Thursday, December 31, 2009

Up to 18 Afghan civilians killed in attacks

On Monday, Dec 28, President Karzai condemned a foreign airstrike in Kunar province, saying the attack killed 10 civilians including eight students. Now the UN's Kai Eide has weighed in on the matter:

UN Says Eight Afghans Killed In Weekend Raid Were Students

KABUL, Dec 31 (Reuters) - The United Nations said today that eight Afghan students died in a controversial nighttime raid last weekend, which NATO-led forces say only targeted insurgents but Afghan officials say killed 10 civilians...

"The United Nations remains concerned about nighttime raids given that they often result in lethal outcomes for civilians, the dangerous confusion that frequently arises when a family compound is invaded, and the frustration of local authorities when operations are not coordinated with them," [UN Special Representative Kai] Eide said... (link)
The New York Times reports that the UN investigation's findings are only preliminary at this stage. Note that the UN doesn't so far shed any light on the other two alleged civilian victims.

Now there are reports of similar incident, this one in Helmand province:
Air Strike Kills Afghan Civilians, Provincial Official Says

KANDAHAR, Dec 31 (Reuters) - An air strike by foreign forces in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province on December 30 killed civilians, although the number of victims is unknown, a spokesman for the provincial governor said.

"A patrol of foreign troops came under Taliban ambush at 3 p.m. After the ambush, planes came and bombed the area, which caused civilian casualties," said Dawud Ahmadi, spokesman for the Helmand governor... (link)
The New York Times relates reports that seven civilians died in the attack and Xinhua quotes an official to that effect:
"NATO-led troops carried out air strike outside Helmand's provincial capital Lashkargah on Wednesday, killing seven civilians and wounding two others," spokesman for provincial administration Daud Ahmadi told Xinhua.

The attack, he added, took place when some elders in Walizai village were discussing on the irrigation system in their area... (link)
Al Jazeera says "at least eight civilians" were killed in the Helmand incident.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Washington Post: Many Afghans prefer the Taliban

For many people whom I speak to about the war in Afghanistan, the point which proves the criminality of our occupation of that country is that many Afghans prefer the harsh but predictable rule of the Taliban to the monsters and thugs we have put in power. We have seen in previous blog posts some of the extent of this reluctant support for the Taliban. Now the Washington Post offers us similar sentiments from Laghman province, next to Kabul (and the location of the recent airstrike which is said to have killed up to fifteen civilians).

Taliban shadow officials offer concrete alternative
Many Afghans prefer decisive rule to disarray of Karzai government
By Griff Witte - Washington Post

LAGHMAN, Dec 8 - Like nearly all provinces in Afghanistan, this one has two governors.

The first was appointed by President Hamid Karzai...

The second governor was chosen by Taliban leader Mohammad Omar and, hunted by American soldiers, sneaks in only at night. He issues edicts on "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" stationery, plots attacks against government forces and fires any lower-ranking Taliban official tainted by even the whiff of corruption...

"These people in the shadow government are running the country now," said Khalid Pashtoon, a legislator from the southern province of Kandahar who has close ties to Karzai. "They're an important part of the chaos."

U.S. military officials say that dislodging the Taliban's shadow government and establishing the authority of the Karzai administration over the next 18 months will be critical to the success of President Obama's surge strategy. But the task has been complicated by the fact that in many areas, Afghans have decided they prefer the severe but decisive authority of the Taliban to the corruption and inefficiency of Karzai's appointees.

When the Taliban government was ousted in 2001 following five disastrous years in power, a majority of Afghans cheered the departure of a regime marked by the harsh repression of women and minorities, anemic government services and international isolation. Petty thieves had their hands chopped off, and girls were barred from school.

Today, there is little evidence the Taliban has fundamentally changed. But from Kunduz province in the north to Kandahar in the south, even government officials concede that their allies have lost the people's confidence and that, increasingly, residents are turning to shadow Taliban officials to solve their problems.

Pashtoon said that on a recent visit to Kandahar, he heard from constituents who were pleased with the Taliban's judges...

Afghans who live under Taliban control say the group's weaknesses remain the same as during the movement's five-year tenure ruling the country. The Taliban provides virtually no social services, leaving Afghans on their own when it comes to health care, education and development... (link)

More deaths, more denials (Updated)

Reuters reports on an incident in Afghanistan's Laghman province, which neighbors the capital of Kabul:

NATO Denies Civilians Killed In Afghan Attack

KABUL, Dec 8 (Reuters) - The NATO-led force has denied it had killed any civilians in an operation in eastern Afghanistan, but a provincial official said 12 people, probably civilians, had been killed in the attack...

The statement said the joint force came under "hostile fire from multiple positions and returned fire" in Armul village, in Mehtar Lam district.

"The joint force searched the compound without further incident and recovered multiple AK-47 rifles."

The spokesman for Laghman's governor, Sayed Ahmad Safi, said 12 people in four houses were killed during the operation.

"We have launched an investigation to find out how many of them were civilians and how many were Taliban," he said. "It looks like all of them may have been civilians, including women." (link)
Pajhwok Afghan News says locals reported 15 civilians dead, as does Iran's PressTV, who apparently have a reporter on the ground.

The Associated Press reports that Afghan security forces killed one protester on Tuesday (Dec 8) in the provincial capital as hundreds of demonstrators protested the airstrikes.

It seems that NATO is now coming (somewhat) clean:
NATO Says Civilians May Have Died In Afghan Raid

KABUL, Dec 9 (Reuters) - Civilians may have been among those killed in a NATO-led attack in eastern Afghanistan on December 8, the U.S. general in charge of the NATO force's day-to-day combat operations has said...

NATO said on December 8 that no civilians had died in its raid in Laghman Province... (link)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Repeating the Russian disaster

Robert Fisk doing what he does best:

This strategy has been tried before – without success
Dec 3, 2009

... Victor Sebestyen, who has researched a book about the fall of the Soviet empire, has written at length of those frozen days after the Russian army stormed into Afghanistan just after Christmas of 1979. He quotes General Sergei Akhromeyev, commander of the Soviet armed forces, addressing the Soviet Politburo in 1986. "There is no piece of land in Afghanistan that has not been occupied by one of our soldiers at some time or another. Nevertheless much of the territory stays in the hands of the terrorists. We control the provincial centres, but we cannot maintain political control over the territory we seize."

As Sebestyen points out, Gen Akhromeyev demanded extra troops – or the war in Afghanistan would continue "for a very, very long time". And how's this for a quotation from, say, a British or US commander in Helmand today? "Our soldiers are not to blame. They've fought incredibly bravely in adverse conditions. But to occupy towns and villages temporarily has little value in such a vast land where the insurgents can just disappear into the hills." Yes, of course, this was Gen Akhromeyev in 1986...

Outside the city, I was told that the "mujahedin" – President Ronald Reagan's favourite "freedom fighters" – had destroyed a school because it was educating girls. Too true. The headmaster and his wife – after they had been burned – were hanging from a tree.

Afghans approached us with strange stories. Political prisoners were being taken from the country and tortured inside the Soviet Union. Secret rendition...

The "mujahedin" infested Helmand province and crossed and recrossed the Pakistani border, just as they do today. A Soviet Mig fighter-bomber even crossed the frontier in early 1980 to attack the guerrillas. The Pakistani government – and the United States, of course – condemned this as a flagrant breach of Pakistan's sovereignty. Well, tell that to the young Americans who control the unmanned Predators so often crossing the border today to attack the guerrillas... (link)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Pull Canadian troops, says Globe and Mail journalist

The Globe and Mail's foreign correspondent Graeme Smith has written an opinion piece calling for Canadian troops to be pulled out of Afghanistan.

Smith's assessment is important for at least two reasons: first, he is easily the best Canadian journalist working in Afghanistan for the past three years, as well as the perhaps the most experienced. Second, his newly declared opposition to the mission is not a principled position. That is, Smith has never seen a problem with NATO's military might being used to install a friendly regime in Afghanistan, despite the fact that the whole operation stems from an illegal invasion and regime change by the world's only superpower.

Thus, Smith's conclusion that Canadian troops should be withdrawn reflects his opinion that the war is unwinnable, not illegitimate:

The Mark - Nov 12 2009
Graeme Smith

... We should start by recognizing Canada's dwindling importance in Kandahar... Commanders once proudly declared they were chasing insurgents across 60,000 square kilometres of territory, but now Canadians are relegated to guarding Kandahar City and its approaches. From a practical standpoint, we're replaceable.

Symbolically, a Canadian withdrawal would signal to our allies that more soldiers aren't helpful at this point. That's a useful message... Every year I spent in the country, from 2005 to 2009, saw major troops surges – and terrible surges of violence. With every fighting season, more women and children were killed... The mission has failed, so far.

We need to acknowledge this failure if we're going to think clearly about what's next. I have profound respect for optimists... But how many roads are built in rural Afghanistan these days without paying bribes to local insurgents? How many villagers in Kandahar would get polio vaccinations without permission from the Taliban? Making the country better doesn't necessarily require fighting the insurgents – in many cases, it requires working with them.

