Monday, March 29, 2010

Negotiations in Afghanistan

Readers are undoubtedly aware that there has recently arisen a flood of news and commentary about talks and negotiations in Afghanistan. This torrent was released by President Karzai at the international conference on Afghanistan held in London this past January. There, Karzai promoted the idea of negotiations between insurgent leaders and the Government of Afghanistan. The idea got a cool reception from Washington, which prefers to peel off low-level insurgents and rehabilitate them rather than cutting any power-sharing deal with insurgent leaders. Other countries, notably the UK, are more enthusiastic.

Of course, there have been reports since at least 2008 of talks between Afghan government officials and insurgent representatives, most memorably in Saudi Arabia in September, 2008.

One should note at this point that such a plan is not the only type of negotiations which have been talked about in the context of ending the war. Other political leaders, notably the National Peace Jirga of Afghanistan, advocate instead for a jirga which would bring representatives of all Afghans together, rather than simply insurgents and the government.

An interesting side note on the negotiations issue is the recent capture of senior Taliban official Mullah Baradar. While Pakistan's motives for capturing Baradar were at first obscure, it is now widely held that Pakistan is leveraging their habeus corpus of Baradar in order so as not to be left out of unfolding negotiations, for which Baradar has apparently been a key player. In Islamabad's view, the Karzai-inspired talks were destined to cut out Pakistan, perhaps even presaging a tilt toward India, Pakistan's rival. Any negotiations which occur now will have to involve Pakistan.

The Associated Press has the latest on the call for talks, which has attracted Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami to Kabul to make some offers:

Militant group in Kabul with draft peace deal
Deb Riechmann in Kabul

... Harun Zarghun, chief spokesman for Hizb-i-Islami, said a five-member delegation was in Kabul to meet with government officials and also plans to meet with Taliban leaders somewhere in Afghanistan. The group, which has longtime ties to al-Qaida, was founded by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister and rebel commander in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s...

Zarghun, the group's spokesman in Pakistan, said the delegation is carrying a 15-point plan that calls for foreign forces to start pulling out in July - a full year ahead of President Barack Obama's desire to start withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011.

The plan also calls for the current Afghan parliament to serve through December. After that, the parliament would be replaced by an interim government, or shura, which would hold local and national elections within a year, according to the plan. Zarghun said a new Afghan constitution would be written, merging the current version with ones used earlier... (link)
Other reports have quoted Hizb-i officials as saying their proposal is a starting point for negotiations, not necessarily a take-it-or-leave-it deal.

Interestingly, the Hizb-i Islami delegation has some unusual supporters - the National Front of Afghanistan. This party is widely considered to be the Northern Alliance in political clothing. (The Northern Alliance being of course the mostly non-Pashtun, Tajik-dominated, coalition which opposed the Taliban regime until 9/11 when the USA provided its air force.)
HIA-govt talks gain traction
By Abdul Qadeer Siddiqui

KABUL, Mar 24 (Pajhwok) - The National Front of Afghanistan (NFA), a political party opposed to President Hamid Karzai, has welcomed covert peace talks between the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) and the government as beneficial for the country.

NFA spokesman Syed Aqa Faazel Sancharaki, in an exclusive interview with Pajhwok Afghan News, said on Wednesday they supported all the steps taken towards bringing peace and stability, including talks with the HIA...

Also on Wednesday, another political party -- Afghanistan Nationwide Jirga (ANJ) -- lent its weight to the peace parleys with HIA and backed its conditions for fresh presidential, parliamentary and provincial council elections.

A member of the party, Naseem Gul Totakhel, said: "It will be even better if disgruntled elements are also invited to the upcoming traditional peace Jirga slated for April 29." ... (link)
It is difficult to find out anything on the Nationwide Jirga, mentioned above. However, it appears to have some basis in the Pashtun areas of eastern Afghanistan. If so, then the endorsment of the HIA (also abbreviated HIG for Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin) talks is coming from both Tajik and Pashtun quarters. An intriguing development to be sure.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

NATO's M.O.: Killing pregnant women, smearing journalists

In recent months, Times reporter Jerome Starkey has exposed two incidents of Afghan civilians killed by foreign forces and their Afghan protegees. In December a night raid in eastern Kunar province killed eight boys. This was followed in February by another house raid which killed an attorney and his police officer brother and which involved the strange assertion that the raiding forces had found the bodies of two women who had apparently been murdered.

