Thursday, February 28, 2008

We are biggest security threat: Oxfam report

Oxfam's new study of Afghanistan has some rather disturbing revelations. See the following, via IRIN, the UN's humanitarian news agency:

Donors should support local peace-building efforts - Oxfam

KABUL, 28 February 2008 (IRIN) - The international community and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai are five years late in implementing a meaningful community peace-building programme, and there is no time to lose for a local peace-making drive, Oxfam International said in a new report. ...

Oxfam’s research indicated that 16 percent of Afghans perceive Taliban insurgents to be the greatest threat to their security; 14 percent thought warlords were the biggest threat to security; 13 percent said criminals; and 11 percent said the international forces. (link)
While these findings are bracing enough, it is instructive to look at the table appended below, which is from the Oxfam study. (**NB: The numbers in the table refer to individual respondents, not percentages. Highlights are mine.)

As you can see, responses in the six sampled provinces varied considerably. In three of them, foreign forces were actually seen to be more dangerous than the Taliban. This included Kandahar province, where 14 respondents rated foreign forces as the greater danger versus 12 who said that of the Taliban and 16 for whom warlords was the response.

Speaking of warlords, it's worth asking how much responsibility we ourselves hold for their behaviour. We are violently defending a regime wherein warlords rule in two thirds of its territory, often as government appointees or even members of parliament. How much blame should we take for their actions? The same question applies much more directly in regard to the Afghan army and police, whom we train and arm.Looking at the graphics above, we see that if we add up the respondents who saw the greatest threat from "our side", the figures are sobering. Adding up the figures for the Afghan police and army, foreign forces and Afghan officials, we find that about a quarter of those surveyed saw these actors as the most threatening. Adding in warlords pushes it to almost 40%. This versus the Taliban's 16%.

(Promoted from comments section:)
Nick Barrowman said...

I think these are very interesting findings. It is revealing that the frequency with which international forces are perceived to be a major threat lies between the corresponding frequencies for criminals and drug traffickers.

I would, however, suggest caution in two respects. First, when the results are broken down by province, the numbers get quite small, which makes it very difficult to draw reliable conclusions.

Second, I don't think it's appropriate to sum up the numbers corresponding to different threats. Note that the report indicates that "Respondents could identify multiple causes, threats, and dispute resolution mechanisms, in response to each question". For each threat, the numbers represent "how many respondents believed this issue constituted a major threat to their security" [my italics] not the greatest threat (although the title of the figure and of the table are misleading in this respect).

In any case, what does seem clear is that if it can be said that many Afghans perceive the Taliban to be a threat, it can also be said that many Afghans perceive the international forces to be a threat.

February 29, 2008 8:24 PM

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Dissenting views on the war

First, David Orchard's bombastic rebuttal to the war party:

The New Conquistadors
Canada in Afghanistan

... The terms used to describe our occupation and ongoing war are remarkably similar to those used over a century ago by colonial powers to justify their ruthless wars of colonization. ...

Today, we are involved in a "mission" in Afghanistan to "improve" the lives of women and children, to install "democracy," to root out corruption and the drug trade.

Waging war with bombs and guns is not helping women or installing democracy. It is, however, strengthening the Afghan resistance - hence our increasingly shrill cries for more help from NATO.

The U.S. is involved in a similar "mission" in Iraq. So far, over a million Iraqis - many of them children - have died ...

The toll of dead, wounded and displaced for Afghanistan is not being published.

The deadly effects of radioactive, depleted uranium (DU) ammunition being inflicted on both countries (some originally from Saskatchewan) haven't begun to be tabulated or understood, let alone reported back to us. The idea that bombing the population will improve the lives of women and children could only come from those who have never experienced war. ...

Over the past decade, however, Canada has bombed Yugoslavia, helped overthrow Jean Bertrand Aristide's democratically elected government in Haiti, is occupying Afghanistan and now, we learn, is getting involved more deeply in the U.S. devastation of Iraq. ...

What gives the rich, powerful, white West the right to wage unending, merciless wars against small, largely non-white, Third World countries? ... Canadians, as a matter of policy, are not informed of the number or types of casualties we have inflicted.

The modern concepts of "humanitarian intervention" and the "duty to protect" which seek to override international law and national sovereignty are, in this writer's view, simply 21st century terminology for colonization. ... (link)
(N.B. The above was published in the Hill Times newspaper, Monday, February 25. See here.)

Now, turning to the latest article by Inter Press Service writer and frequent contributor to Toronto's Now, Paul Weinberg:
Some Say Afghan Mission Is in the Wrong Hands

TORONTO, Feb 26 (IPS) - As Canada's parliament debates whether to extend the country's mission in Afghanistan beyond next year's withdrawal deadline, some peace advocates and conflict resolution experts say a U.N.-led mission is the best bet to negotiate a peace settlement involving all of the major parties in the ongoing civil war.

Walter Dorn, a Canadian professor who has been a training advisor for the U.N. department of peacekeeping operations, told IPS that ... a U.N.-hosted force in southern Afghanistan could be deployed to provide security during a period of negotiations for a peace settlement. Such a force should, he said, include troops from Muslim countries so as to make the mission less of "a [U.S. President] George Bush-initiated operation that looks to locals like an invasion."

While Canadians could play a civilian administrative role, he believes their soldiers -- of whom there are currently 2,500 deployed in Afghanistan -- would have to be excluded from any potential U.N. force because their presence in a NATO combat force in the field has already tainted them as biased toward one of the sides in the civil conflict.

"In fact, U.N. forces would be more effective on the ground, because they will have more elements of impartiality. They are not the enemy, and obviously, it would require a large number of soldiers to protect themselves, but I think they would be seen as less of a target than the NATO force," he said. ...

"I find it a curious thing that there is such silence in the Manley report on the question of reconciliation," said Ernie Regehr, a senior adviser at Project Ploughshares. He and a number of others who offered insights into the panel can't fathom why the idea of negotiations with insurgents -- beyond Afghan President Hamid Karzai's few initiatives -- has so little traction.

"When the panel does mention reconciliation, what they are really promoting is a kind of amnesty, discussions with those elements in the Taliban that reject violence," he said. "But that is not a serious attempt to deal with people who have genuine grievances against the current order."

The fact is, Regehr said, one of the things that makes Taliban recruitment in the south possible is that "there is not a social stigma against joining the rebels, because the feeling is that the government is not theirs in any event."

He and his colleagues say the people governing Afghanistan largely represent the Northern Alliance ...

[Peggy Mason, a former Canadian ambassador for disarmament:] "This is the opposite of where we should be going," Mason responded. "NATO cannot do this. NATO commanders who really understand know that the answer is to get NATO back into the U.N. blue helmet game because an integrated mission is the only way you can get the military strategy subordinated to the political one." (link)

Torturing, killing civilians and other war crimes

The UK's Stop the War Coalition recently held a press conference featuring a former British special forces soldier who blew the whistle on US-UK renditions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The former soldier says such acts are illegal:

Former SAS man condemns British role in torture tactics

February 26 2008

Hundreds of Iraqis and Afghans captured by British and American special forces were rendered to prisons where they faced torture, a former SAS soldier said yesterday. ...

[Ben] Griffin, 29, left the British army last year after three months in Baghdad, saying he disagreed with the "illegal" tactics of US troops. ...

Referring to the government's admission last week that two US rendition flights containing terror suspects had landed at the British territory of Diego Garcia, Griffin said the use of British territory and airspace "pales into insignificance in light of the fact that it has been British soldiers detaining the victims of extraordinary rendition in the first place". ... (Link to Guardian piece.)
In a related matter, the New York Times Magazine recently ran a major article by Elizabeth Rubin detailing her stint embedded with US soldiers in Kunar province, Afghanistan. The soldiers were attempting to 'pacify' the Korangal Valley (see photo), a place where the targeting of civilians is old news, as I wrote last year:
According to ABC News, US military units there employed "a new tactic - sanctions" which are aimed at residents of the Korangal Valley, who are open supporters of the insurgency. These locals, mostly subsistence farmers, endured a blockade on essential items such as sugar, tea and cooking oil. But the blockade of the Korangal wasn't limited to staple goods. A Himalayan Times correspondent spoke to one local who explained their predicament: "[W]e cannot even go to the hospital as the forces have blocked the road to the south of the valley. We cannot move our lumber which is our main source of sustenance".

