Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Afghans must fight for what we want

Thomas Friedman, diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times explained some years ago that in "the best of all worlds," Iraq following the first Gulf War would have ended up as "an iron-fisted junta without Saddam Hussein." Saddam's "iron fist held Iraq together, much to the satisfaction of the American allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia," he observed. (See Noam Chomsky, here.)

Friedman's recent comments on the expected "surge" to take place in Afghanistan are thus true to form:

The main reason we are losing in Afghanistan is not because there are too few American soldiers, but because there are not enough Afghans ready to fight and die for the kind of government we want.
He goes on to quote Prince William's former tutor Rory Stewart, who by walking across Afghanistan a few years back has made a name for himself as an expert on the country. While Stewart's recent essay in Time magazine has been trashed by a host of experts much more knowledgeable than he, it is worth quoting if only for his observations concerning the public mood, as he does spend a lot of time in the country:
[Friedman, quoting Stewart's piece:] “A troop increase is likely to inflame Afghan nationalism because Afghans are more anti-foreign than we acknowledge, and the support for our presence in the insurgency areas is declining ... The more responsibility we take in Afghanistan, the more we undermine the credibility and responsibility of the Afghan government and encourage it to act irresponsibly..." (link)

Marines vs Taliban: you do the math

From Deutsche Presse-Agentur:

Afghan home of Taliban founder defies conquest

ZHARI DISTRICT, July 30 (DPA) - "If we go 300 metres we come under sporadic fire, any further it's heavy fire - and we are under surveillance 24/7," says a Canadian infantryman, peering over sandbags toward the former home of Taliban chief Mullah Omah...

The village in Kandahar province's Zhari district is where the fugitive mullah lived and preached before he roused followers against brutal local warlords in 1994...

"It's the cultural centre of the Taliban so that tends to be the rallying cry that's used here," Captain Darren Hart, acting operations officer for Canada's Task Force Zhari, said of this nest of resistance covering some 65 square kilometres.

"I don't see them giving it up and abandoning it."

But the tenacious defence of the insurgents, estimated to number in "scores rather than hundreds," goes beyond ideology and identity to embrace hard tactics, the officer notes...

Despite a chain of outposts guarding the twin-lane highway, the militants regularly encroach on the traffic, destroying vehicles with roadside bombs and laying waste to convoys carrying supplies for the military.

On one day in mid-July, five tankers were ambushed and destroyed with rockets a kilometre from Spin Pir, incinerating 150,000 litres of fuel intended for military operations in neighbouring Helmand province. The next day a police column came under a barrage of fire in almost the same spot, losing a jeep to another rocket... (link)
Note that "scores rather than hundreds" of Taliban are holding an area some 65 square km in size. This makes them about a bazillion times more capable than even the US Marine Corps.

As we have noted before, the US Marines - with a force of about 2400 - are holding a postage stamp-sized piece of Garmsir district in Helmand province. To review:

A US Marines unit arrived in Afghanistan in the spring. After a month of waiting and doing nothing while trapped in an apparent bureaucratic SNAFU, the 2400-strong force set off to conquer Garmsir district from the Taliban. According to one veteran journalist, they planned a three-day [sic!] operation to route the insurgents and clear the highway. Following that, they were to go somewhere else to save the day.

In the event, the marines fought hard through the month of May in order to hold just five square km of land. Earlier this month, a journalist noted that the marines now hold some four and a half square miles of the district. (That equals about 11.5 square km, so the marines expanded their territory somewhat.)

For the math geeks out there, that means that 2400 US marines hold about 2800 acres of Garmsir while "scores" of Taliban are holding 16000 acres of Zhari district. Assuming that "scores" in this case means, say, 100 Taliban, then roughly speaking the Taliban are 150 times more effective than US marines.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Our war is illegal

Law professor Marjorie Cohn, president of the National Lawyers Guild, writes on the illegal and immoral war in Afghanistan:

End the Occupation of Iraq - and Afghanistan

... Although the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was as illegal as the invasion of Iraq, many Americans see it as a justifiable response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the casualties in that war have been lower than those in Iraq - so far. Practically no one in the United States is currently questioning the legality or propriety of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. The cover of Time magazine calls it "The Right War."

The U.N. Charter provides that all member states must settle their international disputes by peaceful means, and no nation can use military force except in self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council. After the 9/11 attacks, the Council passed two resolutions, neither of which authorized the use of military force in Afghanistan. Resolutions 1368 and 1373 condemned the September 11 attacks, and ordered the freezing of assets; the criminalizing of terrorist activity; the prevention of the commission of and support for terrorist attacks; the taking of necessary steps to prevent the commission of terrorist activity, including the sharing of information; and urged ratification and enforcement of the international conventions against terrorism (which the United States has not ratified).

The invasion of Afghanistan was not legitimate self-defense under article 51 of the Charter because the attacks on September 11 were criminal attacks, not “armed attacks” by another country. Afghanistan did not attack the United States. In fact, 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, there was not an imminent threat of an armed attack on the United States after September 11, or Bush would not have waited three weeks before initiating his October 2001 bombing campaign...

Conspicuously absent from the national discourse is a political analysis of why the tragedy of 9/11 occurred and a comprehensive strategy to overhaul U.S. foreign policy to inoculate us from the wrath of those who despise American imperialism. The "Global War on Terror" has been uncritically accepted by most in this country. But terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy. You cannot declare war on a tactic. The way to combat terrorism is by identifying and targeting its root causes, including poverty, lack of education, and foreign occupation...

Marjorie Cohn is president of the National Lawyers Guild and a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. She is author of Cowboy Republic. Her articles are archived at

The tragic toll on soldiers

From the Washington Post:

Veterans' Hot Line Prevented 1,221 Suicides in One Year

JULY 28 - A suicide hot line launched a year ago has received calls from more than 22,000 veterans of the Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam wars and has prevented 1,221 suicides, according to U.S. government figures...

The hot line -- created jointly by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration -- gets up to 250 calls a day, the Associated Press reported.

In addition to calls from veterans, the hot line has received tens of thousands of calls since last July from people concerned about veterans' well-being.

About one in five U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan has had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which puts them at increased risk for suicide, according to a recent RAND Corp. study, the AP reported. (link)
And the National Post:
Soldiers report higher rates of depression: StatsCan

OTTAWA, July 23 - Full-time members of the Canadian Forces are more likely to perceive their mental health as poor than those in the civilian workforce, according to a new Statistics Canada analysis released Wednesday.

The agency also said they were more likely to report having a major depression in the previous 12 months, 8% compared to 5% in the civilian workforce. On mental health, the gap was 9% for Canadian Forces members versus 6% on the civilian side...

Canadian government and military officials are increasingly focussing on the mental health of Canadian soldiers.

The government has opened a handful of clinics across the country for soldiers, many of whom have served in Afghanistan, who are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and other problems.

Parliamentary committees also have delved into the issue, pressing the government to do a better job of tracking the mental health of Canadian Forces personnel in light of recent research that says a significant percentage of soldiers returning from Afghanistan are plagued by panic disorders, depression and suicidal tendencies... (link)

ISAF kills 6 civilians in Kunar

Another atrocity is alleged by locals:

9 civilians killed in ISAF clashes with militants

JULY 29 (PAN) - At least nine civilians have been reportedly killed during separate NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and militants' fire in eastern Kunar province.

Said Fazlullah Wahidi, governor of the eastern Kunar province told Pajhwok Afghan News armed Taliban fired at police posts in Watapor district of the province with heavy weapons.

One of the rockets hit a nearby house in the area killing 3 civilians.

There was no immediate comment from the Taliban on the incident.

Meanwhile a NATO led ISAF helicopter allegedly attacked a vehicle in Ghazi Abad and Asmar highway leaving six civilians dead.

Mir Azam Gujarwal district chief of the Asmar told Pajhwok Afghan News the incident took place in Dab Baroro area.

