Afghanistan Reality Check: Taliban Strikes Undermine U.S. Optimism

Time.com

Claims by U.S. officials that the insurgents are on the run are challenged by new attacks in the capital

Four earth-shaking explosions in Kabul on Tuesday signaled the start of the Taliban’s latest riposte to claims by the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan that the insurgents are on the run. After a Sunday truck bombing that had injured 77 American troops, militants stormed a high-rise close to the U.S. embassy and began firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. In hellish scenes replayed repeatedly on Afghan TV, dust swirled on deserted streets as civilians, some soaked in their own blood, fled whenever a letup in the fighting allowed. Under a gunmetal sky, Afghan military Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships flew in to support a rapid-reaction force, unleashing bursts of heavy machine-gun fire back at insurgent positions. “This is not an exercise,” the public-address system at nearby NATO headquarters crackled. “This is an ongoing situation.” Read the rest of this entry »


The siege of Parun and the mystery of the Du Ab airstrikes

Miles Amoore  has lots of fresh detail on the Taliban’s takeover of Nuristan in the Sunday Times, including the siege of the provincial capital, Parun:

So far a militia led by a former Taliban commander and backed by Afghan police has held the Taliban at bay outside the city. But the blockade has brought the city to its knees, sources say.

Nato denies Parun is under siege but acknowledges that “insurgent activity on the roads … up to Parun has restricted civilian and Afghan police movement”.

Amoore also provides the only account to appear in the mainstream media of the NATO airstrikes that took place in Du Ab (or Doab or Do Ab, you choose) on May 25:

When the planes screeched over Doab, the only police commander who had refused to surrender, Commander Said Rasoul, was having lunch with his men next to a field of wheat. The Taliban, who had entered the main town that morning, had been taunting Rasoul over his radio, his cousin Qari Daoud said. Read the rest of this entry »


Nato urged to investigate Afghan ‘war criminal’ employed by US

The Independent

The head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission has urged Hamid Karzai’s government and Nato to investigate allegations, first reported in The Independent, that an Afghan strongman employed by United States Army Special Forces embarked on a spate of war crimes, including rape, the summary execution of children, and torture. “We call on Special Forces – indeed, any forces – and the Afghan government to conduct an investigation of these allegations and find out if [the allegations are] correct or not,” said Nader Nadery, who heads the Human Rights Commission.

He said the commission would make its own efforts to verify the claims against Commander Azizullah, the leader of a US-sponsored militia in the south-eastern Paktika province, but that “it is a core responsibility of the government of Afghanistan to launch an investigation… this is the only way to build confidence in [the country's security] forces”. Read the rest of this entry »


Afghanistan: ‘If he is aware of our complaints, he will find us and kill us’, say witnesses

The Independent

Proper procedure would have been to detain and question the family he suspected of hosting Taliban insurgents but Azizullah did things differently, opening fire on their house with his men. Then they locked the survivors inside. And then they set the place ablaze.

This story is one of many separate alleged instances reported by interviewees during an investigation by The Independent lasting several months. Three separate reports, including two by the UN from early 2010, confirmed many of The Independent’s findings, and documented their own, separate allegations of atrocities. Read the rest of this entry »


Revealed: Afghan chief accused of campaign of terror is on US payroll

The Independent

Witnesses back leaked UN reports detailing claims of rape and murder against feared Tajik warlord

An Afghan warlord backed by US special forces faces persistent allegations that he launched a two-year spate of violence involving burglary, rape and murder of civilians, desecration of mosques and mutilation of corpses. Yet, despite repeated warnings about the atrocities Commander Azizullah is alleged to have committed, he has remained on the payroll of the US military as an “Afghan security guard”, a select band of mercenaries described by some as “the most effective fighting formation in Afghanistan”.

Interviews with religious leaders, tribal elders, villagers, contractors and Western and Afghan officials all pointed to a reign of terror in which they believe 31-year-old Azizullah, a ethnic Tajik, targeted Pashtun civilians while fighting the Taliban. Although individual allegations, all from ethnic Pashtuns, might be inaccurate, malicious or motivated by envy of Azizullah’s close and lucrative links to US special forces, taken together they come from sources belonging to a range of tribes and from several areas. The testimony also tallied with several independent reports documenting the allegations against Azizullah and seen by The Independent, including two confidential reports compiled by UN officials and circulated to Nato personnel last year. Read the rest of this entry »


Why Afghans Don’t Bash the Taliban for Bombings

Time.com

The civilian collateral damage of Taliban bombings is enormous, and yet coalition forces never catch a break because of it. Why?

It was carnage. There was a momentary crackle of gunfire and then, as a powerful car bomb detonated in Khost, a city in southeastern Afghanistan, a shock wave splintered trees and scattered body parts across 50 m of parkland and marketplace. Rags from what looked like children’s clothes lay caught on the twisted metal of an axle; nearby, shops’ windows were blown in, and the dirt road was slicked with blood. The iron strut supporting a giant billboard was bent like a paper clip.

