Sunday, July 19, 2009

Civilians killed in Kandahar

On Friday, July 17 in Kandahar city, Canadian soldiers forming a protective cordon fired on an approaching minivan, killing one civilian and injuring three others. Military officials say they suspect that the driver may have been testing the force's procedures, thus the man killed may not have been an innocent civilian.

Details are scarce, but the military's story seems suspect on the face of it: Why would five men risk their lives to gain such intelligence when just one or perhaps two would suffice? The Canadian Forces' Maj Mario Couture says they "strongly believe" in the men's nefarious intentions, but the only evidence offered is that the vehicle did not stop, that the men inside were "all males of fighting age," and that one of them fled the scene.

Considering that there were no explosives found in the vehicle, one wonders how they would be so confident. Did one of the men admit to criminal intentions? Are one or more of the men known to Afghan or foreign intelligence? If so, it would seem proper to publicize that evidence immediately to avoid the taint of suspicion later.

If the forces made their conclusion based solely on the behavior of the vehicle, then perhaps their confidence is misplaced. There have been plenty of incidents where Canadian and other NATO troops have fired on the vehicles of innocent civilians. It seems evident that, for Afghan drivers, it is not always possible to obey the foreign soldiers, whose hand signals may not be unambiguous.

In fact, Canadian troops operating within Kandahar city have a history of firing on innocent civilians at roadblocks. On one day last summer, one Canadian reporter witnessed three such incidents in the space of an hour.

Elsewhere in Kandahar:

U.S. helicopter killed Afghan civilians: report

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, July 17 (CP) – Afghan officials are investigating reports that civilians were killed in a U.S. air strike in Kandahar province.

Kandahar Gov. Tooryalai Wesa said today he's dispatched a delegation to Shah Wali Kot to investigate reports that five civilians, including a four-year-old girl, were killed in the air strike Wednesday night.

Canadian military officials said Canadian troops were not involved...

Local residents said at least a dozen people were injured in Wednesday night's operation in the area, located about 100 kilometres north of Kandahar.

Muhibullah, a 24-year-old farmer, said he awoke to the sound of helicopters, and he and his family ran outside.

"When we reached the garden, the helicopter shot at us and injured three of my brothers, one sister, mother, father and sister-in-law and killed Rahmania, a four-year-old girl," he said from his bed at Mirwais Hospital, in Kandahar city.

Muhibullah, who uses only one name, said there wasn't fighting at the time and said there were no Taliban in the village...

[Niamatullah, another resident, said:] "This is not fair, there wasn't Taliban in my village that night, we don't know the reason of bombing," he said at the hospital... (link)

Other reports say up to six civilians were killed.

Canada and Pakistan say troops out

The latest EKOS poll, done for the CBC, finds the following for the mission in Afghanistan:
54% oppose
34% support
12% neither
(link to pdf here)

Readers are urged to check out the breakdown of respondents as results are shown for each provinces and regions as well as educational attainment, which shows that less educated people tend to be more opposed to the war. Quebecers, women, the young as well as NDP voters and Bloc voters tend to show stronger opposition to the war, but seniors and Liberal voters also show strong opposition.

Interestingly, support for the mission only reaches above 50% for one demographic: Conservative voters, 51% or whom support the war.Switching to Pakistani opinion, recently published an opinion survey of that country, which shows overwhelming opposition to the war in Afghanistan:

Pakistani Public Opinion on the Swat Conflict, Afghanistan, and the US July 1, 2009


Afghan Taliban Operating in Pakistan
Three in five think it would be bad if the Taliban were to regain power in Afghanistan. An overwhelming majority thinks Afghan Taliban groups fighting to overthrow Afghanistan’s government should not be allowed to have bases in Pakistan. Most do not believe the Afghan Taliban has such bases; but if Pakistan’s government were to identify them, three in four think it should close such bases, even if it requires using military force.

US Military Activity against Afghan Taliban in Pakistan
Despite its support for government action against Afghan Taliban bases, Pakistanis overwhelmingly reject US action against such bases. Even more say that current US drone aircraft attacks are not justified.

