West and the USSR, the occupations were, and are, presented as fundamentally well-intentioned acts motivated by rational fears and humanitarian aspirations.

In Accordance With International Law

According to the Soviet government, the 1979 invasion was justified by international law (Pravda, December 31, 1979; Gareev, 1996, p.40) and was "in complete accordance with... the 1978 Soviet-Afghan Treaty". (Izvestiya, January 1, 1980) The Soviet state had to honour its obligations "to provide armed support to the Afghan national army". (Lyahovsky & Zabrodin, p.47) ...

Soviet journalists consistently supported these claims. Pravda and Izvestiya wrote in 1980 that Soviet forces were in Afghanistan "at the request of the [Afghan] government with the only goal to protect the friendly Afghan people” (Pravda, March 16, 1980) and “to help [this] neighbouring country... to repel external aggression". (Izvestiya, January 3, 1980) ...

Soviet leaders and commentators criticised and debated, not the fundamental +illegality+ of the invasion, but the merit of the +strategies+ for achieving its goals.

Soviet Chief of General Staff Ogarkov argued in 1979 (before the invasion), that the decision to send troops to Afghanistan was “inexpedient” because the initial invasion force of 75,000 was insufficient to the task, ...

A striking feature of Soviet media performance on Afghanistan was its focus on “external interference” - primarily US in origin - and the role of this interference in fuelling the war. ...

Iran was criticised for “supporting the armed Islamic opposition” ...

We wonder how the Western media would have reacted if, in response to claims that Tehran had supported the Afghan insurgency and resisted their illegal invasion, Soviet officials had proposed bombing Iran. ...

The Soviet press also directed fierce criticism at Pakistan for training and aiding Afghan jihadis, and for providing “the bridgehead for an undeclared war against [Afghanistan]”. (Izvestiya, February 19, 1986) Readers were left with the impression that “external interference” and “terrorism” were the +only+ reasons for the continuing bloodshed, with Soviet troops acting in self-defence to bring “stability” to Afghanistan. In most reporting, the Soviet role in sustaining the conflict was not even a consideration. ...

[T]he media’s emphasis on the heroism of individual soldiers helped bury the hidden, deeper truths, namely: the illegality and appalling destructiveness of the invasion. ...

Soviet critics of the Afghan war were also accused of a shameful lack of patriotism and a failure to support the troops. Thus, in 1988, Izvestiya quoted general Gromov’s reference to “irresponsible” comments by people who “doubt the heroic deeds” of Soviet soldiers: “Nobody, not a single person in our country, has the right to ruin the faith of young people in the sanctity of the military biography that wasn’t lived in vain.” (Izvestiya, July 2, 1988) ...

Even during Gorbachev's semi-liberal reforms of the late 1980s, discussion of Afghan suffering was strictly prohibited. Andrei Greshnov describes how he repeatedly wrote about Afghan civilian casualties in the monthly classified reports submitted by all TASS journalists to the Soviet leadership in Moscow (it was of course important for decision makers to know the truth of the situation on the ground). Greshnov recalls:

“The government +knew+ the truth about the situation in Afghanistan, including about civilian casualties – I personally wrote about it. But such information was never allowed to reach the general public through the mainstream Soviet press.” (Phone interview with Lanine, August 8, 2007)

By contrast, Western journalists are largely unconstrained by state controls. And yet, in early January 2002, American writer Edward Herman estimated that media coverage afforded to the death of Nathan Chapman - the first and, at that point, sole US combat casualty of the invasion of Afghanistan - had exceeded coverage afforded to +all+ Afghan victims of bombing and starvation. CNN Chair Walter Isaacson is reported to have declared that it “seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan“. (Howard Kurtz, ‘CNN chief orders “balance” in war news,’ Washington Post, October 31, 2001) ...

In the 1980s, the continued presence of Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan was justified on the grounds that leaving would result in an even bloodier civil war. ...

The Soviet leadership claimed that they would leave Afghanistan only on the condition that “external interference stops”(Pravda, January 7,1988) ... (link)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Afghan war in historical perspective

Terry Greenberg was nice enough to pass along this article he wrote for Middle East Times last month:

When Will They Ever Learn?

Middle East Times online - November 14, 2007

On Jan. 13, 1842, Dr. William Brydon, caked in blood and grime, his scalp half sheared off by an Afghan sword, his uniform hanging in tatters over his frost-bitten extremities, staggered through the gate of a British fort on the border of Afghanistan. He had left the mangled bodies of over 16,000 of his comrades in the snow and dirt of the Khyber Pass, and was the sole survivor of a British army division which had begun its retreat from Kabul just one week earlier. He was too exhausted to speak, but if there was one message in his experience, it was 'Don't mess with the Afghans!'

The Soviet Union had not gotten this message when they entered Afghanistan over a hundred years later. They came to support a communist-led government in Kabul that was fighting a civil war against its own people. Amongst other things, the Kabul government was trying to promote, through the use of military force, more modernisation for the entire country; more equitable treatment for women; and more power for the central government over the hinterland. The Soviets, possessing one of the most powerful military forces on earth, much like the British had had in the 19th century, left Afghanistan in ignominious defeat, and learned the same lesson; 'Don't mess with the Afghans!'

Canadian forces are now in Afghanistan essentially trying to do exactly what the Soviets tried to do. We want to promote, through the use of military force, more modernisation for the entire country; more equitable treatment for women; and the assertion of more power for the central government in Kabul over the hinterland. Einstein once defined 'insanity', as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Canada's military deployment in Afghanistan seems dangerously close to meeting that definition.

We should be asking ourselves a number of relatively simple questions, but there is no evidence that this is being done by the Canadian Government. For example, why did a tribal, religiously fundamentalist country like Afghanistan have a communist-inspired government in the first place, even before the Soviets entered on the scene? This happened because Kabul, the capital city, was a very modern and progressive place in the 1970s. It had the largest number of female doctors of any Muslim city in the world at that time. But Kabul was virtually a different country from the Afghan hinterland, and when it tried to impose its modernistic vision on the tribal majority, it encountered violent resistance. In a sense, Kabul tried and failed, in spite of Soviet assistance, to colonize the rest of Afghanistan. Canadian forces today are involved in a similar exercise in internal colonialism on behalf of the Karzai government.