Our soldiers have bravely followed orders in Kandahar. But they're being swept aside by a tidal wave of U.S. forces, and this surge is likely doomed to bring the same results as previous surges. Canada should withdraw its battle group, and push its allies toward peace talks. (link)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Afghanistan's Colombia connection

The Afghan press has an interesting dispatch on burgeoning relations between Afghanistan and Colombia:

Jawad seeks Colombia's support on terror, narcotics
By Lalit K Jha

WASHINGTON, Nov 3 (Pajhwok) - Afghan Ambassador to the US Said T Jawad on Tuesday met the Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez to expand security and development cooperation between the two countries.

Jawad, who also holds the charge of the Afghan Ambassador to Colombia, sought Colombia's help in fighting both terrorism and counter-narcotics operations in Afghanistan.

We need Colombia's assistance with deployment of your special forces to help us fight terrorism, as well as training our counter-narcotics police and the Afghan National Army's counter-narcotics battalion, Jawad specifically requested President Uribe.

He also asked for establishment of a longer-term institutional relationship between Afghanistan's Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development and Colombia's Accion Social** program implemented by the Office of the President of Colombia.

A key feature of Accion Social is its Center for Coordination of Integrated Action, which delivers timely integrated assistance to the affected populations in remote regions of Colombia.

Jawad also requested Colombia's assistance with establishing a Counter-Narcotics Police Academy at Afghanistans Ministry of Interior, which he said would immensely help improve governance and the rule of law in the country.

President Uribe responded positively...

Colombian National Minister of Defense Gabriel Silva Lujan and Vice-Minister for Policy and International Affairs Sergio Jaramillo Caro invited Jawad to visit a region of Meta, which until a few years ago was under the firm control of narco-terrorists... (link)
Earlier speculation about this budding relationship was reported this past spring in the Washington Post:
[After numerous failed eradication programs] Colombia's government may have found a remedy palatable to a Democratic-led U.S. Congress not only interested in emphasizing social development over military aid for this country but also looking for solutions to consider in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is entrenched and drug crops are flourishing.

The plan underway here is an ambitious state-building effort designed to incorporate a once-forgotten region into the legitimate economy by bringing in police and courts, paving roads, improving schools and offering farm aid. The idea is to provide broad incentives for farmers in this town in the southern state of Meta to stay put and grow legal crops.

Colombian authorities are working to duplicate the plan in five other drug-infested regions, and U.S. officials say it could work in other conflict zones far from Colombia.

The results here are promising: From 2007 to 2008, coca production fell 75 percent in a quadrant of the southern state of Meta that is bigger than Rhode Island, Colombian authorities say. With most hamlets around Vista Hermosa pledging to cooperate in exchange for help, eradication efforts have accelerated this year and the amount of coca here is now negligible... (link)
One doesn't need to be a close follower of Colombian affairs to know that the offer of a US-backed "Colombian solution" to any problem is not likely to be a solution at all. While rates of violence were dropping throughout Latin America (from a US-tutored peak in the 80's), Colombia's were soaring in the 1990's as that country became the Americans' number one aid recipient in the hemisphere.

Mentioned in both articles above as a model for the new anti-drug approach, the Colombian department of Meta, where Calgary-based Petrobank has operations, is also soon to host an American air force base for at least a decade. (Similarly, the US is making itself at home in Afghanistan with a booming mega-base near Kabul.) The back story of Meta department's pacification includes the assassination of virtually all of the leftist Patriotic Union's city councilors in the 1980's after that party had successes at the ballot box. Assassinations of other subversives like human rights activists was next on the repressive agenda, led by government and military officials and carried out by right wing death squads. American training for Colombian military units in the area soon followed. The area was also considered the home of the FARC and still hosts that group's most feared units.

** On the Colombian government's Accion Social, here's Human Rights Watch:
The report [by the Colombian government's Monitoring Commission on Public Policy for IDPs] notes that the reports of displacement caused by paramilitaries in the official information system have been dropping "probably because, among other factors, of the difficulties that have arisen in the process of registration…due to the paramilitary demobilization process…[because] as has been reported by many organizations… some Territorial Units (TUs) of Acción Social began to systematically refuse to register persons and homes who reported that paramilitaries were responsible for their displacement. According to the reports about the situation, the TUs were operating on the assumption that since the paramilitaries [are] demobilized, [they] could not be accused of having caused the displacement." (link)
Narco News also reports that Accion Social does not record pesticide spraying as a reason for displacement.

Monday, November 16, 2009

British protests greet an unpopular war

In Edinburgh this weekend, NATO delegates attending a meeting in the city were reported among some one thousand who rallied against NATO's war in Afghanistan:

Among those addressing the demonstration was Joan Humphreys, whose grandson, a British soldier, was killed in Afghanistan in August.

"I would like the troops to come home walking -- not on stretchers or in body bags," she said.

John Cannell, of the Stop the War Coalition, which helped to organise the march, added: "The only solution has to be a political one, but we need the troops out now to make the space for that political solution." ... (link)
The Press Association notes that "The protest even involved some delegates from the assembly itself, including Dutch senator Tiny Kox."

The protest taps into growing anti-war sentiment in Britain, as revealed in a poll commissioned by The Independent:
In a ComRes poll for the Independent on Sunday this weekend, an overwhelming proportion – 71 per cent – supported this newspaper's call for a phased withdrawal of British forces from Afghanistan within a year or so, while just 22 per cent disagreed... (link)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Afghan war 'probably illegal, certainly immoral'

In a classic case of partisan journalism, Rupert Murdoch's London tabloid The Sun harangued the UK Prime Minister after it was revealed that a condolence letter which Gordon Brown had penned (in his own hand) spelled the addressee's name wrong. The recipient, the mother of a British soldier killed in Afghanistan, was evidently upset, prompting the Tory-supporting paper's well-timed outrage. (A by-election in Glasgow was then underway; held Nov. 12, returning Labour as the victor.)

One letter writer to the Guardian (UK) has a response worth quoting:

... The exploitation of the bereaved by the media, politicians and the military hierarchy poses a serious threat to a rational debate about the Afghan disaster. As public opposition to the war climbs, the apologists claim it is because the Labour government is not doing enough to support the war with helicopters and armour-plating. This is a perversion of the views of the majority, who believe that the war itself is wrong, probably illegal and certainly immoral...

Bill Major
Liverpool (link)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Malalai Joya: 'End the war now'

Outspoken Afghan women's leader Malalai Joya begins her Canadian speaking tour today:

Afghan women's leader in Vancouver: '2011 too late, Canada should end the war now'

Malalai Joya, the youngest woman ever elected to Afghanistan's parliament, is in Vancouver today to start a cross-Canada book tour for her new political memoir, A Woman Among Warlords, written with Vancouver writer and anti-war activist Derrick O'Keefe.

Ms. Joya will be appearing at several events Friday, Nov. 13, including a luncheon hosted by NDP MP Libby Davies, 12 Noon at Dr. Sun Yat Sen Garden, 578 Carrall Street and a talk at Langara College at 2:30p.m. Her main public event and book launch will be Saturday, Nov. 14, 7pm at Saint Andrew's Wesley church (1022 Nelson Street at Burrard). Her visit is being organized by

The 31 year-old Joya has been called "the bravest woman in Afghanistan" by the BBC, having survived five assassination attempts. In her book she recounts her life story growing up in refugee camps and working as an underground activist during the Taliban regime, and also spells out her views on the war in Afghanistan. She has a clear message for the Canadian government: "Ending the war in 2011 is too late, this occupation of Afghanistan must end now."

Malalai Joya has been a consistent critic of corruption in the NATO-backed Karzai government. Last month the New York Times reported that Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai's brother -- who said to have links with drug trafficking -- has been on the CIA payroll for years.

"In Afghanistan we call this brother of Karzai in Kandahar a 'little Bush,'" Joya said about the most powerful man in Kandahar, where close to 2800 Canadian troops are currently stationed.

"On behalf of the Afghan people I offer my condolences to those Canadian families who have lost loved ones in my country," Joya added. "But I believe these troops are themselves the victims of the wrong policies of Canada, US and NATO -- these countries must stop supporting the warlords and end this occupation."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Cop who killed 5 UK soldiers 'a hero' say locals

The recent killing of five British troops at the hands of an Afghan police officer has set the UK reeling, prompting wider calls for the pull-out of troops from Afghanistan. Once again, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting is the only outlet able (or willing) to put reporters on the ground to relate the story from the local point of view:

What Drove Afghan Policeman to Kill UK Troops?
By Aziz Ahmad Tassal and Mohammad Ilyas Dayee

LASHKAR GAH, Nov 5 (IWPR) - Western and Afghan forces try to find out why an otherwise normal young man snapped and killed men he had worked with for months.

The young man’s name was Gulbuddin and he came from Musa Qala, in the northern part of Helmand. He was big and strong with a reputation for fierceness in fighting the Taleban. Gulbuddin was a graduate of the police academy, had served honourably for two years in the Afghan National Police in Helmand, and his commander describes him as trustworthy.

