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)