Views of the Operation in Afghanistan
Almost all Pakistanis disapprove of the Obama administration’s decision to increase US forces in Afghanistan. Very large majorities disapprove of the NATO mission and say it should be ended now.


President Obama and US Goals
Only one in three Pakistanis express confidence in President Obama or think his policies will be better for Pakistan. Very large majorities still have an unfavorable view of the current US government and think the US is playing a mostly negative role in the world. (link)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Legalized rape is conveniently suppressed

Readers will no doubt recall the Afghan 'rape law,' revealed this Spring. Officially billed as a Shi'ite family law, it was met with harsh criticism and sent back to the drawing board when President Karzai said he never read it before signing. The revised law now nears readiness, with a little help from Canadian lawyers.

Yet an AP dispatch penned by Heidi Vogt in Afghanistan reveals the continuing misogynist reality of the Afghan government propped up by the western occupation:

Afghan marriage law still oppressive, activists say
By Heidi Vogt

KABUL, July 13 (AP) - Activists yesterday rejected proposed revisions to Afghanistan’s marriage law, calling the new version just as oppressive as the original, which critics say legalized marital rape...

The section about submitting to sex every four days was deleted, but other sections let a husband order sex, said Shinkai Kharokhel, a lawmaker involved in attempts to change the legislation.

A section explaining a husband must provide financially for his wife also says he can withhold support if she refuses to “submit to her husband’s reasonable sexual enjoyment,’’ according to Human Rights Watch.

That’s equivalent to saying a husband can starve his wife if she refuses to have sex, Kharokhel said... (link)
The revelations seem to have been first mentioned on July 9 by the Telegraph's Ben Farmer, who notes the HRW criticism and quotes an Afghan activist: "The main problem is that the marital rape article is still there." The Independent's correspondent Jerome Starkey ('Law will let Afghan husbands starve wives who withhold sex,' July 10) writes that the law's amendments "were passed to the cabinet this week and signed by Mr Karzai," and that the law "still includes clauses which allow rapists to marry their victims as a way of absolving their crime and it tacitly approves child marriage."

How did the Canadian media report these revelations, you ask? In short, they have not reported them. The Toronto Star's first notice (July 10) does not include the harsh criticisms, coming as it does from an earlier Vogt dispatch which did not note them. By then, Ben Farmer's report noting the ugly reality was already a day old. The Star's follow-up editorial several days later ('Afghanistan and rape,' July 13) again makes no reference to the continued injustices inherent in the law. The Globe and Mail ran the July 10 Vogt piece three days later -- well after Farmer and Starkey had publicized the HRW criticisms. Thus the Globe manages also to ignore the revelations, which were by then four days old, leaving the impression that the law is now hunky dory.

And yet there is some interesting background reported in a June 30 Canadian Press dispatch:
Canadians failed to ring alarm bells on Afghan 'rape law'

OTTAWA, June 30 (CP) – Canadian diplomats were tipped weeks before Afghanistan passed its so-called rape law but didn't alert their political masters, documents indicate.

Officials at the embassy in Kabul were warned Feb. 15 that other countries were worried about the proposed Shiite family law...

The summary also shows that officials with the Canadian International Development Agency, which has been mentoring Afghans in human rights and democracy, knew as far back as last October that the law was being drafted but were unaware of its wording. (link)
The story was carried in the Toronto Star (June 30, p. 10), the Prince George Citizen (June 30, p. 5) and the Saint John Telegraph-Journal (June 30, p. 5; July 1, p. 8), where the article notes: "In the aftermath of the controversy, Ottawa deployed a legal team to Kabul to help the Afghans vet legislation."

