Thursday, August 30, 2007

Senlis exposes CIDA's lies

The Gobe and Mail's Gloria Galloway has a short, hard-hitting summary of findings from the Senlis Council, following the release of that NGO's latest report on the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). (See her article here; the Senlis report is here in pdf.)

Background: Some months ago, the Senlis Council stated that CIDA's efforts in Afghanistan had amounted to very little on-the-ground aid being delivered in that country. In response, CIDA invited Senlis to examine all of their projects there, supplying them with a list of accomplishments.

What did the Senlis people find?

What they found this month were an overcrowded and filthy hospital in Kandahar City that could provide few services to patients; refugee camps that had gone without food aid for 1 1/2 years; a construction project that employed child labour, and a displaced population struggling to survive.

Senlis director Norine MacDonald explains: "We were not able to see any substantial impact of CIDA's work in Kandahar and, as a matter of fact, we saw many instances of the extreme suffering of the Afghan people".

One of the projects CIDA boasted about was a $350,000 grant to UNICEF to establish a maternity wing in a Kandahar hospital. But Senlis observers could find nothing of the sort. "[W]e could not find evidence of CIDA's work, or CIDA-funded work that matched the information given to us by CIDA", explained Senlis director Norine MacDonald.

"The maternity project was supposed to have been operating in a temporary tent on hospital grounds. But the tent was empty on the day the Senlis researchers arrived. And the next day it was gone... Ms. MacDonald said she was told that [the maternity project] had simply never existed."

By way of explanation, Senlis finds that CIDA has too few employees on the ground in Afghanistan (three Canadian and eight locals), while those who are there are extremely limited in their mobility, due to the dismal security situation.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Media soft-pedals Afghan government's role in opium boom

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime's latest report on opium cultivation in Afghanistan has caused a minor splash in the Western media. (Click here for full report in pdf.) The UNODC found that opium production is at a record high level, having doubled in the past two years, and that Afghanistan supplies some 92% of the world's heroin.

What isn't getting attention in this context is the fact that many members of the Afghan government are complicit in the opium and heroin trade. (Even president Karzai's brother is said by many to be a major drug kingpin.) The UNODC itself makes passing mention of this fact, noting the Karzai government's "benign tolerance of corruption" and "tacit acceptance of opium trafficking by foreign military forces" (see page vi). The UN agency's director, meanwhile, is quoted by an AP report as saying there is a "tremendous amount of collusion" between traffickers and government officials. (Of course, this tidbit doesn't make the headlines.)

For a little background, see Arthur Kent's article "Karzai and allies continue to shield heroin kingpins".

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Afghan anti-corruption official was busted for heroin in Vegas

Today Izzatullah Wasifi is the head of Afghanistan's anti-corruption authority. But in the 1980's Wasifi spent over three years in a Nevada prison after he tried to sell a pound and a half of heroin to an undercover cop in a Caesar's Palace hotel room. Wasifi plays down the incident, saying he was young and stupid. He also points out that he's in good company, as George W. Bush also has a criminal record for a drunk driving incident back in 1976. (See Guardian article here.)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Residents report 60 civilians dead or injured; US labels it Taliban propaganda

Residents of the Helmand town of Kobar in Musa Qala district have told several journalists that US air strikes in their village this past Saturday resulted in numerous deaths and injuries. From the Associated Press:

But Haji Abdul Manan Agha, the tribal leader from the area, said two homes were bombed by coalition forces late Saturday.

"In one home, 18 people attending an engagement party were killed, including women, children and men," he said.

In the second house, eight Taliban were killed, he said. More than 30 people were wounded in both strikes, Agha said.

The AP report also cites a taxi driver who drove wounded people to a nearby hospital and who also says that 18 civilians were killed. Reuters cites a hospital official in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah as confirming at least 6 injured people, including two women and a child, resulting from the incident. Radio free Europe, for its part, quotes a local who says: "Last night's bombings targeted two places. The first bombing, which hit a wedding party, killed 30 civilians and injured between 25 and 28 others. "

The US and NATO deny any wrongdoing. A US military statement says (via the Reuters report above):
"No bombs were dropped during the engagement," it said. "Twelve enemy fighters were killed in the engagement ... There were no Afghan civilian injuries reported."
Reuters also quotes the statement as saying that ground troops requiring close air support "called in aircraft to destroy additional enemy fighters". Yet the US Air Force, in their daily air power summary says that A-10 Thunderbolts "conducted successful shows of force over areas in Musa Qal' eh. " So the Air Force says that the A-10's didn't even fire, which may not jibe with the statement attributed to the US military above.