The passengers in the vehicle who were bound for Asmar took the car off the road when attacked, he added.

He believed those killed might have been poor laborers who wanted to take the parts of a vehicle earlier torched by Taliban in the area... (link)

Afghan press repression

Freedom of the press is still under attack in Afghanistan:

Afghan reporter detained after criticising government

KABUL, July 29 (Reuters) - Afghanistan's intelligence agency has detained a television journalist after he broadcast a programme critical of the government, his channel said on Tuesday.

The political discussion programme, called "The Truth", was pulled off air half-way through on Sunday after private Ariana TV received a call from the National Directorate of Security (NDS), officials from the broadcaster said.

NDS agents later arrested the programme's presenter, Mohammad Nasir Fayaz, the officials said...

The government said Fayaz had insulted ministers...

The government has arrested a number of reporters in recent years and rights groups say freedom of the press, one of the few achievements since the end of Taliban rule, is now under threat. (link)
The BBC adds some details:
Afghan TV journalist is detained
By Bilal Sarwary

KABUL, July 29 (BBC) - The authorities in Afghanistan have detained a prominent journalist after the broadcast of a documentary which was critical of members of the cabinet.

Mohammad Nasir Fayyaz was detained, released and has now contacted the BBC to say he is in detention again.

Mr Fayyaz is the presenter of an investigative programme called The Truth, which recently strongly criticised two government ministries...

In a recent edition of The Truth, Mr Fayyaz criticised two cabinet members - including the water and energy minister - of under-performing in their jobs...

Water and Energy Minister Ismail Khan recently accused Mr Fayyaz of corruptly asking him to ensure power was provided to his residence 24 hours a day - a request which Mr Khan said was refused.

Mr Fayyaz has denied the minister's allegations.

The journalist was initially arrested by intelligence officials on Monday, but now appears to have been detained again after giving an interview to the BBC.

He said that he is currently being held by intelligence officials in a locked bathroom.

... Fawzia Koofi, a member of parliament from north-eastern Afghanistan, has strongly criticised the detention.

''When people voted in the elections, they did so because they believed in democracy and freedom of speech," she said... (link)
Detaining journalists has become something of a pastime for Afghan authorities, as we've seen in many blog postings on condemned reporter Perwez Kambakhsh. Also, last month authorities detained a radio reporter from central Afghanistan:
Afghan Radio journalist illegally detained by officials in Daikondi Province

KABUL PRESS, June 19 - Afghan journalist and chief editor of Radio Daikondi, Mohammad Raja, was detained Wednesday night by local authorities. He was released Thursday morning, but it is feared that he will be detained again.

Raja had recently delivered several reports criticizing the governor Sultan Ali Orozgani...

This was Raja’s second detention in recent months. Orozgani has made it known that he wants full control of Radio Daikondi... (link)

'My innocent children have been killed by foreigners'

On Saturday, as we saw, British soldiers in Helmand province opened fire on a car, killing four civilians. Now Canadian soldiers in Kandahar have followed suit:

2 children killed by Canadian troops in Afghanistan

KANDAHAR, July 28 (CP) — Canadian troops have killed a two-year-old boy and his four-year-old sister by opening fire on a car they feared was about to attack their convoy in Afghanistan, the Canadian Forces announced Monday.

Facing a split-second decision about what to do when a car failed to heed repeated warnings to pull over, a gunner in a light armoured vehicle pulled the trigger on a 25-millimetre cannon.

Its giant round tore through the little girl's skull and left a gaping wound in her younger brother's chest, witnesses said.

The children's mother later frantically paced the hallways at the local hospital, shrieking and cursing foreign soldiers between sobs.

Ruzi Mohammed, 31, was injured when a Canadian military vehicle shot at his rented car on July 27, 2008. The same shot killed Mr. Mohammed's son and daughter.

One police officer at the Kandahar city hospital said he saw the mother scream: "My innocent children have been killed by foreigners — for no reason!"

The father, believed to have been driving the vehicle, was being treated for lacerations but left the hospital without permission to attend his children's funeral.

Another hospital visitor said that if he were the children's father, he would personally strap on a suicide vest and exact vengeance on Canadian troops.

Shopkeeper Din Mohammad said foreign soldiers had better stop accidentally killing civilians or they will suffer the same bitter fate as the defeated Soviets...Coalition forces run frequent advertising campaigns that warn Afghan locals to keep a safe distance from convoys. In fact, most locals are terrified of getting close to military vehicles.

Taxi drivers in Kandahar city can be seen waving down their colleagues and shouting at them to avoid certain streets where foreign troops have been spotted.

Cars generally screech to a halt and pull off the road to let military convoys pass.

... Canada has been involved in other civilian killings before.

In one incident, a 90-year-old man who was a respected political scientist and mentor to President Hamid Karzai was shot when he approached troops on a motorbike.

In another, a young man riding on a motorbike was shot through the chest and the bullet struck the head and killed his little brother riding behind him. (link)
Note near the bottom of the article the mention of the 90-year-old man, Haji Abdul Rahman, killed in 2006 by Canadian troops. In an article last year, I reviewed the Canadian media coverage of that shooting:
The Toronto Star simply did not report it at all. The only mention in the Globe was by Rick Salutin in his column (Dec 15, A23). Meanwhile, a search of the CBC website finds no mention of the shooting victim... (link)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Norwegian support for war drops

From Angus Reid Global Monitor:

Fewer Norwegians Support Afghan Mission

JULY 26 - Backing for Norway’s military engagement in Afghanistan has dwindled, according to a poll by Norstat released by NRK. 42 per cent of respondents support Norway’s participation in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), down 15 points since January...

Polling Data

Do you support or oppose Norway’s participation in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Afghanistan?

Jul. 2008

Jan. 2008







Not sure



Source: Norstat / NRK
Methodology: Telephone interviews with 930 Norwegian adults, conducted from Jun. 24 to Jul. 2, 2008. Margin of error is 3 per cent. (link)


Saturday, July 26, 2008

Airstrike kills more civilians

Once again, locals report that foreign occupation forces killed civilians in an airstrike, while military spokespeople claim otherwise:

Couple killed in Kapisa airstrike

MAHMUDRAQI, Kapisa, July 26 (Pajhwok) - A couple was reportedly killed during NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) airstrike in Kapisa province just north of the capital Kabul.

Malik Haji Gul Agha a resident of Landakhel village of Tagab district of the province told Pajhwok Afghan News the incident occurred in Kharoti area of Landakhel district. Janat Gul and his wife martyred in the foreign forces air raid, he added.

Abdul Hakim Akhundzada confirmed the death of two civilians saying the area was still surrounded by the NATO forces. Enayatullah Kochi a member of the provincial council also confirmed the death of locals and called on the foreign forces to stop killing civilians.

A NATO statement released from Bagram however said NATO forces bombed the area after they were targeted from their area. The statement added the assailants had been killed in the airstrike... (link)
Recall that earlier this month, a US airstrike killed perhaps 52 civilians - nearly all women and children. In that case, the women were preparing for a wedding and undoubtedly they were all wearing long, colourful, flowing, bejeweled garments. Yet the foreign military initially claimed those killed were insurgents. On top of that, the word is that NATO/US warplanes now only bomb when they are quite certain they are targeting bad guys.

It is hard to imagine anything looking less like a band of insurgents than dozens of sparkling gowns in bright colours. Thus, it seems likely that the supposedly new procedures are meant for public relations claims only.