Another question might be; what do Canadians really know about the culture and society of rural Afghanistan? The answer is: phenomenally little. No two cultures could be more different than those of Canada and Afghanistan, yet we claim we are there to rebuild and refashion that country. How much confidence can we have in a skyscraper designed by an architect who has no knowledge of the properties of steel and concrete? Canadians have only the most superficial knowledge of the essential building material in Afghanistan, the Afghan people and their culture. Our approach to regime change and rebuilding that country is no more sophisticated than that of children playing with plasticine. Whatever we construct over there is unlikely to have any structural integrity, and is doomed to collapse.

Lastly, what do we know of the motives of the Afghan insurgents that we are trying so hard to kill? Why do young men virtually condemn themselves to death by taking up the fight against the vastly superior military technologies of the West? It has nothing to do with virgins in Paradise, and everything to do with resisting foreign occupation and aggression. The Pathan code of Pashtunwali says a man is nothing if he cannot defend his honour and obtain revenge for abuses against himself and his community. In his poem, 'The White Man's Burden', Rudyard Kipling described the Afghans as 'half-devil and half-child'. Canada's General Hillier was even more racially arrogant, and not half as sophisticated, when he described the Afghan fighters as 'scumbags'. They are simply doing what we would do if a totally alien army had invaded Canada, and tried to violently impose foreign values on us. We would also deeply resent the killing of our women and children in indiscriminate aerial bomb- ardments, and probably see the foreign soldiers as legitimate targets of revenge, even if they had pretty little red leafs on their uniforms.

The Canadian mission in Afghanistan is doomed to failure, because of our racial arrogance, our cultural ignorance, and our reluctance to learn the lessons of history. At this point we can still hope that the last Canadian soldier to leave Afghanistan will not stagger out over the Khyber Pass, covered in blood and grime, with his head cut open like William Brydon's. But we can be reasonably certain that his advice to the world will be, 'Don't mess with the Afghans!'

Terry Greenberg is currently lecturing at Capilano College. He was with the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs from 1982-2003.
Below I append a couple of letters to the editor penned by Terry.
Vietnam haunts Canadian mission in Afghanistan
Letters - Publish Date: January 11, 2007 (link)

The prognosis of the article on Afghanistan [“NATO faces a bloody future in Afghanistan”, Georgia Straight, Jan. 4-11] will prove accurate, but it places too much emphasis on the harmful role of outsiders like Pakistan and other external supporters of the insurgency. The reality is that NATO itself is an outsider. NATO’s presence in Afghanistan is, essentially, a colonial presence. It consists of a group of rich, powerful, Western, Christian countries imposing its collective will on a poor, weak, Asian, Muslim country. Colonialism has not worked since the last quarter of the 20th century, and there is no reason to believe it will succeed in the 21st. Once a significant part of the local population has rejected the foreign presence, as they did in Algeria and Vietnam and are doing in Iraq, the foreigners are doomed. Given the lessons of Afghan history, in which every foreign invader was repelled, the same is inevitable here.

> Terry Greenberg / North Vancouver

Canada replicates role of Soviets in Afghanistan
Publish Date: March 22, 2007 (link)

Terry Glavin's article "Journalist speaks up for Afghan women" [March 15-22] failed to provide necessary historical context. The last foreign army to fight for women's rights in Afghanistan was that of the Soviet Union, and its defeat was greatly aided by U.S. support to the mujahideen. So our allies, the Americans, have very recently been on the side of Islamic extremism and suppressing women's rights.

The Soviet Union came to fight in Afghanistan to protect the Kabul regime that was trying to impose its communist values on the Afghan countryside. That effort had caused an uprising that it could not suppress. One of the values they promoted was women's rights, and Kabul was actually quite a progressive place at the time.

Today, Kabul is again trying to impose its own set of values on the Afghan countryside, and NATO and Canadians are playing the Soviet role.

We do have plenty of the women's-rights-suppressing mujahideen-warlords on our side, which sets us off a bit from the Soviets. The Karzai regime, which is totally foreign-imposed and protected, is much less credible and legitimate than the Soviet-supported Kabul regime, and corruption and drug trading are taking place on a much greater scale under our watch.

If we lose the fight, as the Soviets did—and we will—what good would we be doing the women of Afghanistan? Women suffer the most in wars.

The sad truth is that Canadian forces are in a combat role in Afghanistan primarily as an act of contrition for our failure to join the U.S. rape of Iraq. Using women's rights as a justification for our aggressive, militant actions in Afghanistan is tantamount to our own act of rape, not only against the women of Afghanistan but against the very principle of women's rights as well.

> Terry Greenberg / North Vancouver
The themes that Terry touches on are echoed in a Reuters dispatch:
KABUL, Dec 19 (Reuters) - The Afghan president says his country is improving -- schools and hospitals are being built and the economy is stronger, but problems remain with insurgents.

"The construction of new schools and hospitals ... are the characteristics of our social policy," he says. "Our brave armed forces have significantly developed ... carry out combat operations, smash extremist bands."

But the time is is not 2007, it is 1987, and the president is Soviet-backed Najibullah, not the Western-backed Hamid Karzai. Yet 20 years later, Karzai is delivering a similar message.

... While Najibullah's government held out for another three years after the Soviet pullout, Afghanistan endured a civil war that killed tens of thousands and made millions refugees.

"It is now like 1984-85, we have lost the countryside, Afghans cannot work for us because it is too dangerous for them, and in the next couple of years, allied countries will start dropping out and then it will be the end," said Kees Rietveld, a consultant working on Afghanistan for more than 20 years. (link)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Musa Qala Redux Part 4: Victory?