Captain Hansen, commander of the American unit involved, explained the brutal logic of the blockade: "They are going to need all those things that make their lives just a little bit better. We are providing them with the hard decision. Either you work with the government of Afghanistan or you have the effects of not working with them. It's in their court." ...

Article 33 of the Fourth [Geneva] Convention (1949) says, in part: "No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed." ... (link)
(See this Google Earth image of the region.)

Returning to Rubin's NYT piece, she reports that about half of the insurgents in the Korangal are not outside invaders but local men, while "the Korengal had no Afghan police or district leaders for the Americans to work with. The Afghan government, and Afghans down the valley, seemed to have washed their hands of the Korengalis." Keep this, and what follows below, in mind when you read American military pronouncements of "steady progress in Eastern Afghanistan throughout the year."
The New York Times
February 24, 2008 Sunday

Battle Company Is Out There

... As [US Captain] Kearney put it to me one day at the [Korangal Outpost], the Korengal is like a tough Los Angeles neighborhood, ''and we're the L.A.P.D. kicking in the door, arresting guys, demanding information about the gangs, and slowly the people say, 'No, we don't know anything, because that guy in the gang, he's with my sister, and that other guy, he's my uncle's cousin.' Now we've angered them for so many years that they've decided: 'I'm gonna stick with the A.C.M.' '' -- anticoalition militants -- '' 'who are my brothers and I'm not gonna rat them out.' ''
Rubin hints at group insubordination among the American troops:
Kearney's soldiers told me they'd been spooked by the weird behavior of their predecessors last May: near the end of their tour, many would sit alone on the fire base talking to themselves. Privates disobeyed their sergeants, and squad leaders refused to step outside the wire to show the new boys the terrain. No one wanted to be shot in the last days of his tour.
A shocking picture of the heat of battle after "the Korengalis ambushed" the Americans:
Kearney could see a woman and child in the house. ''We saw people moving weapons around,'' Kearney told me. ''I tried everything. I fired mortars to the back side to get the kids to run out the front. I shot to the left, to the right. The Apache'' -- an attack helicopter -- ''got shot at and left. I kept asking for a bomb drop, but no one wanted to sign off on the collateral damage of dropping a bomb on a house.'' Finally, he said, ''We shot a javelin and a tow'' -- both armor-piercing missiles. ''I didn't get shot at from there for two months,'' Kearney said. ''I ended up killing that woman and that kid.'' ...
On the self-defeating nature of this style of counterinsurgency:
As he put it, ''The only reason anyone's listening to me in this valley right now is 'cause I'm dropping bombs on them.'' Still, he wasn't going to let himself shoot at houses every time his unit took fire: ''I'd just create more people that hate me.'' ...

By now, seven years of air strikes and civilian casualties, humiliating house searches and arbitrary detentions have pushed many families and tribes to revenge. The Americans then see every Afghan in those pockets of recalcitrance as an enemy. ...
Rubin points out the frightening toll inflicted on the soldiers themselves:
One full-moon night I was sitting outside a sandbag-reinforced hut with Kearney when a young sergeant stepped out hauling the garbage. ... ''I hate this country!'' he shouted. Then he smiled and walked back into the hut. ''He's on medication,'' Kearney said quietly to me.

Then another soldier walked by and shouted, ''Hey, I'm with you, sir!'' and Kearney said to me, ''Prozac. Serious P.T.S.D. from last tour.'' Another one popped out of the HQ cursing and muttering. ''Medicated,'' Kearney said. ''Last tour, if you didn't give him information, he'd burn down your house. He killed so many people. He's checked out.''

As I went to get some hot chocolate in the dining tent, the peaceful night was shattered by mortars, rockets and machine-gun fire banging and bursting around us. It was a coordinated attack on all the fire bases. It didn't take long to understand why so many soldiers were taking antidepressants. The soldiers were on a 15-month tour that included just 18 days off. Many of them were ''stop-lossed,'' meaning their contracts were extended because the army is stretched so thin. You are not allowed to refuse these extensions. ...
The hi-tech science of close air support (CAS):
The soldiers back at [Korangal Outpost] were radioing in that the drone was tracking 10 men near the tree line. Yarnell was picking up insurgent radio traffic. ''They're talking about getting ready to hit us,'' someone said. The pilot could see five men, one entering a house, then, no, some were in the trees, some inside, and then, multiple houses. He wanted confirmation -- were all these targets hostile? Did Kearney have any collateral-damage concerns? Cursing, Kearney told them to engage the men outside but not to hit the house. The pilots radioed back that men had just run inside. No doubt there would be a family. Caroon reminded Kearney that Slasher had only enough fuel to stay in position for 10 more minutes.

''What do you want to do, sir?'' Caroon asked him.

Kearney radioed his soldiers back at the KOP to contact his boss, Lt. Col. Bill Ostlund. Ostlund, a Nebraska social scientist who could switch effortlessly from aggressive bomber to political negotiator talking family values with Afghan tribal elders, was in the crowded tactical-operations room at Camp Blessing [in Kunar; see photo here] watching the drone's video feed and getting the same intelligence. He signed off on collateral damage, and Kearney turned to Caroon: ''Take out the compound. And anyone that comes out.'' ...

Finally, around dawn, a weary Kearney, succumbing to gallows humor, adrenaline and exhaustion, said: ''O.K., I've done my killing for the week. I'm ready to go home.''

Kearney estimated that they killed about 20 people, adding: ''I'm not gonna lie. Some are probably civilians.'' ...

Within an hour or so, Lt. Matt Piosa, an earnest, 24-year-old West Point grad, and his patrol were in Yaka China. They radioed that the village elders were asking to bury their dead. They'd also collected wounded civilians. The tally was bad -- 5 killed and 11 wounded, all of them women, girls and boys.
It just gets worse:
[Sergeant] Sandifer was questioning why they were sticking it out in the Korengal when the people so clearly hated them. ... He worried that the Korengal was going to push them off the deep end. In his imagination it had already happened. One day an Afghan visited their fire base, Sandifer told me. ''I was staring at him, on the verge of picking up my weapon to shoot him,'' he said. ''I know right from wrong, but even if I did shoot him everyone at the fire base would have been O.K. We're all to the point of 'Lord of the Flies.' '' And they still had 10 months to go in the Korengal.

I wondered how Kearney was going to win back his own guys, let alone win over the Korengalis. Just before I left, Kearney told me his biggest struggle would be holding his guys in check. ''I've got too many geeking out, wanting to go off the deep end and kill people,'' he said. One of his lieutenants wanted to shoot every Afghan in the face. Kearney shook his head. He wished he could buy 20 goats and let the boys beat and burn them and let loose their rage. ...
Rubin ends with some remarks from the commander that remind us of one of the wellsprings of an imperialist mindset:
''I lost seven dudes here,''he told me. ''It's too much blood. I don't want to give this up. This is mine.'' (link)

McQuaig vs. Hillier

In her column in the Toronto Star, Linda McQuaig responds to General Hilliers recent assertions that the Taliban are exploiting the debate over the war in Canada and mounting attacks to sway Canadian opinion:

... Strangely, we're supposed to believe that the Taliban are incited to violence by our wavering, rather than by our military presence in their country. Indeed, we're supposed to believe that Afghans – renowned for centuries for their fierce resistance to foreign occupiers – would somehow lose their resolve, if only we'd forgo the Canadian parliamentary debate.

Hillier's attempt to stifle debate seemed like a textbook example of what former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower had in mind when, in his famous parting address, he warned that the "unwarranted influence" of a military-industrial complex risked endangering the democratic process. ... (link)
(See earlier blog posts on McQuaig's writings here, here and here.)

Media ignore CTV reporter in US jail

You would think that the news of a journalist employed by CTV (yes, that CTV) being held without charges by US authorities might be of interest to Canadian media consumers. You would think that the sexiness of the storyline - lawyers working around the clock for three months while nobody breathes a word until finally unveiled last week - would peak the interest of a few editors. And you'd think the pressure of campaigns by two press freedom organizations (RSF and CPJ) would help the story leap onto the front page.

A journalist working for a Canadian firm, imprisoned without rights, by our leading ally and neighbor, while rights organizations scream... No, no story there!

Try as I might, I can only find two Canadian newspapers who carried the story:

Toronto Star, Feb 20/08, pg A16 (454 words)

Ottawa Citizen, Feb 20/08, pg A8 (193 words)

Interestingly, the Globe and Mail, which is owned by the same company as CTV, appears not to have mentioned the imprisoned man at all.

