Afghanistan war: As civilian deaths rise, NATO says, ‘Sorry.’

Christian Science Monitor

In the Afghanistan war, NATO forces chief Gen. Stanley McChrystal publicly apologized Tuesday for 27 Afghan civilian deaths in a US airstrike. The coalition has begun saying ‘sorry’ more quickly to civilian deaths, as part of a new hearts and minds strategy.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

Another botched airstrike, another apology.

In a video distributed Tuesday in Dari and Pashto, the main languages spoken in Afghanistan, the top NATOcommander here Gen. Stanley McChrystal said he was sorry to the nation for 27 civilian deaths, after US special forces killed a convoy of Afghan civilians they had mistaken for insurgents. It was the coalition’s deadliest mistake in six months.

While public apologies by NATO have become almost commonplace – this was just one of half a dozen in the past 10 days, and the second by McChrystal himself – the push to admit mistakes and say sorry is unprecedented in NATO’s nine-year intervention in Afghanistan. It fits into McChyrstal’s new strategy that prioritizes winning over the population.

“I have instituted a thorough investigation to prevent this from happening again,” he said. “I pledge to strengthen our efforts to regain your trust to build a brighter future for all Afghans. Most importantly, I express my deepest, heartfelt condolences to the victims and their families. We all share in their grief and will keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”

For years, stonewalling

For years, foreign forces here were grudging in their apologies, trying to spin big mistakes into smaller mistakes and refusing to comment on civilian casualties until torturously slow and opaque inquiries ended. If any blame was admitted, it was usually too long after the event to sound sincere. The Taliban exploited NATO’s lack of information, seizing on reports of civilian deaths with its own propaganda machine to turn Afghans against the foreign forces.

But NATO has shifted on the communications front. In the past 10 days alone, it has admitted that airstrikes in Kunduz and Kandahar Provinces last week killed five civilians and a handful of Afghan policemen, and that a rocket strike in the Marjah offensive in Helmand Province left at least nine bystanders dead. Troops there have also shot and killed civilians they have mistaken for suicide bombers. Each time an explanation has been forthcoming.

Apologies, apologies

Afghans are circumspect about the change in tone. “Does this apology mean there won’t be any other civilian casualties in future?” says Abdul Jabar, a carpenter from the eastern province of Wardak. “If it does then I appreciate it.”

Mohammad Yassir, a shopkeeper in Kabul, is less receptive. “I want to ask McChrystal if he had lost his family in such an incident,” he says. “And if someone called to apologize, what would his reaction be? An apology doesn’t bring anyone back to life.”

Officials claim that NATO’s improved ability to communicate in Afghanistan can be attributed to McChrystal himself, who has shaken up the command structure and spun off a new public affairs office fielding queries 24 hours a day.

“It’s a good place to be right now. It’s very exciting and I think the excitement is contagious,” says Col. Wayne Shanks, a NATO public affairs officer based in Kabul. “I owe most of it to General McChrystal because he refocuses us and reenergizes us each day.”

More than words

But independent observers say the difference is attributable not just to the reorganization but also to a change in approach. The circumstances in which coalition forces are allowed to call in an airstrike have become more limited. For example, they must wait 72 hours to establish a “pattern of life” before bombing a house where insurgents have taken refuge.

Although the total number of civilian casualties rose in 2009 to 2,412, NATO troops were responsible for ‘only’ 25 percent of them, down from 39 percent the year before.

“The distinction that McChrystal has brought to the table is that there is a focus on communications but there is another level beyond that, where they are willing to make some changes in policy that reflect community concerns,” says Erica Gaston, a human rights advocate in Kabul for Open Society Institute. “I think that’s the main reason he’s been more effective in strategic communications.”

“With [Gen. David] McKiernan [McChrystal’s predecessor] there was also a certain public relations sensitivity to issues like civilian casualties, but you didn’t really see changes of policy,” she says.

“McChrystal is not only willing to go to the site afterward and make apologies but also to follow that up by making changes to tactical restrictions to prevent similar incidents from occurring.”