That was until the afternoon of November 3, when he suddenly took a machine gun and mowed down his British colleagues, killing five and wounding six others. Two Afghan police were also injured in the incident...

Some people in Helmand believe that Gulbuddin belonged to the Taleban and had infiltrated the police. Others think that he may have lost friends or family in the bombardments by foreign forces that have ratcheted up tensions between Afghans and western forces, especially in the south.

“Gulbuddin was a soldier like me,” said Khairullah, one of the wounded policemen. “He did not have psychological problems, and he was not a drug addict. He was a disciplined policeman. Nobody knows why it happened." ...

Gulbuddin fled the checkpoint where the shooting took place and a Taleban commander said that Gulbuddin was with them...

But most Helmandis think it is unlikely that the Taleban will give him up voluntarily.

“That boy is a hero,” said Khial Mohammad, a resident of Greshk. “The Taleban will treasure him like a flower.” ...

[S]ome Helmandis welcomed the news of British losses.

“(Gulbuddin) is a good boy, and the parents that bore him should be proud,” said Gul Agha, a resident of Greshk. “He should be given a medal. Let the foreigners know the pain of losing your own people. Let them know how death smells.”

“Let them know how tragic is the death of a son, a father or a brother,” said Abdul Majid, another resident. “Just last night they bombed innocent people in Babaji. Didn’t they have fathers and mothers? They were just farmers, threshing corn, and they were killed on the spot. All their young sons are dead. I am sure they would welcome that soldier as a hero.” ... (link)
Note that the residents who called the turncoat a hero apparently did so under their own names, rather than declining to be named, as did others quoted for the article.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Civilians die, protests result

Several recent incidents have resulted in foreign troops killing Afghan civilians. First, AP reports on incidents in Helmand province and Khost province:

Afghan villagers say air strike kills 9 civilians
By Noor Khan

NOVEMBER 5 - An overnight air strike by international forces killed nine civilians, including at least three children, villagers said today. Afghan authorities said they had no reports of civilian deaths...

Residents of Korkhashien village drove the bodies to the governor's office in the nearby provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, and AP footage and photos showed at least two children among the dead...

Villager Abdul Rashin said the people were killed while harvesting corn in their fields.

The convoy of vans and station wagons from Korkhashien drove from the governor's office to a central market, where the villagers shouted blame at both President Hamid Karzai and his international allies.

"Death to Karzai! Death to the foreigners!" they yelled as passers-by looked through the car windows at the blanket-covered corpses...

In eastern Khost province, several hundred people demonstrated today against an overnight raid that killed a resident of Baramkhil village. Walishah Hamat, head of the Mandozayi district government, said the dead man was innocent... (link)
Meanwhile, in northern Badghis province, American and Afghan soldiers and Afghan police in search of two missing American paratroopers have reportedly clashed with insurgents, killing civilians in the process:
The U.S. military said the soldiers on the search operation came under an attack that killed four Afghan soldiers and two policemen and wounded five American and 17 Afghan troops.

Afghan officials said the NATO airstrike hit a coalition base in the area or hit near it. The district's mayor, Abdul Shukor, put the death toll at 20 -- six Afghan soldiers, two policemen and 12 civilians. Shukor described the bombing site as a military checkpoint near a warehouse.

A NATO statement said authorities were investigating whether "close air support" caused some of the casualties... (link)
Earlier reports said that more than 25 foreign and Afghan soldiers were injured in the clash.

Malalai Joya a 'worthy choice' for Nobel

Malalai Joya, fittingly described by the BBC as the bravest woman in Afghanistan, begins the Canadian leg of her speaking tour this week in Vancouver. She has been in the US the past few weeks, where her autobiography impressed the heck out of America's leading intellectual.

Noam Chomsky writes, a propos of Obama's Nobel win:
The Nobel Peace Prize committee might well have made truly worthy choices, prominent among them the remarkable Afghan activist Malalai Joya.

This brave woman survived the Russians, and then the radical Islamists whose brutality was so extreme that the population welcomed the Taliban. Joya has withstood the Taliban and now the return of the warlords under the Karzai government.

Throughout, Joya worked effectively for human rights, particularly for women; she was elected to parliament and then expelled when she continued to denounce warlord atrocities. She now lives underground under heavy protection, but she continues the struggle, in word and deed. By such actions, repeated everywhere as best we can, the prospects for peace edge closer to hopes.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Troops feeling the antiwar vibe

British lance corporal Joe Glenton, facing court martial for refusing to return to Afghanistan, reports that fellow soldiers have expressed support for his position:

Joe Glenton, 27, who serves with the Royal Logistics Corps, returned to his barracks near Oxford this week after speaking at a London peace rally in defiance of orders.

After calling for a complete withdrawal of troops, he feared a hostile reaction, but he said that instead of being branded a coward he was applauded by fellow soldiers.

"When I came back to barracks I was wondering what they would throw at me, but the reaction was heartening," he said. "There were handshakes and a lot of pats on the back. Someone said I was saying what everyone else is thinking. I heard that from several people.

"A lot of these guys had just come back from tours of duty. Many senior people said they respected me for following my convictions." ...

''A lot of guys around me didn't know why we were there. The confusion happening in the UK today was evident among the troops three years ago [i.e. when Glenton was on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan]." ...

[According to Chris Nineham, a Stop the War campaigner:] "The number of families getting in touch with us has risen. There were virtually no soldiers contacting us last year and now we are hearing from a couple a week who want to get involved."

At a civic reception to mark this week's homecoming of the 2 Rifle battle group from Helmand province, which suffered 23 fatalities in six months, soldiers' parents said they wanted the troops out...

[The father of one returning soldier said:] "Now, I don't think we should be there. If we can't sort it out with the number of troops we have, I don't think we ever will." (link)
Meanwhile, the Guardian's Sean Smith, embedded with US soldiers, has produced a video journal showing, in his words, "the soldiers are losing heart for a fight they feel their presence is only prolonging." See: 'These people just want to be left alone' (video)

Monday, October 26, 2009

UK soldier leads 'Troops Home' demo

Both President Karzai and challenger Abdullah have apparently rejected the idea of a deal to avoid a run-off vote for the presidential spot. In addition, Karzai has rejected Abdullah's demand to sack the head of the election commission, though Abdullah has not said what he might do if his demand is not met. (Some say Abdullah made a tacit threat to boycott the election, though few expect him to actually pull out, threat or not.)

Meanwhile, the rising tide of opposition to the war in the UK has brought ten thousand out to the streets of London. More from the Observer:

Rebel British soldier calls for Afghan exit
Thousands march in London anti-war demo

Oct 25 - A serving soldier facing a court martial for refusing to return to Afghanistan called on Britain to withdraw all troops from the country at an anti-war demonstration in London yesterday that attracted 5,000 protesters.

Lance Corporal Joe Glenton, 27, of the Royal Logistic Corps, said the presence of British forces in one of the world's poorest countries was making the situation worse. "It is distressing to disobey orders, but when Britain follows America in continuing to wage war against one of the world's poorest countries, I feel I have no choice," he told anti-war protesters at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park.

"Politicians have abused the trust of the army and the soldiers who serve. That's why I am compelled and proud to march with the Stop the War Coalition."

The father of a soldier killed in Iraq, who recently refused to shake hands with Tony Blair, also attended the march. Peter Brierley, 59, whose son, Lance Corporal Shaun Brierley, was killed in Iraq in 2003, recounted how he told the former prime minister at a memorial at St Paul's Cathedral, London, that he had blood on his hands and that one day he would have to answer for what he had done... (link)
You can see more coverage of the demonstration at the Stop the War website, where you can watch Youtube videos of short speeches by Tony Benn, Tariq Ali, George Gallaway and others. The Seumas Milne speech is quite good.

Afghans are doing their own protesting, according to Reuters:
In Kabul, shouting "Down with America," Afghans clashed with police protesting against what participants said was the desecration of a copy of the Koran by foreign troops...

Underscoring many Afghans' unease with the presence of foreign troops, hundreds of people gathered in central Kabul on October 26 shouting anti-American slogans and throwing stones.

For the second consecutive day, police fired into the air to break up the crowd as protesters prepared to set fire to a crudely made effigy of Obama outside the parliament building.

Protesters say NATO forces burned a copy of Islam's holiest book during a raid in eastern Afghanistan last week.

The NATO-led force in Afghanistan has denied any involvement and blamed the Taliban for spreading false rumors.

Police arrested up to 30 people, a Reuters witness said. At least one police officer was injured in the clashes, another witness said.

Hundreds of people also gathered in the western city of Herat on October 26 in related anti-U.S. protests, a Reuters witness said. (link)
As if Afghans didn't have a enough to protest about, some US Special Forces have added more grief:

U.S. Forces Kill Four Afghans In Car, Police Say

KANDAHAR, Oct 24 (Reuters) - Four Afghans, including a child and two women, were killed when U.S. forces opened fire on a car in southern Kandahar city, police have said.