The latest on Jawed Ahmad:

Pentagon should disclose evidence, charges against Afghan journalist

New York, February 26, 2008—U.S. authorities should disclose evidence and specify charges against Afghan journalist Jawed Ahmad, who has been held by the military since late October, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. In a February 22 letter to CPJ, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Ahmad had been designated an “unlawful enemy combatant” but did not disclose the allegations or evidence against the journalist. ...

“Although the Pentagon has made a very serious assertion, it has yet to disclose any supporting evidence. And despite holding Jawed Ahmad for four months, authorities have yet to charge him with a crime,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. ... (link)
Oops, I guess I spoke too soon. After I blogged on this, the Globe and Mail did finally take note, as did the National Post and several Canadian dailies. However, the only paper which gave it the front page prominence it so deserves was the Whitehorse Star:
Globe and Mail. Feb 28. p A14
St. John Telegraph-Journal. Feb 2. p A7
National Post. Feb 28. p A5
Toronto Star. Feb 28. p. A4 (Column by Olivia Ward)
Alaska Highway News (Fort St. John). Feb 27. p A1
Whitehorse Star. Feb 27. p 16
(Source: Proquest full-text electronic search.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The spirit of radio

Vancouver's CFRO co-operative radio station has, for a few decades, filled a badly needed role in our city. The station's Redeye program, a long-running radical current affairs show, recently interviewed me on the situation in Afghanistan, the Manley report, the possibility of a war against Pakistan and more.

Click the link below to hear that interview with yours truly.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Why NATO should get out of Afghanistan

Internationally syndicated columnist Jonathan Power argues that the US/NATO war in Afghanistan has little chance of success:

The only thing that could possibly subdue [Afghan insurgents] would be a massive number of NATO boots on the ground, prepared to engage in close-up fighting, but to find numbers of this order would mean switching the full force of America’s military might from Iraq to Afghanistan and persuading America’s allies to beef up their contributions to levels that would triple or quadruple present deployments. ...

A few thousand more troops, a better coordinated aid program, an imposed Western czar, a beefed-up local police force — none of these will work as long as Afghanistan has its poppies and mountains and corruption continues to seep into almost every pore of society. If this were doable it would have been done by now.

The stakes, we all know, are high because the Taleban with their tribal network spanning across a ridiculously placed border dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan give refuge to Al-Qaeda. Getting rid of Al-Qaeda must be a priority on the world’s common agenda. But this is not the way to do it. And economically and socially developing Afghanistan can only be done when the populace face down their local persecutors and oppressors and demand it.

So how to deal with Al-Qaeda? The mistakes date from the immediate reaction to 9/11. Afghanistan should never have been bombed. That immediately marked America and Britain as the enemy in the minds of a good proportion of the Afghans.

But that mistake was part of a larger mistake — the determination to go to war with modern military means against Al-Qaeda — a grouping of a few hundred at that time — even if it meant putting at mortal risk the populations of whole countries, Afghanistan, Iraq and, if Barack Obama continues his threat, perhaps Pakistan. ...

It is probably still not too late to change tactics 180 degrees, although the job will be much harder than it would have been six years ago. Who has the courage to stand up and say this, or are European and Canadian leaders just going to scuttle away from the mess one by one, leaving the Americans to stew in their juice? (link)
A while back, syndicated columnist Gwynne Dyer wrote on the Afghan war (see blog entry here.). His take was similar to Power's, yet he predicted that the Taliban would not return to power and that there would not be a civil war:
... after the foreigners are gone, the Afghans will make the traditional inter-ethnic deals and something like peace will return. ...

Will the Taliban come back to power? No, only to a share of power, and only to the extent that they can still command the loyalty of the Pashtuns once it is no longer a question of resistance to foreigners. ... (link to Dyer piece)

Canadian Forces overstretched

First, see this map of the districts of Kandahar province. (Note that Zhari district isn't shown on the map - it has since been carved out of the northern bit of Panjwai.) Roughly speaking, Canadian operations have largely been in Panjwai district, Kandahar and Spin Boldak, with Shah Wali Kot and Maywand also getting some attention.

Graeme Smith, as usual, is skeptical of the Canadian Forces' ability to operate in such a large area. He talks to a commander who speculates on what kind of numbers might be required for the job:

"Easily you could have a brigade of 5,000 Canadians here just for Zhari, Panjwai, Arghandab, Shah Wali Kot and Khakrez, because to be honest, we haven't been to a few places in Panjwai yet," he said.

Military officials have spoken more bluntly about their lack of numbers recently, in private conversations and even publicly at meetings with Afghans.

Tribal elders from the mountainous district of Khakrez complained last week that NATO has failed to prevent the Taliban from running amok in the northern part of the province.

Nodding his head gravely, a Canadian officer told the elders they're right.

"We don't have enough troops," Colonel Christian Juneau said.
The article goes on to detail the extent of Taliban influence and operations, while "overstretched Canadian forces have drawn back into core districts."
The military says Taliban ambushes have decreased in four of 17 districts in Kandahar city, the key zone where the Canadians focused their operations during the latest rotation of troops. But the military has so far refused to give statistics for all types of insurgent activity, including ambushes, and has kept the numbers for the entire province a secret.

A hint of the military's view of the province came during an interview this week with Lieutenant-Colonel Gilles Linteau, commander of the Joint Provincial Co-ordination Centre, a liaison hub between security forces.

"The number of incidents has doubled, if not more, in Kandahar," he told The Globe and Mail, suggesting that this estimate applies to the period since September of 2006. ...

An average increase in attacks across the province would suggest a markedly worse situation in the villages and suburbs, because most analysts agree that downtown Kandahar enjoyed some relief in 2007 from the onslaught of insurgent strikes that terrorized urban areas in the previous year.

Anecdotes from beyond the city limits seem to confirm the trend; soon after Canadian and Afghan officials climbed out of their helicopters and crunched across the snow to the chilly cement building that serves as the Khakrez administrative centre, they heard a litany of bad news.

"As soon as the snow leaves the ground, the Taliban will come and force people to join them," said Shah Wali, a member of the Achakzai tribe, which usually supports the government. "What should we do?" ...

"Six years ago we had only a few Taliban supporters in Khakrez," [said Malim Akbar Khan Khakrezwal, a former intelligence chief for Kandahar and now a leading tribal elder]. "Now we have a great number of them." ...

No regular troops have returned to set up outposts in the area [since the PPCLI in spring of 2006]. In the meantime, the Taliban are believed to have gained stronger influence in the district, and the local inhabitants seem to have grown deeply skeptical about the government. ...

Even more than 5,000 NATO troops may be required for the province, Major Moffet said, because beyond the troops needed for the core districts, NATO would also require forces to intercept the Taliban's supply routes in outlying areas. ... (link)
The commander's estimate of 5,000 might itself be rather low, at least if top NATO general Dan MacNeill is to be believed. He acknowledged a while back that US counterinsurgency doctrine calls for some 400,000 troops in Afghanistan. Currently there are about 50,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. The 400,000 figure would mean well over 20,000 troops for Kandahar.

Women's lives worse than ever: 87% abused

The Independent reports on the release of a new study by NGO Womankind called "Afghan Women and Girls Seven Years On". (See Womankind's "Five Years On" report here; so far the new report doesn't seem to be online.)

Women's lives worse than ever

By Terri Judd

... Six years after the US and Britain "freed" Afghan women from the oppressive Taliban regime, a new report proves that life is just as bad for most, and worse in some cases.

Projects started in the optimistic days of 2002 have begun to wane as the UK and its Nato allies fail to treat women's rights as a priority, workers in the country insist.

The statistics in the report from Womankind, Afghan Women and Girls Seven Years On, make shocking reading. Violent attacks against females, usually domestic, are at epidemic proportions with 87 per cent of females complaining of such abuse – half of it sexual. More than 60 per cent of marriages are forced.

Despite a new law banning the practice, 57 per cent of brides are under the age of 16. The illiteracy rate among women is 88 per cent with just 5 per cent of girls attending secondary school.

Maternal mortality rates – one in nine women dies in childbirth – are the highest in the world alongside Sierra Leone. And 30 years of conflict have left more than one million widows with no enforceable rights, left to beg on the streets alongside an increasing number of orphans. Afghanistan is the only country in the world with a higher suicide rate among women than men.

