Monday, May 31, 2010

Remote control civilian killers

The New York Times' Dexter Filkins relates a glimpse of the sanitized butchery in the State-side control rooms for the drone war. It seems that drone operators watching computer screens a half a world away from Afghanistan ignored evidence that civilians were about to be killed in their attack:

Operators of Drones Are Faulted in Afghan Deaths

KABUL, May 29 (NYT) - The American military on Saturday released a scathing report on the deaths of 23 Afghan civilians, saying that “inaccurate and unprofessional” reporting by Predator drone operators helped lead to an airstrike in February on a group of innocent men, women and children. ...

The attack occurred on the morning of Feb. 21, near the village of Shahidi Hassas in Oruzgan Province ...

In this case, the military Predator operators in Nevada tracked the convoy for three and a half hours, but failed to notice any of the women who were riding along, the report said.

According to military officials in Washington and Afghanistan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters on the case, intelligence analysts who were monitoring the drone’s video feed sent computer messages twice, warning the drone operators and ground command posts that children were visible.

The report said that drone operators reported that the convoy contained only military-age men. “Information that the convoy was anything other than an attacking force was ignored or downplayed by the Predator crew,” General McHale wrote.

Immediately after the initial attack, the Kiowa helicopter’s crew spotted brightly colored clothing at the scene, and, suspecting that civilians might have been in the trucks, stopped firing.

After the attack, the Special Operations team turned over the bodies to local Afghans. Even so, General McHale said, officers on the ground failed to report the possibility of civilian casualties in a timely way. ... (link)
Note that military officers evidently attempted to avoid publicizing the civilian casualties.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Taliban flex muscle amid US troop surge

The recent Taliban-claimed attack in Kabul that claimed the life of a Canadian Forces colonel, and which the National Post says marks a "new turn" in the war, was quickly followed by a Taliban attack on nearby Bagram airbase, a major American installment. The pair of attacks has prompted some observers to declare that the Taliban's Spring offensive has begun.

Mustafa Qadri writes for the Guardian's site that the Taliban are seen as freedom fighters by many Afghan Pashtuns:

Taliban: the indistinguishable enemy

MAY 16 - They may be repressive fanatics who enslave women and give sanctuary to al-Qaida, but the US-led occupation of Afghanistan has transformed the Taliban into Pashtun freedom fighters. There are two principal reasons for this.

First, despite our best attempts, the foreign troops and the state they prop up are viewed as outsiders who have come not to liberate the country but subjugate it.

Second, so long as our presence in Afghanistan is primarily military, our relationship to ordinary Afghans will be based primarily on violence. Armies, by their very nature, must intimidate and coerce the population into accepting their authority. Despite the talk of winning hearts and minds and civilian surges, much of what we do in Afghanistan creates fear and hostility. ...

The problem for foreign powers in a foreign land is their limited interest in the welfare of the people whose lands they occupy. There can be no sustainable resolution of the current violence, however, unless and until the locals take the lead in looking for political solutions. (link)
Julian E. Barnes reporting for the Los Angeles Times discusses recent indications that the Taliban-led insurgency is not disappearing in the face of President Obama's military surge. The surge, which is expected to peak in September, is in fact the fourth troops increase which the Afghanistan war has seen. All of the previous ones have resulted in heightened violence.
Afghan Taliban getting stronger, Pentagon says
A Pentagon assessment, while expressing confidence in U.S. strategy, says the movement has flourished despite repeated assaults.

WASHINGTON, April 29 (L.A. Times) - A Pentagon report presented a sobering new assessment Wednesday of the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, saying that its abilities are expanding and its operations are increasing in sophistication, despite recent major offensives by U.S. forces in the militants' heartland.

The report, requested by Congress ... concludes that Afghan people support or are sympathetic to the insurgency in 92 of 121 districts identified by the U.S. military as key terrain for stabilizing the country. Popular support for Karzai's government is strong in only 29 of those districts, it concludes. ...

A senior Defense official who briefed reporters on the report said violence increased last year in part because of the additional U.S. troops. ...

The report also notes that insurgents' tactics are increasing in sophistication and the militants have also become more able to achieve broader strategic effects with successful attacks. ... (link)
And an Associated Press report cites the Red Cross in shedding some light on the extent of insecurity in southern Afghanistan. Note that insurgents are not the only source of insecurity, as personal and tribal rivalries also commonly break out into armed clashes. These rivalries are often fueled by the accoutrements of the US-led war and occupation of Afghanistan.
UN refugee chief: Security worse in Afghanistan, foreign staff can't access half of country

GENEVA, May 5 (AP) - Security in Afghanistan has deteriorated in recent months to the extent that foreign staff of the U.N.'s refugee agency are unable to travel to half of the country, its top official said Wednesday.

The agency has to rely on local staff or Afghan partner organizations to reach tens of thousands of displaced people and returning refugees it is trying to aid, said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.