[See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3]
As some 1600 Afghan, British and American troops occupy the newly-conquered Musa Qala district centre, and sporadic attacks there continue, there are many reasons to doubt the rosy NATO/US declarations of victory.

In the first place, Musa Qala represents only one of the many areas of Afghanistan which the Taliban control or dominate. In Helmand province alone, the Taliban still control three remote districts (Washer, Naw Zad and Baghran) while dominating the major districts of Garmsir, Gereshk and Sangin. "Meanwhile," reports the Asia Times, "the Taliban have captured two districts near Kandahar to build up pressure in that province to distract NATO from Helmand." And even in the centre of newly-liberated Musa Qala district, one embedded journalist reports that "the strength of Taliban support was not hard to find. Several of those returning accosted our translator, an Afghan from Kabul. 'Why are you working for the infidel?' they asked."

One of the salient themes of the war in Afghanistan is the constant taking, losing and retaking of strategic positions in hotly contested areas. Musa Qala is a prime example of this dynamic. "British troops have seized Musa Qala before, but then have become virtual prisoners in their barracks," remarks Asia Times' Pakistan bureau chief Syed Saleem Shahzad. "Indeed, last year they were only able to vacate the town after striking a truce with the Taliban, who controlled all the surrounding areas of the inhospitable terrain."

British forces aren't the only troops involved in this repetitive tread mill. On the very same weekend that Musa Qala was being retaken, Canadian soldiers next door in Kandahar district once again took the strategically important Zangabad area in Panjwai district. Called Operation Sure Thing, it marked the first time Canadian Forces fought alongside Nepalese Gurkhas, who are themselves old hands at imperial support. However, it was only in September that the Globe and Mail's Graeme Smith wrote about an earlier Canadian operation in Zangabad: "the Canadians built a police outpost in a village held by insurgents less than 48 hours earlier." In fact, the Canadians' see-saw like struggles in Zangabad go back to at least June of 2006.

So too the latest surprise attack on sleeping Taliban fighters in Sia Choy, also in Panjwai district. It comes exactly a year after a near-identical operation when "ISAF launched a precision air strike against a known 'Taliban command post'", launched after "they had received credible information about Taliban hiding in the Siajoy area of the district." (Pajhwok Afghan News, Dec. 14/2006)

Yet even if this time around foreign forces are able to hold on to these contested areas on a more permanent basis, the taking of Musa Qala and other areas might still backfire. As IWPR staffers observe:

Losing Musa Qala is not likely to be a death blow to the insurgents. The renewed fighting, with the attendant displacement of families and damage to property, may in fact further inflame local passions against the Afghan government and its foreign allies.
It is not hard to imagine why Afghan and foreign troops might be rejected by the local population - even apart from allegations of civilians bombed to death in the initial attack. Nick Meo of the Times reports from NATO-occupied Musa Qala that "one farmer, coming back from the desert, where his family was still in hiding, was nearly shot outside his home after ignoring an order by the British patrol to stop."

Despite the obvious perils of the troops' presence, many Musa Qala residents are said to be more concerned about who will replace the ANA and NATO/US soldiers. Many locals fear a repeat of the systematic looting which occurred in nearby Sangin some eight months ago after Afghan and foreign troops similarly retook that area and handed it over to police and allied militias. Indeed, these fears have already been articulated, as a Pajhwok News headline makes clear: "Musa Qala residents want no police in the district". Their aversion to police is understandable, as residents relate accusations that police have in the past been involved in drug use, robberies and forced home searches.

The Afghan National Police are widely known to be corrupt, but the situation may be worsening, as the Toronto Star's Mitch Potter relates. A "prominent citizen" in Kandahar City, interviewed by Potter related his concern about the police in secretive tones: "One year ago we could say these things out loud. Now, we can only whisper, because [the police] are so strong that if you do more than whisper you put your life at risk". The man goes on to make a startling comparison: "The most frightening thing is that it feels like we are starting to repeat the 1990s, when the warlords were in control and everything was chaos. Today, the police and the warlords are the same thing. And that was the recipe that gave us the Taliban the first time."

In the end, the residents of Musa Qala may prefer western neglect to the brand of help which is currently being offered them. As two of the IWPR's Afghan reporters explain:
Local people told IWPR that they just want to be left alone. With winter approaching, the prospect of losing one’s home and shelter is even more daunting than in the summer months.
One Reuters correspondent puts local concerns about the occupation into a revealing context. Writing from Musa Qala, Jon Hemming writes that before the recent assault, "while Afghan and foreign forces held off from attacking, Musa Qala saw a measure of security absent elsewhere in Afghanistan due to the constant threat of insurgent suicide attacks." He quotes one local who sums up the challenge facing those who would bring peace at the barrel of a gun: "Don't build us schools, don't build us a mosque, bring us security".

As the residents of Musa Qala are seeing first hand, the NATO/US project brings war, not security.

Musa Qala Redux Part 3: Civilian Casualties

[See Part 1 and Part 2]
Civilian casualties

Soon after the assault on Musa Qala began, reports of civilians killed in the attack came trickling in. The London Times' Stephen Grey, embedded with British and Afghan soldiers, himself witnessed two civilians dead after an apparent crossfire incident, writing "in the end there was no doubt that the two civilians had been killed by American gunfire" (Times, Dec 9). Strikingly, a NATO spokesperson said days later that no civilians had been killed in the operation.

More reports of dead civilians were to follow, though the average reader of the mainstream media would not have heard about them. The Manchester Guardian was virtually alone in relaying locals' reports that local elders claim that up to 40 civilians were killed in the attack. While the Guardian made mere mention of the accusations, only the Institute for War and Peace Reporting detailed the allegations.