Here's Newshoggers with more:

In the first case, NATO officials told [Starkey] they no longer believed that the raid would have been justified if they'd known what they now know, but no official would consent to direct attribution for this admission.

In the second case, NATO initially made sensational claims that they'd discovered during the raid the bodies of pregnant women that had been bound, gagged and executed. Starkey's reporting forcefully rebutted this claim. Instead of simply retracting their story, NATO went so far as to attempt to damage Starkey's credibility by telling other Kabul-based journalists that they had proof he'd misquoted ISAF spokesman Rear Adm. Greg Smith. When Starkey demanded a copy of the recording, NATO initially ignored him and eventually admitted that no recording existed. NATO only admitted their story was false in a retraction buried several paragraphs deep in a press release that led with an attack on Starkey's credibility.
While the title of this blog post asserts that these are NATO's actions in question, I am playing a little fast and loose with the facts, mostly to have a snappy title to draw in readers. However, I am following both Newshoggers and, surprisingly, journalist Jerome Starkey in this regard. In his original articles Starkey rather ambiguously relates statements of NATO officials. So while it is NATO which is communicating with Starkey in his original dispatches, in all likelihood neither of the deadly raids in question were NATO-run operations. In general, night raids like the ones described tend to be performed by American-led special forces teams which have Afghans along for translating and training and which are outside NATO command. This according to the admittedly thin evidence on the matter. So, a more accurate, and more clunky title for this posting would be: 'USA's M.O.: Killing pregnant women; NATO's M.O.: smearing journalists'.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Canadian forces hand over to execution, says soldier

A heavily censored stack of documents which the Canadian government has released has brought new revelations about torture (and worse):

Afghans routinely executed detainees: soldier

OTTAWA, Mar 25 (CP) - A Canadian soldier has alleged that Afghan authorities routinely executed detainees his unit handed over to them, newly released documents show...

The accusation that detainees were killed by Afghan army or police officers comes from a Canadian soldier with the Royal Canadian Regiment who served in the Panjwai district. Upon returning to Canada, he told a military doctor treating him for stress about his concerns.

"After they handed over the detainee, the local authority would walk the detainee out of range and the detainee would be shot," says a 2008 report on the soldier's claims. "This occurred on more than one occasion." ...

An April 2007 by a Foreign Affairs official who joined a Correctional Service of Canada staffer on an "exhaustive inspection" of the notorious National Directorate of Security facility in Kandahar City also cites claims of abuse.

Amnesty International has complained that military police failed to probe officers who directed the transfer of detainees to Afghan authorities despite knowing they might be tortured.

A February 2008 memo prepared at National Defence Headquarters by Capt. S.M. Moore... notes a survey conducted "in theatre revealed that soldiers stated they had witnessed the abuse of detainees" — yet the information was not immediately passed on to military police.

It adds that on Feb. 15, 2008, two unknown individuals approached a female military police member when she exited the shower, grabbed her arms, pushed her against the shower wall and told her: "MPs mind your own business." ... (link)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

How do you say 'deja vu' in Russian?

In the Christian Science Monitor, veteran correspondent Edward Girardet has some fascinating reflections on the Red Army campaign in the Panjshir valley during the summer of 1982. The Russians were of course fighting a losing battle against the US-supported mujahideen warriors, and Girardet points out some uncanny similarities between the that war and the present one.

The Panjshir, just north of Kabul, is a famous bastion of Tajik forces and which in 2001-02 served as a regional headquarters of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance in their US-led war against the Taliban regime.

Afghanistan war: lessons from the Soviet war

... My purpose was to report on the largest Soviet-led offensive against the mujahideen to that date. More than 12,000 Soviet and Afghan troops would attempt to crush 3,000 fighters led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, known as the "Lion of Panjshir" and one of the 20th century's most effective guerrilla commanders.