A month of carnage:
June 30: UN says civilian deaths in Afghanistan up 62% since last year.
July 3: Six civilians killed in airstrike in Farah.
July 4: Seventeen civilians killed in Nuristan airstrike.
July 6: US airstrike in Nangarhar kills 52 civilians in wedding party - mostly women and children.
July 9: In Logar province, NATO troops kill a civilian man and injure his wife in a house raid.
July 9: Red Cross says 250 civilians dead in five days (i.e. July 4 - 8). The NGO blames both insurgents and NATO/US forces and their Afghan allies.
Jul 15: NATO airstrike kills eight (perhaps nine) civilians - mostly women and children - in Farah.
July 16: Local officials say over 50 civilians killed by NATO airstrikes in Herat.
July 19: NATO forces kill four (perhaps seven) civilians with mortars in Paktika.
July 20: Airstrike kills nine Afghan police. Other reports say it was four police and five civilians.
July 26: British NATO troops in Helmand shoot and kill four civilians at checkpoint.
July 26: NATO troops kill civilian couple in their house in Kapisa.
July 29: An ISAF helicopter kills six civilians in Kunar province, according to local officials.

Dead civilians had it coming

The occupation forces deem themselves to be blameless in the latest episode of civilian deaths at the hands of foreign troops:

Four civilians killed by British soldiers in Afghanistan
Guardian (UK)

July 26 - British soldiers in Afghanistan today killed four civilians and injured three more after opening fire on a vehicle that failed to stop at a checkpoint...

The Nato mission in the country issued a statement saying the incident – which it blamed on the "reckless actions" of the driver - took place earlier today in the Sangin district of Helmand province.

"The vehicle approached the checkpoint and was directed to stop but it drove on … Soldiers fired warning shots in a safe direction away from the vehicle but were eventually forced to fire at it when it refused to stop, fearing an insurgent attack," the statement said...

Nato said that two other people in the car were uninjured and took the bodies of the four dead civilians back to their village. It added: "Both indicated that the driver of the vehicle was at fault for failing to stop when required to do so."

The statement ended: "ISAF deeply regrets this unnecessary incident caused by the reckless actions of the vehicle driver. The incident will be investigated." ... (link)
It doesn't require a cynic to ask whether the surviving passengers felt intimidated by heavily armed foreigners asking who was at fault. The situation brings to mind a comment from a journalist who had witnessed a rather rosy meeting held with Canadian Forces and village elders: "You would probably say whatever the men with the rifles wanted you to say."

Friday, July 25, 2008

Looters and scumbags

Defence reporter David Pugliese reports in the Ottawa Citizen:

Canadian colonel tainted by Somalia scandal promoted

OTTAWA, July 25 - Canada's military leadership has quietly promoted to general the soldier who led the ill-fated Somalia mission, and who was subsequently found to have failed as a commander.

The military has not publicized the July 2 promotion of Col. Serge Labbé to the rank of brigadier-general. But sources contacted by the Ottawa Citizen about the promotion on Thursday confirmed that the new rank for the officer will be retroactive to the year 2000.Dan Dugas, the communications director for Defence Minister Peter MacKay, said the minister signed off on the promotion based on the recommendation of Gen. Rick Hillier, who recently retired as chief of the defence staff. "Mr. MacKay takes the advice of the chief of the defence staff on staffing issues," Dugas said.

Hillier and Labbé worked together in Kabul in 2004, and the colonel has been a key player at NATO and in the Afghanistan mission.

Labbé was considered a rising star in the Canadian Forces when he was selected to lead the 1992-1993 mission to Somalia. During that deployment Canadian paratroopers tortured to death 16-year-old Shidane Arone, documenting the brutal beating of the Somali with a series of photographs.

Also during the mission, two Somalis were shot in the back after they entered a Canadian camp. It was later revealed that paratroopers put out food and water as "bait" and it was alleged by a military doctor that one of the Somalis was killed "execution-style" by a soldier.

The Somalia inquiry, set up to investigate problems with the mission, also heard allegations that Labbé offered a case of champagne to the first soldier who killed a Somali. Another officer testified the colonel said he was "looking forward to my first dead Somali."

Labbé, who was never charged in connection with any incidents in Somalia, has vehemently denied making the champagne statement and has said other comments attributed to him were misinterpreted.

In 1997, the Somalia inquiry concluded Labbé exercised poor and inappropriate leadership by failing to ensure Canadian troops were adequately trained and tested on the Geneva Conventions, and that he failed in his duty as a commander...

A colleague of Labbé said the officer is currently in Kabul as head of the Strategic Advisory Team, which provides support to Afghan government ministries...

In 2005, then-governor general Adrienne Clarkson awarded both Hillier and Labbé the meritorious service cross for their work in Afghanistan...

But the colonel's appointment as a key NATO negotiator in the Kosovo region drew criticism at the time. Then-Canadian Alliance MP Art Hanger said Labbé should not be representing Canada overseas because of the findings of the Somalia inquiry...

[C]ontrary to those who have claimed the Somalia mission was a failure, Labbé said the operation was "highly satisfactory" and said the actual deployment to the African country was a textbook operation... (link)
In his book on the Canadian military, Esprit de Corps editor Scott Taylor wrote how Labbé allowed Canadian Airborne Regiment Commanding Officer Lt-Col Mathieu to change the Rules of Engagement (ROE) for soldiers in Somalia. Overriding the expressed desire of the deputy minister of defence, Mathieu and Labbé empowered their troops to shoot at looters frequently caught stealing from the forces' base. The new rules allowed looting suspects to be shot "between the skirt and the flip-flops". This "dramatic change," notes Taylor, was not officially reported by Labbé to National Defence Headquarters (Taylor, Tarnished Brass, 1996, p. 203).

Paul Desbarats, in his published diary of participation in the Somalia Inquiry, notes Labbé's "overweening self-confidence." As noted above, Labbé said the Somalia operation was a success, to which Desbarats reacts:
"Testimony that we've heard and the military's own after-action analyses have demonstrated that this position is so indefensible as to be almost ridiculous." (Desbarats, Somalia cover-up, 1997, p. 257).
Finally, as the Globe and Mail notes, Labbé the tombstone general will receive more than just a fancy title:
Not only will he receive eight years' worth of pay difference between the ranks of colonel and brigadier-general, but his five best years of pay for the purpose of his pension calculation will also be affected.

“The only reason to [make the promotion retroactive] would be monetary,” [Scott] Taylor said... (link)
Thus, the last word goes to Bob Dylan:
Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness?
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul
('Masters of war' 1963)

An Afghan surge?

Inter Press Service's Anand Gopal outlines the current situation and weighs in on the potential for a surge of US troops in Afghanistan:

Taliban Encroach On Karzai's Turf
By Anand Gopal

July 24 (IPS)

... The Taliban has also increased its presence throughout the country and particularly in the areas around Kabul. Reports from the Ghazni province indicate that they control most districts after nightfall. In Kunar and Nuristan provinces, police are no longer establishing security checkpoints, giving the Taliban nearly complete freedom of movement.

Meanwhile, a leaked U.S. document obtained by the Canadian Globe and Mail reveals that more districts in Kandahar are controlled by the Taliban than by the Afghan government, although the most populous regions are still under Kabul's command.

Insurgents have used the expanding influence as a launching pad for attacks against U.S.-led forces.

Last week, close to 200 Taliban fighters stormed an isolated U.S. outpost, killing nine American soldiers - the largest single loss of American personnel in three years. One hundred and thirty eight U.S. troops have been killed so far this year, far ahead of the 2007 pace.

The gathering storm is pushing American lawmakers to consider bolstering troop numbers...

Barack Obama is promising to send two brigades, or more than 7,000 soldiers, while simultaneously decreasing troop amounts in Iraq. His rival John McCain echoes a similar strategy, albeit without affecting Iraq troop levels.

Such an approach assumes that violence is increasing due to inadequate troop cover. However, violence has increased sharply in the last year, despite the fact that the NATO-led force grew from 37,500 in January of 2007 to 53,000 today.

Many Afghans insist that without tackling the underlying problems of poverty and lack of infrastructure, 7,000 more soldiers will do little to stanch the violent trends... (link)

Journalists and other prisoners

An alleged female Al Qaeda member is reportedly being held by the US in Afghanistan:

Asian HR body demands UN probe into detention of Pakistani woman at US base

LAHORE, July 25 (ANI) - The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has reportedly urged the United Nations to investigate the alleged detention of a Pakistani national Dr Afia Sadeeqi at a US military base in Afghanistan for the past five years.