Marjah offensive: New Afghan governor takes office as battle rages

Christian Science Monitor

Less than two weeks into the Marjah offensive in Afghanistan, an Afghan governor flew into town on Monday and began holding meetings.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

The shots haven’t even died away in one of NATO’s biggest offensives of its nine-year war in Afghanistan, but US State Department officials are already rushing in Afghan government staff as part of the ambitious next phase of Operation Moshtarak.

The speedy rollout in Marjah of the new US strategy to “clear, hold, and build” is part of the renewed US strategy of wresting momentum from the Taliban. But some experts warn there is no way to install good government overnight.

Ten days into the fight – with US Marines and their Afghan counterparts still advancing on Taliban fighters holed up in the north and west – Marjah’s new subdistrict governor was brought in and held a shura, or council, with local elders in the town center.

Haji Zahir will hold a flurry of similar meetings with other community representatives as soon as he is properly installed, possibly before the end of the week, in makeshift offices while the real ones are cleared of bombs and refurbished.

Civilian stabilization and governance advisers will assist him as he seeks to extend his reach as far and as quickly as possible. In the northern part of Nad-i-Ali, the district to which Marjah belongs, fighting has slackened sufficiently for development specialists to start rolling out “schools-in-a-box.” Repairs to irrigation canals are also under way.

Window of opportunity

Everyone from lowly subdistrict administrators to the government ministries in Kabul is involved in planning Marjah’s future, Western officials are keen to emphasize.

“We’ve planned to have all this in place very quickly partly because we – the Afghan government and Western advisers – feel like we have a window in which to win over the local population,” says Bay Fang, a State Department spokesperson in southern Afghanistan.

“Installing a subdistrict administrator along with governance and stabilization advisers allows the work of government to start straight away. Because basically we want to show the people that the government can deliver basic services and is a viable alternative to the Taliban.”

According to the new population-centric counterinsurgency strategy championed by top commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the real battle for Marjah – and for the rest of Afghanistan – lies in governance and security, not gunfights.

Operation Moshtarak is “in many ways … a model for the future: an Afghan-led operation supported by the coalition, deeply engaged with the people,” McChrystal told reporters on Sunday.

Short timetable

The rush to roll out a functioning local government may also reflect the tight deadline that coalition forces face in Afghanistan. Large amounts of territory remain to be cleared of insurgents, developed, and restored to Afghan sovereignty before President Barack Obama’s July 2011 deadline for a drawdown of US troops.

Operation Moshtarak is the first phase of an 18-month campaign plan mapped out by McChrystal. The focus of coalition and Afghan forces will soon switch to the neighboring province of Kandahar, where the Taliban movement spluttered to life in the early 1990s, and where power has traditionally resided in southern Afghanistan.

There, as in Marjah, troops will try to clear out the insurgents and install a new government. But the battle to win hearts and minds can be easily set back by civilian casualties. According to the Afghan government, a US airstrike on Sunday killed at least 27 civilians on the border of Uruzganand Day Kundi Provinces – NATO’s third botched bombing raid in seven days. Afghan government ministers called the strike “unjustifiable.”

Not everyone is convinced by the rapid effort to impart good governance in Marjah.

“Is [Operation Moshtarak] going to address one of the root causes of this insurgency – bad governance and exclusionary politics? That’s at the heart of it,” says a Western analyst in Kabul, who asked to go unnamed.

“What can the West bring? More resources? Yes. Better politics? Unlikely,” he says. “At the end of the day people want local leaders they can trust. That can’t be delivered overnight. That takes years. It isn’t that this operation is without value but we’ve got to get away from the idea that we can just parachute in a ready-made government.


Afghanistan war: Marjah battle as tough as Fallujah, say US troops

Christian Science Monitor

US and Afghan troops moved towards the center of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah today despite encountering fierce sniper fire and mine fields. Sixty percent of the front-line forces are Afghan troops.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

Thousands of US and Afghan troops ground their way towards the center of the Talibanstronghold of Marjah today despite encountering fierce sniper fire and even greater numbers of home-made bombs, booby traps, and minefields than anticipated.

US Marines raised an Afghan flag inside the town limits but pockets of Taliban militants dug in, with some veterans comparing the intensity of the fighting to that encountered when they stormed the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2005.