According to the IWPR, one local said "A neighbourhood called Nabo Aka near the main mosque in Musa Qala was bombed, and 28 civilians were killed just there," including women and children, but "no Taliban". Likewise, one resident relates:

“Every single place has been bombed,” said Mohammad Gul, a resident of Toughi village. “I cannot go out, so I don’t know how many people are dead. But a missile landed on my neighbour’s house, killing his five-year-old daughter and his cow.”
Major media outlets had precious little to say about civilian deaths. On December 14, the London Times' Nick Meo related an Afghan boy's report that two of his relatives were killed by firing from a helicopter gunship. The BBC website cites a local saying he had seen the bodies of 15 women and children. By the time of this report (December 16) British military officials were claiming only two civilians had died.

The New York Times, that venerated paper of record, reported on December 11 that General Azimi, an Afghan Defence Ministry spokesperson, revealed that four civilians had died so far in the operation. The paper also quoted a resident of Musa Qala saying "We had heard there were a lot of civilian casualties," but offers nothing further on the subject. Recall that December 11 saw reports in both the Guardian and IWPR of some 40 civilian casualties.

North of the forty-ninth parallel, the media for the most part retailed the Afghan Defence Ministry's assertions. Several Canadian daily papers reported on December 9 that two children had been killed in the battle, though the closest that information got to the front page was page eight of the Ottawa Citizen. The Edmonton Journal (Dec 11, p A13) ran the NYT story acknowledging four dead, while Graeme Smith of the Globe and Mail wrote the same day (Dec 11, p A19) that "at least six civilians" had so far been killed.

Thus, apart from the Guardian's rather bland reference to 40 civilian deaths, the full extent of civilian allegations, available to anyone with an internet connection, appears to have been entirely ignored in the major print media of Britain and Canada as well as the New York Times.**

On first look, one might think that these media outlets merit a prize for demonstrating the workings of Orwell's memory hole. However, another recent story shows the media exceeding even those heights in ignoring news that puts the NATO project in a bad light. Here again, it is the Institute for War and Peace Reporting which broke the news, while mainstream outlets looked the other way, nearly unanimously.

On December 11, the IWPR website posted a report which relayed villagers' accusations of a massacre committed by what seem to be special forces. Residents of Toube village in Helmand province allege that foreign troops, accompanied by Afghan soldiers, killed over a dozen civilians, including babies, in a nighttime commando-style raid. The piece cites numerous witnesses, who all "spoke consistently of soldiers breaking down doors, shooting children and cutting throats".

A Lexis-Nexus search reveals that only one major English language media outlet covered the allegations. The British Telegraph on December 12 cited an officer saying that the British Army is "taking seriously" the atrocity allegations. NATO's Col. Richard Eaton acknowledges that "something" took place in the area at the time, but that the casualties were thought to all be Taliban fighters. Another NATO spokesperson confesses to be unaware of any NATO troops in the area on the night in question.

Then who might have been involved in the "something"? It doesn't take much reading between the lines to surmise that the NATO officials were unwilling or unable to ask the American military whether Operation Enduring Freedom troops had been involved. According to the IWPR report: "PRT officials were unable to comment on who is most likely to have been involved. "

How to explain the total silence of North American media on the matter? While it might be supposed that the allegations are all pure fabrications, that would not make the matter unworthy of coverage. For as IWPR relates, close to a hundred elders, upon hearing reports of the atrocity were motivated to travel two districts over to the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. There they had an audience with government officials and representatives of the British Provincial Reconstruction Team. Surely any event - real or imagined - that causes so significant a reaction is newsworthy ipso facto.

** It is not only in Musa Qala district where civilians were endangered on that weekend. The Gobe and Mail's Graeme Smith reported on December 10 that "An air strike in the Nowzad district of Helmand province this weekend killed 12 civilians and left a boy as the sole surviving member of the family, said Abdul Satar Mazahari, head of the refugee department in Helmand province."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Musa Qala Redux Part 2: The Attack

[See Part 1]
The attack

The attempt to take Musa Qala, which began on Friday, December 7, was essentially a two-pronged operation. One prong was formed by the Afghan National Army (ANA) and British-led ISAF forces, which included Estonian and Danish soldiers. Afghan and British-led NATO forces would advance from the south, the east and the west, closing in around the villages which surround the town of Musa Qala. Meanwhile, members of the American 82nd Airborne regiment, dropped by helicopters into the hills north of the town, would advance southward to "kick down the door" and allow the Afghan units to take the town.

With headlines like "Afghan, NATO forces target model Taliban town" (Globe and Mail) and "Afghan army takes lead in battle to retake town" (Edmonton Journal), the Canadian media nicely parroted NATO propaganda that the Afghan National Army (ANA) are fast becoming a serious fighting force. Pretenses like that are hard to maintain, as the London Times' embedded journalist Stephen Grey saw from close-up: "The Afghans were supposedly fighting under their own command. Yet they could barely function without Nato’s protection and Nato had to cajole them to move forward."

Estimates of the size of the allied force reveal a huge operation. "More British forces are being used in this action than in any other battle in Afghanistan," reports that Telegraph. That means "anything up to 3,000".

Of course, the multinational "coalition" is nothing if not backed up by air power. According to one journalist "B1 and B52 bombers backed by A10 tank busters, F16s, Apache helicopters and Specter gunships were used to kill hundreds of Taliban fighters." (Note that B52's are an unusual choice of weapon, as they are more for long-distance and higher altitude bombing.) The air operation was so big that some aircraft were redeployed from action in Iraq for the assault.

In the event, and contrary to NATO/US claims, aerial bombardment was extensive. IWPR reported that the NATO claim that they were careful to avoid endangering civilians "was in stark contrast to reports received from inside Musa Qala, where residents have been cowering under bombs and artillery shells for the better part of a week." "The past five days have been hell," said one resident. "[T]here has been bombing and more bombing. People are terrified." Nick Meo of the Times reported that "local people say the Nato operation had involved massive bombing by B-52s as well as round-the-clock ground attacks by helicopter gunships." Recall that this was for an area where NATO leaflets had advised people to stay in their homes.