Campaigners say these are nationwide figures but in war-torn provinces, such as Helmand, the British area of responsibility, oppression is often worse, though the dangers make it impossible for them to monitor it accurately. ...

Womankind is calling for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which says women in conflict zones should be offered protection and recognition of their role in the peace process as well as their human rights ... (link)
Last week, we blogged on a report by IPRIO on women and peacebuilding in Afghanistan. The report says that "the real threats to women" are conservative forces "both inside and outside Parliament" who "reduce the space for dialogue and nonviolent approaches" to conflict resolution (see blog entry here).

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Hostility to foreign presence 'growing'

British journalist David Jones writes about his recent trip to Afghanistan, where things were much changed since his last visit. He notes that support for what many Afghans are now calling an "occupation" is dwindling. Many observers have said similar things.

In a similar vein, Kandahari tribal leaders recently gathered and signaled a withdrawal of their support for the Karzai government. "The foreign soldiers aren't helping, they're behaving like an occupying force," said one elder to the Globe and Mail (see blog entry here). And such feelings are by no means restricted to rural, or even southern, areas of Afghanistan, as we saw when a government-run newspaper in Kabul recently called for US and NATO troops to set a pull-out date (see blog here).

A chilling dispatch from Afghanistan: It's a war that CAN'T be won

Daily Mail
By David Jones

[While watching a dog-fight] I began to wonder what sort of people our soldiers were fighting and dying for.

Indeed, it even fleetingly occurred to me that Afghan society might not have been a mite more civilised under the tyrannical Taliban, who banned dog-fighting and other forms of traditional entertainment as "anti-Islamic". ...

I first set foot in this haunting, benighted country five years ago this month. ...

On returning this month, I hoped to find signs that a prosperous, secure, egalitarian country was starting to take shape. Yet, depressingly, I have discovered an Afghanistan that is, in many ways, darker, more bitterly divided - and certainly far more dangerous - than the place I remember.

An Afghanistan where gratitude towards the international community has faded, and a growing number of ordinary people are hostile to our presence - even though our departure would, inevitably, see the Taliban return to power. ...

[Jones spoke with] Ehsan Zahine, director of Afghanistan's Tribal Liaison Office. "The Taliban have now set up alternative governments in almost every part of the country," he told me.

"In many places, what they say counts for more than the official administration. They are winning people over with a clever mixture of persuasion and intimidation." ...

Yet there is a new pragmatism to the Taliban's tactics. To win support in more liberal areas, they allow some schools to be used - so long as they adopt a fundamentalist curriculum. ...

The coalition strives gamely to counter this propaganda offensive, of course, yet it hardly helps when they hand out free Barbie Dolls wearing skimpy mini-skirts; one of several faux-pas which have caused grave offence.

Apparently forgetting the night-time raids by the Vice and Virtue Police and the summarily chopped-off limbs, some Afghan men told me they were actually happier under the Taliban.

They preferred it when their women were compelled to wear burkas and remain confined to the home, they said; which explains why it remains rare to see a female face in public outside the big cities.

Another common complaint among ordinary Afghans is that they feel like second-class citizens in an "occupied" country.

Under the latest indignity, civilian vehicles are not permitted anywhere near the ubiquitous International Security Assistance Force convoys, in case they might be suicide bombers. Drivers must pull over to the roadside and wait for them to pass.

I understood how demeaning - and scary - this can feel ...

All this said, isn't it a bit rich for the Afghans to criticise the foreign troops who are protecting them with their lives, when their own government includes a deeply corrupt rabble of reconstructed warlords and brigands? (link)

Tories and Grits hardly differ

On the Liberal and Conservative motions on the Afghanistan war:

National Post
February 22, 2008

Afghan plan carved in paper

Don Martin

... Last week's four-page Liberal motion on conditionally extending the Afghanistan mission was countered by a four-page Conservative motion released yesterday that would pass for a photocopy.

There is no measure of mission success or failure in either motion. Only a firm 2011 date for a retreat to somewhere else is up for discussion. ...

At most there are three ... variances of little significance.
- Soldiers will down weapons and start packing on either Feb. 1, 2011 (Liberals) or Canada Day that year (Conservatives).
- The six-month process of knocking down tents and loading up equipment will be completed and Canada's spot on the Kandahar Air Field rendered an empty patch of dirt and gravel by either July (Liberals) or December, 2011 (Conservatives).
- The troops and their equipment will either be relocated north into safer provinces or out of the country entirely by the end of 2011. ...

Yet you can parse every syllable in the motion and it's clear nothing will change on the ground for the next three years. ...

What makes both motions worth less than the paper they're printed on is that four years represents an eternity in military deployments and minority government lifespans. By the time Canada starts its sixth year in Kandahar in 2011, one of the two national parties could have a majority mandate for the prime minister to do as he or she damn well pleases in military matters.

If that person is still Stephen Harper, we will not be leaving on schedule in 2011.

This Prime Minister clearly relishes being a middle-power leader with the capacity to unleash "peace-enforcement missions" at will -- a country no longer ignored as the nation of blue helmets with binoculars for weaponry. ... (link)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Our extremist allies

Save Pervez update: Recall that Pervez Kambakhsh, a 23 year-old journalism student in northern Afghanistan, has been sentenced to death for the apparent crime of downloading and distributing writings deemed blasphemous by local religious officials. Recall also that knowledgable observers allege that Pervez was targeted in order to silence his brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, who is himself a journalist who has told some uncomfortable truths about Afghanistan. Recall further that the province's deputy prosecutor threatened: "I will arrest any journalist trying to support him after this".

Recently, an Afghan supreme court judge has declared that Pervez' case, if upheld by an appeals court, will be heard by the Supreme Court in Kabul. This makes a reversal of the verdict more likely, say oberservers. (In addition, President Karzai could also intervene and grant a pardon.) There are, however, some other more ominous signs. The LA Times reports:

Afghan student's defenders may doom him
Los Angeles Times 02/19/2008
Bruce Wallace

An international outcry is brewing on behalf of the 23-year-old, condemned to death on blasphemy laws. But protests may increase religious conservatives' resolve to assert their independence. ...

[M]any Afghans also say the mounting international pressure against the death sentence is creating a populist backlash against foreign meddling in the country's justice system. That hostility complicates matters for Karzai, whose room to maneuver is already limited by his deepening unpopularity and the perception that he is a U.S. puppet. ...

The condemned man's brother said pressure on Karzai from foreign governments can be helpful if it remains low-key.

Letters to Karzai and the Supreme Court are fine, Ibrahimi said. But a drumbeat of foreign criticism could further sour public opinion.

"Afghans are an emotional people, and they take decisions emotionally," he said."If there is pressure from outside, and people see it on TV, it will cause a big reaction by fundamentalist groups. Fundamentalist groups want to make an example of this case. They want to shock young Afghans."

The mullahs can turn people against my brother," he said. (link)

Now, compare and contrast the dangers of provoking extremist members of the Afghan government we are supporting with similar dangers regarding our neighbour to the south. The Committee to Protect Journalists recently issued a notice about an Afghan employee of Canadian Television (CTV):

Afghan journalist detained at Bagram Air Base

New York, February 18, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is greatly concerned by the detention of Canadian Television (CTV) journalist Jawed Ahmad by U.S. military forces at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, for almost three months without charge. ...

Siddique [Ahmad's brother] told CPJ that Ahmad said he was called to meet his CTV colleagues at Kandahar airport and then arrested. It is unclear who called him. CTV confirmed that [CTV correspondent Paul] Workman was in Kandahar at the time, but aid that the correspondent had not planned to meet with Ahmad on that day. Ahmad told Siddique that he was being held because the U.S. military believed he had contacts with local Taliban leaders and was in possession of a video of Taliban materials, Siddique said. ...

So, why has this incident only now come to light, after three months in US detention? The Toronto Star has the revealing answer:

[CTV president Robert Hurst] said CTV lawyers and officials have been working daily on Ahmad's case, trying to quietly work back-channel sources rather than cause a major fuss. But the inability to further the case of their Kandahar-based journalist four months after his arrest prompted the decision to go public yesterday in conjunction with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. ... (link)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Tribal heads decry government and 'occupying' foreigners

The Globe and Mail's Graeme Smith, a competent journalist who has spent long assignments in Afghanistan over the past few years, has an especially keen eye for tribal politics. (His eye for insurgent politics. . . not so much.) His recent report reveals that key Pashtun tribal leaders are beginning to express opposition to the NATO/US war and occupation of Afghanistan as well as the Karzai regime itself:

Afghan tribes plan manifesto of dissent

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — A groundswell of anger over the rising violence in Kandahar has prompted the major tribes to consider a manifesto expressing a lack of confidence in the Afghan government, even as another explosion killed at least 38 people. ...