Last month's NATO-led operation in Marjah in Helmand Province – the largest offensive of the current war – put me in mind of the Panjshir...

The Panjshir push was roughly the same size as the Marjah offensive – called Operation Moshtarak – and involved 10,000 to 12,000 coalition and Afghan troops. In the Soviet war, Western journalists reported primarily from the guerrilla side. But in contrast to most of today's media, embedded with NATO troops, we had constant access to ordinary Afghans. We walked through the countryside sleeping in villages, with long evenings spent drinking tea and talking with the locals. Frank conversation doesn't happen when one party wears body armor or is flanked by heavily armed soldiers: Afghans will only tell you what they think you want to hear. Or, even more crucial, what suits their own interests. Hence the highly questionable veracity of opinion polls in Afghanistan today.

Similar to the Marjah offensive, the Soviets warned the population of the impending attack with propaganda leaflets and radio broadcasts. They appealed to the Panjshiris to support the government in return for cash and other incentives, such as subsidized wheat. Their tactic was to force the guerrillas out, but allow the civilians to remain. To make their point, the communists lambasted the guerrillas as criminals supported by foreign interests in the tribal areas across the border in Pakistan, a tactic similar to those used by the Americans against the Taliban today...

Days earlier, Massoud had evacuated the area's 50,000 or more people, somewhat less than the population affected by the Marjah campaign. He did this to minimize civilian casualties and to give his fighters free rein.

Before dawn the morning after we arrived, we could hear the ominous drone of helicopters. As the throbbing grew louder, tiny specks appeared on the horizon, gunships sweeping over the jagged snowcapped peaks like hordes of wasps. Soon the hollow thud of rockets and bombs were pounding guerrilla positions...

Massoud's strategy was to empty the valley, let the Soviets in, and have fighters hit the occupation forces in their own time.

It was reminiscent of a 19th-century painting of picnickers casually watching a distant battle. We counted no fewer than 200 helicopter sorties that morning, while scores of tanks and armored personnel carriers ground their way up the riverbed, the only way to penetrate the valley because guerrillas had mined the road...

The Soviet/Afghan force quickly took the valley, proclaiming victory. The reality was far different. Massoud's experienced guerrillas suffered few casualties and, within days, launched assaults against the entrenched Red Army troops. Afghan government soldiers, too, poorly paid and disheartened, slipped out at night with their weapons to join the resistance.

Massoud eventually made a truce with the Soviets. This enabled the Red Army a "take and hold" policy with several garrisons in the Panjshir. Some civilians returned, while the guerrillas established their own concealed bases in mountains beyond. The truce was much criticized by rival groups of mujahideen, but it was part of a long-term strategy: Massoud had no intention of collaborating with the regime. Occupation troops first had to leave before any unity government could be formed...

For years, Massoud kept the Soviets tied down while focusing on other areas and building a highly proficient regional force denying the communists swaths of countryside. The mujahideen – like the Taliban now – always felt they had time on their side. All they needed to do was wear down the Red Army. At the height of the occupation, the Soviets commanded 120,000 troops in Afghanistan, compared with the 150,000 coalition high expected by next fall with completion of the US troop surge...

Throughout its war, however, the Red Army held little more than the main towns. The countryside remained largely in the hands of the mujahideen. Similarly, today, 70 percent of the country is ranked as "insecure" by the United Nations...

Red Army commanders were very aware that they couldn't trust "their" Afghans. Massoud's mujahideen enjoyed full details of planned operations before launch. Many government, military, and police officials, including senior commanders, secretly collaborated with the resistance, just as pro-Taliban and other insurgent collaborators have infiltrated most ministries of the current administration...

While the coalition may claim the Marjah offensive routed the Taliban, it will probably have little impact on the long-term fighting capability of the opposition, even if NATO holds terrain captured.

To claim success shows a poor understanding of Afghanistan. Only a small proportion of the insurgents are actually fighting. The majority of sympathizers will have buried their weapons or simply blended in among the civilians. Others are in the process of deploying elsewhere...