Further discrepancies surface in a New York Times report by David Rohde, who cites "American military officials" who told him that "NATO responded with airstrikes", in Rohde's words. He quotes a US military spokesperson who says “We didn’t target any buildings or any structures" - a statement which appears to offer a tacit admission that an air strike did occur.

(N.B. While the CBC ran the AP report cited above, a comprehensive electronic search of Canadian newspapers finds that not one major daily in the country reported on the incident.)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Life under Taliban rule

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting website has an article examining life in Musa Qala in Helmand province of southern Afghanistan (next door to Kandahar where Canadian Forces operate). The area has been under Taliban rule since at least February, when a truce with British forces broke down. (Reports indicate that British and Afghan troops have left it alone during this time.) Excerpts:

The Taleban swept in and established their own regime, complete with district governor, police chief and Sharia courts. But according to residents, they have learned a bit about winning hearts and minds since the fall of their government in Kabul. "If people want to watch television in their homes or listen to music, they can do as they wish. We won’t say anything to them," said a Taleban commander...

"No one tells people what to do," said one local resident, who did not want to be named. "They can shave their beard or let it grow. And no one bothers you if you are cultivating poppy..."

But it would be a mistake to assume that the Taleban have gone all soft, say residents."The Taleban are not forcing people, the way they did before," said Sher Mohammad, 20, a resident of Musa Qala.

"But still, people are changing themselves, they are going back to the way they were during the first Taleban regime. For example, instead of playing music in the shops they now play Taleban songs. Women still go out, but not too much." ...

The Taleban have allowed some privately-run schools to open. In Musa Qala, as in much of the rest of Helmand, most schools have been closed due to security concerns. Many schools have been burned, and teachers and schoolchildren have been killed. The mayhem is most often attributed to the Taleban, although they have denied the charges.

"The Taleban have encouraged us to send our children to school," said Zia ul-Haq, a resident of Musa Qala’s bazaar district. "We are very happy now, because literacy is light and without it a person is blind."At present, however, most girls are still denied an education. While the Taleban do not publicly oppose girls going to school, they will not allow co-education. Until the situation improves and separate new schools are built, girls will most likely stay at home.
(See full report here.)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Asia Times reports on negotiations with Taliban

Syed Saleem Shahzad is an internationally respected journalist and the Pakistan bureau chief for Asia Times. In two articles this past week (first here; second here) he asserts that Pakistani and Afghan officials are engaged in back-channel negotiations with Taliban envoys "at the behest of Western coalition forces."

"If there is a positive response from the Taliban, it could mean a ceasefire in the near future, at least in Kandahar and Helmand [provinces in southeastern Afghanistan]. Once this process goes on smoothly, it would guarantee regional peace," a senior Pakistani official told Asia Times Online...

Recall that this would not be the first negotiated cease-fire between Western forces and Taliban insurgents. British forces observed a cease-fire in Musa Qala (Helmand) for several months, before it ended under unclear circumstances in February. Taliban have controlled the area ever since, and there are apparently no plans for Afghan or British forces to attempt to retake the area as of yet.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

On the ground in Afghanistan (Part 14)

Mike Skinner's account of his experiences in Afghanistan (intro here).

July 3 (excerpt):

...We leave the cliffs to go to the University of Bamiyan hoping to chat with some students during their lunch break. We manage to catch a few students before they leave and hear some interesting stories. One young man, who has been studying agriculture and geology, told us he is frustrated with what he says is becoming an economic occupation of his country. He told us that one of the richest deposits of iron ore is situated close to Bamiyan. Now that this area is relatively stabilised militarily, foreign companies are competing to extract these riches. But this student points out that most Afghans are likely to receive very little in compensation or employment from the mines. The Afghan government will likely receive a paltry mining royalty that will not compensate for the environmental and social damage caused by mining. (see full entry here)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

IDPs and refugees

A UN official warns that the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Afghanistan could increase substantially in the near future if present conditions continue. "There is potential for a significant increase in the number of internally displaced persons if the conflict continues at the present pace," Reuters reports, quoting a UN envoy. Already, there are some 130,000 IDPs in the south and southeast of Afghanistan. (Last week, this blog noted that many IDPs languish and starve while Canadian troops operate nearby, their government unconcerned with the sufferings of these civilians.)

Meanwhile, the BBC reports that Afghan refugees who have been living in neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Iran are now coming home in droves, many with high expectations about security and prosperity:

At Beni Worsak, refugees who returned to homelessness and poverty in the slums of Kabul, rather than the new freedom they expected, have been given what they asked for - government land.
But that land is desert, miles from anywhere - sandwiched between the Bagram US military base and an American firing range. There are water pumps now, but many of those arriving here are living in tents while those with the skills slowly mix mud and water to make bricks and houses.
"There is nothing here, not even food - we want a school, a clinic where our children can have medicine," reports one returnee.