An unusual gathering of 27 powerful tribal elders is scheduled tomorrow in Kandahar city to approve a seven-point manifesto, which starts with a blunt declaration: "The problems are now so great, it's impossible for the government to control them," according to the draft text. "The people need to stand up." ...

"The foreign soldiers aren't helping, they're behaving like an occupying force," said Haji Mohammed Essa, Kandahar's former attorney-general and a leading organizer of the tribal gathering.

"You kicked out a government that called itself a legitimate government, but you didn't bring any better government." ...
Notably, President Karzai's brothers sit on the 27-member elders' council:
Ahmed Wali Karzai, who has served for years as chairman of the provincial council, said it's too early to draw conclusions from the tribal process because the draft manifesto hasn't yet been approved.

Asked whether the gathering of elders represents a challenge to his government's authority, he said: "No, no, not at all."

Mr. Karzai and his older brother Qayum Karzai sit on the council of 27 elders, and some observers say it's possible they may still exert a moderating influence on the group, possibly tempering the manifesto's language so that it's less critical of the government led by their brother, President Hamid Karzai. ...

The manifesto also endorses negotiations with "all sides" of the conflict, supporting the popular idea that Taliban fighters must be drawn into talks. ...

The events also appeared to strain relations between the Canadians and their local allies, as Kandahar Governor Asadullah Khalid told reporters that he warned the Canadians to stay away from the Pakistani border areas because of a specific threat of attack. ...
Smith also relays an estimate on the increase in insurgent attacks:
Insurgent attacks in Afghanistan have climbed 64 per cent in the past year, from about 4,500 incidents in 2006 to about 7,400 in 2007, according to NATO statistics released yesterday in response to a query from The Globe and Mail.
-- yet defence minister Peter McKay has his own spin on the the rise in violence:
"I wouldn't describe it as an escalation," Mr. MacKay said. "I would describe it as another example of, sadly, how determined the Taliban insurgents continue to be." (link)
As noted above, local law enforcement officials report that they warned Canadian forces about a threatened attack. The National Post has more:

... In a surprise statement, the governor of Kandahar province said the bombing could have been avoided had Canadian soldiers heeded his warnings.

Kandahar Gov. Asadullah Khalid told reporters he had tried to discourage Canadian officers from sending their troops on patrol in Spin Boldak.

Mr. Khalid said he knew of a suicide bomber in the border area, and that he had passed his information to Canadian and NATO forces as early as Sunday. He said he repeated his warning to them five times but was ignored.

"We regularly receive threat warnings," said Lt.-Cmdr. Babinsky, when asked about the governor's statements. "And obviously we go where we want to, when we want to, in our area of operation. We obviously take notice of the warnings but our aim is to operate freely within our area of operation, despite threats." ...

The Post article also relates some scathing criticism of the NATO/US mission:
There is talk that the governor is feeling pressure to finally resolve the lack of security in Kandahar, and that he is unhappy with some aspects of Canada's military mission. Specifically, he is said to believe that Canadian and coalition soldiers sometimes operate without putting the safety of Afghans first.
Recall that Governor Khalid was recently accused of torturing prisoners. Most notworthy, then is this passage from an article explaining how Governor Khalid paraded ten suspects in the recent string of suicide bombings before the media:
Aside from one sporting what seemed like a freshly swollen and blackened eye, none of the detainees appeared to have suffered any injury. (link)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Peacebuilidng and the women of Afghanistan

Last November, the International Peace Research Institute of Oslo held a conference entitled "Peacebuilding in Afghanistan: How To Reach the Women". Now, they've released the proceedings as a report.

The conference participants included several highly experienced and respected figures, including: Ms. Meryem Aslan, the director of the UN's Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in Afghanistan; Ms. Shukria Barakzai, a successful journalist and publisher and member of the Afghan parliament who helped write the Afghan constitution; Ms. Orzala Ashraf, member of the Executive Board of the Afghan Women's Network and founder of Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan, a respected Afghan NGO; as well as Mohammed Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan’s minister of education.

In contrast to various self-congratulatory reports by Western government officials, the IPRIO report has a cautious tone, as seen in the paper's introduction: "[W]hile the post-2001 situation had presented the international community with an exceptional opportunity to improve the situation of Afghan women, it is questionable whether subsequent efforts to include women and their needs in peace, security and development processes within the country have been sufficient."

The report makes some intriguing observations:

... Post 2001, warlords, drug lords and insurgent groups continue to be influential in defining the political, economic and social sphere in Afghanistan. Conservative forces remain strong, both inside and outside the parliament. These actors reduce the space for dialogue and nonviolent approaches. They suppress the voices of groups and subcultures open to gender equality and women’s rights, and thus can be seen as the real threats to women in Afghanistan.

As a result, there is great concern that the ongoing process of state building will be derailed, and that the position of women in Afghanistan will suffer a ‘backlash’. Without a comprehensive peace process, there will be no space for more progressive subcultures to take root. ...

... The rapidly deteriorating security situation has also convinced many Afghan civil society actors that negotiations with the Taliban represent the only way towards a peaceful solution to the conflict. Nevertheless, they warn that such negotiations should not be allowed to undermine the constitution and women’s rights. This is a tremendous challenge.

It is now generally agreed that a military solution will not work in Afghanistan. The appropriate response needs to be based on a combination of political, economic, developmental and humanitarian means. ... (Link to pdf of report.)
In a related matter, recall that even some Afghan government elites appear to be fed up with foreigners allowing them to do stuff all the time, as evidenced by the government-run newspaper Anis. As we relayed on Saturday, the paper took the occasion of President Karzai's trip abroad to urge, reportedly for the first time, that foreign forces set a date for withdrawal, as our "long-term presence" in their country "is in no way defensible."

It is at least entertaining to compare Anis' stance with commentary in Canada. The Liberals' Stephane Dion has lately elicited mockery in some quarters of the mainstream press for his recent efforts to get the governing Conservatives to agree to a date for the withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan. (2011 looks to be the date he's shooting for.) The Toronto Star's Rosie DiManno excoriates Dion as "stupid" for his plan to "giv[e] the Taliban an exact withdrawal date." (link)

It reminds one of attacks on Jack Layton, with elite media commentators calling him "Taliban Jack" for daring to suggest negotiations with the Taliban. Nobody made any apologies when diplomats and other specialists dismissed such twaddle, pointing out that eventually the victor always has to speak with the vanquished. And no one ate their words when Hamid Karzai began publicly calling for Taliban to sit down and talk.

And most probably, those who express views like in the report above will be accused of siding with the Taliban.

The road to peace

Readers may recall that in December, the government of Afghanistan kicked out two diplomats with extensive experience in that country. Michael Semple, a UN employee, was one of them. Recently he spoke with the Guardian:

We can persuade Taliban to be peaceful - expelled UN man

Henry McDonald
Saturday February 16 2008

Two-thirds of the Taliban-led insurgents in Afghanistan can be persuaded to abandon violence, according to a British aid worker expelled from the country for opening talks with some of those allied to the militant group.

... Semple defended his role in talking to elements linked to the Taliban. Until 2003 he had been a senior political adviser to the British embassy in Kabul.

... "There are many people who served with the Taliban regime who are now well-placed inside the Karzai regime or else are pillars of Afghan society. They are now living at peace with [it] even if they are critical of it, which is their right," he said.

"Our mandate was to support the government's reconciliation process - that's what we were doing in Helmand before Christmas. There is no purely military solution to the current insurgency. There isn't a serious actor in Afghanistan who says the only way forward is to fight your way out." (link)
Meanwhile, Archbishop V. James Weisgerber, President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, has issued a statement on the war in Afghanistan. Excerpts:
Message from CCCB President: Call for a True Peace Process in Afghanistan

... One thing is certain, and that is the conviction expressed by Pope Benedict XVI "that war is the worst solution for all sides. It brings no good to anyone, not even to the apparent victors."

The people of Afghanistan want peace. We hope this conviction will be central to the deliberations by the Parliament of Canada. ...