“In Fallujah, it was just as intense. But there, we started from the north and worked down to the south. In Marjah, we’re coming in from different locations and working toward the centre, so we’re taking fire from all angles,” Captain Ryan Sparks told Reuters.

The operation to clear Taliban insurgency from their biggest stronghold in Helmand province looks increasingly like an acid test of Western military and political strategy in Afghanistan, with the outcome likely to deal a powerful propaganda blow one way or the other.

With US General Stanley McChrystal’s reinvigorated counter-insurgency campaign placing the emphasis on protecting communities rather than killing militants, the first measure of success for the thousands of US, NATO, and Afghan troops involved in Operation Moshtarak (the Dari word for ‘together’) will be avoiding civilian casualties.

The vast majority of Marjah’s civilian inhabitants, of whom there are somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000, have stayed put after a NATO information campaign entreated them to “keep your heads down” and the Taliban mined all approaches to the town.

Afghan officials say the involvement of Afghan forces in unprecedented numbers – 60 percent of the front-line forces are said to be Afghan – will help alleviate the threat because Afghan soldiers are better able to distinguish between “terrorists and farmers.”

Civilian casualties a key metric

So far this advantage and the coalition’s tactics of attacking in overwhelming numbers but with a restrained use of its overwhelming firepower has largely worked, with civilian casualties limited to 12 killed when a rocket landed 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet) from its target, and seven wounded in separate incidents.

In an indication of how important the issue of civilian casualties may prove to be, General McChrystal promptly offered his apologies to President Hamid Karzai and launched an investigation into the incident. Mr. Karzai only signed off on the operation hours before it began and senior members of his administration reportedly had reservations about advising inhabitants to shelter in their homes rather than fleeing Marjah.

Ghafar Jan, a 32-year old farm laborer living in Marjah, reached by telephone, said that powerful explosions had cast a pall of dust and smoke over the town, and that the “lightning” of rockets was visible from his house.

“The Taliban will fight until the last minute because the attack is coming from all directions so I don’t think they can fall backward to safety,” Jan said. “I don’t know what will happen. God knows what will happen.”

Taliban bravado?

The top Taliban commander in Marjah, Mullah Abdul Razaq Akhund, insisted that his fighters had pushed back the NATO and Afghan allies who were, he claimed, involved in a face-saving operation masking their defeat in Afganistan.

“Tens of foreign soldiers have been killed by roadside bombs and we have also destroyed many vehicles. By the grace of God we have had few casualties,” he said.

He was contradicted by NATO reports that two of its troops — one American, one British – had been killed in the fighting.

Meanwhile, Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal said that a government-in-waiting is ready to sweep in once coalition forces have cleared the town of Taliban, bringing with them up to 2,000 Afghan police to provide security. Civil servants and development specialists will organize the local administration. Previous town officials were killed, co-opted by the insurgents, or forced to flee. With a new administration, in theory, will come schools, hospitals, and jobs.

“The most important thing will be the aftermath,” says Haroun Mir, an Afghan analyst in Kabul. “How quickly will the coalition countries fix the town? How quickly will the Afghan government provide services to people? And how quickly will they be able to provide justice and security?”

Mir notes that in the past some police officers had pursued vendettas against people they accused of colluding with the Taliban.

North of Marjah, coalition forces are also battling Taliban militants in Nad-i-Ali district, supposedly an area under government control. Although fighting there has been less intense than some of the battles raging in Marjah, it is an indication of the difficulty of holding ground, let alone building on it.

Of particular importance in any area restored to government control will be providing alternative livelihoods to poppy farmers: central Helmand is a drugs-producing hub with many locals complicit in the narcotics industry.
“I’m sure they are well-prepared for that,” says Mir.

“All we want is peace,” said Ghafar Jan, the farm labourer. “People are tired of fighting, people are hungry now, and there is no medicine for the sick. I don’t care who is in control. I want those who can bring peace, justice and Sharia law.”