So after a Canadian legal team helped to vet the rape law, the law as signed by Karzai -- which still legalizes rape and still allows for abuse of women -- is happily revealed by the Canadian press to be a step in the right direction, thanks to some careful avoidance.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Take your candy and shove it

The papers say the American forces of Operation Khanjar ('Dagger') are meeting only pockets of resistance in southern Helmand while the Brits are engaging in more fighting in their parallel operation in Lashkar Gah called Panchai Palang ('Panther's Claw'). Not only fighting, but dying too: in the past 10 days some 15 British soldiers have been killed. Considering the history of the US Marines in Helmand province (more on this below), we should not be surprized that occupation soldiers are having such a tough time.

It seems that after nine days of the American-led operation (and about three weeks for the British part of it), there are still several districts of Helmand yet to be pacified - namely Washer, Dishu, Baghran, and to a lesser extent Garmsir and Nawa districts, according to Afghan Defence Ministry spokesperson General Zaher Azimi. Also, the latest British soldiers to die were killed in Sangin district and Nad Ali district and UK troops have battled outside the main town of Lashkar Gah, the capital of the province and a key area of operations for the British. Upstream of the capital is another important area, Khajaki district, where a hydro-electric dam built with American aid funds in the 1950's has become a constant beacon for attacks by insurgents. (For an excellent map of Helmand, see here.)

And yet the American Marines' operation began in Khanshin, Nawa and Garmsir - the latter two being mentioned above as containing ongoing resistance. So really, only Khanshin district can be classed as pacified, but what does that mean, exactly? Are the Marines nerely occupying the district center? That is what General Azimi of the defence ministry implied in a TV interview in Kabul:

[T]he centre of Khanshin District has been cleared of insurgents and efforts are under way to clear the rural areas of the district. Even capturing the centre of a district, covering an area of two square kilometres, can help us to claim we have captured an entire district and use it as a huge political publicity. [Tolo TV, July 5]
Thus the opening move of Obama's supposed new strategy might amount to dribbles of Marines poured into a few larger towns, with little presence in the rural areas. The US military already seems to be making excuses for the inevitable return of Taliban presence. A Marine officer laments the lack of Afghan soldiers along for the ride whose job it is to "hold and build," following on the Marines' task of "clearing."

In May of 2008, a US Marine force of 2,400 invaded Garmsir, displacing perhaps 30,000 people, while managing after an entire month to hold only five square kilometers of that district. What's more, reports indicated that these Marines were facing a force of insurgents numbered in the scores, not hundreds or thousands.

It would not take a Richard Feynman to calculate that where 2,400 hundred troops failed to secure even a dozen square kilometers, a force of 4,000 will work no miracles. On verra, as the French say.

Meanwhile, residents in provinces surrounding Kabul are non-plussed with the US presence in their midst. Anand Gopal reports from Wardak:
... "Roger, heading into the bazaar. There's people all around," comes the reply from another vehicle in the convoy.

"These people out here don't like us, so keep your eyes open," the first soldier says.

Suddenly, a dull thud resounds in the vehicle. Then another. "They are throwing rocks at us!" shouts one soldier over the radio...

Soldiers here recount instances when they have handed out candy to children, only to have it hurled back at them. When they recently killed a leading Taliban commander in the area named Mohebullah, a nearby town closed its bazaar for hours in remembrance of the fallen insurgent.

When they ask locals for information about insurgents operating in the area, they often get evasive answers or lies.

"I don't know why, but people there just don't seem to like us," says Pfc. Christopher Sues. "Maybe they are happy with the way they live."

According to locals, US intelligence officials, and analysts, the troops are facing local resistance for a variety of reasons.

"In Wardak, most of the insurgents are locals," says an American intelligence officer associated with the forces here, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"Every second or third house has a son or a brother in the Taliban," says Roshanak Wardak, a member of parliament from Sayadabad district of Wardak...

In one recent shura held in Sayadabad district, elders asked the Americans to leave, saying that they were happy with Taliban rule, which limits crime, and complaining that the troops "cause the price of everything to increase," ... (link)
And in Logar province near Kabul, locals see little reason to celebrate the presence of foreigners:
Here in Logar, on Kabul’s southern border, there is little support for the occupation. Even at public gatherings like this recent one to commemorate Teacher’s Day in the provincial capital, Pul-e-Alam, songs sympathetic to the Taliban are well received.