Over the centuries, the Catholic Church has developed a rich and wise social teaching that can help inform the present discussion. I wish to suggest three points that flow from this teaching:

1. "It is hardly possible to imagine that in an atomic era, war could be used as an instrument of justice." Peace negotiations, carried out in good faith and involving all the parties concerned - this approach needs special consideration.

2. A clear distinction must be made between military operations and humanitarian aid. In particular, "humanitarian aid must reach the civilian population and must never be used to influence those receiving it." Otherwise, one endangers the lives of numerous civilians as well as those humanitarian workers who become targets for the insurgents.

3. The human dignity of Canadian soldiers must be safeguarded. Their moral integrity is brought into question when international law is not respected, especially when the troubling issue is the torture of enemy combatants. Furthermore, the personal well-being of Canadian soldiers and their families must be ensured. ... (link)
The statement comes after pointed calls for church officials to weigh in on the matter:
Bishops’ silence on Afghan war ‘a scandal’

TORONTO - Canada’s Catholic bishops are failing to lead as the nation’s troops are drawn ever deeper into a civil war in Afghanistan, KAIROS board chair Fr. Paul Hansen told The Catholic Register. “The Catholic Church has abdicated its responsibility to speak about Canada’s largest military endeavour since the Korean War,” Hansen wrote in an e-mail to The Register. ...

Hansen called the bishops’ slow deliberations on Afghanistan “a scandal.” ... (link)
One wonders how long it will take warmongers such as the Globe and Mail's Christie Blatchford to start insulting Church officials. Recall how Blatchford gloated over the "Taliban Jack" moniker placed on NDP leader Jack Layton when he had the audacity to call for negotiations to end the war. Perhaps Bishop Weisgerber could be "Taliban James", while the expelled diplomat (above) could be "Taliban Michael". A rather more difficult mouthful would be "Taliban Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops."

Of course, the absurdity (and plain ignorance of Blatchford, et al.) is obvious when one considers that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly called for negotiations with elements of the Taliban. I don't recall Blatchford dubbing Karzai "Taliban Hamid".

War is peace

The likelihood of a Spring election fought over the issue of the war in Afghanistan, though bandied about for a few days, is now rather low. In all likelihood, neither leading party (Liberal or Conservative) liked the prospect of battling over which party's position was more out of touch with Canadian public opinion. (Opinion in Canada has been pretty steady at 55-60% opposed to the war since mid-2006. See the graph here.) So, a compromise is being worked out, likely involving an extension of the mission until 2011 (as per Conservative hopes), with a recast emphasis on training and reconstruction (as Dion's Liberals have envisioned).

In explaining his efforts to reach a compromise with his Liberal foes, Harper deftly articulates a certain bi-partisan mindset:

"It isn't normally my habit to defend the Liberal party," Harper said, explaining that the Liberals sent the country into Afghanistan and directed Canada through the Second World War "because the parties that run this country understand that in a dangerous world, you sometimes have to use force to maintain peace." (link)

Sunday, February 17, 2008


You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud
-Bob Dylan, "Masters of war" (1963)

Dylan's verse reminds us that those who command forces, though they wrap themselves in flags and declare their undying support for the troops, in fact constantly show their lack of concern for the safety of soldiers.

A report from the Associated Press reveals serious questions about the support which the British government gives its soldiers:
LONDON - A coroner has told an inquest into the death of a British soldier in Afghanistan that the failure of Britain's military to properly equip its soldiers in the war-torn country is unforgivable. ...

The coroner said the soldiers were defeated not by the terrorists "but by the lack of basic equipment." ... (link)
This report follows a long string of similar revelations and allegations regarding the British army.
On January 31, the Times reported that the British military plans to put soldiers in the field who have undergone only limited training:

Nearly 1,000 new army recruits face having their combat training cut by half so that they can be rushed to the battlefields of Afghanistan.

The “exceptional” measure is being proposed by senior officers to meet a serious shortage in manpower ...

At present every battalion due to deploy next year is at least 100 soldiers short of the required manpower level – that is, 550 instead of 650 men. ... (link)

In a follow-up story the next day, a Conservative MP was quoted:

... Patrick Mercer, Conservative MP for Newark and a former commanding officer of The Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, said that the proposal for accelerated training underlined the “manpower crisis” facing the Army. “The MoD is in denial about it, but the truth is that the Army is not just 3,000 men short but, effectively, about 12,000 short because of the high number of soldiers who are physically unfit to be deployed,” Mr Mercer said. ... (link)

Recently, the Telegraph revealed that the British military includes some 7000 foreigners, a ten-fold increase over levels in the year 2000. (The largest contingent is of Fijian soldiers.)

Besides cutting back on training and recruiting foreigners, the British military has also tried an advertising campaign to increase the flow of recruits:
The Army is enticing young people to enlist with the aid of advertisements and leaflets that glamorise warfare and underplay the risks involved in a military career, it is claimed today.

The language in the recruiting literature and promotional DVD is so sanitised, a report says, that one brochure, Infantry Soldier, does not even mention the words “kill” or “risk”. ...

The study of the Army’s sales pitch, by an independent researcher funded by the Joseph Rowntree Trust, found that potential recruits get a misleading picture. David Gee, who wrote the report, said: “The Armed Forces have a poor retention record, partly because they promise recruits more than they can deliver, so thousands end up wanting to leave as soon as possible.”

According to official figures, for every two 16 to 22-year-olds joining the Army, one is leaving. ...

A common tactic, is to “emphasise the game-playing character of battle to attract children by blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality”. ...

Potential recruits can also be confused or misled in other ways, it says: “A soldier is obliged to serve for at least four years and three months (or up to six years in the case of under18s) with no right to leave once three months have passed. [But] this is omitted from the brochure and video.” (link)
The British Defense Select Committee recently issued a report which confirms an increase in personnel losses in the military:
"We are concerned", says the report, "...that there are signs that voluntary departure in the armed forces, in particular the Army, is increasing and that in the RAF personnel are not extending for a further engagement to the extent that had happened in the past." ... (link)
In Canada too, there have been regular accusations that our military is under-equipped and thus endangered. The latest:
Soldier blasts shoddy gear for troops

February 14, 2008
Sean Gordon
Quebec Bureau Chief

MONTREAL–A Quebec soldier has reignited a lingering controversy with claims the equipment issued to him and his colleagues from the Royal 22nd Regiment is shoddy and ill-suited to the combat mission in Afghanistan. ... (Link to Toronto Star article.)

Afghan police as kidnappers?

We have blogged several times on the nature of the Afghan National Police (ANP). To wit:

Civilians in Musa Qala (a Taliban-held town for about a year until retaken by Western forces in December of 2007) balked at the idea of the government of Afghanistan allowing the ANP to police their area.

In November in Kandahar province, ten police officers were arrested for allegedly stealing money from a private citizen.

Also in November, the police arrested blasphemer Ghaus Zalmai and detained several Afghan journalists.

Now come allegations that police officials may be involved in the increase in child abductions:

KANDAHAR CITY, Afghanistan -- They said they would slaughter the boy. Cut him into pieces, and then shoot him. "We mean business," the kidnappers warned, in terse phone calls to the child's father.

Somewhere nearby, crouched inside a small metal cage, was nine-year-old Abdul Walid Zalal. ...

[A] perceived spike in the number of child kidnappings this year has local Afghans openly criticizing police and government officials who, they allege, aren't attempting to solve the crimes, let alone prevent them.

Some, like Zalal's father, suspect police officers could be working with kidnappers.

"I approached the police when my boy was taken," says Abdul Habib Malal, "and the chief himself told me to pay off the kidnappers. A couple of times I was even sitting with the police chief when the kidnappers called to tell me they were going to cut off the boy's leg or ears. The police chief just sat there."

Malal felt he had no choice but to negotiate with the kidnappers. He was able to reduce the price of his son's freedom but does not wish the final sum made public. ...

[Kandahar's provincial police chief] insisted that his officers are "providing the necessary security for the family of the child recently abducted."

Nonsense, says Malal. "The police have been of no help whatsoever. I believe they may have been involved." He has phone numbers for mobile devices that the kidnappers used to call him. The Kandahar police, he says, have shown no interest in looking at them. "It's not rocket science. The authorities can trace where these calls were made." (link)

Canadian government's media gag order

While we blogged yesterday about media repression in Afghanistan, today our topic is our own government's media control stategy. From David Pugliese's blog:

As you might recall the Harper government brought in the new process around November 2007; media questions about some of the more mundane issues (such as local base questions and the like) are still handled as usual by CF public affairs officers but responses to media questions on any sensitive issue (procurement, infrastructure, military audits, equipment, Afghanistan….essentially almost everything) must be first approved by the Prime Minister’s Office or the Privy Council Office. Those written response lines are then transmitted in email form to the journalist.