For most Afghans I've talked to on recent trips to Kabul and eastern, central, and southern Afghanistan, justice, not security, is the principal concern. Even where the military is in control, Afghans slip out to Taliban-controlled areas to seek fair dealing, having more confidence in Taliban sharia courts than in Karzai-regime judges. They see lack of rule of law and international community failure to develop a functioning economy, particularly in the countryside where 80 percent of Afghans live. And they increasingly perceive the coalition as a foreign occupation force, much like the Soviets... (link)
In a similar piece a few months back Robert Fisk related how Russian forces were able to take virtually any piece of territory, but could not hold that territory. Revealing an earlier form of rendition, he also heard from locals that Afghan prisoners were being taken back to Russia for torture and interrogation. Then there was the destroyed school, torched by mujahideen for educating girls - a common crime at the time, conducted by the allies of the USA, thus only rarely mentioned in current accounts of that war, and of course never reflected upon.

And in an outstanding article a couple of years back, former Russian soldier Nicolai Lanine outlined how the Soviet government claimed their invasion was undertaken to uphold international law and prevent future attacks against Russia itself from being organized in Afghanistan.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Now almost 300,000 IDP's

As far as I can tell, no media outlets whatsoever have picked up on the recent announcement (below, courtesy of a UN news agency) from the UN Secretary-General. The latest figures on internally displaced persons demonstrate the utter disaster which the war in Afghanistan has brought for a wide swath of the population:

IDP numbers up in Afghanistan - UN

KABUL, March 17 (IRIN) - Armed hostilities have boosted the number of internally displaced persons (IDP's) to over 296,000 but an effective humanitarian response is being hampered by insecurity, the UN Secretary-General says in a new report to the UN Security Council...

"The deterioration of Afghanistan's security situation has continued, with 2009 being the most volatile year since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, averaging 960 security incidents per month, as compared with 741 in 2008. The situation worsened in January 2010, with the number of security incidents 40 per cent higher than in January 2009," [the report] said... (link)
Related blog posts:

October 2006: The Senlis Council's Norine MacDonald reports that IDP's are "starving" while Canadian soldiers are stationed some 15 minutes away with no mandate to assist them.

November 2007: UNHCR counts 129,000 IDP's just in southern Afghanistan - a figure which does not include an additional 100,000 people recently displaced by conflict in the south.

May 2008: IDP's are cautious of returning home. One northerner said: "Commanders and warlords in the north are still seizing people’s land and forcing them to abandon their houses; so how can we return?"

February 2009: UNHCR counts 235,000 IDP's.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Freelance killing

Just when I thought that all the angles for killing were covered, the New York Times exposes a type of killing force we haven't seen or heard from before. We have seen there are CIA teams in Afghanistan and Pakistan; there are Afghan special forces operating outside Afghan military command; there are foreign special forces including German ones, Canadian ones and Australian ones; there are unofficial tribal militias; etc. etc. Now this.

It's a bizarre and intriguing tale:

Contractors Tied to Effort to Track and Kill Militants
By Dexter Filkins and Mark Mazzetti

KABUL, Mar 15 (NYT) - Under the cover of a benign government information-gathering program, a Defense Department official set up a network of private contractors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help track and kill suspected militants, according to military officials and businessmen in Afghanistan and the United States.

The official, Michael D. Furlong, hired contractors from private security companies that employed former C.I.A. and Special Forces operatives. The contractors, in turn, gathered intelligence on the whereabouts of suspected militants and the location of insurgent camps, and the information was then sent to military units and intelligence officials for possible lethal action in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the officials said...

[S]ome American officials say they became troubled that Mr. Furlong seemed to be running an off-the-books spy operation. The officials say they are not sure who condoned and supervised his work.

It is generally considered illegal for the military to hire contractors to act as covert spies. Officials said Mr. Furlong’s secret network might have been improperly financed by diverting money from a program designed to merely gather information about the region.

Moreover, in Pakistan, where Qaeda and Taliban leaders are believed to be hiding, the secret use of private contractors may be seen as an attempt to get around the Pakistani government’s prohibition of American military personnel’s operating in the country.

Officials say Mr. Furlong’s operation seems to have been shut down, and he now is the subject of a criminal investigation...