The Taliban resistance was, according to one embedded journalist "more ferocious than NATO commanders had expected". This despite NATO intelligence claiming that only some 200 Taliban remained in the town by the time of the assault. In any event, after three days the insurgents had had enough and pulled out. In the process they saved face and carried off a minor public relations coup. With their spokesperson citing their concern to minimize civilian casualties, Taliban forces pulled out of the district centre on Monday, December 10. Yet it was not until the next day that NATO and Afghan forces announced they had secured the district centre.

While some insurgents were putting up the surprising resistance in Musa Qala, "several hundred Taliban fighters launched a counterattack against NATO and Afghan government troops in Sangin district," according to Radio Free Europe. That attack occurred during the early morning of Monday, December 10 - just before the insurgents in Musa Qala pulled out.

Upon taking the town, Afghan forces boasted of overwhelming success. "Afghans say hundreds of Taliban killed in Musa Qala", reads a Reuters headline. The commander of British troops in southern Afghanistan, on the other hand, did not offer an estimate of the number of Taliban killed except to say "a lot of them".

It should be realled, however, that NATO estimates of insurgent casualties have in the past been immensely inflated. Following the Canadian-led Operation Medusa in Kandahar province in September of 2006, NATO's top commander estimated Taliban casualties to be as high as 1500. Yet veteran journalist Tim Albone reporting from the battle scene found "no bodies and no blood stains - certainly no evidence of the 600 rebels Nato claimed to have killed." (See Dave Markland, "Operation Medusa and after", While no reporters have made such explicit claims regarding the present operation, there is one suggestive report from Nick Meo of the Times. Meo, it seems, had been embedded a British unit on mop-up operations who "had searched compounds and came across only one dead Taleban and an old man, who was alive.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Musa Qala Redux - Part 1: The Setting

Now that the dust has cleared somewhat, I want to review some of what has been written in the press about the attempt to retake Musa Qala.
The Setting

Musa Qala is a town of some 15000 people in northern Helmand province and is the administrative centre for the district of the same name. Located somewhat north of the main stream of the Helmand River, it lacks the strategic importance of more centrally-located Helmand towns like Sangin and Kajaki. (Interested readers can consult this map of Helmand - free registration required.) Just north of the town are mountains which provide a convenient path of escape for the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Taliban militants who have been headquartered there for some 10 months.

The area was ostensibly signed over to the control of tribal elders by the British ISAF forces in October 2006. The reason for the hand-over was that the British were suffering heavy casualties against Taliban fighters who had gained a foothold in the area. Thus the Brits were keen to concentrate their efforts in other areas of Helmand. While the agreement was supposed to keep both the British military and Taliban insurgents out of Musa Qala, some locals say that Taliban dominance was complete soon after the October agreement.

With the breaking of the ceasefire agreement under ambiguous circumstances in February 2007, Taliban leaders took more explicit control. For locals this meant taxation, madrasas in place of what schools already existed, shariah courts and a Taliban-appointed police chief. According to scattered reports from the Taliban-controlled town, the movement avoided some of the extremes of their previous rule in Afghanistan. Men without turbans were spotted by journalists and the Taliban's radio station played music between speeches and prayers.

Thus, for almost a year Taliban fighters had a safe haven in the town, undoubtedly using it as a jumping off point for their attacks elsewhere in the region - for example, on neighbouring districts of Farah province next door. And while the NATO/US public relations department recites an ostinato of "Taliban foreign fighters", in fact the movement relies on local elites for support (or at least tolerance) in areas where the insurgents dominate. In Musa Qala, it is said that a main pillar of support for the Taliban comes from a subtribe of the Alizai, known as the Pirzai Alizai. Rumours surfaced in November that the Pirzai leader, Mullah Salaam, was plotting to change horses and side with the Afghan government rather than the Taliban. While one report states that media attention caused Mullah Salaam to back out of the deal, others say that he did change sides, thus ushering in Operation Snake.

Also beginning in November, reports emerged of British forces preparing to retake the area, as NATO officers had long promised. By the end of that month, terrified civilians had largely left the area. IWPR reported that three quarters of Musa Qala's residents had evacuated, leaving behind only those who were too poor to do so. Similarly, the Telegraph relates:

There are signs that some people have decided to stay because of the fear of looting when the town falls.

"Outside I can hear the sounds of explosions. We are quite scared," Haji Mohammad Rauf said by telephone from his home just outside Musa Qala. "Most of the families have fled the area, but I’m afraid that if we leave the soldiers will loot all the things from our home."
Then on Friday, December 7, British-led NATO forces started the operation, aimed at surrounding the district centre on three sides, leaving an escape route to the north, into the mountains. While it was said that this would allow civilians to escape the coming onslaught, one Musa Qala resident reported that foreign forces used helocopters to drop leaflets over the town advising civilians to stay in their homes: "Don't go outside your home. We want to bring peace to Musa Qala." In the event, Reuters reported that "Up to 300 civilians fled" the area in advance of fighting. If you're keeping up with the arithmetic, that's 300 civilians out of perhaps 4000 (i.e. the poorest quarter of the town's 15000 inhabitants). Meanwhile, it is almost certain that insurgent fighters used the northern escape route to avoid the coming attack.

Thus it is hardly surprising that NATO/US officials have been rather circumspect about Taliban casualties in the resulting operation while claiming that no civilians were killed - despite rather compelling evidence to the contrary.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Professor shuns Manley panel

Michael Byers, a professor at UBC and noted expert on the law of war, writes for the Ottawa Citizen on why he turned down an invitation to appear before the Manley panel. Led by former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley, the panel was struck in October to examine the Afghanistan mission. (We blogged about it here.)

... The mandate of the Manley panel has been focused on recommending one of four set options, all of them featuring continuing roles for the military.

Alternative policies, such as negotiating with the Taliban, have been effectively excluded from consideration. So too have the opportunities for non-military responses to the crisis levels of opium production and the lawlessness in northern Pakistan. And little room has been allowed for serious consideration of whether NATO troops should be replaced with UN peacekeepers.