There is a strong possibility that many returning refugees will soon find themselves IDPs.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Civilians continue to face catastrophe

On Tuesday, US aircraft began air strikes in the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan, a mountainous region in the east of the country famous as a former hiding place for Osama bin Laden. The air strikes have been supported by US and Afghan ground troops. Reuters reports that three separate villages have been attacked while "up to 30 civilians had been killed in the fighting. The U.S. military said it had no substantiated reports of any civilian casualties". While US officials claim to be striking at Al Qaeda and Taliban targets, insurgents in the area reportedly go by the moniker of Tora Bora Mahaz (Tora Bora Military) and claim to be independent of either the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, "Two civilians were wounded in firing by the US-led Coalition troops" in Kabul on Thursday, according to the Afghan press.

It is perhaps no surprize that the above-mentioned incidents have received little coverage in the Canadian media; earlier this month civilian claims of catastrophe fell on near-deaf ears.

Bombing kills 200 civilians, say locals

Readers would be excused if they have not heard that locals in Helmand province allege that a US air strike killed some 200 civilians on August 2. From an IWPR report:

It was 3:00 pm on a Thursday afternoon in the small town of Bughni, located in the Baghran district of Helmand province. Hundreds of people has gathered for the traditional weekly market, or “mela”, where locals trade and haggle over everything from cows to carpets. Suddenly the bombs came, causing panic and reportedly killing upwards of 200 civilians and injuring many more. (link)

While US military officials claim that "there were no innocent Afghans in the surrounding area”, the photos in the above article tell a different story. And while the IWPR report was compiled in the days following the incident, the allegation of 200 dead was reported immediately in the Afghan press (see here for Pajhwok's report).

How did Canada's media report the incident? In a word, poorly.

While the August 4 editions of 5 canadian papers did carry a note about the incident (Edmonton Journal, Montreal Gazette, Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Victoria Times-Colonist), only two papers (The Times-Colonist and Gazette) mention the claims by locals of 200 killed. The Globe article mentions "dozens of wounded" (including an 8 year old boy) and adds that a provincial official reported that "several Taliban and civilians were killed". The Star also mentions "dozens of wounded", including the eight year old. The Edmonton Journal relays reports of 18 wounded. [Only Times-Colonist article available online.]

Thursday, August 16, 2007

British casualties mount while civilians continue to suffer

The London Telegraph reports that "The casualty rate among [British] front line units fighting in Afghanistan has now surpassed the average suffered by troops in the Second World War", when 11% of soldiers were either killed or seriously injured. British forces working under NATO's ISAF command are in charge of operations in Helmand province.

The UN's IRIN news agency relays sobering news on the consequences of the war on civilians: "Since April, over 1,060 civilians have died in armed conflicts between Taliban insurgents and Afghan security forces backed by international troops, according to a confidential report prepared by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior," the agency reports. They add that NATO/US forces have killed roughly the same number as have the Taliban. In response to this hellish chaos, some 80,000 Afghans have become Internally Displaced Persons, whose plight is of little concern to the Canadian government, whose forces operate in close proximity to the IDP's who often lack clean water and other basic necessities. Last fall, the Senlis Council's Norine MacDonald reported that IDP's were "starving" while Canadian soldiers stationed some 15 minutes away had no mandate to assist those desperate people. See Toronto Star, Oct 25/06 (not online).

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Afghan mission "heading for failure"

A wave of pessimism about the US/NATO project in Afghanistan has hit the news in the past few days. The New York Times ran a long piece by two veteran reporters entitled "How a 'Good War' went bad". The piece details what the authors see as a lacklustre American commitment to state building in Afghanistan - a neglect that has resulted in looming disaster. In Australia, meanwhile, The Age reports on an Australian defense expert's assessment that the Australian military's project in Uruzgan province "will most probably fail".

Small wonder then when an interview with a female MP from Helmand province features her blunt assessment:

The majority of districts [of Helmand] are in the hands of the insurgents. There is not 100 per cent rule of law in the four districts under government control. [see interview here]

Further evidence of the disastrous situation which the US/NATO finds its war in was recently revealed by the Boston Globe:
A Globe investigation found that the [US] military has used Guantanamo Bay not just for terrorists "picked up on the battlefield" -- as Bush has repeatedly asserted -- but also for uncooperative or unruly tribal chieftains, many of whom had been key supporters of the US-led invasion. [link here]

Monday, August 13, 2007

On the ground in Afghanistan (Part 13)

Mike Skinner's account of his experiences in Afghanistan (intro here).