Robert Young Pelton, an author who writes extensively about war zones, said that the government hired him to gather information about Afghanistan and that Mr. Furlong improperly used his work. “We were providing information so they could better understand the situation in Afghanistan, and it was being used to kill people,” Mr. Pelton said...

Mr. Pelton said he had been told by Afghan colleagues that video images that he posted on the Web site had been used for an American strike in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan... (link)
Robert Young Pelton, mentioned in story, is co-author of alternative travel guide The World's Most Dangerous Places. The website he set up for the contract was an open source project at, and it is still online.

Monday, March 15, 2010

US Army officer reveals ethnic cleansing in Afghanistan

Last fall, an American special forces commander acquired the fawning nickname "Lawrence of Afghanistan" after he published a study on military tactics in Afghanistan. Based on his own experiences, Major Jim Gant advocated for an alternative to reigning counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy and apparently caught the attention of General McChrystal, who widely redistributed the report.

The report involves a case study in Kunar province where his team of special forces operated in 2003. At first this involved Armed Reconnaissance Patrols through the countryside, "basically announcing our presence and inviting contact, friendly or hostile." At one village, they were told there was a "problem" in a different village called Mangwel, to where his eight-man team then went and subsequently met a local leader, Malik Noorafzhal.

Here's how Gant recounts the forming of a significant relationship with Noorafzhal, a tribal leader in Kunar province:

... there was a “highland” people and a “lowland” people... The highland people had taken and were using some land that belonged to the lowland people. The Malik told me the land had been given to his tribe by the “King Of Afghanistan” many, many years ago and that he would show me the papers. I told him he didn’t need to show me any papers. His word was enough. He then told me he had given the highlanders 10 days to comply with the request or he and his men would retake it by force...

He had asked for help, a thing he later would tell me was hard for him to do (especially from an outsider) and I had many options. Could I afford to get involved in internal tribal warfare? ...

I made the decision to support him. “Malik, I am with you. My men and I will go with you and speak with the highlanders again. If they do not turn the land back over to you, we will fight with you against them.” ...

Without going into further detail, suffice it to say that the dispute with the highlanders was resolved... (link to pdf)
The current term for actions of this sort is ethnic cleansing, which according to a US State Dept study "entails the systematic and forced removal of members of an ethnic group from their communities to change the ethnic composition of a region." When official enemies do this, it is cause for an international crisis and accompanying vilification in the media. However, when our side does it, few so much as take notice.

Even on its own terms, Gant's approach, as he describes it, hardly merits the term strategy as tribal alliances like the one he modeled are quite ad hoc and don't readily lend themselves to horizontal spread. Thus the basic requirement, under military doctrine, of "unity of effort" would be elusive at best.

In a review of Gant's paper the Long War Journal similarly notes some fundamental flaws in his argument:
[Gant] himself points out that he and his team were safer in the village than in their outpost, and that he was unable to prevent the attacks the village suffered as a result of its cooperation. In other words, there's a real confusion about who was protecting whom... (link)
It is worth noting, however, that one innovation which Gant proposes appears to have been taken up by US military commanders. The latest military jargon for COIN theorists and commentators insists that troops have to live among the people. General McChrystal himself told the New York Times about his hopes in such terms, saying "we literally want to go in there and squat among the people."

Recent announcements indicate that that approach is being operationalised and the above comments from the Long War Journal thus apply equally to McChrystal's emerging strategy.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

German forces now ordering airstrikes

Der Spiegel Online has a very interesting piece on the German army's new found enthusiasm for air strikes and armed drones:

It was a summer's day in June 2009 when the German army in Afghanistan first used US Army drones in combat. With hindsight, some observers say that was the day the German military lost its innocence in Afghanistan. The firing of deadly rockets from drones on the orders of a German commander was part of the new reality of war in northern Afghanistan.

Before that the Germans had only used US drones, lent out to them by the US military as part of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, to observe Taliban movements. They didn't take advantage of the drones' deadly Hellfire rockets. But on June 15 last year, Colonel Georg Klein pushed the red button for the first time. Seconds later, a booby trap that had been detected on the side of a road was destroyed.