Previously, DND officials and military officers (and not PCO/PMO bureaucrats) were the ones who oversaw media relations for the CF/DND and journalists would be offered interviews with military officers who were subject matter experts on various issues. This was one of the reasons why the CF was viewed as having one of the best media relations policy in the government since they could give highly detailed responses with short notice. But interviews with subject matter experts are extremely rare these days as they are not usually allowed by the Prime Minister’s Office.

This new process follows the model that Foreign Affairs and CIDA use in dealing with the media (that model is also the main reason those two agencies are usually seen by journalists as being the worst in the federal government in regards to responding to media queries). DND and the CF are not the only ones to be saddled with the gag order. Just last week, Environment Canada scientists were told by the Harper government that they would be supplied with PMO/PCO approved “response lines” to read to journalists during interviews. ...

Josee Touchette, DND’s assistant deputy minister for public affairs, is on the record stating that there has been no change in the policy whatsoever regarding media inquiries. But even her own public affairs officers roll their eyeballs on that laughable claim.

Sharon Hobson, the respected Canadian correspondent for Jane’s Defence publications as well as the Canadian Naval Review has recently weighed in on the topic of the Conservative gag order and has written a fascinating article on the decline and fall of Canadian Forces public affairs. ... (link)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hope despite continued press repression

The Independent, which is spearheading an international call to free Afghan journalism student Parwez Kambakhsh, carries an update on the condemned man's situation:

Pervez's move to Kabul may herald his release
By Kim Sengupta, 16 February 2008

Mr Kambaksh has been attacked at his current place of incarceration near Mazar-i-Sharif in the north of the country by fundamentalist inmates at the instigation of the prison guards, his family claim. They also say that he is being held in a small cell that he has to share with 30 others.

But family members said yesterday that they had been told unofficially that the 23-year-old journalism student would be transferred to the Afghan capital in the near future. ...

Relations and friends of Mr Kambaksh are worried that he remains in danger as long as he is kept in his current jail. They believe that, as worldwide protests over the case keep growing and the lobbying of President Karzai by public figures continues, the student may fall victim to a convenient "accident".

A member of Mr Kambaksh's family said: "He is being kept by the same people who wish him dead. They have total power in that part of the country and we really fear that anything can happen. The people who put him in prison are very angry about all the international attention this has raised. They can say that he was attacked by a fellow prisoner, or they can even say that he tried to escape. How can anyone disprove something like that? ...

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, Mr Kambaksh's brother, is also a journalist and has written articles exposing abuse, including murder, by powerful political figures. The family feel that one reason Mr Kambaksh was arrested was to put pressure on Yaqub, who is himself now in hiding. "We hope that the same pressure which is helping to save Pervez can protect Yaqub as well," said the family member. ... (link)
(See earlier blog entries about Perwez Kambakhsh here and here.)

Meanwhile, other journalists still face repression at the hands of our allies, though the Canadian media choose to ignore the trend. The Independent recently ran an update on Ghowz Zalmai, who is imprisoned without charge by Afghan authorities for his involvement in publishing a translation of the Koran. (We've blogged about him - here and here.) The Independent notes that despite pressure from expatriate Afghans, "there has been no interest in his case expressed by Western governments". Excerpts:
Mr Zalmai's journalist colleagues claim that the Attorney General himself, Zabar Sabit, an overly religious man, played a significant role in Mr Zalmai's arrest. Mr Sabit is widely regarded as sympathetic towards the Taliban; some say he is proving his credentials because he is waiting for the Taliban's return to power. Mr Zalmai and his friend are accused of distributing a Koran which consists of "mistakes" and "misconceptions". ...

He has been imprisoned without any formal charges and has been given no access to a lawyer. Whether belonging to the wrong ethnic class – being a member of a well-known Sufi order – or because he was regarded as a liberal, Western-thinking intellectual, Mr Zalmai is paying for a crime he has not committed. ... (link)
As well, the same paper reports that a friend of Parwez who is also a fellow journalist has fled Afghanistan in fear for his life:
Friend of Pervez flees extremists in Afghanistan

The Independent
By Jerome Starkey in Kabul

A journalist friend of the condemned student Sayed Pervez Kambaksh has fled Afghanistan fearing for his life, after an extremist mob threatened to kill him.

Yahya Najafizada escaped halfway across the world when his name appeared on a blacklist of alleged heretics. The list was compiled by hardline sharia students in Mazar-e Sharif, just days after Pervez was arrested for circulating an article about women's rights.

The university students, backed by the local Ulema, or religious council, published the blacklist after a frenzied demonstration demanding Pervez, 23, face the death penalty. ...

But vigilante gangs twice threatened Yahya's home in the centre of the provincial capital, where he used to meet Pervez to discuss civil rights and freedom of speech: "If I didn't leave Afghanistan, they could do with me what they did with Pervez, and other democracy campaigners," Yahya said. ...

"They held a demonstration against us and after demonstrations they made the blacklist. It was a list of journalists, poets and students of Balkh University. Most of them critical of government. ...

"I don't trust the police to protect me," he said. "Fundamentalists are working in high places in the Afghan government and police. They are against democracy and human rights in Afghanistan."

Yahya was working for a Nato-owned newspaper called Voice of Freedom. But even his international paymasters offered him no protection from the religious wing. "It is difficult for ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force] to deal with the extremists who are the majority of Afghan People about this issue. I spoke with my supervisors and the people who are working for ISAF security, but they didn't promise to protect me." ... (link)
Recall also that the Committee to Protect Journalists recently wrote to President Karzai to express its concern that "media policy is increasingly aimed at hampering journalists".

Set pull-out date, says Afghan government media

Reuters reports that an Afghan government-run newspaper editorial demands that US and NATO forces set a date for their withdrawal. It is thought to be the first time such an opinion was heard from such quarters.

Karzai under foreigners' influence-Afghan paper
By Sayed Salahuddin

KABUL, Feb 16 (Reuters) - President Hamid Karzai is under the influence of foreign powers and troops led by NATO and the U.S. must set a firm date for their departure from Afghanistan, a government-run daily newspaper said on Saturday.

The remarks are the first of their kind in an Afghan paper about Karzai and foreign troops in Afghanistan, where there is frustration over growing insecurity and rampant corruption. ...

Anis [the government-run paper] said Karzai's government was a protectorate and the nation must discuss the issue of national sovereignty with "the foreigners" before next year's presidential election.

"For the appointment of each high-ranking employee, Mr. Karzai has to propose individuals and then (announce their appointment) after the approval of foreigners," Anis said. ...

"...The long-term presence of foreign military troops in Afghanistan with the justification 'that the Afghan government's military forces are not able to defend the government's authority', is in no way defensible," it said.

"These forces should come up with a precise projection about the continuation of their presence in Afghanistan so that society and the government know when to complete the priorities of government-building." (link)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Crisis 'ignored': Red Cross official

Staffers from the International Committee of the Red Cross spoke to the Guardian about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan:

Afghanistan's refugee crisis 'ignored'
Feb 13, 2008

A growing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is being overlooked as an unknown number of people are fleeing their homes, caught between security forces and the Taliban, Red Cross officials have told the Guardian.

They say they have less access now to displaced people than at any time over the past 27 years. "The conflict has not only intensified but it has also spread over the last few years. Prolonged human suffering is causing real concern in ever larger areas," said Reto Stocker, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Kabul. "There is little capacity to address it. We've never had so little access." ...

According to British estimates, there are 23,000 displaced people in the Lashkar Gar region of Helmand province, the base for more than 7,000 UK troops. It is impossible to judge the accuracy of the figure and there is no way of knowing how many people are displaced throughout the country, Stocker said. "Some areas are completely inaccessible." ...

[ICRC staff] also monitor the treatment of detainees, including those handed over to the Afghan authorities by Nato troops. The number had risen from 5,000 to 13,000 in two years, Stocker said. They were being held in prisons and detention centres designed to accommodate a quarter of that number. The figures do not include an estimated 630 Afghans held by US forces.