July 12 (excerpts):

...The Hazara, of any Afghan ethnic group, may have suffered the most under the Taliban ... If there is any group of people in Afghanistan who should be thankful for the defeat of the Taliban and appreciate the current occupation, it is the Hazara people. So we will be asking people in Bamiyan if this is the case.

... I hesitate to guess at the ratio of women to men, but we might see only one woman to every seventy-five or even a hundred men in the streets. The pale blue burka is still a common sight in the streets of liberated Kabul and I have never seen a woman without at least wearing a headscarf and this will often be pulled across her face, although this may be as much to filter dust as to protect a woman's modesty. As some of the female students we have talked to have stated; a foreign occupation will not change the way people think.

...Hamayon explains that the destruction of the Buddha statues [by the Taliban regime in early 2001] was the culmination of a cultural ethnic cleansing that has been occurring for centuries. The Pashtun rulers of Afghanistan have in the past frequently ordered destruction of the many art works of Bamiyan that feature the faces of people with Hazara features. The facial features and skin-colouring of Hazara people are similar to the people further east in China and other regions of East Asia, whereas the Pashtun people share the features and colouring of the peoples of the Indian sub-continent and many Tajiks have European features. The Mughal Aurangzeb destroyed the faces of the Buddha statues in the 17th century and the destruction of the frescoes adorning the hundreds of caves that honeycomb the cliffs has been an ongoing project that was only completed in recent years. (complete entry here)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

On the ground in Afghanistan (Part 12)

Mike Skinner's account of his experiences in Afghanistan (intro here).

June 28 (excerpt):

... The ISAF convoys bully their way through the streets intimidating drivers to make way on the road. We have heard reports of the large ISAF armoured personnel carriers purposely hitting other vehicles and in some cases driving over top of cars and crushing them in order to get through traffic. Apparently the ISAF drivers are instructed not to stop and cannot stop even if they have caused injuries. One man told us about his friend who was struck by an ISAF vehicle as he rode his bicycle; he was left on the road to die... (full entry here)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

On the ground in Afghanistan (Part 11)

Mike Skinner's account of his experiences in Afghanistan (intro here).

June 27 (excerpts):

...Privatisation is an important issue for Afghanis. Like every other Western-controlled state-building project in recent years, the international financial community demands the privatisation of state enterprises in Afghanistan. The Land Titling and Economic Restructuring of Afghanistan (LTERA) estimates at least 14,550 people will be put out of work during the restructuring process. The World Bank and the German Agency for Technical Cooperation have guaranteed a "Social Safety Net" for terminated state employees, but I suspect, based on my research in Guatemala and reams of analysis by researchers elsewhere, these severance payments will not adequately compensate families...
If the experience in Afghanistan will be like elsewhere, it is highly likely that many of these state jobs will not actually disappear, but will instead be casualised during privatisation – merely transformed from steady, relatively well-paying pensionable work with benefits to become contingent casual work. I also suspect, as in other cases around the world, the official estimates of the number of workers likely to be
terminated is likely unrealistically low... (full entry here)

Friday, August 10, 2007

On the ground in Afghanistan (Part 10)

Mike Skinner's account of his experiences in Afghanistan (intro here).

June 25 (excerpts):

[Attempting to interview students at a teachers' college:] The dean was satisfied we posed no threat, but decided to assign one of his colleagues to select students to talk to us. ...

As it turned out the teacher who selected the students and then stayed to supervise the interviews was dissatisfied with his own selection. He continually advised his students not to talk about politics; nonetheless, the students did. They complained there is no library or internet connection, the buildings are falling apart and furniture and supplies are insufficient. After a few comments like this the teacher considered too political, he summoned the police to escort me off the campus. As it turned out it was worthwhile playing along with the dean's charade of academic freedom.

... In the last few years walls have been built around all the postsecondary schools and large contingents of police are posted at the gates. While these security procedures are supposedly to protect the students, some students believe it is to protect the regime from a potential student revolt

...On a number of occasions people have remarked that at least when the Soviets occupied Kabul they built urban infrastructure, homes, factories, schools and theatres. In Kabul today, the most obvious construction projects are hotels, shopping centres and huge private homes that are displays of ostentatious wealth, but do little to improve the lives of most people. These displays of wealth do, however, seem to stir resentment among the poor majority, judging by the small number of people we have talked to... (complete entry here)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

On the ground in Afghanistan (Part 9)

Mike Skinner's account of his experiences in Afghanistan (intro here).

June 24 (excerpts):

[At Kabul University, seeking students to interview:] ... we found a broad range of views among the students – a contrast with yesterday in the market where, with one exception, the men we interviewed are vehemently opposed to the Western occupation.