A man in the car also was killed when a U.S. military convoy opened fire on the civilian vehicle, Kandahar police official Shah Agha told Reuters. He said a U.S. Special Forces convoy appeared to be involved...

A NATO spokesman in Afghanistan said three civilians were killed and two were wounded when NATO forces fired on the car because it failed to stop when repeatedly signaled to do so. (link)


At a subsequent protest the following day in Kabul, witnesses tell of police violence and arrests:
Police beat, open fire on demonstrators
by Sardar Ahmad

KABUL, Oct 26 (AFP) - Afghan police Monday opened fire and turned a water cannon on demonstrators angry about allegations that Western troops torched a Koran, wounding at least three people, officials and witnesses said.

Clashes erupted as police tried to prevent around 300 students, most of them men, from marching on parliament, the city's criminal investigation police chief, Sayed Abdul Ghafar Sayedzada, told media.

"Police fired at the crowd, one bullet hit me. I was closing my shop at the time," Sherullah, an 18-year-old man who suffered a bullet wound to his hip, told AFP from his hospital bed. "They (policemen) were just firing. They were firing at the people," the wounded young man said.

Sayedzada denied that police fired towards the crowd, saying they only aimed their guns in the air. They also used water cannon, the police chief added.

But a doctor at the emergency ward of Ibn Sina hospital told media that at least three men suffering from "bullet wounds" had been admitted for treatment.

More than 15 police were also wounded in clashes between the angry mob and security forces, interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said.

An AFP reporter at the scene saw about three dozen people, mainly young students, herded into a police vehicle and taken away.

"We were demonstrating, we wanted to protest the burning of Qoran by the foreign forces but the police came and started beating us," a young man, refusing to give his name, told media from the back of a police vehicle... (link)

Friday, October 23, 2009

The maybe run-off

The Obama administration is widely seen to be dithering on the Af-Pak file even as reports say it may be a couple of weeks before the administration announces its new direction.

Meanwhile, the momentum in Afghanistan seems to be toward a run-off election, despite Khalilzad's claim that the Obama administration wants to see a deal between Karzai and Abdullah to avert a run-off. There are rumours to the contrary, however, as Julius Cavendish relates.

Reporting for The National (UAE), Cavendish writes from Kabul:

Turnout estimates [in the first round of the election] were as low as five per cent in some areas hit particularly hard by the insurgency... Although both candidates claim more voters will turn out on November 7, the reality is that there is little appetite for more voting, even if the insurgents have less time to organise a campaign of intimidation...

The UN has told the [Independent Election Commission] that 200 of the 380 district election chiefs who helped run things first time round ignored procedures or were actually complicit in the cheating and must not be hired again. But a shake-up of the leadership a fortnight before voting has the potential to be a political and managerial nightmare, so senior architects of the first round fraud will remain in place...

Dr Abdullah has said that he will only take part in the runoff if certain conditions are met. He has not yet said what those are, and given the proximity of the runoff, this sounds more like an escape clause than a serious anti-corruption programme.

Rumours persist that the two candidates will cut a deal but the probability of this happening is diminishing. Diplomats say what dialogue there is between the two camps – there are whispers of a meeting between Mr Karzai and Mr Abdullah within the next day or two – has the tenor of preparation for post-election discussion, not an 11th- hour compromise. (link)
Note that Cavendish says diplomats don't expect a deal between Karzai and Abdullah. Karzai, however, might be hinting at that:
"If (Abdullah) wants to come and work in my government, he is most welcome. I'm known for consensus and building it and for inclusivity, and that's a good trademark," he told CNN in an interview to be broadcast on Sunday. (link)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Afghan election finalized - almost

At long last, the Electoral Complaints Commission, headed by a Canadian professor, has passed on its findings of fraud to Afghanistan's Independent Electoral Commission. In what is evidently a poorly kept secret, those results show that Karzai won just 48% of the August 20 vote, rather than the 55% which the preliminary count found. While this, in theory, necessitates a run-off vote, it is widely reported that Karzai will be cutting a deal with challenger Abdullah to avoid a run-off.

The Christian Science Monitor has more on the legality of such deal-making:

Afghan election law says that if nobody gets 50 percent plus one vote in the first round, a runoff must be held to determine a winner. If one of those two parties concedes, it's unclear if the election can be called without the runoff.

"There is an absence of law, a silence, and for this you need an interpretation," says Ahmad Nader Nadery, commissioner of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

It would fall to the Supreme Court – appointed with no oversight by Karzai – to provide that interpretation.

"The Supreme Court is not strong enough to be able to get that much trust on [such a] decision that it was impartial," he says...

If no deal is reached, a runoff vote could be derailed by extremely low turnout, Taliban disruption, or failure to organize it before the snow starts falling. (link)
Reuters today reveals Karzai's apparent willingness to take part in a run-off:
Karzai indicated his willingness to accept a run-off in meetings this week with visiting Western officials, including U.S. Senator John Kerry, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. (link)
Yet such a pledge may simply be a signal for Abdullah, as former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad indicates that Obama wants to see a deal made:
Zalmay Khalilzad, returned from Kabul on Monday and said Karzai was willing to "power-share" and that differences with Abdullah appeared to be in the timing of such an agreement.

"The international community and the Obama administration appear to favor the unity government rather than an election," said Khalilzad. (link)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Canadians in the quagmire

A couple of vignettes of the war. First from the Ottawa Citizen:

Cost of mission weighs heavily on soldiers
Some in Afghanistan frustrated by toll, lack of clear purpose

By Bruce Ward - Oct 11

... most of the soldiers interviewed over the past five weeks have been upbeat, driven by their sense of duty and determined to do their job as best they can.

But when given the assurance they would not be identified, some expressed their frustration with the mission.

"Our guys get killed but there doesn't seem to be any gains made," one said.

"The Afghans take all kinds of humanitarian aid, but they don't really help us find the Taliban. They never give anything back."

Others said they had no clear idea of what their purpose is here, or what they are expected to accomplish... (link)
And from the Walrus:
Lessons Learned
Canadian troops in Afghanistan get a little help from a former jihadi
by Graeme Wood - The Walrus

... Teacher has picked out one of the halal rations offered by his employer, the Canadian military... [H]e translates Dari and Pashto for a small Canadian battle unit that trains the ragtag Afghan National Army [and] advises Sean Wilson, a wiry captain from the Royal Canadian Regiment, and shadows him on raids, searches of suspected Taliban hideouts, and patrols through mined and booby-trapped defiles.

Today Teacher and Wilson are leading an Afghan-Canadian patrol...

... the Afghan soldiers have already arrived, and seem to have been celebrating their summiting before they even start the search. Some have taken watermelons from a local villager; others have sparked up a morning toke, wreathing the area in a fog of hash.

Wilson tells Teacher to warn Captain Faizullah that his men are baked out of their minds, and probably not ready for an operation that could involve doors rigged to explode and snipers perched on the mountain nearby. Faizullah demurs, and when Wilson’s warrant officer takes away a stoned Afghan soldier’s gun, bitter words are exchanged, including some between the warrant and Faizullah, who says a mere enlisted man should not presume to speak to a toron, or mid-level officer, about how to do his job. Relations between the two forces are strained for the rest of the morning.

By early afternoon, we are back at our makeshift base, near the district centre. Wilson patches the rift with Faizullah, but none of the Canadians trust the Afghan soldiers with their safety anymore... (link)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The war on civilians

"Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime." - E. Hemingway
On October 8th, NATO's ISAF force acknowledged that they "accidentally killed an Afghan child" in a nighttime raid against suspected insurgents in Logar province, which borders on Kabul. While reports of that incident were picked up widely, an incident which followed a couple days later was only reported in the Afghan press:
Coalition troops kill three, detain as many
By Rehmatullah Afghan

PUL-I-ALAM, Oct 10 (Pajhwok) - US-led coalition troops and Afghan intelligence operatives have killed two civilians and a militant in Pul-i-Alam, capital of central Logar province, a police chief said on Saturday.

The fatalities happened in Kaji village, where the combined force stormed into a house during a predawn swoop, provincial police chief, Brig. Gen. Ghulam Mustafa Mohseni said... (
The Afghan press again goes where others don't in reporting on the predictable fallout from three decades of war, which our efforts are seeking to continue:
66pc of Afghans suffering from mental health problems

KABUL, Oct 11 (Pajhwok) - Sixty-six percent of Afghans are suffering from stress disorders and mental problems, says the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) citing recent surveys conducted by national and international organisations...

A 2002 nationwide survey found high levels of depressive symptoms (59.1pc among males and 73.4pc among females), anxiety symptoms (59.3pc among females and 83.5pc among males) and post-traumatic stress disorder (32.1pc among males, 48,3pc among females)... (link)

A soldier writes

Casualobserver, a soldier stationed in Wardak province, writes concerning my posting the other day:

I have been in Wardak province for almost a year now. I am quite positive that the author of this article has not been in Wardak, and if he has it has only been for a short time and has not been in a position where his opinion is even remotely valid to include Kabul and Bagram air field.