Elsewhere, there is increasing frustration with the foreign troops. Few residents in Baraki Barak district believe extra US troops will bring them long-term stability and many worry instead that the situation is about to deteriorate further...

“Now the Americans sometimes block the roads with their ­vehicles for four or five hours and no one is allowed to pass them. Even if someone is sick, they have to wait.” ...

“We are afraid of both the ­Americans and the Taliban. The Taliban say we shouldn’t work with the Americans or the Afghan government,”[said Farid, a 30-year-old labourer].

“God willing, we believe that if the Americans leave this country the fighting will stop because if there are no Americans then there will be no one for [the insurgents] to fight...

Lt Gen Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, has warned that troop casualties will probably increase. He has also acknowledged that support among Afghans is waning. (link)

Friday, July 3, 2009

Villagers take up arms against US forces

The big news on the front pages is the huge US-led assault on Helmand province, now into its second day. The CBC today also featured the operation in tones that convey a smooth victory for the occupiers, with the only possible problem being that the American forces "may have difficulty garnering community support." The New York Times has a far, far more critical take on it, as we'll see.

As an antiwar project, this blog has for some time now observed several obvious themes of the war in Afghanistan which the mass media have almost entirely ignored, despite plenty of evidence and despite plenty of respectable observers who acknowledge certain unsaid facts. Some of these are: that a majority of Afghans, especially in the south, now oppose the foreign occupation of their country; that the disastrous occupation and the disastrous government it underwrites are driving more young men into the insurgency; that foreign soldiers are committing war crimes; and that the insurgents which foreign troops are fighting are not foreign agitators but homegrown, local fighters driven to armed resistance largely because of the occupation itself.

In a very important article in the New York Times by Carlotta Gall, an experienced correspondent, all of these themes are vividly illustrated:

U.S. Faces Resentment in Afghan Region
By Carlotta Gall - The New York Times

LASHKAR GAH, July 2 - The mood of the Afghan people has tipped into a popular revolt in some parts of southern Afghanistan, presenting incoming American forces with an even harder job...

Villagers in some districts have taken up arms against foreign troops to protect their homes or in anger after losing relatives in airstrikes, several community representatives interviewed said. Others have been moved to join the insurgents out of poverty or simply because the Taliban’s influence is so pervasive here...

Yet Taliban control of the countryside is so extensive in provinces like Kandahar and Helmand that winning districts back will involve tough fighting and may ignite further tensions, residents and local officials warn...

Taliban influence is so strong in rural areas that much of the local population has accepted their rule and is watching the United States troop build-up with trepidation. Villagers interviewed in late June said that they preferred to be left alone under Taliban rule and complained about artillery and airstrikes by foreign forces. “We Muslims don’t like them — they are the source of danger,” said Hajji Taj Mohammed, a local villager, of the foreign forces. His house in Marja, a town west of this provincial capital that ...

“Now there are more people siding with the Taliban than with the government,” said Abdul Qader Nurzai, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in southern Afghanistan.

In many places, people have never seen or felt the presence of the Afghan government, or foreign forces, except through violence, but the Taliban are a known quantity, community leaders said...

People from Marja said that foreign troops carrying out counter-narcotics operations conducted nighttime raids on houses, shot people dead inside their homes and used dogs that bit the occupants.

“The people are very scared of the night raids,” said Spin Gul, a farmer from the area. “When they have night raids, the people join the Taliban and fight.”

“Who are the Taliban? They are local people,” interjected another man who did not give his name...

Fazel Muhammad, a member of the district council of Panjwai, an area west of Kandahar city where three years of fighting have ruined livelihoods, said he knew people who were laying mines for the Taliban in order to feed their families. He estimated that 80 percent of insurgents were local people driven to fight out of poverty and despair. Offered another way out, only 2 percent would support the Taliban, he said... (link)
Note the claims of the people from Marja, a village just outside of Lashkar Gah, Helmand's main town. Their description of foreign forces entering houses and killing civilians might sound to some rather far-fetched, but similar accusations have been levelled before by civilians just to the south of them, down the Helmand River in Toube. At the time, British army officials said they were "taking seriously" the allegations of a massacre in Toube and began an investigation.

When UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Killings Phillip Alston later visited Afghanistan, he investigated the Toube incident among other allegations of killings. While he found no evidence to support the claims of deliberate killings, his inquiries were stymied by military officials from Canada and elsewhere. Despite this, it was apparent to Alston that foreign intelligence forces were acting with impunity in parts of Afghanistan.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Afghans want peace not more war

A recent (May 2009) face-to-face poll of 3200 Afghans found a large majority of Afghans want the government to make amends with the Taliban.

Do you think the government should hold talks and reconcile with the Taliban?

Yes: 68% No: 14% Not sure: 18% (link)

The results of the poll, commissioned by the International Republican Institute, are not very surprising. A poll two years ago found 60% of the country in favour of negotiations with the Taliban.

A few of the better Western journalists have also reported the general Afghan desire for negotiations. Washington Post journalist Pamela Constable found in her interviews that most Afghans don't want a surge, they want a negotiated peace.

Yet, despite Afghan wishes, the surge is on, as 4,000 US Marines have demonstrated with Operation Khanjar, "the first large-scale test of new American tactics and resolve in Afghanistan," (The Guardian) currently underway in Helmand province.

A recent (May 2009) face-to-face poll of 3200 Afghans found a large majority of Afghans want the government to make amends with the Taliban.

Do you think the government should hold talks and reconcile with the Taliban?

Yes: 68% No: 14% Not sure: 18% (link)
The results of the poll, commissioned by the International Republican Institute, are not very surprising. A poll two years ago found 60% of the country in favour of negotiations with the Taliban.

A few of the better Western journalists have also reported the general Afghan desire for negotiations. Washington Post journalist Pamela Constable found in her interviews that most Afghans don't want a surge, they want a negotiated peace.

Yet, despite Afghan wishes, the surge is on, as 4,000 US Marines have demonstrated with Operation Khanjar, "the first large-scale test of new American tactics and resolve in Afghanistan," (The Guardian) currently underway in Helmand province.

American military officials say they are confident of quick victory which is vaguely defined as clearing and holding land which has eluded the control of NATO forces. But some locals are skeptical:
"In my opinion these operations won't have any good result. The only thing that will give a good result will be peace talks, talks with the Taliban," Wahdat Khan, a 23-year-old from Helmand, told Reuters television.

Amirollah, from Jalalabad, was blunt in his assessment.

"They haven't come here for Afghans or to take their hand and give them peace," Amirollah, 45, said of the Americans... (Reuters) (link)
The operation's problematic aspects don't end there. While military spokespeople spout tactics straight out of prevailing COIN doctrine about needing civilian follow-up to get Afghan buy-in, these troops didn't come prepared for that:
The Afghan army and civilian development workers are conspicuous by their absence in this operation. The state department has not delivered the development specialists it was supposed to send, and their place has been filled temporarily by reservists. Meanwhile, the Afghan army has sold only 500 soldiers, a token presence in what was intended to be a joint operation. (link)
And speaking of opinion, Australians have again voiced their opposition to the war. In a recent poll, 49% of Australian respondents opposed their government's recent addition of 450 troops to the war in Afghanistan.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

CIA-trained assassins?

Youssef and Shukoor have the clearest report on the recent controversy surrounding US-backed Afghan troops' egregious behaviour:

Afghans blame U.S.-led coalition for police chief's killing
By Nancy A. Youssef and Hashim Shukoor - McClatchy Newspapers

KABUL, Afghanistan, June 29 — The Afghan government Monday blamed U.S.-led coalition forces for the killing of Kandahar's police chief and criminal investigations director on coalition forces, saying the Afghan guards that shot them to death were working for and trained by the coalition...

American intelligence agencies are investigating whether some of the guards may have been among the Afghans whom the CIA has recruited, trained and paid to help fight the Taliban, al Qaida and drug trafficking.

