Julius Cavendish: It may not be safe yet, but progress was made thanks to aggressive US tactics

The Independent

View from Sangin: A tentative peace accord struck at the start of the year is holding, at least to the extent that it still exists

Seven months ago 500lb bombs were tearing into Taliban positions outside Sangin district centre in Helmand province as the US Marines here launched an aggressive and costly campaign against Taliban insurgents. What was already Afghanistan’s bloodiest district for foreign troops quickly became more so.

The infusion of troops, including US Marines, was part of President Obama’s surge and despite widespread suspicion of Nato’s spin, it genuinely seems that their arrival had an impact, especially in Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar – although neither province is yet safe, nor going to be in the immediate future. The Taliban matched Obama’s surge with their own escalation, knowing full well that tactical defeats matter little, provided they can simply hang-on under the drawdown.

But the gun battles and roadside blasts that once took place in Sangin’s heart have migrated to its fringes – and it’s hard to see that as anything but a vindication of the Marines’ aggressive tactics. Yesterday there was barely a single explosion within earshot of the Marines’ main base. Read the rest of this entry »


Fears for foreign aid after Afghan handover of control

Daily Telegraph

Afghans have voiced fears that aid will dry up when foreign troops are replaced by the country’s own forces later this year.

They were speaking after President Hamid Karzai announced on Tuesday that Afghan forces would take responsibility this summer for security for seven areas, including Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand where British troops are currently deployed.

“The Afghan nation doesn’t want the defence of this country to be in the hands of others anymore,” he told hundreds of dignitaries, police and soldiers. “This is our responsibility to raise our flag with honour and pride.”

The plan will also see Afghan forces take charge of security in areas including Kabul and Panjshir provinces, Herat city in the West, Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and Methar Lam to the east of Kabul as part of the overall strategy to start bringing Nato troops home. Read the rest of this entry »


Taliban ‘killing their own’ in bid to wrest back control in Sangin

The Independent

Taliban gunmen have begun assassinating their own rank and file in a desperate bid to stop a remote mountain valley sliding from their grasp, as well as bringing in new commanders to oversee their fightback in Sangin, Afghanistan’s most violent district, The Independent can reveal.

They are also attacking tribal elders trying to broker a peace deal between disillusioned members of the insurgency – resentful of Taliban commanders from other tribes and districts ordering them about – and government officials eager for peace.

Speaking by phone, a tribal elder in the upper Sangin valley said Taliban gunmen ambushed an elder from the Alokozai tribe called Badar Agha as he left home for morning prayers earlier this month. Aware an attempt on his life was likely, the elder shot back with his Kalashnikov, apparently wounding an assailant before being taken to hospital for medical treatment. Read the rest of this entry »


Nato’s dilemma: how to stop the Taliban’s return

The Independent

Nato and Afghan forces, which this week seized the last Taliban safe haven directly threatening Kandahar City, are drawing up plans to stop insurgents re-infiltrating the area and waging a campaign of intimidation against local inhabitants.

Earlier this week forces stormed the last cluster of villages under insurgent control in the nearby “Horn of Panjwaii” during a night-time helicopter raid. A Nato spokesman said resistance had been “light” but that troops were still clearing the area of home-made bombs.

The assault on Taloqan, a cluster of villages in the middle of the Horn, where inhabitants have typically leant towards the insurgents, is the culmination of months of fighting on the western fringes of the city. Read the rest of this entry »


Violence, fraud and cronyism keep millions away from Afghan poll

The Independent

Almost as quickly as the international community rushed to praise Saturday’s parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, complaints of widespread irregularities began pouring in, echoing the protracted wrangle over vote-rigging that returned President Hamid Karzai to power last year.

Representatives from the US, UN and EU hailed the bravery of Afghans for heading to the polls on Saturday despite pre-election violence and Taliban attacks on polling day that killed 18 people. However evidence was mounting yesterday of polling stations opening late, intimidation of voters, and the widespread use of fake voting cards. There were also reports that there were not enough ballot papers and that children had cast ballots.

President Hamid Karzai praised “the courage of the people” in voting, saying it was “a positive and major step for strengthening democracy in this country”. Nato’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, applauded voters for turning out “despite the violence carried out by those attempting to deny the people’s most basic democratic right”. But the courage of many ordinary Afghans notwithstanding, what the evidence suggests so far is that power is disbursed across Afghanistan not by universal suffrage but through coercion, bullying, bribery, cronyism, patronage and fear. Read the rest of this entry »


Insurgents in Kandahar’s undergrowth drag Nato forces into ‘green hell’

The Independent

Spring brings renewed risk from IEDs, and political solutions seem a long way off. Julius Cavendish reports from Pashmul

Under a baby-blue sky Sgt Michael Ingram was bleeding his life into the Afghan dirt. Explosives hidden in a mud house had taken off both his legs, and as the call went out for a medic, it took a moment to realise that the medic was also hurt, along with a third US soldier who had taken shrapnel in his shoulder.

One of the most popular men in Charlie Company, First Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, Sgt Ingram died from massive blood loss. “There is no way to comprehend an IED (improvised explosive device) until you see someone hit one,” Lt Mark Morrison, a platoon leader in the same company, said later. “Then everything changes.”