Just because one article comes out stating that soldiers in Wardak are of low morale doesn't mean that the enemy is winning in Wardak. In truth, the "locals fighting" here are people paid by foreign insurgency to fight Americans. IED attacks are just about the only tactic being used to attack soldiers here because it is a method that can be employed by 1-2 people where they can hide from the people they are attacking without actually having to fight. In few instances do the enemy utilize small arms to combat, and when they do it is from a far distance where the chance of effective retaliation is low. From that far distance, their ability to be effective is extremely low as well. In short, the enemy is in few numbers and is cowardly.

The people in Wardak are extremely friendly to Soldiers, and in reality I am one of the soldiers who has "handed candy out to children." The problem with this article is that children have never hurled it back to me. The "installed government" has been working with US money to better the lives of the people here and the people here have actively resisted insurgency and attacking of coalition forces which include Canadian soldiers, American soldiers, Afghan Soldiers, Afghan Police, and other organizations. I have literally not entered a town during the 156 patrols I have been on that has not welcomed us in or explained to us their problems.

These people are actively supporting their Afghan government. They go to the government with their problem and this government works from the provincial level to the local level to do all they can to help them. In truth, it is a new government and there is still a reliance on other government support, namely from the Turkish government and the US government.

The people conducting attacks are very, very few in numbers and are paid to do so. Basically, the people attacking the government here are poor and looking for sources of income. The extreme majority of people here are not attacking the Afghan Army nor the American Army.

In truth, soldier's morale in some cases may be low, but this is the case for all deployments. Any time that a soldier leaves home to go somewhere else that morale will drop. Soldier's morale is lowered in places like Qatar, Kyrgystan, Africa, and Kuwait where there is no large media interest.

The people reading this article need to know that this author is gaining popularity because he is writing about an opinion which people who have not been to war, have not been to Afghanistan, and have not been to Wardak have. Just because you are an armchair politician does not mean that you know what you are talking about.

Casualobserver makes several dubious claims which seem to indicate that he or she did not read the relevant blog posts very well, in particular claiming that I relied on the opinions held by people who "have not been to Wardak". This is of course false, as the opinions offered were of people who in fact live in Wardak, as well as journalists reporting from the province.

Turning to the more serious questions raised, Casualobserver's central claim against me is that the "people in Wardak are extremely friendly to soldiers," offering as evidence the 156 patrols he or she has been on. There is, however, plenty of evidence from more credible sources that the opposite is true.

One McClatchy reporter embedded with newly arrived troops back in February had no problem finding dissenting opinion even in the presence of the armed troops. Addressing the soldiers, one local was clear:

"Look at how we are standing here and talking. You are asking questions. Why don't you do more of that instead of snatch-and-grab operations?" said Samur Gul, a bearded taxi driver, to the approval of onlookers. "Innocent people are being killed." (link)

Journalist Sayad Kharim wrote in May that "Few people [in Wardak province] are happy with what the US-led war has brought them and they want the troops out." He quotes a 30 year old woman in Wardak named Jamila:

“I don’t like the foreigners or what they have done for this country and for its women. During the Taliban time my husband had a job, now he doesn’t. The foreigners should leave the country because it's not just me - no one likes them. They have killed lots of people.” (link)

In July, Anand Gopal citing Habibullah Rafeh, a policy analyst at the Kabul Academy of Sciences, wrote:

"Most of the troops [in Wardak] live in small, heavily fortified outposts near urban centers. Most Afghans, however, live in rural areas - only 0.5 percent of Wardak's population is urban, for example." [Rafeh himself says:] "The local village people view the Americans as occupiers, not as allies... Many don't have direct contact with the Americans, but almost everyone in those areas feel the Taliban presence." (link)

While Casualobserver sees only smiling, grateful locals in Wardak, the American commander in neighbouring Logar province is much less of a pollyanna:

"We're trying to make inroads with the local people, build relationships," said Capt. Jason Wingeart, commander of COP Charkh in Logar province. "But many are scared or just plain ambivalent, and building trust takes time." (link)

Casualobserver's claim that the foreign troops are overwhelmingly welcomed by locals in the region of Wardak thus finds little support from independent observers or even other soldiers. But such deafness to evidence is certainly not unique in military circles. After several locals gave detailed descriptions of incidents of civilian casualties, the Boston Globe's Farah Stockman inquired of the American forces: "Captain Rebecca Lykins, a public affairs officer for the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, who is working with the US special forces in Wardak, said her team was not aware of any such incidents."

Casualobserver claims that insurgents in Wardak are few in number as well as relatively ineffective against the foreign troops. Before examining that claim, it would be useful to consider the extent of the physical area held by the American troops. As mentioned above, the US troops are concentrated around a few urban centres, while in Wardak as of July "the Taliban, who hail from nearby villages [] rule over vast, remote areas," according to the Boston Globe.

Little seems to have changed in Wardak since February when US forces were deploying and journalist Anand Gopal wrote that "insurgents today control six out of nine districts, according to interviews with locals and government officials here." (The Taliban controlled four while Hizb-e Islami controlled two.) Media reports indicate that US forces have a presence along the highway in perhaps four districts ( Chak, Jalrez, Saydabad and Nerkh) - while the remainder of even those districts is beyond their reach.

Casualobserver's claim that the insurgents are few in number may thus hold true for the small areas where foreign forces have a significant presence. However, the fact that insurgents have succeeded in detonating 180 IEDs and have killed 19 American soldiers demonstrates that they are far from ineffective, as Casualobserver claims.

The evidence indicates that a small number of insurgents are seeing success against a large foreign force confined to a small area of operations, while the rest of the province is still under insurgent sway. Such a situation is reminiscent of what occurred last year in Helmand province in the south. There, a spring of 2008 "mini-surge" of US Marines managed after tremendous struggle to secure just 11 square kilometers of territory while fending off an enemy that had largely retreated, yet was still able to offer the Americans numerous heavy fire fights. While the western media kept a lid on the fact, the UN's humanitarian news agency reported that "about 30,000 individuals, mostly women and children - are estimated to have abandoned their homes" in the areas near the fighting. As we have seen, a similar exodus appears to be underway in Wardak.

Casualobserver also claims that insurgents are paid for their work, implying that they are not, as I hold, motivated in part by a desire to rid their country of foreign troops. Yet serious observers generally do not share Casualobserver's opinion. The recent DfID report which looks at reasons why Afghans join the insurgency posits three key contributing factors: religion, government corruption and the presence of foreign troops in the country. The cash incentive is mentioned as an ancillary factor, alongside social status, self-protection and leverage for political disputes.

It is not difficult to guess the reason why a soldier on the ground might get different responses from the Afghan public than does a journalist: It is likely that locals simply pretend that they have no problem with the presence of heavily armed foreigners when they are questioned by the same heavily armed foreigners. While many foreign soldiers serving in Afghanistan have noted this phenomenon, it appears not to have occurred to Casualobserver.

It reminds me of something Louis Dupree wrote. Dupree, the dean of Afghanistan studies, noted that Afghan villagers universally display a talent for quick agreement with outside meddlers. The point is they know that the foreigners will leave sooner rather than later, and they humor the foreigner to hasten his exit so that things can return to normal. In light of this, Casualobserver's claims and those of locals have a logical fit.

Finally, any skeptical reader would note that the Afghan politicians and citizens quoted above say such things publicly - at no small risk to themselves, one might add. So too did the US combat soldiers currently serving in the province publicly state their concerns - also a risky, thus brave, move. Yet Casualobservers comments are anonymous, giving us less reason to take them seriously.

Nihon wa fantasutikku desu

In recent years, the fates of various Japanese politicians have been closely linked to the war in Afghanistan. In September 2007, notorious right wing Prime Minister (and grandson of a war criminal) Shinzo Abe resigned in part due to popular opposition to Japan's participation in naval support for the conflict. Leading opposition politician Ichiro Ozawa's words resonated with the pacifist tradition in Japan when he said the war in Afghanistan "had nothing to do with the United Nations or the international community." Abe's successor was himself soon replaced by Japan's own version of George W. Bush. Taro Aso, heir of an industrialist family whose coal mine used POW's for labor during WW2, was known for his sub-par intellect and soon led his Liberal Democratic Party to a historic landslide defeat this past summer.

Now, new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is faced with a long-standing crisis over Japan's pacifist constitution existing side by side with military engagements such as the naval mission in support of the war. While Obama's commitment to change has proven rather weak, Hatoyama's government has already moved to end the death penalty and the naval mission:

Japan To End Afghan Refueling Mission: Defense Minister

TOKYO, Oct 13 (Reuters) - Japan will end its refueling mission in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan when its legal mandate expires in January, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa has said, a month before President Barack Obama visits Washington's close Asian ally.

"The law will expire in January. We will solemnly withdraw based on the law," a ministry official quoted Kitazawa as telling reporters.

It is the clearest statement so far by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's new government, which has pledged to take a diplomatic stance more independent of Washington, that it is set to end the nearly 8-year-old mission.