Officials say nine people died and more than 30 were wounded in the Feb. 18 suicide bombing, although the toll rose over the course of the day and could still increase, with at least four survivors in critical condition. Among the casualties were women, children and two policemen, according to the public-health director for the province. It was a reminder that although spectacular attacks in Kabul, the capital, garner lots of airtime and column inches, most of Afghanistan’s violence takes place in the provinces, where murderous atrocities can go unreported and don’t attract attention in the way an attack against Westerners does. Read the rest of this entry »


Supermarket Attack: A Dangerous Turn in Kabul

Time.com

The suicide assault on an upscale grocery patronized by foreign residents in the capital may be the beginning of a violent new phase in the war in Afghanistan

A suicide bomber blew himself up in a popular grocery close to the British, Canadian and Pakistani missions in Kabul Friday afternoon in an indiscriminate attack that analysts say could spell the beginning of a new trend in the Afghan capital. Unlike most previous attacks, this one fell on the Afghan weekend and was timed to inflict maximum civilian casualties as predominantly Western shoppers browsed through the store on their day off.

The bomber, a man in his 40s with dark skin and a long beard according to one witness, shot his way into the grocery, threw one or possibly two grenades and then detonated his vest. By late Friday night the death toll had reached nine, including a child and four Filipinos — probably employees of one of the many contractors working in Afghanistan. The nationalities of the other victims, including two wounded shoppers in critical condition, are still unknown. Read the rest of this entry »


Nato surge on Taliban stronghold drives civilians into the line of fire

The Independent

As troops step up their attack on the militants’ Kandahar heartland, Julius Cavendish meets the ordinary people caught on the frontline

The first eyewitness accounts of Nato’s assault on the final Taliban sanctuary threatening Kandahar City have begun to emerge, painting a picture of sporadic fire fights, steady progress by Afghan and coalition forces, and flight by those inhabitants wealthy or lucky enough to escape the violence.

Earlier this week, Nato began its final and critical phase of a major offensive designed to clear Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban, with hundreds of troops carrying out an air assault on the main insurgent base in the region. In interviews with The Independent, tribal elders, government officials and civilians in Kandahar City provided vivid descriptions of special forces night raids and Nato’s bombardment of the area in the preceding month – designed to damage the local Taliban leadership – and the tactics the insurgents used to cow inhabitants before fleeing in the face of coalition firepower.

Mahmoud Dawood, a 35-year-old farmer from the western tip of the Horn of Panjwaii, the area Afghan and Nato forces are trying to take, described how he was woken last Thursday night by explosions in a neighbouring village. Suddenly the blasts came closer, and the silhouette of an Afghan commando appeared in his open door. “There was a bright white light and a voice said in Pashto ‘Stand up’,” he said. Read the rest of this entry »


Kandahar attacks are a warning to NATO, says Afghanistan Taliban

Christian Science Monitor

An Afghanistan Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for a series of coordinated Kandahar attacks Saturday, saying they were a warning to NATO, which will soon focus on securing Kandahar City and its approaches.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

The sudden explosive violence its inhabitants have learned to live with gripped Kandahar City in southern Afghanistan again Saturday as militants launched a series of coordinated attacks in an attempted jailbreak.

More than 35 people were killed and more than 50 wounded in five blasts as Afghanistan Taliban suicide bombers targeted the jail and police headquarters in the Kandahar attacks. Most of the casualties were civilians, including members of a wedding party celebrating near the police headquarters.

A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they were intended as a warning toNATO, which has promised to focus on securing Kandahar City and its approaches this summer.

Following on the heels of Operation Moshtarak, which saw coalition and Afghan forces seize control of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in neighboring Helmand Province, NATO commanders say the focus of their counterinsurgency campaign will switch to Kandahar City and its approaches. Kandahar is the political, spiritual, and religious capital of the south.

Blast barriers prevent jailbreak

Had the Taliban’s attack gone to plan it would likely have boosted the insurgents’ ranks by freeing captive fighters. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s younger brother and chairman of Kandahar’s provincial council, says that blast barriers prevented the attackers from breaching the prison.

These were introduced following a similar attack in 2008 that saw around 1,000 prisoners escape. More than 400 militants were among them.

Taliban to focus on Kandahar City now?

Mr. Karzai predicted that the arrival of thousands of US troops in Kandahar Province would herald a shift in tactics by the insurgents, who would seek to undermine the government by launching more wholesale attacks within the city limits. “They organize this kind of attack in the city to show they are still around,” he told the Monitor. “They will definitely be focusing more on Kandahar City, that’s for sure.”

It’s for this reason that the provincial governor is calling on Kabul to bolster the police and Army presence inside the city, and to liaise better with NATO forces stationed in the districts.

Security in Kandahar has steadily deteriorated over the past few years as a murky nexus of warlords, criminal syndicates, and insurgents has vied for control. The number of bombings and assassinations has spiked in the past two weeks.


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.”


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