The human rights body said that it feared that Sadeeqi, who went missing along with her children five years ago from Karachi, was being detained at a US prison in Bagram.

Accused of being a member of Al Qaeda and masterminding terrorist attacks in the US , Dr Sadeeqi is wanted by several US investigation agencies. Both Pakistani and US intelligence agencies had confirmed her arrest soon after her disappearance, but since then, the government has been denying any knowledge of her whereabouts, reported the Daily Times... (link)
RSF makes noise about Kambakhsh and Jawed Ahmad:
Reporters Without Borders today called for the release of Afghan journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh...

Perwiz Kambakhsh's appeal hearing has been adjourned since 15 June because of the absence of witnesses. Students and professors from the Mazar-i-Sharif University were due to give evidence but they have not yet been official summoned to Kabul.

"We cannot [understand] why the justice system does not want to release this young journalist, despite proof of his innocence. It is essential that the appeal court speeds up his trial", the worldwide press freedom organisation said.

"The medical examiner who saw him has confirmed that he was tortured by the security forces and the irregularities in the first trial constitute sufficient reasons to justify releasing him after already spending nine months in prison", it added.

Perwiz Kambakhsh's brother, the journalist Yaqub Ibrahimi, explained that the appeal is progressing very slowly, despite the campaign by Afghan colleagues and fellow citizens. "We have had to send a letter ourselves asking the students and professors who are witnesses to come so they can appear before the court," he said.

Hundreds of Afghan journalists and writers demonstrated in 15 provinces of the country on 8 July calling for the release of Perwiz Kambakhsh...

Reporters Without Borders also pointed out that Jawed Ahmad, Afghan contributor to the Canadian television channel CTV, has been held without trial by the US Army since 2 November 2007, on the Bagram air base, north of Kabul, accused of being an "enemy combatant" because of his alleged contacts with the Taliban. (link)
More on Mr. Ahmad, who has been in US custody without charge for over eight months:
Rights groups chide U.S. for holding Afghan journalist

KABUL, July 20 (Reuters) - Human rights and journalists' groups lashed out at the United States on Sunday for holding an Afghan journalist without charge and pushed for his immediate release.

The 22-year-old Jawed Ahmad, who worked for four years for Canadian network CTV, was detained last October by U.S. forces outside a U.S. military base in the southern province of Kandahar, his brother Seddiq Ahmad told a news conference.

Ahmad said prior to joining the network, Jawed served as a translator for U.S. Special Forces in Kandahar, a hotbed of Taliban insurgents.

Barbara Olshansky, litigation and advocacy director for the U.S.-based International Justice Network, said her mission was not only to condemn Jawed's detention, but "the entire United States' policy surrounding the seizure, detention and killing of journalists around the world". "The United States claims to be sowing the seeds of democracy ... and at the same time undermining those very nascent efforts by putting journalists in jail" ... (link)

Brzezinski sees US repeating Russian disaster

Zbigniew Brzezinski was interviewed two days ago on MSNBC, where his daughter Mika works as a newscaster. Brzezinski pere was national security adviser to US president Carter when that administration began American support for the Afghan mujaheddin. Asked about the situation in Afghanistan today, he replied:

"I think there's a real risk that the Afghans, who welcomed us when we came in to overthrow the Taliban and who were grateful to us for helping them against the Soviets, will now turn against us because they see us increasingly as foreigners with guns on their soil trying to transform their society"...

"We have to bear in mind that this is a very traditional society. Some parts of Afghanistan are modern, like the major cities, Kabul, but much of it is really late Medieval. And increasingly looks as if we're trying to transform the society from the top down, using military force. And that's a prescription for disaster," he said.

When asked about the alternatives, Brzezinski said the US has to start making distinction between the Taliban and the Al Qaeda and they should not be treated in the same boat.
Link to the video here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Taliban have 60% of Afghanistan: expert

From New Zealand:

The Dominion Post (Wellington, New Zealand)
Afghanistan at tipping point says US expert

July 21 - The war in Afghanistan is at a critical point, with the Taleban now in control of more than half the country, says a visiting United States terrorism expert.

"It could very much go either way -- the Taleban has clearly regrouped and taken over 60 per cent of the country," said Christopher Heffelfinger, a researcher at the West Point Military Academy Combating Terrorism Centre...

Mr Heffelfinger was critical of the US invasion of Iraq and its "misnamed" war on terrorism after the September 11 attacks.

Terrorism was a tactic -- "this is not a war against a tactic, it is a war against a political and social movement we don't have a name for".

Mr Heffelfinger said terrorists were a very small segment of the Muslim community and countries that harboured them should have been targeted earlier.

"We should have dealt with Pakistan before we dealt with Iraq. We should have dealt with Saudi Arabia a long time ago and not believed they were our ally in a war in which they're our enemy," he said, referring to its funding and fomenting of Islamic terrorists -- including those involved in the September 11 attacks... (link)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Dogs of war?

From Britain's Sun newspaper:

They're Britain's dogs of war
Defence Editor

July 21 - [...] Fearless German Shepherds are being trained to jump from aircraft at 25,000ft wearing their own oxygen masks and strapped to special forces assault teams.

Once down in hostile terrain in Iraq or Afghanistan, the dogs will be sent in first to seek out insurgents’ hideouts with tiny cameras fixed to their heads.

The cameras will beam live TV pictures back to the troops, warning of ambushes or showing enemy leaders’ locations.

The amazing tactic – on which The Sun has been fully briefed – has been devised to cut down the Who Dares Wins regiment's soaring casualty rates...

America’s most elite unit the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, commonly known as Delta Force, has pioneered the skills for jumping with dogs from heights over 20,000ft and its instructors have been sent over to 22 SAS headquarters in Hereford... (link)

Foreign troops kill civilians and cops

In Farah province, at least nine Afghan police were killed by foreign air strikes when they were mistaken for insurgents. Three police are still missing while four more were injured. Meanwhile, at least four (maybe seven) civilians were killed by NATO mortars in Paktika province.

Afghan police, civilians killed by coalition troops
By Nahal Toosi

KABUL, Jul 20 (AP) — U.S.-led troops and Afghan forces killed nine Afghan police Sunday, calling in air strikes and fighting on the ground for four hours after both sides mistook the other for militants, Afghan officials said.

In a separate incident, NATO said it accidentally killed at least four Afghan civilians Saturday night. A NATO soldier also was killed in the east...

In the western province of Farah near the Iranian border, a convoy of foreign forces showed up in Anar Dara district and clashed with Afghan police, killing nine of them, said provincial Deputy Governor Younus Rasuli...

In eastern Paktika province, NATO's International Security Assistance Force said it killed at least four civilians Saturday night when its troops fired two mortar rounds that landed nearly half a mile short of their target. NATO said it was investigating whether three other civilians also were killed in the Barmal district...

The alliance said it was providing medical aid to four civilians who were wounded.

Also Sunday, a NATO soldier was killed during fighting in the eastern Khost province... (link)
Meanwhile, NATO troops in Khost province wounded a dozen civilians while fending off a Taliban attack. And in Ghazni, dozens of Taliban fighters were reported to have taken remote Ajistan district - which was captured by the insurgents last fall.

Regarding the worsening security situation in Afghanistan, Rick Hillier's replacement General Walter Natynczyk has stepped back from his ridiculous statements made last week. Conceding that security has worsened overall, he says that nevertheless Canadian forces have seen some limited success:
Western officials say Kandahar province has not been an exception to the general trend of deteriorating security in southern Afghanistan.

But [Natynczyk's] comments about localized improvements within the province reflect the views of Canadian military officers who say they have reduced Taliban
activity in a limited number of locations such as Pashmul, a cluster of villages 15 kilometres west of Kandahar city.

Such zones of relative security are geographically limited, however; another group of villages known as Ashokay, only a few kilometres east of Pashmul, has become a notorious hideout for insurgents.