"There was a worsening security situation in the recent past," he told reporters in Geneva. "Access of our international staff to the territory is now limited to about 50 percent."

Last month the United Nations announced it had relocated several foreign employees from the southern city of Kandahar to Kabul and told more than 200 Afghan workers to stay home after security threats.

Guterres said aid workers have become targets for violence in part because the distinction between the foreign military and humanitarian groups has been blurred. ... (link)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Is peace in Afghanistan at hand?

The Guardian's Jon Boone writes from Kabul:

Taliban leaders to be offered exile under Afghanistan peace plan

KABUL, May 5 - Top Taliban leaders could be offered exile outside Afghanistan if they agree to stop fighting the government of Hamid Karzai, a long-expected peace plan by the Afghan government will propose later this month.

The far-reaching proposals, seen by the Guardian, also call for "deradicalisation" classes for insurgents and thousands of new manual jobs created for foot soldiers who renounce violence.

The long-delayed Afghan Peace and Reintegration Programme has emerged just as Karzai prepares to go to Washington for talks with Barack Obama...

Western powers are likely to be pleased by the level of detail about the new High Level Peace Council, which will take over from a notoriously chaotic predecessor body accused of reintegrating fighters who subsequently took up arms again.

However, diplomats are worried that the government lacks the capacity to implement a programme that calls for complex activities in around 4,000 villages ...

If they agree to lay down their arms and cut ties with al-Qaida they will be entitled to an amnesty against prosecution for any crimes they may have committed. They will also be issued with a biometric "reintegration card". They will then be offered a "menu" of options designed to keep them peacefully occupied, including vocational training in such trades as carpet-weaving and tailoring. ...

By far the most controversial option is the option for former insurgents to join the Afghan army or police force. ... (link)
There is of course one thing missing from the peace plan, at least as outlined by in the Guardian. No mention is made of the Taliban's central demand, which is the removal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. However, the plan does not appear to preclude any outcome on that question, but simply side-steps it. While it does appear to block certain outcomes (e.g. power sharing by Taliban leaders), it seems to leave the status of foreign troops open. Perhaps, then, this plan is considered a starting point for negotiations which would address that more central question.

Also in the Guardian, veteran correspondent Jonathan Steele has a fascinating report focusing on women's attitudes toward negotiations with the Taliban. The article uncovers some rarely-discussed aspects of the Taliban, such as the fact that the Taliban leadership authorized women to study medicine during their reign inthe 1990's.
Afghanistan: is it time to talk to the Taliban?
Jonathan Steele - Guardian - May 4

... Perhaps most surprisingly, even among Afghanistan's small but determined group of woman professionals, the notion of making a deal with the ultra-conservative men who forced them into burkas and denied them the right to work outside the home is no longer anathema. A desperate desire for peace is trumping concern over human rights. ...

I was one of the few journalists in Kabul as the Taliban swept up from Kandahar to take control of the Afghan capital in 1996, prompting the mujahideen warlords to abandon resistance and flee. The sudden shift left everyone stunned, but the crowds that came out to watch the Taliban's pick-up trucks roaring around the streets were mainly supportive. ...

[E]ven as repression grew women could still be heard saying that their family's new-found safety from the civil war's shells and rocket-fire made it worth it.

A similar calculus of security-versus-rights is re-emerging now. Three years ago, when I was last in Kabul and the Taliban were only just starting their comeback on the battlefield, defeating them was the watchword of the day. There has been a tectonic shift in Afghanistan's public mood since then. It is prompted by a host of factors: growing disappointment with western governments and the ineffectiveness of billions of dollars in aid that seems to go nowhere except into the bank accounts of foreign consultants or local politicians; a sense that there can be no military solution to the new civil war and that outsiders are deliberately prolonging it; grief and despair over the mounting toll of civilian casualties, many caused by US airstrikes; rising nationalist anger and a feeling of humiliation; and a desire to return to an Afghan consensus in which Afghans create their own space and find their own solutions. Karzai's recent outbursts against the Americans and other foreigners are no aberration. They reflect a widely held mood.

Over two afternoons, I sit down over tea with a group of six women professionals. If anyone should be suspicious of the Taliban, it would be educated women like these. In varying degrees they all favour negotiations. Though they do not want their names used, so I will identify them by the letters A to F.

A is a Pashtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group and the one from which almost all Taliban come. She was already a refugee in Pakistan when the Taliban took over, having fled in 1993 at the height of the civil war. She only returned to Kabul after the Taliban were overthrown.

B, also a Pashtun, lived under Taliban rule. She feels the US, Pakistan and other foreigners are manipulating the war and even have the elusive Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, under their influence. I encounter this sense of the Taliban as puppets, even victims, in numerous conversations with Afghan men as well as women.

"It's an excuse for foreigners to occupy Afghanistan and stay here," says A. "That's why the war continues. It's not a war against the Taliban. It's a war for their own objectives."

B says Taliban rule had positive as well as negative sides. As a woman, you couldn't work, "but if you were walking in the street no one could kidnap you. We felt safer than now, when there are all these security guards and other people with guns who can abduct a woman at any time." ...