In the half-deserted village of Pashmul – as much a front line as any in southern Afghanistan’s indefinite war of ambush and IED – Taliban fighters are stepping up the fight. With fighters arriving from Helmand and Pakistan, and budding vegetation providing ample cover, the Taliban are using bolder tactics in an attempt to suck foreign forces into a battle of attrition. “The Taliban want to pull us into the grape fields,” Charlie Company’s commander, Capt Duke Reim, said. “Slowly take a company from 130 [men] and bring it down to 115. That’s what they’re looking to do, because the more we focus here on the grape fields the less we focus on Kandahar [City],” – which, with its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, is the prize in Nato’s population-centric campaign. Read the rest of this entry »


Julius Cavendish: Taliban and the mafia: a terrifying combination

The Independent

The faded prettiness of its old town used to belie the fact that Kandahar was a city gripped by fear. Unlike Kabul, the rising tide of violence was less frequently used as an excuse to smother the colonnades and tree-lined boulevards in reinforced concrete. That has changed now. Suicide bombers targeted the jail and police headquarters in February, leaving 35 dead and over 50 wounded. A Canadian photographer in the city on the night of that attack said that people were “genuinely scared. These men hear explosions every third or fourth day and they were shaken. The fear was really palpable that all hell was breaking loose and nothing was going to stop it.”

As a result, roads are now shut and the drab march of blast barriers has begun. It is just one sign that things are getting worse. Foreigners cannot walk down the street or stop in the bazaar to gauge the local climate. Meetings invariably take place in private rooms deep inside fortified compounds. Yet for some reason, Kandaharis continue to risk talking to journalists in the knowledge that what they say might get them killed.

“Yes, I’m scared,” Haji Mohammad Zahir, a villager who moved to Kandahar to work in construction, told The Independent. “When I was coming in I was scared because the insurgents are watching. Maybe some of them looked at me, and will call tonight asking why I am meeting with foreigners.” Read the rest of this entry »


Mosque murder leaves Kandahar on the edge

The Independent

Deputy Mayor’s assassination is latest in series of bloody attacks in city by Taliban as Nato prepares offensive

Assassins killed the deputy mayor of Kandahar yesterday as violence in Afghanistan’s second city continued to spiral out of control before a planned Nato offensive.

Gunmen entered a mosque where Azizullah Yarmal was bowing his head in prayer and shot him at point-blank range, according to a spokesman for the governor of Kandahar.

It was the latest of a string of attacks in Kandahar City which has killed dozens of government employees. Hours earlier, a donkey laden with explosives was remotely detonated, killing three children from a prominent pro-government family. Read the rest of this entry »


Afghanistan war: US leaves remote outpost of Korengal

Christian Science Monitor

The remote Korengal Valley has been the scene of some the most intense fighting in the Afghanistan war. US troops have pulled out as part General McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

It became known as “Enemy Central,” a small, isolated slice of eastern Afghanistan synonymous with violence, a dogged adversary and, increasingly, futility. More than 40 US soldiers have died there after being drawn into battles of attrition for questionable return. In the worst such incident, 16 American troops on a special forces mission were killed when their helicopter crashed under enemy fire.

Now the last US troops have pulled out of the Korengal valley on the grounds that they can be better used somewhere else. “This repositioning, in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces, responds to the requirements of the new population-centric counterinsurgency strategy,” Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, joint commander of international forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement on NATO’s website. “The move does not prevent forces from rapidly responding, as necessary, to crises there in Korengal and in other parts of the region, as well.”

Part of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy is to pull troops back from remote mountain outposts and concentrate them in the towns and villages where more of the Afghan population lives. By putting the emphasis on protecting civilians instead of killing Taliban fighters, he hopes to drive a wedge between the two, isolating and alienating the insurgents. Read the rest of this entry »


US military offers sheep in apology for Afghanistan deaths

Christian Science Monitor

Vice Adm. William McRaven traveled to the village of Khataba to offer personal apologies for the five Afghanistan deaths in a botched special forces raid there in February. The US military acknowledged its involvement in the killings earlier this month.

KHATABA, AFGHANISTAN

A top US Special Forces commander visited the village of Khataba in eastern Afghanistan today to apologize for a night raid that went terribly wrong. It was here on Feb. 11 that a Special Forces team gunned down an Afghan police chief, a prosecutor, and three unarmed women, infuriating locals and drawing a sharp rebuke from politicians in Kabul.

Flanked by dozens of Afghan soldiers, Vice Adm. William McRaven, head of Joint Special Operations Command, spent an hour at the scene of the killings. “I am the commander of the men who accidentally killed your loved ones,” Admiral McRaven told Haji Sharabuddin, the family patriarch. “I came here today to send my condolences to you and to your family and to your friends. I also came today to ask your forgiveness for these terrible tragedies.”

It was a remarkable turnabout for the US military, which for two months after the killings declined to say what units had been involved or otherwise take responsibility for the deaths. Afghan investigators have claimed that Special Forces tried to cover up their involvement in the Afghanistan deaths, though that’s a charge the US has denied. Read the rest of this entry »


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