Nor has the Canadian military effort of the past two years pushed the insurgents farther away from Kandahar city, since some of the air strikes against suspected Taliban positions in the past few days have targeted locations near Zala Khan, only 10 kilometres south of the city limits... (link)
The BBC says that rather than nine police being killed, four police officers and five civilians were killed in the mistaken attack.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Foley comments

Conor Foley, a sometimes-writer, sometimes-humanitarian worker, is visiting Afghanistan at the moment. Writing in the Guardian, he speaks with an official of the Afghan Human Rights Commission and has some noteworthy observations about armchair generals posing as progressives:

A counterweight to a failing state
Guardian, July 18

The brave and decent people of Afghanistan are trying to create a decent society out of the rubble of three decades of destruction. The least we can do is listen to what they are saying.

Mirwais Ahmadzai had more important people to talk to than me on the day that we met and we both knew it.

Ahmadzai is a close friend and one of the former heads of office of the legal aid project that I helped to set up in Afghanistan five years ago. Today, he leads the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in its eastern region where US forces [operate]...

Local opinion is mixed about [the occupation]. On the one hand security is better than in other parts of the country, but stories abound about their high-handedness and cultural insensitivity. Traveling in local taxis I was twice almost forced off the road by their military convoys. "They are rude and aggressive," a local teacher told me. "And we cannot hold them to account when they kill people."

The killing of civilians by foreign soldiers is becoming an increasingly explosive issue. AIHRC sends its staff to video the aftermath of bomb strikes, record statements by victims and witnesses and try to sift through the propaganda, to uncover the truth of what has happened. The work is dangerous, because neither side fully respects the commission's independence or the strictures of the Geneva Conventions.

The US military is now at least prepared to meet with Ahmadzai, a recent breakthrough, and sometimes apologises and offers compensation to the victims. However, it only gives about $2,000 for a death and half that for an injury, which Ahmadzai says is too low to incentivise a change in tactics. Ahmadzai points out that the "blood price" for a killing under Afghan customary law is more than 10 times this amount and has lobbied for compensation levels to be raised.

There is a view among a section of the American and British left that the conflict taking place in Afghanistan today is a "liberal struggle", which progressives should, therefore, unconditionally support. To question the west's military strategy – or its increasingly threadbare predictions of imminent military victory – is seen as being "up for the other side", or to have a masochistic desire to see "your own side" getting beaten. But that is not how the Afghans that I know think.

There is no military victory in sight for either side and sooner or later they will have to talk. Building respect for human rights and the rule of law is not a "diversion" from the fight against the Taliban or a "luxury" that the country cannot afford at the moment. Indeed it was the initial neglect of these things that sowed the seeds for the Taliban's revival... (link)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

'Dozens' more civilians killed in airstrikes, say elders (with update)

Once again, US bombing has killed Afghan civilians. The BBC has the story:

US Afghan bombing 'kills dozens'
By Alastair Leithead

KABUL, July 17 (BBC) - Dozens of Afghan civilians have been killed during aerial bombing by US forces in the western province of Herat, tribal elders say.

They said an important tribal elder was among the dead in Shindand district.

A Nato spokesman said a number of insurgents had been killed and there were no reports of civilian casualties...

News of the fighting in Shindand district came from tribal elders who reported dozens of casualties in the Zerkoh Valley.

They said a large number of civilians had been killed in aerial attacks from midnight until 1000 local time.

There were also unconfirmed reports of demonstrations beginning against Afghan security checkpoints.

Haji Nasrullah Khan, a hugely influential tribal leader, and three other men had been targeted and killed and four civilians injured, the local police chief for Shindand said.

A Nato spokesman confirmed there had been an operation in the region of Parmagan village and said: "All indicators were that it had been successful with a number of insurgents killed and no reports of any civilian casualties." ...

Survivors told the BBC local people had resisted American forces after they searched houses, including women's rooms which is not acceptable in local culture... (link)
Readers who are trying to keep track of the macabre score will recall that on July 3, six civilians were killed by US -led foreign troops; July 4 saw 15-22 civilians killed by US-led forces in Nuristan; July 6, a US airstrike killed 47 (perhaps 52) civilians - mostly women and children - who were part of a wedding party in Nangarhar province; July 15 a US airstrike killed nine civilians - again mostly women and children.

The death toll of those reported incidents, up until yesterday, totals a maximum of 89 people, yet that seems to be just a part of the carnage. Recall that the Red Cross said that some 250 civilians had died in just five days in the middle of that same time frame; they blamed both insurgents and foreign forces for the carnage.

While NATO has acknowledged eight civilians they killed in Farah on July 15 (though other reports put the total at nine), foreign force commanders still insist that there were no civilians killed in Herat July 17, despite numerous local officials reporting otherwise:
NATO force denies Afghan civilian casualty report

KABUL, July 18 (Reuters) - The NATO-led international force in Afghanistan rejected on Friday reports from Afghan officials that it killed more than 50 civilians in air strikes the previous day in the west of the country.

At least four men were killed in the strikes, a spokesman for the regional police command had said on Thursday. Witnesses said 17 people were also wounded.

But other reports, by Shindand District Chief Mullah Lal Mohammad and a tribal elder, Haji Zalmai, said that more than 50 civilians had been killed in the strikes in the villages of Farmakan and Bakhtabad in the western province of Herat.

"ISAF has thoroughly investigated and rejects claims that ISAF forces killed more than 50 civilians in the Shindand area," the International Security Assistance Force said in a statement.

"Our extensive investigation reveals that the closest airstrikes carried out were 13 km to the South East of these villages. ISAF therefore rejects these claims as baseless." ... (link)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Airstrike kills nine civilians in Farah

From Agence-France Presse:

Afghan air strikes kill nine civilians

KABUL, Jul 16 (AFP) — Afghan authorities said Wednesday air strikes against extremist rebels in southwestern Afghanistan had killed four women and five children as well as several insurgents.

A "big number" of rebels were killed in other operations while three more civilians died in militant bombings, they said, with violence linked to an insurgency led by the hardline Taliban surging in recent weeks.

International troops said they were looking into allegations that civilians were killed in the volatile Bakwa district of southwestern Farah province.

"The bombing started Tuesday morning," deputy provincial governor Mohammad Younus Rasouli told AFP. "One bomb struck a civilian home which killed four women, four young girls and a boy." ... (link)
Meanwhile, in Kunar province, American NATO troops abandoned the outpost which they set up recently in remote Wanat district, after nine US soldiers were killed in an insurgent attack. That attack is itself rumoured to have been in retaliation for the killing of some 47 (perhaps 52) civilians in airstrikes on July 4 in nearby Nuristan province. The Times reports that, after the NATO troops left their post, Taliban militants quickly seized the area from embattled Afghan forces.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Taliban control six districts in Kandahar

Graeme Smith of the Globe and Mail has the story:

Taliban control more of Kandahar than government, U.S. says

KANDAHAR, July 15 — More districts of Kandahar are controlled by the Taliban than by the Afghan government, according to a U.S. assessment that casts doubt on Canada's upbeat view of the war.

A detailed analysis by U.S. security officials shows that foreign troops and their local allies hold sway over the core, highly populated districts of Kandahar, but the zone of government control remains a small part of the vast territory assigned to Canadian responsibility two years ago.

The assessment divides Kandahar's districts into four categories: contested, Taliban controlled, locally controlled, and government controlled. Only four of 16 districts were classified as government controlled. The Taliban were described as controlling six districts.

The rest are held by local tribes or warlords, or they are battlefields with nobody clearly dominating.

The study was completed in January, but the findings were made available only recently to The Globe and Mail...

Other assessments of the province have been even more pessimistic: Over the past two years, the United Nations' periodically updated security maps have shown encroaching areas of “extreme risk” filling large swaths of the countryside described as government controlled in the U.S. assessment...