Afghanistan war: US troops’ new push into ‘heart of darkness’

Christian Science Monitor

US soldiers in the Afghanistan war are battling to clear the ‘heart of darkness’ in Kandahar Province where Taliban chief Mullah Omar used to preach. It’s one of many operations gearing up in southern Afghanistan as more foreign troops arrive.

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN

The soldiers came under Taliban surveillance as soon as they set out. Intercepted radio chatter among insurgents left no doubt that Charlie Company was walking into an ambush as it closed on a Taliban stronghold deep in southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province.

The sudden clatter and whine of small-arms and machine-gun fire sent everyone scrambling for cover. Bullets spat up dust from the berms of a grape field. The shots hit far more accurately than those of local fighters – one of many signs that committed militants had returned early from their winter break in Pakistan.

“They were close. That was good stuff,” said Spc. Justin Jun, of Lake TahoeCalif. “I don’t think I’ll need to shave in a while.”

Since being deployed here six months ago, the United States Army company (1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment) has been pushing due west of the provincial capital, Kandahar, into what foreign forces call the “heart of darkness.” Zhari district – a patchwork of irrigation ditches, grape fields, and tightly packed mud compounds – is not only ideal guerrilla territory but also an area of enormous symbolic importance. Four miles west of Charlie Company’s patrol route lies the village mosque where one-eyed cleric-turned-Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar preached in the 1990s.

Like other infantry battalions fanned out from Kandahar, home to 800,000 people, these soldiers are carrying out Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy of blocking Taliban fighters from civilianswhom they hide among and intimidate.

Similar operations are underway across southern Afghanistan as more US troops arrive, with the largest coalition operation of the nine-year war now gearing up in Marjah District in neighboring Helmand Province.

‘Heart of darkness’

In many places, as in Zhari, the battle is just beginning.

Until the deployment of 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment here, US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan lacked the troops to even challenge the insurgents in the “heart of darkness.”

A single Canadian rifle company had tried to cover the district, while a contingent of 2,500 troops had responsibility for the 20,000 square mile province Kandahar and its million-plus residents. Relative to their number, the Canadians took heavier casualties than any major troop contributor in Afghanistan, accounting to nine percent of the coalition’s 1,626 fatalities despite providing two percent of its current forces.

In Charlie Company’s operations area, villagers who can afford to have fled to more peaceful parts of the district, leaving behind the desperately poor and the militants. Commanders and foreign fighters who left at the start of winter have streamed back, including Kaka Abdul Khaliq, a former mujahideen fighter whom theUS military holds responsible for the deaths of several servicemen.

“Before he left for Pakistan last year they were conducting all kinds of attacks,” says Noel Engels, an American law enforcement official who works with coalition and Afghan units across the district. “It’s a big year for [the Taliban]. They need to hold Kandahar as much as possible.”

A sharp enemy

The Taliban are sophisticated fighters. Using children as spotters, they have developed an effective early warning system allowing them to plan ambushes and thwart coalition missions targeting their leaders. They exploit the US tendency to counterattack aggressively by drawing the foreign soldiers into traps by planting improvised explosive devices. They have an unsurpassed knowledge of the terrain. They use a command structure under which members of different units – whether IED-making cells or assassination squads – must seek permission before carrying out attacks, allowing greater coordination and instilling a sense of discipline.

Meanwhile the Taliban’s shadow government, led by “district governor” Jebar Agha, organizes gatherings, bans schools, and metes out the brutal but impartial justice that helped raise the original Taliban to power.

There is talk among US officers about the bringing in an entire brigade, but nothing is definite. For the soldiers already in Zhari their work is cut out.

Protracted fight

As the initial confusion of the Jan. 27 attack subsided, Charlie Company began returning fire. Kiowa attack helicopters launched salvoes of missiles, A-10 gunships came in on strafing runs, and F-16 fighter jets growled overhead. In the three-hour attack, only one Afghan man was wounded, shot in the back with a Taliban bullet.

Knowing that the coalition can eavesdrop on their conversations, the Taliban radio operators vowed that reinforcements were on their way. But the insurgents, masters of hit and run, were already slipping away, blending back into the population until the next patrol to come their way.