Red Cross officials echo concern recently expressed by Oxfam about the dangerous confusion between Nato-led military and civilian operations. Nato-sponsored provincial reconstruction teams are treated with suspicion by Afghans, who believe they are controlled by foreign soldiers, the officials say.

Officials from humanitarian organisations paint a very different picture of Afghanistan to the one presented publicly by ministers.

In a speech yesterday David Miliband, the foreign secretary, said Britain should help spread democracy round the world. Speaking on condition of anonymity, humanitarian groups say most Afghans want security rather than "democracy" as represented by a powerful elite in control in Kabul. Afghans are increasingly dependent on central government and a corrupt national police force, even though their loyalties are with local elders, officials say. ...

Aid agency staff also express concern about British plans to train defence forces consisting of local volunteers. The US and Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, have opposed the plan, saying they could turn into Taliban militia. "What message does that give to the Tajiks in the north when you are arming Pashtuns in the south?" one official said. (link)

Monday, February 11, 2008

You've seen the blog...

... Now watch the video!

Youtube video:
Canada and NATO in Afghanistan Part 1 and Part 2

Yes, dear readers, for your viewing displeasure you can now tune in to youtube and see a video produced for your edification by yours truly. Just click on the links above.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Karzai's bro reveals targeted assassinations

Interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, President Karzai's brother Ahmed Wali Karzai claims that US forces engage in targeted assainations:

... Amid the recent deluge of discouraging reports citing declining security in swaths of southern Afghanistan, Karzai's is a rare voice of optimism, claiming that U.S. special forces already have begun to turn the tide in Kandahar with targeted strikes against individual commanders of the fundamentalist group, which was ousted from power six years ago.

"These operations are extremely quiet. They cause no civilian casualties and no damage to the villages," said Karzai, whose power derives in part from being the younger brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"The Americans are very professional," he said. "They go in; they get out. It's just like you see in the movies." ... (link)
[N.B. Ahmed Wali Karzai may make for a bad witness, as it is alleged that Ahmed, an elder of the Popolzai clan, is a druglord and regional kingpin in Kandahar province.]

As Defence Minister MacKay might point out, the tactic of targeted assassination is favoured by Liberal MP Michael Ignatieff:
[H]aving Michael Ignatieff question the Tories on [abuse of Afghan detainees] is to have invited the retort that Defence Minister Peter MacKay gave:

"He seems to have changed his position. ... He has said previously, `Sticking too firmly to the rule of law simply allows terrorists too much leeway to exploit our freedoms. ... To defeat evil,' we must `traffic in evils: indefinite detention of suspects, coercive interrogations, targeted assassinations, even pre-emptive war.'" ... (Columnist Haroon Siddiqui, Toronto Star - link.)

Nine million bullets for southern Afghanistan

CanWest reporter David Pugliese managed to get the Department of Defence to release the figures showing the total ammunition used by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan:

Canadians fired almost five million bullets in Afghanistan in two years

OTTAWA -- Canadian troops fired more than 4.7 million bullets at insurgents over the last 20 months in Afghanistan, according to new statistics released by the military. ...

According to an e-mail from the Defence Department, for the period between April 2006 and December 2007, troops fired more than 2.9 million rounds of 5.56-mm ammunition, the standard bullet used in Canadian rifles.

Troops fired more than 1.6 million rounds of 7.62-mm machine-gun bullets and more than 115,000 rounds of .50-calibre machine-gun ammunition during the same time frame.

Canadian tanks fired 1,650 shells and the army's artillery guns used up more than 12,000 rounds during fighting. ... (link)
To this we can add the total reported by the British military recently: some 4 million bullets shot between August '06 and September '07. The Brits are operating in Helmand province while Canada works next door in Kandahar province.

Meanwhile, a report from the Washington Times outlines the intensity of the bombing that the US Air Force has unleashed on Afghanistan.
... In July 2006, the U.S. and NATO began a heavy offensive against the Taliban.

"You see a jump from some 20,000 pounds of bombs dropped per month to some 80,000 to 100,000 pounds dropped," he said.

In Iraq, the number of air strikes was low in 2006, totaling about 62,000 pounds for the year. In early 2007, there was an uptick to 10,000 to 15,000 a month; as U.S. forces built up strength, the numbers jumped to 71,000 pounds a month in the last half of the year. ...
Incidentally, the Washington Times article also has this summary of civilian casualties:
... In 2006, a total of 929 Afghan civilians were killed, of whom 116 died from air strikes and 114 were killed by ground fire. The other 699 were killed by the Taliban, said Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon official now working as a senior military analyst for Human Rights Watch.

Through September 2007, a total of 892 Afghans were killed — 438 by the Taliban, 272 by air strikes, 62 by ground fire, 16 by a combination of air and ground fire. In addition, 15 died in shooting incidents where it was not clear which side did the shooting, and 89 were killed by unknown assailants. ... (link)

Two Star columnists shout down an illegal war

Writing about the Manley Report in her column in the Toronto Star, Linda McQuaig quotes a pair of law scholars who outline the illegality of the Afghan war. She also has some insightful comments about the report itself. Excerpt:

[American law professor and frequent CounterPunch contributor Francis] Boyle says that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were both illegal under international law, in that neither received Security Council approval.

The Manley report implies that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was endorsed by the Security Council, but Boyle notes that the Security Council resolution cited by Manley in no way authorized military action. Rather, it called for the perpetrators of 9/11 to be brought to justice – suggesting they be dealt with as criminals through extradition and the judicial system, not war.

After invading Afghanistan and toppling the government, Washington won UN authorization for the new government it installed, and for its ongoing intervention through NATO. As a result, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan – like the one in Iraq – now has "a veneer of UN authority," notes Osgoode Hall law professor Michael Mandel.

Manley has long been a proponent of closer relations with the U.S., and he and his panellists met with top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Yet the Manley report avoids any suggestion that Ottawa's involvement in Afghanistan is about pleasing the Bush administration, which is widely disliked in Canada.

Indeed, the Manley report makes Washington all but disappear, emphasizing the UN and NATO, and Canada's role within NATO.

But NATO is just a military alliance ultimately run by Washington. Indeed, since it came into being in 1950, NATO has always been headed by a U.S. general (currently John Craddock).

In addition to NATO forces in Afghanistan, there are another 13,000 U.S. troops under direct U.S. command. This means that all troops serving in Afghanistan are ultimately under commander-in-chief George W. Bush, whose shadow looms large over the country. ... (link)
We've blogged recently about the illegality of the war, citing Mandel in a couple of contexts where he spells it out. We have also recently seen American legal scholar Ali Khan making the case that NATO is committing genocide in Afghanistan. For more on the illegality of the American invasion of Afghanistan, see the excellent PhD thesis authored by Myra Williamson, "Terrorism, war and international law: the legality of the use of force against Afghanistan in 2001" (here).

The day following McQuaig's piece, her colleague Antonia Zerbisias (whose talents are relegated to the Living section of the paper) weighed in with a bit of bombast:

... I am sure I am not the only Canadian who would like to know why our troops are getting blown up to prop up a regime that has, despite fine words in its new constitution, no regard for women's rights – or the ability of journalists to discuss how the prophet Mohammed regarded women.

That's because, in Afghanistan, even long after the Taliban was toppled from power, if you suggest that women should be equal to men, you might as well book a cell on death row.

That's where Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh is.

Last Oct. 27, the 23-year-old journalist was arrested in the northern province of Balkh on charges of "blasphemy" and "disseminating defamatory comments about Islam."

His crime?

Downloading a document from an Iranian website that deconstructs what the Koran says about marriage – and argues that Muslim fundamentalists who promote the inequality of the sexes misrepresent the teachings of the prophet.

On Jan. 22, in a closed courtroom and without legal representation, Kambakhsh was sentenced to death – although there is speculation that he is a mere proxy for his brother, also a journalist, who has written hard-hitting critiques of the government.

Well, it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for?

Because I'm not so sure any more.

If journalists cannot freely do their jobs or discuss oppression of women without suffering persecution by the state – Afghanistan's upper house approved the death sentence for insulting Islam – then it doesn't matter how many tanks we throw in there. The "mission'' is a failure and our troops are being killed for nothing.

Despite all the la-di-da words about building schools and restoring infrastructure, the truth of the matter is, say international aid organizations, women continue to suffer mightily in Afghanistan. And if women suffer, children suffer. And the violence will never end. ... (link)