The ISG operated on its own timetable, and chose to delay its report until after the 2006 congressional elections.

In contrast, the Manley panel has been given a deadline of Jan. 31, 2008. This ensures the report will be released before the next election, when it can be used by the Conservatives to buttress their position of extending the counterinsurgency mission for another two years.

So why would Mr. Manley -- a Liberal -- play into Mr. Harper's hands?

My guess is that he'd feel duty-bound to answer any prime minister's call. Like the many well-intentioned individuals who have agreed to speak to the panel, or submitted written briefs, Mr. Manley wants to make government work.

I suspect it is this intrinsic loyalty to a democratic ideal that Mr. Harper seeks to exploit. He wants the legitimacy that Mr. Manley and other non-Conservatives can provide.

Well, he's not getting any legitimacy from me. Although it pains me to say it, the Manley panel is a sham.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Afghan women revolutionaries issue new communique

On December 10, Human Rights Day, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), issued a communique, excerpted below. RAWA, often said to be Afghanistan's oldest civil society group, was founded in the 1970's by Meena - a woman who was later assassinated. Their existence is by necessity clandestine, as they are staunch advocates not only for the rights of women, but of secularism, democracy and the rule of law. Videlicet:

... By relying on the criminal bands of the Northern Alliance, the US made a game of values like democracy, human rights, women’s rights etc... Now the US tries to include infamous killers like Mullah Omer and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar into the government, which will be another big hypocrisy in the “war against terror”.

... Our people, and even our unfortunate children, fall victim to the Jehadis’ infighting (Baghlan incident), the Taliban’s untargeted blasts and the US/NATO’s non-stop bombardments. The Northern Alliance blood-suckers, who are part of Karzai’s team and have key government posts, continue to be the main and the most serious obstacle towards the establishment of peace and democracy in Afghanistan.

... Only a president who rely on people and come to power through a fair election, free from any kind of dependence or dealings with the fundamentalists, would be ideal for Afghan people.

Instead of defeating Al-Qaeda, Taliban and Gulbuddini terrorists and disarming the Northern Alliance, the foreign troops are creating confusion among the people of the world. We believe that if these troops leave Afghanistan, our people will not feel any kind of vacuum but rather will become more free and come out of their current puzzlement and doubts. In such a situation, they will face the Taliban and Northern Alliance without their “national” mask, and rise to fight with these terrorist enemies. ... (link)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Canadians move into Zangabad

Over the weekend, as British and American forces ('supporting' Afghan forces) were busy clearing Taliban from Helmand's Musa Qala, Canadian forces were doing likewise in the town of Zangabad, in Kandahar's Panjwai district. The Brits and Americans met little resistance (though they endured a diversionary attack in Sangin district of Helmand) while the Canadians saw met with heavy fire. The operation, dubbed "Sure Thing", involved a first-time pairing of the Canadian battle group and Gurkha soldiers from Nepal.

Both operations were conducted with an eye to denying insurgents a haven over the petrified winter months soon approaching.

Canadians open new front against Taliban
Push into insurgents' territory part of a flurry of NATO activity in southern Afghanistan as winter starts to impede enemy's movement


From Monday's Globe and Mail

December 10, 2007 at 5:00 AM EST

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — A Canadian-led offensive opened a new front against the Taliban in Kandahar this weekend, adding pressure on the insurgents as they also faced a major attack from NATO and Afghan forces in neighbouring Helmand.

Canadian soldiers and their allies advanced on foot into the fields around Zangabad, a village about 40 kilometres southwest of Kandahar city, at daybreak on Saturday. An Afghan military statement later said 10 insurgents were killed in the attack, but a Canadian commander said the number was higher, without giving details.

Under the name Operation Sure Thing, the offensive marked the first time Canada's battle group has fought alongside the famed Gurkhas, soldiers of Nepalese origins who have fought under British command since the 1800s. Afghan soldiers also joined the fight. ...

"We have surrounded Musa Qala town, but we haven't entered it yet," Brig.-Gen. Naebi said.

The fighting around Musa Qala was dwarfed by the battle in Kandahar, said Major Richard Moffet, Canada's acting battle group commander.

"Compared to what happened in Musa Qala? Musa Qala is nothing," Major Moffet said.

Embedded photojournalist Louie Palu, travelling with the Canadian troops, saw smoke rising from artillery and air strikes that continued through Saturday, and Canadian soldiers kicking down doors of mud-walled homes.

... In Kandahar, the Taliban territory now being targeted by Canadian forces is familiar ground, having already been captured in Operation Baaz Tsuka during the same cold season last year and later lost to the insurgents in the spring-time. ... (link)

Canada meddles in Afghan politics again

Pajhwok Afghan News reports on a Canadian proposal to appoint a UN "super envoy" to Afghanistan, representing both the UN and NATO. While Afghanistan and the UN Secretary General oppose it, the US and UK are behind the idea. Critics say it will undermine the Afghan government and set a serious precedent.

Aversion to 'super envoy' idea snowballs
Pajhwok News
By Lalit K Jha

UNITED NATIONS - While a final decision on the appointment of a new UN envoy to Afghanistan is yet to be taken, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is believed to be reluctant about naming a super envoy in his place.

Present UN envoy to Afghanistan Tom Koenigs' term expires at the end of this month, before which Ban has to appoint his successor. Reports in the western media this past week suggested several western countries and NATO and European Union have been asking for Koenigs' replacement with a powerful super envoy.

Their argument is the super envoy, besides heading the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) as well as NATO operations in the country, will help accelerate the war against terror and the reconstruction effort. Several names bandied about for the job indicate the appointee will have the power overriding the decisions of Afghan government.

But diplomatic sources at the UN told Pajhwok Afghan News the secretary-general was not in favour of such a proposal, which first came from Canada some two months [ago]. Now the idea is being backed by countries like Britain and the United States.