... We found more support for the Western occupation among students today than on our last visit to the university. Some students expressed unqualified support, regardless of the large numbers of civilian casualties...

Several women pointed out that while they have personally benefited since the occupation began, they recognise that their privileged position is not typical and most people in Afghanistan are not benefiting from the occupation... (complete piece here)

Monday, August 6, 2007

On the ground in Afghanistan (Part 8)

Mike Skinner's account of his experiences in Afghanistan (intro here).

June 23 (excerpt):

...We moved to another location in the market where we were able to conduct a number of interviews. The poor Kabulis on the street demonstrated considerable knowledge and intelligent analysis of the situation their country is in. With the exception of an English-speaking Pakistani man, none of the people we interviewed support the Western occupation. These people are extremely frustrated by what they perceive as the self-serving strategy of the Western powers. [complete entry here]

Saturday, August 4, 2007

On the ground in Afghanistan (Part 7)

Mike Skinner's account of his experiences in Afghanistan (intro here).

June 21 (excerpt):

...A UN worker who works throughout Afghanistan we met with informally states it has become evident to him and his co-workers in their travels that both the U.S. and Britain have made deals with the Taliban. He says he feels sorry for the Canadian soldiers, because they are taking the brunt of what he thinks is an American and British strategy to maintain Taliban strength by deliberately maintaining the Taliban supply lines.

However, the many anecdotal stories alleging covert relationships are unlikely to be proven for many years just as other covert operations around the world including past American support for both the Mujaheddin and the Taliban only came to light years after occurring.
... [complete entry here]

Friday, August 3, 2007

Dutch want out while Brits face WW2 casualty rate

A recent poll conducted for Radio Netherlands Worldwide finds that almost 55% of Dutch citizens (polled at home and abroad) want to see their troops pulled out of Afghanistan at the end of their current commitment next year. Dutch troops are upholding the NATO mission in Uruzgan province, next door to Kandahar, where Canadian Forces operate.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph reports that the British military operating in Helmand province (also next door to Kandahar) is suffering a casualty rate (deaths plus serious injuries) of 10%. "Senior officers fear it will ultimately pass the 11 per cent experienced by British soldiers at the height of [World War 2]." The figure represents a tenfold increase in British casualties in the past six months. British troops in Iraq, meanwhile, are enduring a higher death rate than their American counterparts, according to the article.

On the ground in Afghanistan (Part 6)

Mike Skinner's account of his experiences in Afghanistan (intro here).

June 19 (excerpt):

...Qasim [editor of a major Kabul daily newspaper] told us that he initially supported the American-led invasion, but he has since changed his mind. He told us that he resisted the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and paid the price of prison time and then exile. Dramatically in our interview, he stated that he now believes the occupation by the Western forces is worse than the Soviet occupation ever was. He believes that after almost six years of occupation, people are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of development.

While the Soviets at least ensured the people were fed and provided with medical care and education, according to Qasim, and essential infrastructure and even some non-essentials such as theatres were built – the current occupation has failed to meet minimal standards of care for the people. The arrogance and lack of respect for the Afghani people shown by the occupation forces and the impunity
of these forces, compounds the growing feelings of resentment among Afghanis, in Qasim's opinion.

After lunch, we set up our camera in a sidewalk café outside the Kabul University hoping to interview passers-by. The students and workers that stopped to talk to us offered a wide range of opinions. Some students support the occupation, but qualify their support with regret for what they consider unavoidable civilian losses. A larger number of students and workers we interviewed are opposed to the occupation. Some of these people complain that the development aid promised has never materialised. Others analyse the situation as an imperial occupation of Afghanistan aimed at controlling Afghanistan's neighbours China, Pakistan, and Iran, as well as Afghanistan's near neighbour Russia. Some people had very personal reasons for wanting to see the western forces out of Afghanistan, such as one young man who told us his friend was killed without reason by ISAF personnel.

Seeing no benefits for Afghanis from the occupation, most people we interviewed want an end to the Western occupation despite the power of the Taliban in some regions of the country. (Complete entry here.)

Thursday, August 2, 2007

On the ground in Afghanistan (Part 5)

Mike Skinner's account of his experiences in Afghanistan (intro here).

June 18 (excerpt):

... [On a stroll through Kabul:] a man greeted me in English and struck up a conversation. He told me he learned English in Pakistan where he was a refugee for fifteen years.

He has only recently returned to Kabul, but fears he may have made a mistake in coming here. He says he was astounded on his arrival by how little development the Western states have accomplished since the invasion of 2001. (Complete entry here.)