Monday, July 26, 2010

Petraeus' first move: proxy forces

Longtime readers of this blog may remember that a couple of years ago, I was regularly running long compilations of civilian deaths at the hands of foreign forces (see, for example, here and here). Deadly incidents occurred every few days for months on end. More than once did the tally of civilians killed by western troops exceed that of civilians killed by the Taliban.

Evidence of such carnage has been thinner for over a year now, suggesting two possibilities: Either there were fewer civilians killed by occupation forces, or the incidents continued at the same rate while there was less reporting of them. Few doubt that General McChrystal's new stricter rules of engagement, aimed at winning Afghan hearts and minds, had resulted in less danger to the Afghan public. Soldiers were often quoted lamenting that their hands were tied by the new rules.

It is now widely known that General McChrystal's replacement, General Petraeus, has decided to reverse the earlier order, returning the rules of engagement to their former character.

In contrast, another of McChrystal's policy innovations has been treated with more interest. His efforts to introduce militias are being intensified by his successor:

Petraeus's first act is to establish militias to fight the Taliban
General persuades a reluctant President Karzai to sign up to tactics imported from Iraq

Kim Sengupta - The Independent

HELMAND, July 16 - Armed militias of the type used to fight the insurgency in Iraq are to be introduced to Afghanistan in what is seen as a controversial part of the new strategy of General David Petraeus to counter the tide of Taliban attacks.

The setting up of the groups – who will provide up to 10,000 fighters – is the first major initiative by General Petraeus after taking over command of Western forces in the Afghan campaign following the sacking of his fellow American, General Stanley McChrystal.

The move, has, however, faced resistance from Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, who fears that the groups would become power bases for regional strongmen. ...

The militias are to be deployed in less inhabited areas, which have seen a drawdown of Western forces in accordance with General McChrystal's decision to concentrate on more populated centres. ... (link)
Militias, of course, are seen as a potential problem in and of themselves.

Your guide to WikiLeaks' Afghan war logs

On Monday, as most readers are probably aware, WikiLeaks released an enormous trove of US military reports from Afghanistan.

First, the local angle: There is some Canadian content, though very little. One incident report claims that an air attack by friendly forces killed four Canadian troops on September 3, 2006 during Operation Medusa. At the time, those deaths were officially reported to be caused by Taliban fire, and indeed there is a small amount of literature describing those soldiers' last moments. The Canadian military denies the report.

Next, a little bubble bursting: The purported Pakistani intelligence-Taliban link is not as strong as some of the hyped articles have it. The New York Times' coverage has opted to focus on the Pakistan angle, citing intelligence reports from the WikiLeaks cache which report that Pakistan's ISI is in cahoots with the Afghan Taliban:

The documents, made available by an organization called WikiLeaks, suggest that Pakistan, an ostensible ally of the United States, allows representatives of its spy service to meet directly with the Taliban in secret strategy sessions to organize networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan, and even hatch plots to assassinate Afghan leaders. (link)
The key word in that run-on sentence is "suggest," as in the evidence does not prove that the ISI supports the Taliban. Indeed, the evidence for the connection is rather poor, according to Declan Walsh, a Guardian reporter with plenty of experience in Afghanistan and who was part of the Guardian team for the WikiLeaks report. The reports:
fail to provide a convincing smoking gun for ISI complicity. Most of the reports are vague, filled with incongruent detail, or crudely fabricated. The same characters – famous Taliban commanders, well-known ISI officials – and scenarios repeatedly pop up. And few of the events predicted in the reports subsequently occurred. (link)
American diplomat Peter Galbraith, formerly stationed in Afghanistan, is more credulous. While he admits that some evidence is poor (noting "surely the ISI did not plot to poison Kabul-bound beer, an enormously complex operation with limited pay off since US troops are not allowed to drink alcohol in Afghanistan") he observes that the documents "show a continued relationship between the ISI and the Taliban."

What follows is a summary of the highlights of the revelations of the Afghan war diary, mostly taken from the Guardian team's analysis.
Afghanistan war logs: Massive leak of secret files exposes truth of occupation

Nick Davies and David Leigh
The Guardian - Sunday 25 July 2010

A huge cache of secret US military files today provides a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, Taliban attacks have soared and Nato commanders fear neighbouring Pakistan and Iran are fuelling the insurgency. ...