The mission supplies fuel and water to U.S. and other ships policing the Indian Ocean for weapons and drug smugglers, as well as terrorists. (link)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Disillusioned in Wardak

Some stories come full circle. Back in February, we saw that the people of Wardak, located just south of Kabul, "were completely, 100 percent against the arrival of foreign troops," according to a local member of parliament. The Taliban in the area were said to be entirely comprised of local men.

By July, there were reports that children took candy from soldiers only to hurl it back at the invaders. We also saw last month that locals in Wardak are feeling increasingly under threat from both the Americans and the Taliban insurgents, prompting an exodus of those able to leave.

In light of this, current developments in that province are quite revealing. The Times reports on what US Army chaplains in Wardak are hearing from the troops lately:

American troops in Afghanistan losing heart, say army chaplains
By Martin Fletcher

WARDAK, Oct 8 - American soldiers serving in Afghanistan are depressed and deeply disillusioned, according to the chaplains of two US battalions that have spent nine months on the front line in the war against the Taleban...

“The many soldiers who come to see us have a sense of futility and anger about being here. They are really in a state of depression and despair and just want to get back to their families,” said Captain Jeff Masengale, of the 10th Mountain Division’s 2-87 Infantry Battalion.

“They feel they are risking their lives for progress that’s hard to discern,” said Captain Sam Rico, of the Division’s 4-25 Field Artillery Battalion. “They are tired, strained, confused and just want to get through.” The chaplains said that they were speaking out because the men could not...

Several men approached by The Times, however, readily admitted that their morale had slumped.

“We’re lost — that’s how I feel. I’m not exactly sure why we’re here,” said Specialist Raquime Mercer, 20, whose closest friend was shot dead by a renegade Afghan policeman last Friday...

The only soldiers who thought it was going well “work in an office, not on the ground”. In his opinion “the whole country is going to s***”.

The battalion’s 1,500 soldiers are nine months in to a year-long deployment that has proved extraordinarily tough. Their goal was to secure the mountainous Wardak province and then to win the people’s allegiance through development and good governance. They have, instead, found themselves locked in an increasingly vicious battle with the Taleban.

They have been targeted by at least 300 roadside bombs, about 180 of which have exploded. Nineteen men have been killed in action, with another committing suicide. About a hundred have been flown home with amputations, severe burns and other injuries likely to cause permanent disability...

Staff Sergeant Erika Cheney, Airborne’s mental health specialist, expressed concern about their mental state — especially those in scattered outposts — and believes that many have mild post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “They’re tired, frustrated, scared. A lot of them are afraid to go out but will still go,” she said.

Lieutenant Peter Hjelmstad, 2-87’s Medical Platoon Leader, said sleeplessness and anger attacks were common...

The chaplains said soldiers were seeking their help in unprecedented numbers...

The men are frustrated by the lack of obvious purpose or progress. “The soldiers’ biggest question is: what can we do to make this war stop. Catch one person? Assault one objective? Soldiers want definite answers, other than to stop the Taleban, because that almost seems impossible. It’s hard to catch someone you can’t see,” said Specialist Mercer.

“It’s a very frustrating mission,” said Lieutenant Hjelmstad... "There’s no tangible reward for the sacrifice. It’s hard to say Wardak is better than when we got here.”

The soldiers are angry that colleagues are losing their lives while trying to help a population that will not help them. “You give them all the humanitarian assistance that they want and they’re still going to lie to you. They’ll tell you there’s no Taleban anywhere in the area and as soon as you roll away, ten feet from their house, you get shot at again,” said Specialist Eric Petty, from Georgia...

Lieutenant-Colonel Kimo Gallahue, 2-87’s commanding officer, denied that his men were demoralised...

He said the security situation had worsened because the insurgents had chosen to fight in Wardak province, not abandon it... (link)
So US troops introduced early this year, who were not welcomed by the population, have seen continued civilian hostility, and many are now demoralized. Their Taliban opponents, largely composed of locals fighting what is to them a foreign occupation, have stepped up the fight and dug in - on home turf.

Note that the troops have apparently been targeted by some 300 roadside bombs, 180 of which have exploded. While it is not clear what exactly these figures refer to, this seems to represent an improvement in insurgent capabilities. Normally, troops discover and disarm a larger proportion of overall IEDs.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

General Vance strikes again

General Vance's recent tongue-lashing of Afghan elders having caused something of a stir in Canada, spin doctors no doubt set to work to create a more acceptable impression of the general's work. Vance himself evidently went along, giving away candy to children in the presence of the Ottawa Citizen's Bruce Ward, who obligingly produced a puff piece for the top soldier.

How puffy is the piece? Quite puffy. For instance, Ward writes: "Vance is fiercely protective when it comes to his soldiers. His concern for their welfare is one reason why he holds their respect and affection." And Ward's coda for the piece leaves no mystery as to its purpose: "Why does the commander work so hard? 'Gotta win,' he says."

Yet General Vance himself foils the effort, offering an encore performance of his child-chasing routine back in June. Then, a boy threw a rock at the general's convoy - a common occurrence, as many journalists attest. Vance pursued the boy, aiming to teach him a lesson and providing an irksome example for his troops.

This time the culprit is a boy with a laser pointer, a common -- and, given the presence of occupation forces, dangerous -- toy for Afghan youngsters. General Vance, atop a gun turret while riding along on a nighttime patrol, again descended off his steel steed to harangue a child for his impudence.

Besides moving him a few notches up the creepy scale, Vance's second attempt to publicly scald a minor malfeasant is bound to count as a setback in the battle for hearts and minds. Surely Afghans are unlikely to see the general's behaviour as worthy of respect.

A force for change
Bruce Ward, The Ottawa Citizen
October 3

... Lots of kids here carry toy laser pointers that cost pennies. After dark, they make a game of flashing the laser at soldiers passing in vehicles. It's a dangerous trick, which makes it loads of fun for wayward boys and one of them has just zapped Vance's vehicle.

Soldiers on alert for ambush and IED strikes take a dim view of being targeted with the laser dots because certain snipers' rifles do much the same thing in lining up a shot.

The kebab seller says he saw the boy who did it, but the child is long gone, probably laughing about it with friends several blocks away. Lucky kid. If Vance had caught up with him, he would have been told, and told forcefully, what a foolish stunt that was and how he could have been shot.

Vance would not have shouted or lost his cool, but his immense displeasure would have been conveyed to the child...

Vance commiserates with one ANP officer, wounded in a skirmish with the Taliban. It emerges that he has not been paid for weeks and doesn't know when -- or if -- he will get his money.

Although Canada's military has developed a direct deposit system, fraud is still common... (link)
From that last line, one might surmise that Canada bears some responsibility, at least in the minds of Afghans, for cases of non-payment of soldiers' salaries - another hitch in the counterinsurgency effort.

Canadians and Dutch kill civilians

The toll rises, this time with Canadian bullets:

Canadian troops fatally shoot two teens
Gloria Galloway - Globe and Mail

KABUL, Oct 3 - Two teenage boys travelling by motorcycle through the dangerous Panjwai district southwest of Kandahar city were shot and killed Thursday by Canadian soldiers on patrol.

The boys, 14 and 16, were going from their home village of Zangabad to see a friend in the Panjwai district centre, villagers said.

Shortly after 6 p.m., they rounded the corner in the hamlet of Pay-e-Moluk and came upon the Canadian soldiers conducting a meeting, or shura, near a mosque with village elders.

The troops, who were surprised by the sudden appearance of a motorcycle heading toward them at close distance, said they shouted and used visual warnings. They also fired a warning shot... (link)
Recently, the Germans got in on the act of killing civilians in a big way. Now Dutch pilots have killed civilians:
NRC Handelsblad (Netherlands)
Civilians Killed in Dutch Air Raid

OCTOBER 2 - A Dutch F-16 fighter plane made a number of civilian casualties during an air raid in the Afghan province of Helmand on Wednesday.

The Dutch Defense Ministry said it is still unclear how many people died in the air raid, but it confirmed that a woman and several children were wounded. The French press agency AFP quoted a local authority saying nine people died, including six children.

Two Dutch F-16 fighter planes provided air support during what is referred to as "heavy fighting" between British ground troops and the Taliban in Helmand Province, the Defense Ministry said. British troops on the ground gave the planes the coordinates of a house from which they were being fired upon. One Dutch F-16 then dropped one precision bomb on the house.

"Afterwards it appeared that apart from the Taliban fighters, there were civilians in the house as well. The Taliban had hidden among the civilians," the ministry said... (link)
The Associated Press the British military's Lt-Col Nick Richardson relayed unconfirmed reports that 12 people had been killed - six children, two women and four insurgents in the incident in Helmand.

While military officials are quick to blame the Taliban for hiding among civilians, locals tend to view the occupiers and more blameworthy.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

'The Americans killed everyone. I hate them.'

Once again, Afghan journalists go where few outsiders bother to go themselves. Mustafa Saber goes back to Azizabad in Herat province, where last year an American airstrike called in by special forces who had Oliver North along as a Fox News embed (I am not making this up), killed upwards of 90 civilians.