Julius Cavendish: Home comforts land at Kandahar airfield

The Independent

Kabul Notebook: The intent, it seems, is to create a surreal slice of Western life

It is not the rows of howitzers, assembled warplanes and other instruments of carnage that catch your eye when you arrive at one of the coalition’s mega-bases in Afghanistan. It is the Tennessee grilled ribs. Ravaged by war and riddled with corruption, Afghanistan is one of the last places you might expect to see a Burger King, Subway or Pizza Hut counter. Most Afghans never will. But for the inhabitants of Kandahar airfield in southern Afghanistan, these are just some of the culinary possibilities on the base’s boardwalk, a four-sided medley of fast food, real coffee and tourist tat.

Now TGI Friday has opened its doors, drawing thousands of servicemen and women missing the comforts of home. Decked out in kitsch Americana and with the kind of music playing in the background that usually accompanies dirty movies, it might be anywhere other than the birthplace of the Taliban. Read the rest of this entry »


Battle begins to win over Taliban to Karzai’s court

The Independent

Cautious interest as Afghan government seeks to draw all parties to the table

The Taliban fighter sitting in the front of the car was expressive, engaging, and dismissive of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s pleas for men like him to lay down their guns. Omar Khel, a tribal militant from Wardak province outside Kabul, is exactly the kind of reluctant rebel the Afghan government and the international community want to bring in from the cold.

“I am not in favour of fighting,” Mr Khel, a chubby man with strong features and grey-flecked hair, said. “I don’t have enmity with the Americans. I have enmity with Fahim, with Khalili, with Dostum. We are fighting them.” He had named the three most notorious warlords in the new Afghan government.

Mr Khel’s views are not representative of all insurgents, but they do illustrate one of the problems Mr Karzai’s “big tent” style of government creates: the inclusion of some individuals inevitably alienates others. And unfortunately for the architects of the reintegration and reconciliation programme outlined in London last week, other insurgents may be harder to woo.

Abdul Rahmad, a Taliban commander from the volatile southern province of Kandahar, told The Independent that he was ready to enter peace talks with Mr Karzai, but only if the existing Taliban demands are met. These include the withdrawal of the foreign troops supporting the fragile Afghan government, and changes to the constitution implementing sharia law as interpreted by the Islamists. Although he admitted that the insurgents included “bad and corrupt people”, he said he would fight on because “We have no sharia law, no sharia justice.”

It is possible he was being disingenuous: the insurgents have little to gain by publicly agreeing to talks and would actually weaken their position by appearing ready to consider peace. Their strongest hand is running down the clock on the international community.

Acknowledging as much in an interview with The New York Times, the Afghan official in charge of reconciliation said the government had been discussing ways of ending the war with the Taliban for some time. Mohammad Massoum Stanikzai said Taliban denials of talks were a PR strategy. “They are continuing to say this, it’s something they say in the media, but this is not a fact,” he said.

And although past efforts at reintegrating rebel fighters have lacked the political will, resources or organisation to succeed there is a sense of optimism among Western diplomats in Kabul that last week’s conference in London has changed this. One said: “What’s different is that for the first time you have the infrastructure to not only make promises and agreements but to follow through and make sure they’re enforced.”

Against this are a series of challenges that Afghan and international officials are just beginning to address with specific proposals. One difficulty is ensuring incentives offered to genuine fighters are not seen by others as reason to become temporary insurgents. Sorting bona fide insurgents from opportunists will be hard for an intelligence community recently lambasted by Major-General Michael Flynn, US and Nato deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, as ignorant of the Afghan people.

Another concern is that reconciliation with the senior Taliban leadership can proceed only after offensives, beginning with the imminent assault on the insurgent stronghold of Marja in Helmand, start rolling the enemy back.

And women’s rights groups and non-Pashtun ethnic groups opposed to the predominantly Pashtun Taliban have to be persuaded they are safe working with their traditional foes. A Western diplomat said these “different groups are looking at reconciliation-reintegration policy with great concern”.

Yesterday Mr Karzai arrived in Saudi Arabia to seek help in drawing Taliban representatives to a loya jirga peace council. Saudi was among three countries to recognise the Taliban when it was in power.

The names of Taliban interviewees have been changed


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