F, a Tajik, says she has noticed Taliban members presenting themselves as nationalists more than Islamists these days. ...

Anders Fänge, the country director of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, a large aid agency, has spent around 20 years in the country, also working as a journalist and a UN official. The Taliban should never have been portrayed in the black-and-white terms that Bush and Blair used, he says. During their period in power they often turned a blind eye to the discreet "home schools" where teachers taught girls in people's flats or family compounds. "In 1998 the Taliban governor of [the central Afghan city] Ghazni told me, 'We know you have these girls' schools, but just don't tell me about them.' A Taliban minister even approached me and said, 'I have two daughters. Can you get them in?'" he recalls.

Similar attitudes exist today, he says. In Wardak, a province close to Kabul that is heavily contested by Taliban and Nato forces, "we don't have much problem with the Taliban," says Fänge. "They accept girls' schools and women doctors. They just ask for two hours of Islamic education in schools, that teachers grow beards and not spread propaganda against the Taliban."

The difficulty comes from foreign Taliban, the Pakistanis and Arabs, or Taliban from other provinces. "At the local level, it's a patchwork, a mosaic of local commanders, who may recognise Mullah Omar as their spiritual leader but are not under his control," he adds.

Fänge's points support the case, rarely mentioned by western politicians, that Taliban conservatism differs from the rest of the country in degree, not in kind. Afghanistan is a largely rural society where the oppression of women runs deep. Even in villages populated by Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek, Afghan women are routinely banned by husbands or fathers from leaving the family compounds, and girls are kept out of school, according to Afghan women reporters.

... Arsalan Rahmani was deputy minister of higher education and later minister of Islamic affairs in the Taliban government. Four years ago Karzai invited him back to Kabul and made him a senator. He accepts the Taliban made a string of mistakes. "They didn't have good management, they were young, they had no experts, doctors, and couldn't run ministries. My boss was a boy of 25, who couldn't even sign an official letter."

He describes reports of restrictions on girls' education and women being denied the chance to work as false. "That wasn't their idea, then or now. We didn't let girls go to school because of lack of security. There was a war on. But now in Pakistan, Taliban girls go to school and university. My son is a doctor and I want him to marry a lady doctor. I've got three daughters. During the Taliban time they were in Pakistan and all studied there."

He goes on to tell an incredible story. "When I was deputy minister of higher education, people came to me and said they had girls who had finished school and wanted to study medicine. I consulted Mullah Omar and he authorised us to set up rooms in a central Kabul hospital, now called Daoud Khan hospital, where women could study to become doctors. Around 1,200 graduated, and if you track them down you'll see my signature on their degree certificates," he says.

I have no time to follow his advice but I do locate Shukria Barakzai, an independent woman MP who stayed in Afghanistan throughout the Soviet occupation, the four-year rule by mujahideen warlords, and the Taliban period. She confirms the senator's story.

Like many educated Kabulis, she criticises the warlords as strongly as the Taliban (during the warlords' clashes she lost a son and daughter). She too favours talks with the Taliban. "I changed my view three years ago when I realised Afghanistan is on its own. It's not that the international community doesn't support us. They just don't understand us. Everybody has been trying to kill the Taliban but they're still there, stronger than ever. They are part of our population. They have different ideas but as democrats we have to accept that. Every war has to end with talks and negotiations. Afghans need peace like oxygen. People want to keep their villages free of violence and suicide bombers."

Her relaxed attitude to the Taliban stems, in part, from confidence that they cannot win again. "They no longer have the support and reputation they had back then. Taliban is an ideology. It's no longer a united force," she says. ... (link)

Monday, May 3, 2010

May 29 set for Vancouver action against war

With NATO planning to launch a new offensive in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province in June, Vancouver's Coalition is organizing a day of protest to respond. Here is the notice for the May 29 action.


Stop Harper's War Now!

Join a rally and roving protest

Saturday, May 29, 1pm
Vancouver Art Gallery (North lawn, Howe & Georgia)

Organized by

Why it's important to demonstrate now

Please join us for a mass demonstration against Canada's continued involvement in the war in Afghanistan. With pressure being ramped up for an extension of Canada's military role in the NATO occupation beyond 2011, and with a massive new military offensive planned for June in Kandahar, it's more important than ever to show our opposition to this war. Organize your family, friends and community to participate in this rally now.

Real aid, not bombs

The war in Afghanistan has killed many thousands of Afghan civilians, and over 140 Canadians. The total cost to Canadian taxpayers is projected to reach $22 billion. Canada's annual military budget is over $18 billion, and the Harper government plans to pour $500 billion into the military over the next 20 years. At the same time, governments across Canada are cutting funds for education, health care, and low-income housing. It's time to bring the troops home. Military spending must be redirected towards genuine humanitarian aid for the people of Afghanistan, and urgent social priorities in Canada!

To get involved, or for more information, email