Tragic Fate of Afghan Bomb Survivor
By Mustafa Saber

AZIZABAD, Sept 17 (IWPR) - Seven-year-old Zahra looks like a typical Afghan girl...

On the night of August 22 2008, all of Zahra’s immediate family was killed by American bombs... An investigation by the United Nations said that 90 people, 60 children and 30 adults, died.

The American military initially denied that any civilians were harmed in the attack. Only after prolonged pressure, in October of last year, did they acknowledge that the strike killed 33 civilians.

Zahra’s father, mother, sister and two brothers died that night. She is the only survivor, together with her grandmother, Maryam...

“I loved my family very much,” she said, tears in her dark eyes. “Every moment I hear the voices of my mother, father, sister and brothers calling me, but I can’t see them. We had a good life. I used to play with my brothers and sister on the street. My father was Abdurrashid, my mother was Khumari, my sister was Huma and my brothers were Halim and Salim. The Americans killed them and now I am alone.”

Suddenly bitter, she adds, “The American killed everyone in the village. They killed my friends and other children. I hate them.” ... (link)

Dead civilians go unnoticed in the news

Today we're doing a little catch-up with civilian casualties and abuses by foreign forces in the past week and a half. This first one was virtually ignored by the Canadian media, despite it taking place in Kandahar province. In fact, the Arghandab district where this occurred used to be in the Canadian area of operations, though American troops have lately been doing the occupying there. The Canadian press actually outperformed others: the Globe story (below) was the only one outside Afghanistan.

As is frequent, the embattled and repressed Afghan press broke the story, while western journalists who possess many advantages came up empty:

Six dead in Kandahar air strike
By Basher Ahmad Nadem

KANDAHAR, Sept 24 (Pajhwok) - Six people were killed and several others wounded in an air strike by foreign forces in Arghandab district of the volatile southern Kandahar province, residents said Thursday.

The air raid was conducted late Wednesday night in Nagahan area that lasted one hour, according to residents, who had brought their injured relatives to the Mirwais Civil Hopital in Kandahar City.

Abdul Wahid, a resident said, several gunship helicopters arrived in the area and suddenly started bombing their houses...

He feared the death toll could be increased as residents were searching for bodies...

Locals said there was no Taliban in the area. They expressed their wonder why the foreign forces conducted the air strike.

Foreign forces based in Kandahar have said nothing about the air raid... (link)
Four days later, the Globe and Mail's Gloria Galloway writes in a September 28 article:
Mohammed [an innocent victim who lost his legs in the airstrike] said the men he was with in the vineyard had no guns.

When asked if the ISAF forces found weapons among the dead, Col. Shanks said: “Our forces did go back in to look at the area later that day and they reported enemy killed and materials removed.” ...

A local official from the Arghandab district, who did not want to be identified for fear of Taliban reprisal, said intelligence was received to indicate that insurgents had come into the vineyard and were eating grapes with the farm workers.

“We gave this to the coalition forces and the coalition forces sent planes to this place,” the official said.

But Mohammed insists the intelligence was wrong.

When the ISAF soldiers arrived after the air raid, he said, “they didn't find weapons or anything, they saw only boxes of grapes.”

Doctors and nurses treating the injured said they believe the men in their care are not insurgents because of the anger expressed by family members who have travelled from their home districts just outside Kandahar city to visit. Local people have a good idea about who is a Taliban and who is not, they said... (link)
In Wardak province, just south of Kabul, civilian killings prompt a large protest:
Foreign troops slay father and son in Wardak
Ahmad Qureshi & Basharat

KABUL, Sept 26 (Pajhwok) - Foreign troops have allegedly killed a father and his son during a raid on their house in central Maidan Wardak province late Friday night, residents said on Saturday.

Nearly two hundreds residents of the Chadra village in Syedabad district brought the dead bodies of the victims to the provincial capital and put them in front of the Governor's House to protest the killing, said Dr. Muhammad Pandi, a relative of the deceased.

He added the foreign troops first fired a rocket at the gate of his uncle's house and then entered inside. "The forces brutally murdered my uncle and his son at midnight," he added... (link)
The September 25 Wardak incident appears not to have been reported outside Afghanistan. Neither was the following, which also took place in Wardak province:
NATO raid leaves three civilians dead
By Hakim Basharat

KABUL, Sept 27 (Pajhwok) - An ISAF air strike killed three civilians and wounded as many in central Maidan Wardak province late Saturday night, officials said on Sunday.

A spokesman for the governor, Shahidullah Shahid, told Pajhwok Afghan News the air raid was carried out in the Sanglakh area of Jalrez district. He confirmed the strike killed three civilians and wounded three others.

The victims were asleep near piles of wheat crop in their fields, added the spokesman...

Provincial council head Hazrat Mohammad Janan verified the raid that happened in Polak village at about 10pm last night killed three civilians and wounded four others.

Residents of the district also confirmed the incident... (link)
In Khost, US airstrikes killed battling friendlies - rival tribes who haven't (yet) declared war on the US/NATO occupiers:
Two tribesmen killed in US air strike
By Saboor Mangal

KHOST CITY, Sept 28 (Pajhwok) - Two armed people were killed in a US air strike as rival tribesmen sat in trenches in the southeastern Khost province, a senior official said on Monday.

Acting Governor Tahir Khan Sabri told Pajhwok Afghan News the bombing occurred this afternoon in Ovom area of Nader Shah Kot district, where the tribes have locked horns over barren land.

The dispute between Moqbil and Mangal tribes erupted last month and they have since been sitting in trenches, Sabri said, adding American forces mistook the armed tribesmen for Taliban militants. (link)
Finally, news agencies revealed on September 30 that a girl was killed in Helmand in June when a British plane dropped leaflets onto civilian areas. A box of leaflets failed to open as it was supposed to and struck the girl.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Instability and chaos near Kabul

Pamela Constable has been reporting from Afghanistan for several years as a correspondent for the Washington Post. We heard from her in February when she asked numerous locals about Obama's planned troop surge and found that a majority of Afghans opposed the troop increase - a finding consistent with polling.

Recently she visited the Shomali (Northern) Plain located just north of Kabul and found evidence of ominous developments:

A Protection or a Provocation?
Residents of Afghanistan's Shomali Plain Deeply Conflicted Over Presence of U.S. Troops
By Pamela Constable - Washington Post

QARABAGH, Oct 3 - The last time Taliban forces swept across the Shomali Plain, they left behind a wasteland of scorched vineyards and decapitated fruit trees that farmers have spent the past eight years nursing back to life.

Now, the inhabitants of this fertile region north of Kabul are fearful that the whirlwind will come again, destroying their hopes and hard work. Yet they are deeply conflicted about whether American and NATO troops should remain here to defend them, or whether the Western forces are exacerbating problems that Afghans should settle among themselves...

Like many other Afghans who have survived years of conflict and hardship, Shomalis express both resentment of the foreign military presence and bitterness that the United States abandoned their country after Soviet forces left in 1989. Some, with harsh memories of Taliban abuses, still call members of the Islamist militia fellow Muslims who should be given a second chance...

Signs of trouble are already appearing in the political void across Afghanistan, as people wait anxiously for two commissions to investigate the election fraud charges and announce the final results. Campaign workers and government officials have been targeted in an atmosphere of rising partisanship and criminality as well as terrorism...

A grape seller named Hayat Khan recounted how marauding Taliban forces had once burned down his house and thrown him into jail. In the next breath, however, he complained that Western troops were "killing innocent civilians" and declared that "all Afghan Muslims want them to leave. The Taliban are Muslims, too." He added: "We hope this time they will behave differently from the past."

A melon vendor named Turan Amoor complained that as Western influence has grown in Afghanistan, "we have begun to see the open faces of women in the bazaars and a lot of un-Muslim activities."

"This shows that the foreign troops are a bad influence," Amoor said. "If we get a better government, maybe things will settle down. Otherwise, one day we will go for jihad against the foreigners, and they will leave as they came." ...

Many people here associate the international forces with Karzai's government, which has increasingly lost credibility because of ... (link)
And an Afghan reporter with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting reports from Wardak province, just south of Kabul. He finds an exodus of residents who cannot convince the occupying American forces, or the Taliban, that civilians are not legitimate targets:
Crossfire Forces Wardak Farmers Off Land
Locals abandon orchards after getting caught up in fighting between US forces and insurgents.
By Habiburahman Ibrahimi in Wardak

WARDAK, Sept 23 - [...] Those whose lands are located near the American bases or Taleban checkpoints fear for their lives when they go to tend their orchards. Farms that are not destroyed by direct fighting are withering from neglect.

“The people have been caught in a trap,” Khan said bitterly. “They can be killed by the Americans or the governmental forces as well as by the Taleban.”

People are leaving en masse, he said. And it’s not just Sayed Abad district – farmers from Nerkh, Jalrez and Chak are also fleeing the fighting...