The districts listed as government-controlled – Kandahar city, Arghandab, Spin Boldak and Daman – are among the most heavily populated. Other areas listed as contested, Zhari and Panjwai districts, also contain large populations and have been the focus of Canada's most intense military effort.

At the same time, Canada's regular troops have abandoned positions in the north of the province over the past two years, including Ghorak district centre, about 70 kilometres northwest of Kandahar city; Forward Operating Base Martello, about 100 kilometres north of Kandahar city; and Gumbad Platoon House, about 80 kilometres north of Kandahar city.

These outposts were located in districts now listed as Taliban-controlled in the U.S. assessment.

Many other provinces also suffer from a strong Taliban presence according to the analysis, which found insurgents controlling or contesting roughly 130 of 398 districts assessed across the country... (link)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Kaftar the warlord

Readers may recall that condemned journalism student Pervez Kambakhsh, still locked in a Kabul jail, is said to have been arrested late last year for the purpose of intimidating his journalist brother Yaqub Ibrahimi. A correspondent for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Ibrahimi is known to be critical and vigorous, thus drawing the ire of conservative figures in Afghanistan's northern provinces.

Here, Ibrahimi writes about the famous woman warlord, Kaftar:

Female Afghan Outlaw Comes in From the Cold
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi

MAZAR-E SHARIF, July 9 (IWPR) - The Afghan government scored a minor victory last month by reeling in a rebellious “warlord” who led a band of warriors over nearly three decades. What really set this case apart is that the militia commander is a woman.

The authorities’ decision to co-opt rather than capture Bibi Aysha, who goes by the nickname Kaftar (“the pigeon”), has upset locals who say that given her record, she is unlikely to accept the strictures of civilian life, still less a job as a public servant...

Now 55, Kaftar has fought almost everyone from the Russians and the Taleban to the present government of President Hamed Karzai.

Until recently, she had the dubious distinction of being the only paramilitary commander – outside the Taleban and its allies – still in open confrontation with the Afghan state.

Last month, she surrendered to the government together with five armed men, most of them her relatives. It was the second time she had laid down her weapons since the fall of the Taleban regime in 2001.

Kaftar is a well-known figure in her native Baghlan province, which lies due north of the capital Kabul.

Legend has it that she became a fighter by accident, when she grabbed a gun to kill the Soviet soldiers who had shot her son during the mujaheddin war of the Eighties.

Her success later led to her appointment as local commander for the Jamiat-e-Islami faction, whose military leader was Ahmad Shah Massoud. After Taleban forces captured Kabul in 1996 and pushed north, Kaftar claims to have commanded 2,000 armed men resisting their advance.

After the United States-led invasion sent the Taleban running, Kafter surrendered her weapons under a government-run demobilisation programme. She even entered political life briefly, representing Baghlan’s Nahrin district during the Emergency Loya Jirga, the 2002 assembly that hammered out a structure for government and confirmed Karzai as head of state pending an election.

But apparently she was missing the thrill of the fight.

“After I defeated the Taleban militants, I surrendered all of my arms to the government,” she told IWPR and other reporters recently. “Then I had to sell my cows to buy back weapons."

In recent years, Kaftar has been accused of mounting an armed rebellion against the government, as well as other crimes such as robbery, extortion and drug trafficking.

Speaking to the reporters, she denied involvement in robbery or any other security problems.

This year, the government ran out of patience, and in May the security forces launched an operation to capture Kaftar.

She slipped away and holed up in the mountains with some of her men [but later surrendered to government officials]...

Local residents insist Kaftar is still dangerous and should be locked up.

"Kaftar is allied with a local Taleban commander Mullah Dad-e Khuda, who has recently escaped from Bagram prison,” said one resident, speaking on condition of anonymity. “She also has ties to another local warlord called Imam-e Sabz [the Green Imam]. They control all the drug trafficking routes."

According to this man, the trio have been operating in opium poppy-growing areas, offering farmers protection and fighting off the police... (link)

Kambakhsh languishes in prison

From the Institute for War and Peace Reporting:

Journalists Demand Justice for Kambakhsh
The appeals process has stalled and there seems to be little political will to ensure a fair outcome.

By Hafizullah Gardesh and Noorrahman Rahmani

KABUL, July 9 (IWPR) - All over Afghanistan, journalists, writers and activists gathered on July 8 to press their government to release Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh.

Kambakhsh, who has been in prison since last October, faces the death penalty for insulting Islam. His alleged crime consists of downloading an internet text critical of Islam’s restrictions on women, adding a few comments of his own, and circulating it at his university.

The 23-year-old journalism student has denied the charges, and has claimed that security officials coerced a confession from him during his first days in detention.

A primary court in Balkh province passed the death sentence in January, and the case is now stalled at the Kabul court of appeal.

The act of solidarity was initiated by journalist unions and writer’s groups in at least 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces...

... those close to the case have alleged that witnesses and lawyers have been pressured by the security services.

The last session was adjourned on June 15, with no date set for the resumption of the trial...

Many have see the case as a test of the power of religious conservatism in Afghanistan. Soon after his arrest in October, 2007, Kambakhsh’s case was referred to the provincial Ulema, or Council of Religious Scholars, who demanded the death penalty. While their ruling was not legally binding, it was made so by the primary court in Balkh.

Members of the government have made both public and private promises that the case would be resolved fairly. However, there has been little movement in recent weeks, and Kambakhsh’s defenders are struggling to retain hope of a speedy release... (link)
Here's their dispatch following Kambakhsh's fourth appearance in court in Kabul about a month ago:
Saving Parwez Kambakhsh
By Jean MacKenzie

KABUL, June 16 (IWPR) - A subdued, anxious crowd filled the courtroom of the Kabul Appeal Court on June 15 for the latest installment in the case of Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, the Afghan journalism student facing a death sentence for blasphemy.

There was little evidence of the international media in the courtroom, and the few foreign diplomats present sat quietly, some conferring with the defence from time to time.

The lack of a strong international presence could be bad news for Kambakhsh. Several sources close to the case have said international attention is the only thing sustaining his appeal...

Presiding judge Abdul Salam Qazizada has weathered several Afghan administrations. He is a holdover from the Taleban regime, and his antagonism to the defendant was visible...

For the fourth time in the past 30 days, the case was adjourned without a decision.

During the session, Qazizada appeared to take on the role of prosecutor rather than impartial judge, engaging in a legal duel with defence attorney Mohammad Afzal Nooristani. Lacking a gavel, he repeatedly banged his pen against his microphone in an effort to halt Nooristani’s defence of his client.

Time and again the judge attacked Kambakhsh, who sat pale but composed in the defendant’s chair.

“Just tell me why you did these things,” insisted Qazizada. “What were your motives?”

“I cannot give you reasons, since I did not do anything,” responded Kambakhsh...

Kambakhsh has consistently denied downloading or handing out the article, still less writing any part of the offending text...

A previous session, on June 1, ended with a defence motion to have Kambakhsh examined for signs of physical trauma.

The results from the department of forensic medicine were inconclusive. In findings read out on June 15, doctors stated that while Kambakhsh’s nose showed a slight deviation, it could be a congenital defect as well as evidence of injury. No pathology was found in the left hand, but, according to the statement, there had been ample time for any injury to heal in the seven months since the beating was alleged to have taken place.

This session was the first time the defence had been allowed to read out a statement rebutting the charges against Kambakhsh...

The court was also presented with a long list of Kambakhsh’s alleged failings, such as that he was a socialist, impolite, and asked too many questions in class. He was also accused of having swapped off-colour jokes with friends via text messaging on his mobile phone...

The court finally adjourned in order to summon witnesses from Balkh province, whose written testimony provided the body of the case. No date has been set for the next session...

