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 »


Afghanistan war: Taliban escalates violence with Kandahar blasts

Christian Science Monitor

The Taliban appear to be making good on a promise to escalate violence in Kandahar, where NATO is planning to launch what it sees as the next major offensive of the Afghanistan war.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

Three explosions rocked Kandahar on Monday morning as the city slid deeper into violence. The southern Afghan city is where NATO is planning to launch what it sees as the next major offensive of the Afghanistan war.

The blasts, two of which apparently targeted Kandahar’s deputy police chief, killed two civilians and prompted the United Nations to say it was scaling back operations there. The aid community already has a far lighter footprint there than in other parts of Afghanistan.

Residents sound increasingly fatalistic about their prospects this summer, with the Taliban apparently making good on a promise to escalate violence in the city in response to NATO’s plans to restore central government authority to a city that, in as much as it is controlled by anyone, is in the hands of a murky nexus of local powerbrokers and gangsters. 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 »


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: NATO unfolds blueprint to rebuild Marjah

Christian Science Monitor

Western and Afghan officials have outlined ambitious plans for a new Marjah that include erecting new schools, reforming the police force, and upending the drug trade. Rebuilding Marjah and other towns is now seen as critical to NATO’s Afghanistan war strategy.

LASHKAR GAH, AFGHANISTAN

Long before Marjah was dragged from sleepy anonymity into one of NATO’s biggest offensives in its nine-year war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Western governance experts had begun drawing up the town’s future.

Down white-tiled corridors and behind code-locked doors on their base in Helmand Province, a handful of American and British officials planned for months how to turn this swath of irrigation ditches and mud compounds, ruled for two years by Taliban militants and crime syndicates, into a beacon of peace and prosperity.

This is the “build” part of the “clear, hold, build” strategy set out last year by the top NATO commander here, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

It could become a blueprint for winning the war – if it works.

It is here that the insurgency has raged most fiercely, costing NATO 408 lives and the local population many times more.

Kabul takes interest

Governance experiments in Afghanistan have failed before, but this one is different, the planners say, because more resources and thought are being put into it.

The apparent emergence of political will at the highest levels of the Afghan government, after years of neglecting to support their provincial and district counterparts in Helmand, is also a factor.

Last Tuesday a delegation from the capital arrived to discuss agriculture with provincial officials.

Kabul’s interest in Helmand grew last September. That month, Agriculture Minister Mohammad Asef Rahimi visited the town of Nawa, which US Marines had recently cleared of militants, and promised to follow up with development.

“They were horrified. There was nothing there, absolutely nothing,” recalls Peter Hawkins, a British official who accompanied Rahimi’s delegation. “There was a good governor, but he was sitting there on his own in a little building built by us. They went back to Kabul with the message, ‘We’ve got to do something, we can’t not do something with this void down there.’ ”

Mapping out a new Marjah

In Marjah a similar void would allow the crime bosses and Taliban commanders just driven out to return. They “exercised far too much control over the population” in the past, says Marlin Hardinger, a US State Department official in Helmand. The “most important and difficult [thing now is to] build better governance.”

Although the insurgency is still flickering in Marjah, it is mainly in the form of roadside bombs strikes, about five a day. Officials, who have access to $500 million for stabilizing Helmand, don’t expect to know if they have won over the population for at least three months.

A map drawn up by the provincial governor and dotted with colored blocks shows what the restoration of sovereignty means in tangible terms: there are bright red schools, yellow agriculture directorates, and courts festooned with the scales of justice.

Green blocks, or police stations, are a point of concern. Thousands of elite officers have been drafted from outside Helmand and charged with maintaining security in the crucial next few months. The force must also shed its predatory and corrupt reputation for the rebuilding of Marjah to succeed, experts say.

“Probably the most challenging and sensitive thing” is improving the police, says Mr. Hardinger, the State Department official.

Rooting out opium

Another challenge will be how to deal with Helmand’s thriving opium economy. Powerful players in the drug trade in the province, such as former governor Mohammad Akhundzada and his police chief Abdurrahman Jan, have much to lose by acceding to a new political economy. Mr. Jandemonstrated his intent to reestablish his influence over Marjah last month when he took control of a local council.

Posed against these strongmen is current Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal, a technocrat who burnished his reputation by busting kidnapping rings and crooked police since taking office two years ago. He has won praise from Western advisers for using the media to spread a message of inclusive government and for traveling around the province to hear complaints from his constituents.

He’s also earned plaudits for his handling of men like Mr. Akhundzada and Jan. “Mangal’s played the technocratic card brilliantly,” says Hawkins, who has worked closely with the governor. “He has managed the situation rather than (1) allowing the situation to manage him or (2) confronting the situation. If you confront the situation in Afghanistan, you’ve lost.”

Mangal will also have to wean farmers away their opium crop without alienating them. Counternarcotics experts have praised his “food zone” program, which combines the stick of poppy eradication with the carrot of improved wheat seed handouts. Although Helmand still produces more poppy than the rest of the world combined, they say there are tentative signs of success.

The new mayor of Marjah, Haji Zahir, is tasked with replicating Mangal’s tactics, for example, reaching out to local leaders in a flurry of meetings.


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.”


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.


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