Sayed Rahman hired a labourer for his orchard five months ago. “One night he was out watering, but then the Americans started shooting at him. He ran away and now the orchard has completely dried up,” he said.

Rahman’s employee was lucky. Another labourer named Sayed Hassan lost his life when he was watering the trees. According to Alam Gul, the chairman of the local council in Sayed Abad district, there are also two other cases of villagers who were shot by American forces while they were watering their orchards at night...

In most areas of Afghanistan, the water level drops in mid-summer and farmers are allocated specific hours for irrigating their lands. They have to follow the schedule, no matter the time, so many farmers find themselves watering their orchards in the middle of the night.

But both United States forces and insurgents are apt to be jumpy when they see someone out at odd hours, and several villagers have paid the price...

According to [the spokesman of Wardak's governor] the provincial government has agreed with the Americans that if a farmer has to water his lands at night, he should carry a lantern with him at all times to identify him as a non-combatant.

But this does not always help.

“I know that a farmer in Sayed Abad was shot even though he had a lantern,” he said... (link)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

No more elections, thanks

As Western concern mounts over the delayed Afghan election results, interest among locals may be ebbing. It seems that, for a host of reasons, many Afghans see only trouble to be had in a push for a run-off election. Many feel that conflict and foreign interference are becoming increasingly more likely as the crisis wears on:

Little Afghan appetite for more voting
BBC News Online

KABUL, Sept 23 - It's hard to find Afghans with much enthusiasm for a second round presidential election run-off - or even for the drawn-out process of investigation into widespread allegations of electoral fraud.

Even supporters of the main challenger to President Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, seem sceptical at best.

"Many people are poor here," Gul Ahmad, a 53-year-old bus driver, told me.

"A second round would cost a lot of money that should be spent on other things.

"I voted for Dr Abdullah but we should accept the election result now. Everybody should compromise in the interests of the nation."

Afghans know that elections here bring violence. They can also divide the country's main ethnic groups against each other.

Taliban intimidation, together with attacks on polling stations, meant that in much of Afghanistan it took real courage to vote last month. Few want to go through it all again.

Human rights activist Ozala Ashraf Nemat said she, too, was against a second round.

"Why would a second round be any different from the first?" she said.

"Why would it be more free or more fair? Who would guarantee it?

"People feel they have already voted. If there is a second round there will be a much lower turn-out."

The result of that, she added, could be even less credible than that of the first round.

"People are fed up with the delays," she says.

"They just want to get the election over with, they have families to feed - they want to get on with their lives." ...

It is coming from outside the country. Foreign governments have to keep persuading their own populations that the effort they are putting into the war is worth it.

An election that is widely perceived to be flawed beyond redemption - stolen even - stokes scepticism in Western, not Afghan, public opinion... (link)
Orzala Ashraf, founder of Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan, was mentioned on this blog some time ago. Ashraf was a participant at an Oslo peace-building conference, the resulting paper from which reports: "It is now generally agreed that a military solution will not work in Afghanistan."

As odd as the BBC report may sound to Western ears, Afghan reporters have heard similar sentiments:
Run-off polls spurned as a conspiracy
Pajhwok Afghan News
By Hamid & Ahmad Javed

Sept 29 - A large number of people in northern Jawzjan and central Kapisa provinces supported the August 20 presidential polls but voiced aversion to a run-off election.

Participants of separate gatherings said last month's presidential and provincial council elections were transparent and called on foreign countries to stop interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs...

In Kapisa, participants of a similar gathering said taking the elections into the second round was against the interest of Afghans. Religious scholars, former mujahideen and youths took part in the public meeting... (link)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Maybe General Vance needs anger management

Some people have issues with anger. For many, their anger makes them unable to carry on healthy relationships or hold a job. A few, however, find a niche in society where their issues are afforded more tolerance, such as professional tennis. Or the military's officer corps.

Recall that Canada's main man in Afghanistan is General Vance. We saw back in June that Vance flew off the handle when a young boy threw a rock at the general as he rode by in a convoy. The boy was of course merely voicing an increasingly common sentiment, repeated since time immemorial in Afghanistan. Indeed, the general is probably in the company of Alexander the Great; no doubt that ancient general's convoys endured more than a few child-thrown ripostes.

But if Alexander was as cool as he was portrayed in that Brad Pitt movie, I suspect that, when similarly attacked, he would not have jumped off his elephant and chased the boy who threw the rock.

Recently General Vance was at it again, this time getting angry at local elders in Dand district. He demanded a meeting with them following an incident where a Canadian soldier was badly wounded by an IED in their district. Vance evidently thinks that the elders are not doing enough to stop such incidents. Not shy about sharing his feelings, Vance told the assembled elders that he sometimes feels that "I am more concerned about Dand district than you."

"There has to be a change starting now and we need to make sure the roads stay clear of IEDs," he said, referring to deadly improvised explosive devices that have repeatedly caused Canadian casualties.

"If we don't start getting some serious cooperation from the people ... then I wonder whether or not it's worth another Canadian life."

Deh-e-Bagh [i.e. the village where the IED attack took place] is the centrepiece of the Canadian counter-insurgency strategy in Kandahar province... (link)
Vance's patronizing words and negotiation-by-threat seem ill-suited to improve what are evidently already strained relations with the elders.

Monday, September 28, 2009

U.S. planning afoot

We are all waiting to see what will happen with the Afghan election: Will the recount induce a run-off election, or will the election stand? It is too early to tell just yet. The Electoral Complaints Commission, partly appointed by the UN, is recounting about 10% of the disputed votes, with final results due out in about two weeks.

Meanwhile, however, it looks like the American administration is tipping toward Karzai, according to Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post. Might this be taken by Karzai as tacit permission to carry through on electoral fraud?

U.S., Allies Vow Support for Karzai
Karen DeYoung - Washington Post

September 28 - The United States and NATO countries fighting in Afghanistan have told President Hamid Karzai's government that they expect him to remain in office for another five-year term and will work with him on an expanded campaign to turn insurgent fighters against the Taliban and other militant groups.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other NATO foreign ministers, meeting Friday in New York with their Afghan counterpart, reached "consensus" that Karzai would probably "continue to be president," whether through a runoff or as the legitimate winner of more than 50 percent of votes cast in disputed Aug. 20 elections, an Obama administration official said.

What Karzai has called "reconciliation" with insurgents who agree to lay down their arms is emerging as a major factor in administration deliberations about a way forward in Afghanistan, officials said. Along with plans to increase the size of the Afghan security forces, the U.S. military is developing programs to offer monetary and other inducements to insurgents it thinks are only loosely tied to the Taliban and other militant groups...

The U.S. force in Afghanistan is scheduled to reach 68,000 by year's end. The number of troops McChrystal has requested remains unknown, although Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who said he spoke with Obama on Saturday, called it "one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington. It's 30,000 to 40,000 troops." McCain also spoke on ABC.

[Defense Secretary] Gates has said he is still thinking about his position on a troop increase. But he appeared to disagree with the view of a number of senior administration officials, led by Vice President Biden, that the U.S. effort should move away from full-fledged counterinsurgency toward a greater emphasis on targeted attacks on insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan with drone-fired missiles and other standoff weaponry... (link)
The Biden plan which Gates disagrees with includes a reduction in US forces in Afghanistan. A piece by DeYoung last week gives some of the background:
General's Review Creates Rupture
As Military Backs Call for More Troops In Afghanistan, Civilian Advisers Balk
Karen DeYoung - Washington Post

September 22 - Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's grim assessment of the Afghanistan war has opened a divide between the military, which is pushing for an early decision to send more troops, and civilian policymakers who are increasingly doubtful of an escalating nation-building effort...

[B]efore any decision is made, some of President Obama's civilian advisers have proposed looking at other, less costly options to address his primary goal of preventing al-Qaeda from reestablishing itself in Afghanistan. Those options include a redirection of U.S. efforts - away from protecting the Afghan population and building the Afghan state and toward persuading the Taliban to stop fighting - as well as an escalation of targeted attacks against al-Qaeda itself in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Obama's public remarks on Afghanistan indicate that he has begun to rethink the counterinsurgency strategy he set in motion six months ago, even as his generals have embraced it... (link)
The Sunday Times provides some support for reports (like above) of US planning to refocus on drone strikes on targets in Pakistan:
US threatens airstrikes in Pakistan
The Sunday Times - Christina Lamb in Washington

September 27 - The United States is threatening to launch airstrikes on Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership in the Pakistani city of Quetta as frustration mounts about the ease with which they find sanctuary across the border from Afghanistan...

Senior Pakistani officials in New York revealed that the US had asked to extend the drone attacks into Quetta and the province of Baluchistan.

“It wasn’t so much a threat as an understanding that if you don’t do anything, we’ll take matters into our own hands,” said one... (link)
Of course, the Obama administration would not be the first in recent memory to use expllicit threats of violence to gets its way with Pakistan. George W. Bush's Deputy Secretary of State Dick Armitage threatened that the US would bomb Pakistan "back to the stone age" if Musharraf did not comply with US demands in 2001.