Klein went on to order a deeply controversial air strike on two hijacked fuel tankers on Sept. 4, 2009...

Since last June, the use of the unmanned aircraft has become routine to the Germans, in a similar fashion to their use of air support... (link)
The report indicates a pretty high degree of escalation of German involvement in the war -- a very touchy issue in that country where a strong majority disapprove of the war. I don't know of any reports at all of Canadian troops actually calling in an air strike and neither have I seen anyone asserting the the CF use armed drones. This might be due to rules for journalists which forbid reporting on such things, or it could be that Canadian forces don't call in air strikes or use armed drones.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

NATO massacre covered up

The Times (UK) breaks the story:

Nato ‘covered up’ botched night raid in Afghanistan that killed five
Jerome Starkey - The Times

KHATABA, PAKTIA, Mar 13 - A night raid carried out by US and Afghan gunmen led to the deaths of two pregnant women, a teenage girl and two local officials in an atrocity which Nato then tried to cover up, survivors have told The Times.

The operation on Friday, February 12, was a botched pre-dawn assault on a policeman’s home a few miles outside Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, eastern Afghanistan. In a statement after the raid titled “Joint force operating in Gardez makes gruesome discovery”, Nato claimed that the force had found the women’s bodies “tied up, gagged and killed” in a room.

A Times investigation suggests that Nato’s claims are either wilfully false or, at best, misleading. More than a dozen survivors, officials, police chiefs and a religious leader interviewed at and around the scene of the attack maintain that the perpetrators were US and Afghan gunmen. The identity and status of the soldiers is unknown...

Nato said that the troops were part of a joint “Afghan-international” force but, despite new rules requiring them to leave leaflets identifying their unit, the family said they left nothing. Local US forces denied any involvement...

Nato’s original statement said: “Several insurgents engaged the joint force in a firefight and were killed.” The family maintain that no one threw so much as a stone. Rear Admiral Greg Smith, Nato’s director of communications in Kabul, denied that there had been any attempt at a cover-up...

“I don’t know if they fired any rounds,” he said. “If you have got an individual stepping out of a compound, and if your assault force is there, that is often the trigger to neutralise the individual. You don’t have to be fired upon to fire back.” (link)
One man who witnessed the Paktia raid told an AP reporter he saw "U.S. special forces" surrounding the compound.

Reading the above piece carefully, one notes that NATO didn't say it was their own "Afghan-international" force, at least as it is worded in the article. Despite the American denial, the unit could be a US special forces operation, either under NATO or otherwise. Although the U.S. military recently put more of its special forces units in Afghanistan under NATO command, there are still some who operate outside that command.

In any case, it is not the first time that evidence has suggested that US special forces have committed an atrocity. In November of 2007, residents of Toube village in Helmand province alleged that foreign troops, accompanied by Afghan soldiers, killed over a dozen civilians, including babies, in a commando-style night raid. In October, 2008, locals in Balkh province described a raid by Afghan and foreign special forces in which the foreigners beat civilians while the Afghans looted. A NATO spokesperson confirmed the attack and said NATO forces provided supplies for the operation.

And the Americans aren't the only ones in on such dastardly deeds. In 2008, the CBC reported that American, British and Canadian JTF-2 special forces have conducted "hunt and kill" raids in Afghanistan. Note that such a mode of operation would constitute a targeted assassination, which is illegal under international law.

We have also seen that CIA-trained Afghan special forces, which are not under Afghan command, have been used in the fight against the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the drug industry in Afghanistan.

Finally, here's an AP summary of the new NATO guidelines for night raids:
KABUL, Mar 5 (AP) - A new directive from NATO's top commander in Afghanistan orders coalition forces to avoid night raids when possible, but to bring Afghan troops with them if they must enter homes after dark...

[I]f night raids are conducted, Afghan security forces "should be the first force seen and the first voices heard by the occupants of any compound entered."

The order requires that Afghan troops must be included in the planning and execution of all night raids, and that Afghan government representatives must be notified in advance. When possible, community elders also need to be consulted. (link)