The war logs also detail:

- How a secret "black" unit of special forces hunts down Taliban leaders for "kill or capture" without trial.

- How the US covered up evidence that the Taliban have acquired deadly surface-to-air missiles.

- How the coalition is increasingly using deadly Reaper drones to hunt and kill Taliban targets by remote control from a base in Nevada.

- How the Taliban have caused growing carnage with a massive escalation of their roadside bombing campaign, which has killed more than 2,000 civilians to date. ...

The logs detail, in sometimes harrowing vignettes, the toll on civilians exacted by coalition forces: events termed "blue on white" in military jargon. The logs reveal 144 such incidents.

Some of these casualties come from the controversial air strikes that have led to Afghan government protests, but a large number of previously unknown incidents also appear to be the result of troops shooting unarmed drivers or motorcyclists out of a determination to protect themselves from suicide bombers.

At least 195 civilians are admitted to have been killed and 174 wounded in total, but this is likely to be an underestimate as many disputed incidents are omitted from the daily snapshots ...

Rachel Reid, who investigates civilian casualty incidents in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, said: "These files bring to light what's been a consistent trend by US and Nato forces: the concealment of civilian casualties." ... (link)
Declan Walsh on the Pakistani ISI:
At least 180 files contain allegations of dirty tricks by the powerful agency with accounts of undercover agents training suicide bombers, bundles of money slipping across the border and covert support for a range of sensational plots including the assassination of President Hamid Karzai, attacks on Nato warplanes and even poisoning western troops' beer supply. ...

But for all their eye-popping details, the intelligence files, which are mostly collated by junior officers relying on informants and Afghan officials, fail to provide a convincing smoking gun for ISI complicity. Most of the reports are vague, filled with incongruent detail, or crudely fabricated. The same characters – famous Taliban commanders, well-known ISI officials – and scenarios repeatedly pop up. And few of the events predicted in the reports subsequently occurred. ...

[A] retired US officer said some [Afghan] NDS officials "wanted to create the impression that Pakistani complicity was a threat to the US". And more broadly speaking, "there's an Afghan prejudice that wants to see an ISI agent under every rock". ... (link)
Walsh also writes on what the leaked files show about the Afghan insurgency's weaponry for attacks against US/NATO aircraft:
The US military covered up a reported surface-to-air missile strike by the Taliban that shot down a Chinook helicopter over Helmand in 2007 and killed seven soldiers, including a British military photographer, the war logs show.

The strike on the twin-rotor helicopter shows the Taliban enjoyed sophisticated anti-aircraft capabilities earlier than previously thought, casting new light on the battle for the skies over Afghanistan.

Hundreds of files detail the efforts of insurgents, who have no aircraft, to shoot down western warplanes. The war logs detail at least 10 near-misses by missiles in four years against coalition aircraft, one while refuelling at 11,000ft and another involving a suspected Stinger missile of the kind supplied by the CIA to Afghan rebels in the 1980s.

But if American and British commanders were worried about the missile threat, they downplayed it in public – to the extent of ignoring their own pilots' testimony. The CH-47 Chinook was shot down on 30 May 2007 after dropping troops at the strategic Kajaki dam in Helmand...

Later that day Nato and US officials suggested the helicopter, codenamed Flipper, had been brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade – effectively, a lucky hit. ...

But US pilot logs show they were certain the missile was not an RPG and was most likely a Manpad – the military term for a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile. ... (link)
The Guardian's Nick Davies looks at a heretofore obscure American unit called Task Force 373, used for targeted assassinations and captures. Interestingly, he also summarizes an incident where official statements contained lies about the deaths of civilians, again showing US-led deception efforts:
The Nato coalition in Afghanistan has been using an undisclosed "black" unit of special forces, Task Force 373, to hunt down targets for death or detention without trial. Details of more than 2,000 senior figures from the Taliban and al-Qaida are held on a "kill or capture" list, known as Jpel, the joint prioritised effects list. ...