Karzai has made public assurances that “justice will be done” but so far has not openly intervened in the case... (link)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Witness to US bombing

A BBC correspondent relays a witness account of July 6 US airstrikes in Nangarhar which at last report killed some 47 people. Here, the estimate is put at 52 dead civilians:

Afghan survivors tell of wedding bombing

Jul 13 - The BBC's Alastair Leithead is the first journalist to reach the scene of a US air raid which Afghan authorities say killed about 50 civilians in the east of the country on 6 July. He reports on what he found:

On a hillside high in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan there are three charred clearings where the American bombs struck. Scattered around are chunks of twisted metal, blood stains and small fragments of sequinned and brightly decorated clothes - the material Afghan brides wear on their wedding day.

After hours of driving to the village deep in the bandit country of Nangarhar's mountains we heard time and again the terrible account of that awful day.

What began as celebration ended with maybe 52 people dead, most of them women and children, and others badly injured.

The US forces said they targeted insurgents in a strike. But from what I saw with my own eyes and heard from the many mourners, no militants were among the dead.

Bombing children
A big double-wedding was taking place between two families, with each exchanging a bride and a groom. So Lal Zareen's son and daughter were both getting married on the same day. He gave the account with his son, a 13-year-old-groom, sitting at his feet.

"This is all the family I now have left," he said in a disturbingly matter of fact sort of way.

From his story and from those of other survivors, it appears the wedding group was crossing a narrow pass in the mountains which divides the valleys where the two families live. From nowhere a fast jet flew low and dropped a bomb right on top of the pass near a group of children who had impatiently rushed ahead and were resting, waiting for the women to catch up.

Lal Zareen was waiting expectantly for the guests to arrive when he heard the explosion and began to climb up the steep mountain track to the pass.

Shah Zareen was part of the group up on the path - he had narrowly escaped being caught in the first bomb and told the women to stay where they were as he rushed to help the children.

Second blast
Shah Zareen picked up one of the injured, ran down to the village and on his way was calling his local member of parliament on a mobile phone to say they had been attacked.

But then he heard the second blast - the bomb had been dropped on top of the women and almost all of them had been killed.

Three girls escaped, among them the bride, but as they ran down the hillside a third bomb landed on top of them.

Shah Zareen explained to me how one of the many new graves contained just body parts of two or three people and the graves that had been dug and not filled were for those still missing - once their remains had been found.

The BBC team I was with were the first outsiders to see where the bombs hit - even the Afghan investigators did not climb up the steep mountainside - and there was much evidence to support the story.

The fact we could travel to the area in local cars was proof that Taleban insurgents, al-Qaeda operatives or foreign fighters were not present in the valley.

The local people said they had not seen militants, but admitted there could have been people crossing the high pass as the next ridge along leads to Tora Bora, the notorious insurgent area.

Costly mistakes
The US military says it is investigating the incident and it is understood they may have some aerial footage from hours earlier showing insurgents moving nearby.

But it is obvious a huge mistake was made on 6 July...

The US no longer insists the dead were insurgents, as it did for two days after the bombing, but it could be some time before the investigation is complete... (link)

'A poster is worth 1000 bombs'

The Glasgow Herald has a report from Musa Qala, in Helmand province:

The Herald (Glasgow)
Battle to break the grip of Taliban terror in Musa Qala

July 14 - The power of the Taliban has always been made clear to the people of Musa Qala...

The Army took control of the town in December 2007, after overthrowing an estimated 2000 Talibs from its ravaged network of alleyways and crumbled compounds.

Now the ultimate aim is to win the townspeople over to a new way of life...

Captain Christian Howard is in charge of delivering these messages and is head of psychological operations - "psyops" - at Musa Qala district centre...

The first results of a survey to discover the attitudes of the people of Musa Qala were delivered back to Army commanders last week. While they showed growing approval for building projects in the town, the people showed less support for the town's governance. The British Army has a key role in shaping this governance, but how far the Musa Qala people link the two is unclear.

Walking through the streets of Musa Qala on Army patrol, it is apparent that the British are on a major charm offensive, albeit a heavily armed one.

The town bazaar falls strangely silent as the soldiers move through. Trading comes to a halt and the townspeople retreat under the canopies of their open-fronted shops. The stares are mainly hard and hostile, but the soldiers manage to juggle their security operation with an amiable show, waving and calling "salaam alaikum" (may peace be with you) and handing out sweets to some of the children. Some do wave and smile back.

Judging the "atmospherics" of the bazaar is a key purpose of the patrol. Today the hostility was judged to be about normal, with some signs of improvement.

Communicating with the Musa Qala people is difficult. Most have no basic literacy. Musa Qala FM has been set up to deliver news on Army activities and anti-Taliban messages. It is basically a propaganda machine, Captain Howard said, but is also one of a few tools available to reach out to the townspeople.

He wants people to get more involved, even get them requesting their favourite Islamic songs. He wants suggestions on what movies should be screened on film nights, but this is behaviour massively at odds with the core orthodox beliefs of the town, which for many years abided by the Taliban ban on entertainment.

"The films are mostly Bollywood, but watching people dancing is like watching porn to them. Musa Qala is as hardline as it gets." ...

Captain Howard hopes to expand his operation with a £25,000 budget to buy laptops, Dictaphones and printers and create an "information cell".

"How important will that be? I would say that one poster is worth 1000 bombs," he said... (link)
One wonders what Capt Howard's Master's degree thesis in military psychology might have looked like if he can entertain the charming calculus above. For the love of academia, I hope it wasn't entitled "The effect of 1000 bombs on civilian support for occupation forces".


The escalated war (updated)

Making headlines today are reports that Taliban fighters in the Afghan province of Kunar have killed nine US soldiers operating under NATO in a fierce day-long attack on a US/Afghan military post. Some 15 other NATO troops were injured in the attack, which included Taliban machine gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars and which reportedly cost the lives of "dozens" of militants. If that's true, then it is likely that the attackers struck in considerable numbers. [**See update, below.]

Meanwhile in Helmand, one other US soldier was killed in an IED blast.

Reuters sums up the security incidents:

FACTBOX-Security developments in Afghanistan, July 13

URUZGAN - Twenty civilians, most of them children, and four policemen died in a Taliban suicide attack in a bazaar on Sunday in Deh Rawud district of southern Uruzgan province, the interior ministry said, adding a senior police officer was also among the victims.

KUNAR - NATO forces have suffered casualties during heavy fighting with Taliban insurgents which erupted late on Saturday in eastern Kunar province, an alliance spokesman said on Sunday.

GHAZNI - Taliban insurgents killed two women detective police officers and dumped their bodies in a ditch in a graveyard in Ghazni province on Saturday evening, a senior provincial police officer said. On Sunday in another area of the province, a roadside bomb killed two Afghan guards of a road construction company, another official said.

ZABUL - In neighbouring Zabul, three police officers were killed when a roadside bomb hit their vehicle late on Saturday, police said.

HELMAND - A roadside bomb killed a soldier from the U.S.-led coalition force on Sunday in the southern province of Helmand, the U.S. military said. A spokesman for the military separately said 35 militants were killed since Saturday in an air backed operation of Afghan and coalition forces in Helmand after the blast which followed militants attack on the forces patrol.

BAGHLAN - A NATO-led International Security Assistance Force soldier died on Saturday from injuries he had suffered in a blast in northern Baghlan province, the alliance said.

NURISTAN - Four Taliban insurgents were killed and six more were wounded in an operation by Afghan forces in northeastern Nuristan on Saturday, a district governor said. The defence ministry said dozens of insurgents were killed and dozens more wounded on Sunday in a counter attack of the Afghan army in Nuristan... (link)
In the Globe and Mail, reporter Graeme Smith catches top Canadian brass being either deceitful or shockingly ignorant:
Growing violence in Kandahar 'insignificant,' top soldier says

KANDAHAR, July 13 — Canada's top soldier has dismissed the growing violence in Kandahar as “insignificant,” contradicting all public data and highlighting the growing gap between Canada's upbeat view of the war and the sober analysis from other NATO countries.

General Walter Natynczyk, Chief of the Defence Staff, has frequently claimed troops are making progress...