The basic question asked by the office of the secretary-general is that if the UN can lend its official to represent NATO and European Union in Afghanistan. Won't it set a wrong precedent? Or is it within the mandate of the United Nations?

It is also understood the Afghan government - through its own informal channels - has conveyed its aversion to such a proposal. Kabul believes a super envoy would undermine the power and authority of the duly elected president.

Further, such an appointment will send wrong signals to the people of Afghanistan and Taliban insurgents that the Karzai administration is not the final authority. An impression like this among the people is bound to erode the powers of the president and Parliament.

Several other countries, including Security Council members, are also opposed to the idea. Member nations argue it will set a wrong precedent. They say the UN should not allow its envoy to represent other organisations. (link)

Atrocity in Helmand?

The Telegraph (UK) reports on accusations that Afghan and "unspecified foreign soldiers" killed several civilians in an atrocity last month in Helmand province:

Claims of atrocity in Helmand province
By Tom Coghlan in Kabul

(Dec 12) The British Army says it is "taking seriously" claims that children were shot and several adult villagers had their throats cut during a secret military operation by unidentified forces in Helmand province.

The alleged Nov 18 mission in the village of Toube reportedly involved Afghans and unspecified foreign soldiers.

One man claimed to have witnessed his brother having his throat slashed as he protested that he was a shopkeeper and not with the Taliban.

Others alleged that two children were shot as they slept.

Col Richard Eaton, the spokesman for the British military in Helmand, said: "These are very serious allegations and we have no sense of whether they are true or not.

"There is something that took place at approximately that time and it did cause some casualties. The initial assessment was that those were all Taliban."

A Nato spokesman said that he was unaware of any Nato troops being in the area on the night.

US special forces have undertaken secret missions about which Nato has no knowledge.

But in the past Nato has accused the Taliban of inventing supposed atrocities by Western forces. ... (link)

Brown calls for negotiations: real or just spin?

The Independent relates, with a grain of salt, Gordon Brown's call for negotiations with the Taliban:

Brown: 'It's time to talk to the Taliban'
Today, the Prime Minister will announce a major shift in strategy on Afghanistan. Could it mark the beginning of the end of a bloody six-year war? Or is it just spin?

As the deadliest year in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001 comes to a close, Gordon Brown is ready to talk to the Taliban in a major shift in strategy that is likely to cause consternation among hardliners in the White House.

Six years after British troops were first deployed to oust the Taliban regime, the Prime Minister believes the time has come to open a dialogue in the hope of moving from military action to consensus-building among the tribal leaders. ...

... A senior Downing Street source confirmed the move last night and one Brown aide who accompanied the Prime Minister on his recent visit to Kabul, said: "We need to ask who are we fighting? Do we need to fight them? Can we be talking to them?"

Senior government officials said it was an error to see the Taliban as a unified organisation rather than as a disparate group of Afghan tribesmen, often farmers recruited at the end of the gun, infiltrated by foreign fighters. The aim is to divide the Taliban's local support from al-Qa'ida and militants from Pakistan.

... The dialogue strategy is the latest attempt by Mr Brown to distance himself from the military legacy of the Blair era and the hardline instincts of President George Bush. ... (link)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Jason Burke on Musa Qala

Jason Burke, author of a great book on Al-Qaeda, reports from Pakistan on some background to the attempt to retake Musa Qala by NATO and Afghan forces. Excerpts:

Jason Burke
Monday December 10, 2007
Guardian Unlimited

Musa Qala does not deserve the attention it is currently receiving. A dusty town that is the centre of a district with 35,000 inhabitants in the north of Helmand province, it is a key strategic location neither for the Nato-led ISAF forces and the Afghan National Army that are fighting alongside them, nor for the Taliban...

... The Taliban know they need an element of public consent - as Nato and the Afghan government do - to be able to rule. And they know that the people of Musa Qala, like most Afghans, want to be ruled neither by a corrupt and inefficient government, nor by them, but to be left to themselves.

With this in mind, claims that the Taliban run more than 50% of Afghanistan should be treated with scepticism. Between 1998 and 2001, the Taliban repeatedly claimed to control 80% of the country. Yet to anyone who travelled extensively around the country in that period, it was clear much of that dominance was nominal, depending on the fickle allegiance of local powerbrokers, village chiefs and warlords.

A final reason for their relative flexibility in Musa Qala is that the Taliban are, largely, local men, part of the infinitely complex network of local power relations that makes Afghan society tick rather than being a network superimposed upon it.

And it is in this factor that many of the actual roots of the violence lie. The battle for Musa Qala is to a significant degree an inter-tribal conflict in which religion, varying degrees of ethnic and nationalist sentiment and external support have all been pressed into service to continue centuries-old struggles for scarce resources.

When the Taliban fell, the president, Hamid Karzai, appointed loyalists within the Akhunzada sub-tribe to key positions of power locally. For three years, the other sub- tribes, the Pirzai, Ibrahimzai, and Khalozai, tried to secure a fairer redistribution of lucrative administrative posts through more or less peaceful means, largely to no avail.

The result was that, when in 2005 the ideological hardcore of the Taliban launched their offensive to retake the south and east of Afghanistan, they found large numbers of ready allies in northern Helmand.

But with stalemate in the current battle for Afghanistan, Musa Qala has now become far more than a tribal fight. Both sides are searching for a symbolic victory that will indicate the future course of the war. The losers all round of course, will be the villagers themselves. (link)
Another piece by Burke dated the same day closes with some observations:
Military commanders in Afghanistan describe the Taliban as composed of three "tiers": a hardcore of ideologically committed militants; a second layer of "fellow travellers" pursuing agendas that overlap with those of the Taliban such as feuds or drug trafficking; and a third tier of foot soldiers fighting for a mixture of reasons.

This year has been the deadliest in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001 with more than 6,200 people estimated to have been killed in insurgency-related violence.