[O]n 4 October [2007], [TF 373] confronted Taliban fighters in a village called Laswanday [in Paktika province]. The Taliban appear to have retreated by the time TF 373 called in air support to drop 500lb bombs on the house from which the fighters had been firing.

The final outcome, listed tersely at the end of the leaked log: 12 US wounded, two teenage girls and a 10-year-old boy wounded, one girl killed, one woman killed, four civilian men killed, one donkey killed, one dog killed, several chickens killed, no enemy killed, no enemy wounded, no enemy detained.

The coalition put out a statement claiming falsely to have killed several militants and making no mention of any dead civilians; and later added that "several non-combatants were found dead and several others wounded" without giving any numbers or details...

In spite of discovering that the dead civilians came from one family, one of whom had been found with his hands tied behind his back, suggesting that the Taliban were unwelcome intruders in their home, senior officials travelled to the stricken village where they "stressed that the fault of the deaths of the innocent lies on the villagers who did not resist the insurgents and their anti-government activities … [and] chastised a villager who condemned the compound shooting". Nevertheless, an internal report concluded that there was "little or no protest" over the incident. ...

The logs include references to the tracing and killing of other targets on the Jpel list, which do not identify TF 373 as the unit responsible. It is possible that some of the other taskforce names and numbers which show up in this context are cover names for 373, or for British special forces, 500 of whom are based in southern Afghanistan and are reported to have been involved in kill/capture missions...

Some of these "non 373" operations involve the use of unmanned drones to fire missiles to kill the target...

Other Jpel targets were traced and then bombed from the air. ... (link)
Readers will notice in the above that nothing is said about the involvement of Canadian special forces.

Declan Walsh on Afghan-Pakistani tensions on the border:
Afghanistan war logs: Secret war along the Pakistan border
Americans caught in middle of flare-ups over disputed colonial boundary and attacks by Taliban from within tribal zone

Declan Walsh - The Guardian, Sunday 25 July 2010

The Taliban are not the only enemy along the fraught borderlands of the Afghan war. Secret intelligence files reveal severe tensions between putative allies who can be drinking tea one day and fighting each other the next.

The war logs detail hundreds of cross-border clashes along the lawless frontier with Pakistan, far more than previously reported. The most violent salvos came from US troops disregarding Pakistani sovereignty to fire on Taliban fighters sheltering in its tribal belt. ... (link)
Finally, the Guardian's David Leigh on the little-discussed role of the CIA:
Afghanistan war logs: Secret CIA paramilitaries' role in civilian deaths
Innocent Afghan men, women and children have paid the price of the Americans' rules of engagement

David Leigh - The Guardian, Sunday 25 July 2010

Shum Khan was a deaf and dumb man who lived in the remote border hamlet of Malekshay, 7,000ft up in the mountains. When a heavily armed squad from the CIA barrelled into his village in March 2007, the war logs record that he "ran at the sight of the approaching coalition forces … out of fear and confusion".

The secret CIA paramilitaries, (the euphemism here is OGA, for "other government agency") shouted at him to stop. Khan could not hear them. He carried on running. So they shot him, saying they were entitled to do so under the carefully graded "escalation of force" provisions of the US rules of engagement. ...

But the logs demonstrate how much of the contemporaneous US internal reporting of air strikes is simply false. ...

In another case the logs show that on the night of 30 August 2008, a US special forces squad called Scorpion 26 blasted Helmand positions with multiple rockets, and called in an airstrike to drop a 500lb bomb. All that was officially logged was that 24 Taliban had been killed.

But writer Patrick Bishop was embedded in the valley nearby with British paratroops at their Sangin bases. He recorded independently: "Overnight, the question of civilian casualties took on an extra urgency. An American team had been inserted on to Black Mountain … From there, they launched a series of offensive operations. On 30 August, wounded civilians, some of them badly injured, turned up at Sangin and FOB Inkerman saying they had been attacked by foreign troops. Such incidents gave a hollow ring to ISAF claims that their presence would bring security to the local population." ...

The US also realised very quickly that a Polish squad had committed what appeared to have been a possible war crime. On 16 August 2007 the Poles mortared a wedding party in the village of Nangar Khel in an apparent revenge attack shortly after experiencing an IED explosion. ... (link)