Coalition officials in Afghanistan said only that no U.S. or coalition forces were involved in the killings, that the guards weren't acting "on behalf of U.S. or international forces" and that the killings in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city and the heart of its opium poppy-growing region, were an "Afghan-on-Afghan" incident...The shooting began sometime after 11 a.m., when about a dozen vehicles carrying some 40 Afghan guards pulled up to the prosecutor's office. The guards, whom Kandahar officials charge work with American Special Forces on counter terrorism raids, accosted the prosecutor, threatened him and demanded the release of a fellow guard named Assadullah...

The prosecutor refused and called the provincial police chief, Matiullah Qati, who arrived with four police officers who serve as his guards and Abdul Khaliq, the province's criminal investigations director.

A dispute arose, and the guards began shooting at Qati and Khaliq, according to Ahmed Wali Karzai. The shooting lasted for about 10 minutes, Karzai said, and left Qati, his four police guards and Khaliq dead. Another six officers were injured. It was unclear whether any of the guards were killed.

Local police arrested at least 41 guards afterward... (link)
The BBC has an intriguing take on the legal status of these mysterious security forces:
Afghan guards are often employed at coalition military bases across the country.

They are paid and trained by the US. While the guards are recognised by the Afghan government, they do not come under their command.

Locals often refer to these guards as Afghan special forces as they are well-trained and well-armed, our correspondent says... (link)
This description of the Afghan special forces seems roughly to correspond with descriptions of the forces which carried out the Toube massacre - which, to my knowledge, has only been covered in English by this blogger, the Telegraph (UK), and the Insitute for War and Peace Reporting. In Toube, Afghan and foreign special forces were said to have helicoptered into the village late at night and killed families in their homes.

Canadian troops at work (updated)

The Canadian Press' Colin Perkel was along for the ride for an operation where Canadian troops invaded a village in the Panjwai district:

Canadian troops storm Afghan town

SALAVAT, Afghanistan June 25 (CP) – Canadian forces invaded the village of Salavat this past week in another effort at disrupting a key insurgent staging area...

The two-day operation saw the deployment of an entire battle group of Canadian infantry, combat engineers and tank crews – several hundred soldiers in all – along with close to 200 more Afghan army and police officers...

At first light Thursday, a large convoy of armoured vehicles and tanks moved from a nearby operating base toward a staging area just outside Salavat – an open field that within an hour had been transformed into a massive military encampment...

One company sealed the exits from the village. Hours later, the array of firepower and manpower had assembled in the staging area, and the invasion began with a tank firing two shells through the outer wall of the former school...

An interpreter yelled a final warning, and combat engineers blew open the blue metal gate...

Soldiers systematically smashed in the locked doors and searched every room, finding only a neat array of domestic items, including a baby crib, plastic flowers, sewing machines, laundry hanging to dry...

Under the rules of engagement, Canadian soldiers can only smash their way into compounds – a "hard knock" – if they have solid intelligence of Taliban activity. Otherwise, the protocol is to let Afghan soldiers or police do the actual searches – the "soft knock." ...

As has become increasingly common in this insurgent war, the Taliban did not show up to fight, melting away like ghosts...

While some villagers simply glared at the influx of soldiers, others chatted and joked with the Afghan troops as the always cautious Canadian soldiers mostly kept their distance... (link)
The astute reader will note the apparent disparity between the rules of engagement and the troops' actions. Since the troops entered what was apparently a Taliban-free household, they could not have been acting on "solid intelligence," and thus should have relied upon Afghan troops for the "soft knock."

The less-than-enthused response of locals seems to be the present reality for Canadian troops in a province where 66% polled say they want NATO troops out of their country. Recently, the press was reporting on civilians elsewhere in the Panjwai district who were happy to see the backs of Canadian troops who had brought violence to the villagers living near the base. It doesn't look like the people of Salavat are a whole lot different on that score.

We've also seen that little boys throwing rocks at patrols is common, as is a middle finger greeting for soldiers entering villages.