Jean MacKenzie, Afghanistan country director for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, said reports reaching Kabul indicated that the Taliban were still entrenched in Musa Qala and that, though there had been no major bombardments, skirmishing had continued.

MacKenzie said: "They could not hold it before so I do not see why they will be able to hold it this time. This is far from the Taliban's last stand. Even if forced out of Musa Qala, they still control much of the rest of Helmand." (link)
The same piece quotes Lt Col Tim Eaton dismissing Taliban claims that they have 2000 insurgents defending Musa Qala. The number, says Eaton, is "closer to 200". Readers may recall (as we blogged here) that Afghan journalists allowed into Musa Qala several weeks ago reported seeing some 100 vehicles belonging to the Taliban. Those 100 vehicles, assuming four to a car (which might well be an underestimate), indicate at least 400 soldiers - probably many more. If the British colonel is right, then presumably many Taliban fighters pulled out of Musa Qala before the NATO offensive began.

The colonel told Burke that it was the task of British-led forces to seal off the town while the American troops "kicked down the door" allowing Afghan National Army troops to take the town. We have already seen on this blog that these ANA troops "could barely function without NATO's protection" (Times UK).

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Battle for Musa Qala rages

American, British and Afghan forces have been engaged in a battle to retake Musa Qala in Helmand province since Tuesday. It is an operation so big that aircraft being used in the Iraq war have reportedly been moved to Afghanistan for the fight.

Musa Qala is said to be the one urban area held by the insurgents, who have occupied the area since February. (See this blog entry for more on the Taliban occupation of Musa Qala.) From the Guardian:

Battle breakdown

4,500 international and Afghan army forces are attacking Taliban positions.

2,000 Taliban troops are defending Musa Qala.

1,200 British soldiers are involved in the offensive.

500 US troops took part in the initial attack against Musa Qala under cover of darkness.

19 helicopters - Apache attack and Chinook troop carriers - were used in the first drop of infantrymen.

12 Taliban have been confirmed dead. (link)

The Times of London carried a first hand report of the only publicized civilian casualties in the battle:
As we got our breath back behind the wheel of the Humvee, we noticed a white car, upturned on the road behind us, blood streaking one of its windows. Nearby, people had gathered around a truck, shouting and gesticulating. Two bodies lay in the dust.

British troops went forward to offer their help, but were turned back by angry bystanders shouting, “Go away,” in English.

Amid the confusion, it took some time for the sequence of events to become clear. But in the end there was no doubt that the two civilians had been killed by American gunfire.

As we had approached the village, the Taliban had fired at us from five or six positions.

Once the shooting began, the refugees in the truck and car tried desperately to escape and had driven past us at high speed. Their flight took them directly towards two US Humvees parked by the side of the road.

The Americans, thinking they were under attack from a suicide bomber, opened fire, killing the driver and a passenger in the truck. Three others were injured: a woman with a bullet wound in her face, a boy who was shot in the arm and a girl with a serious gash in her side. The children were both about five years old.
And while NATO officials proudly announced that the Afghan National Army was taking the lead in the attack, thus proving its battle-readiness, the Times piece reveals the hollowness of that claim:
The Afghans were supposedly fighting under their own command. Yet they could barely function without Nato’s protection and Nato had to cajole them to move forward.

Another complication was the use of cannabis by Afghan soldiers. “Hashish is part of our culture,” said an Afghan officer. “It is just like whisky and wine for you.” (link)

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Hundreds of civilians flee Musa Qala

NATO's long-awaited attempt to retake Musa Qala district in Helmand province is under way:
LASHKARGAH, 6 December 2007 (IRIN) - Hundreds of people have left their homes in Musa Qala District, Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan, after Afghan and international forces intensified their joint military operations to drive Taliban insurgents out of the district, according to local residents and provincial officials.

“Hundreds of startled locals have fled to nearby Sangeen and Garamsir districts,” said Ahmad Shah, a resident of Musa Qala. (link)
Less than a quarter of Dutch support Afghanistan mission extension
While the Netherlands recently extended its military mission in Afghanistan until 2010, a recent poll reveals that the war has very little domestic support:
Do you agree or disagree with the decision to extend the Dutch military mission in Afghanistan until August 2010?

Agree: 24%
Disagree: 43%
Neutral: 31%
Not sure: 2%

Source: TNS Nipo / RTL Methodology: Telephone interviews with 531 Dutch adults, conducted on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 2007. No margin of error was provided. (link)

Friday, December 7, 2007

US counterinsurgency plan 'utter stupidity': expert

The US military's plan to "replicate the Iraq model" (Guardian) by training and equipping tribal militias is "utter stupidity", according to Ahmed Rashid, the celebrated author and expert on the Taliban. From UPI:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- The U.S. plan to arm Pakistani tribal forces on the border with Afghanistan to help in the fight against Islamic extremists is fraught with difficulty ...

Ahmed Rashid, one of the world's foremost experts on the Taliban, this week ridiculed the plan as an exemplar of the problems with U.S. policy in the region.

He called it: "A prime example of utter stupidity and a complete blindness to what's going on on the ground."

... Officials say the U.S. plan to secure the tribal belt has three elements: a significant increase in current military assistance to the Frontier Corps; a proposal by U.S. Special Operations Command to train and arms tribal militias; and a $750 million aid package for the border area, which is divided into seven semi-autonomous areas, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies.

Rashid poured scorn on the idea that the Frontier Corps could be an effective force to interdict cross-border activity by Taliban or secure the area against al-Qaida militants. The corps had been "on the side of the Taliban since the 1980s," he said, and had been used by the Pakistani intelligence services in their covert support for the Taliban against the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance before Sept. 11.

... But one veteran observer of the region was skeptical about any "boots on the ground" involvement by the United States.

"I have trouble imagining that," former state department intelligence official Marvin Weinbaum told UPI. "U.S. personnel in the tribal areas would be very exposed," he said, as would any U.S.-associated infrastructure, like a training center. "We are not well liked there." (link)
See this blog's previous post on the matter.