Pressed by journalists to back up his claim, Gen. Natynczyk turned to his commander of all overseas forces, Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier, who gave a figure that initially appeared to support the general's assessment. A comparison of figures from June, 2007, and June, 2008, shows violence was similar during the two months, he said.

“They're within 3 or 4 per cent of each other, so certainly not a marked increase in any way shape or form,” Lt-Gen. Gauthier said.

The lieutenant-general later corrected himself, saying the comparison was, in fact, limited to the first days of July. He provided no other data. Neither of the two senior Canadian officers explained why they based their assessments on a span of days, instead of following the practice of most security analysts who examine months and years.

Gen. Natynczyk's claim that violence has not significantly increased in Kandahar does not fit any of the published statistics, all of which show major increases in Taliban attacks since 2005.

The most recent numbers were compiled by Sami Kovanen, a respected security consultant at Vigilant Strategic Services Afghanistan...

A comparison of the past two months against the same period in the previous year shows that insurgent attacks have more than doubled in the current fighting season, from 134 in 2007 to 289 in 2008.

For the year to date, VSSA counted 532 insurgent attacks as of July 6, up 77 per cent from 300 last year.

Canadian military officials have argued that the shifting nature of the Taliban's attacks shows that the insurgents are growing weaker, because they are increasingly relying on bombs, or improvised explosive devices, instead of confronting their enemy in direct combat.

In fact, the statistics for Kandahar don't show a clear trend toward bombs as the weapon of choice for the insurgents. While IEDs were the most common type of attack last year, the number of successful IED strikes was slightly smaller this year than the number of so-called complex attacks – ambushes using more than one type of weapon. Such multi-layered attacks have increased this year by 116 per cent, to 123, according the VSSA numbers.

When asked why he refuses to acknowledge that the security situation has grown worse, Gen. Natynczyk responded that Canada's control of the Afghan countryside has expanded.

However, over the past two years, Canada's regular forces have abandoned positions such as Forward Operating Base Martello, about 100 kilometres north of Kandahar city, and the Gumbad Platoon House, about 80 kilometres north of Kandahar city, in favour of concentrating troops in the core districts.

Gen. Natynczyk also emphasized subjective signs of stability...

“Kandaharans have returned to their normal pattern of life,” he said...

In Kandahar city Sunday, a roomful of Afghan businessmen laughed raucously when informed that the Canadian military believes the city has returned to normal.

“Just last night we were sitting outside and a convoy passed by with the soldiers shooting in the air, like cowboys,” said Mohammed Naseem, 34, who owns a coffee shop, an advertising company and the region's largest newspaper. “If things are okay here, why are the soldiers scared?”

People who can afford to leave have evacuated, Mr. Naseem said. He himself has relocated his family to Dubai, and he says he only feels free to speak critically about what's happening in Kandahar because they are safely out of the country.

“There is panic now in Kandahar,” he said. “Everybody is wondering what will happen next.” (link)
Elsewhere, Smith cites VSSA again:
[...] As of July 6, security consultant Sami Kovanen of Vigilant Strategic Services Afghanistan had counted 527 insurgent attacks this year in Kandahar province.

That's vastly more than in any other province in the country; the two other most violent provinces were Kunar, with 316 attacks, and Helmand with 311.

Despite the official importance of the capital city, Kabul province has suffered only 77 insurgent strikes this year, according to VSSA... (link)
In Nuristan, concerns of Taliban take-over are growing, says Afghanistan's Quqnoos news:
'Rebels will take Nuristan unless troops are sent in'
Officials say residents and police are fighting a losing battle against rebels

July 12 - The Taliban will overrun a district in the north-eastern province of Nuristan unless the government ships more police and soldiers to the area immediately, the head of the local council said.

Militants flooding into the district of Bargi Matal, which borders Pakistan, have been trying to take the area for the last three days, council chief Rahmatullah Rashidi said on Saturday.

Residents and police are trying to fend off the rebel offensive but face a fighting force of 500 armed Taliban, Rashidi said.

There are only 150 police serving in the district and residents said they are running out of ammunition.

Representatives from Nuristan have waited 20 days to meet with officials in the Ministry of Interior to discuss the crisis.

One of the representatives, Abdullah Asad, said if the district fell into the Taliban’s hands, then the rest of the province would follow in its footsteps... (link)
The CBC reports on US claims that American Marines have killed 400 insurgents in Helmand province since their deployment there in April. Meanwhile, the LA Times reports (July 6) that these same Marines still control only four and a half square miles of Garmsir district.

At the same time, the Red Cross warned on July 9: "At least 250 civilians are reported to have been killed or injured in various incidents since July 4". Their statement cites both insurgent attacks and "the reportedly high number of civilian casualties resulting from the recent air strikes in the east of the country."

It is indeed the case that insurgents attacked US soldiers in Kunar in large numbers, according to the Christian Science Monitor:
Outpost attack in Afghanistan shows major boost in militant strength
By Aunohita Mojumdar

KABUL, Jul 15 - A deadly attack on a remote NATO outpost in the eastern province of Kunar is being viewed as a serious escalation in the fighting...

In contrast to their traditional hit-and-run tactics and reliance on use of explosives, bombs, and suicide attacks, militants directly engaged soldiers at the outpost, in the village of Wanat, in a style that had not been seen for more than a year. A wave of insurgents attacked the outpost from multiple sides and some were able to get inside, killing nine US troops and wounding 15...

"The attack on Sunday was a carefully planned one, with upward of 200 insurgents, to give it weight of force," Capt. Michael Finney, acting spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, said in an interview...

Haroun Mir, the deputy director for Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies, said the attack's superior planning was clear evidence of the presence of Al Qaeda troops in the area...

Analysts have also noted activity of the insurgent group Hezb-i Islami and the Taliban in Nuristan Province, which neighbors Kunar Province.

Mr. Mir said that "the recent attacks show that the Al Qaeda is involved in the planning and execution of the attacks. Until now the Taliban have been avoiding direct confrontation and after 2006 they were using IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and bombs. Now for the first time they are engaging directly. Once the bodies of the insurgents are recovered from the area I am sure Pakistani and Arab fighters will be found among them." ...
While Mir's comments merit serious attention, it needs to be said that Taliban connections with Al Qaeda are (or would be) a highly useful propaganda tool for NATO/US officials. Yet, there is a lack of convincing evidence to prove this alleged association. While it is true that a few Arab militants have been caught or killed, that hardly adds up to the position of eminence grise which Al Qaeda are alleged to hold vis-a-vis the Taliban. Since many "Arab Afghans" rotated through Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet jihad, it is not surprising that some Arab militants married Afghan women, thus joining with an Afghan extended family.

However, the CSM piece offers more along these lines courtesy of veteran reporter Kathy Gannon:
Regional expert Kathy Gannon reported from Pakistan on Sunday that a conclave of militant and terrorist groups, held in Rawalpindi in June, had agreed to focus on Afghanistan.

The conclave included groups with a history of fighting in Kashmir against the Indian government such as Hezb ul Mujahideen, Jaish-e Muhammed, and Lashkar-i Tayyaba, the last two with links to Al Qaeda. Rawalpindi is where the Pakistani Army is headquartered... (link)
I tend to be rather skeptical of such claims - as I said, because of the propaganda value. I take the same tack with regard to claims that the Iranian government is arming the Taliban, and with regard to claims that Chechens and Tuaregs have joined the Taliban. (And, since I am on a roll, I think that statements by both US/NATO and Taliban commanders claiming large numbers of enemy kills are suspect as well.

Speaking of claims about foreign fighters, the Times report on the Kunar attack repeats that very claim:
Some reports spoke of a joint assault including members of the Taleban, al-Qaeda fighters from neighbouring Pakistan, Arabs and Chechen “foreign fighters” and members of Hizb-e Islami, an allied insurgent group... (link)
Finally, in the BBC's report on the Kunar incident, they note "There may also have been civilian casualties" caused by the all-day battle.