News & Current Affairs

July 19, 2009

US soldier shown in Taliban video

US soldier shown in Taliban video

The Taliban have released a 28-minute video showing a US soldier captured in Afghanistan last month.

In the video, the soldier, in grey clothes and with shaved head, says being a prisoner is “unnerving”.

He says the US public has the power to bring troops home to be “back where we belong and not over here, wasting our time and our lives”.

The US military identified him as the missing soldier and named him as Pte Bowe Bergdahl, 23, from Ketchum, Idaho.

The spokesman condemned the Taliban for issuing “propaganda” footage.

‘Against international law’

Pte Bergdahl, who went missing on 30 June in Paktika province, eastern Afghanistan, says in the video the date is 14 July and that he was captured as he lagged behind while on a patrol.

Please bring us home. It is America and American people who have that power
Quote from video

It is not possible to verify the time and date the video was made.

Pte Bergdahl, interviewed in English, says he has “a very, very good family” in America.

“I miss them and I’m afraid that I might never see them again, and that I’ll never be able to tell them that I love them again, and I’ll never be able to hug them,” he says.

When asked about his condition he replies: “Well I’m scared, scared I won’t be able to go home. It is very unnerving to be a prisoner.”

A voice off camera asks if he has a message for his “people”.

“To my fellow Americans who have loved ones over here, who know what it’s like to miss them, you have the power to make our government bring them home,” he says.

Map

“Please, please bring us home so that we can be back where we belong and not over here, wasting our time and our lives and our precious life that we could be using back in our own country.

“Please bring us home. It is America and American people who have that power.”

US military spokesman in Kabul, Capt Jon Stock, condemned the use of the video.

He told Reuters news agency: “The use of the soldier for propaganda purposes we view as against international law.

“We are continuing to do whatever possible to recover the soldier safe and unharmed.”

Leaflets have been distributed and a reward offered for his safe return.

The US military said the soldier disappeared after walking off base with three Afghan colleagues.

He is believed to be the first soldier seized in either Iraq or Afghanistan for at least two years.

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September 12, 2008

Bush ‘approved’ Pakistan attacks

Bush ‘approved’ Pakistan attacks

Masked militants close to Pakistan's border with Afghanistan (file image)

The US says militants are hiding out in north-west Pakistan

President George W Bush has authorised US military raids against militants inside Pakistan without prior approval from Islamabad.

An unnamed senior Pentagon official told the classified order had been made within the past two months.

On Wednesday, the US’s top military commander said strategy in Afghanistan was shifting to include raids across the border into Pakistan.

Pakistan has said it will not allow foreign forces onto its territory.

The Pakistani ambassador to the US has disputed the claim, first reported in the New York Times.

“In our bilateral discussions, no such idea has been mooted and will certainly not be accepted by Pakistan,” Husain Haqqani told Reuters.

“Pakistan would not accept foreign troops. This is not the best way to pursue the war against terror,” he said.

Meanwhile, security officials in Pakistan say they have killed up to 100 mostly foreign militants on the Afghan border. There has been no independent confirmation.

Growing frustration

The US say that Pakistan’s north-west tribal areas are being used as “safe havens” by militants preparing attacks on Afghanistan.

But Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, said there was “no question of any agreement or understanding with the coalition forces whereby they are allowed to conduct operations on our side of the border”.

map Fata

He said the sovereignty and integrity of Pakistan would be defended at all cost.

A senior Pentagon official told that Mr Bush gave his approval this summer for cross-border raids into Pakistan.

The order includes the use of conventional ground troops crossing the border into Pakistan to pursue militants there.

An unnamed former intelligence official told the New York Times that the Pakistani government is not told about intended targets because of concerns that its intelligence services are infiltrated by al-Qaeda supporters.

It is a sign of growing US frustration with Islamabad’s lack of assertive action against the militants.

There is also an increasing concern about the threat such militants pose to Nato troops in neighbouring Afghanistan, and potentially to the US, says our correspondent.

The US has been carrying out regular military air strikes on Pakistan from Afghanistan, but ten days ago US troops carried out a ground assault for the first time.

Pakistan said the raid in South Waziristan was a violation of its sovereignty and summoned the US ambassador to hear a “very strong protest”.

Islamabad fears that attacks by US troops could encourage support for the Taleban militants among tribal groups in the border area.

The latest revelation appears to be part of a slow change in US strategy towards Pakistan and will only add to the tensions between the two countries, our correspondent adds.

‘Common insurgency’

Officially, the US has stressed the need for co-operation with Islamabad.

Adm Mike Mullen testifying at the US House of Representatives

US ‘must target Pakistan havens’

On Thursday, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told Congress that the US must continue to work closely with Pakistan.

“In my view, these two nations are inextricably linked in a common insurgency that crosses the border between them,” he said.

“We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan… but until we work more closely with the Pakistani government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming.”

The US move to focus efforts on the Afghan-Pakistan border was welcomed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

“Change of strategy is essential,” said Mr Karzai said at a news conference in Kabul on Thursday.

“It means that we go to those areas which are the training bases and havens – we jointly go there and remove and destroy them.”

September 10, 2008

The Afghan-Pakistan militant nexus

The Afghan-Pakistan militant nexus

Mapping where militants operate in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, seven years into America’s self-declared war on terror. (Text: M Ilyas Khan)

Helmand, Chaghai

Kabul’s writ has never run strong in the remote southern plains of Helmand province. Further south, across the border in Pakistan, lies the equally remote Noshki-Chaghai region of Balochistan province.

Since 9/11, this region has been in turmoil. In the Baramcha area on the Afghan side of the border, the Taleban have a major base. The chief commander is Mansoor Dadullah. From there they control militant activities as far afield as Nimroz and Farah provinces in the west, Oruzgan in the north and parts of Kandahar province in the east. They also link up with groups based in the Waziristan region of Pakistan.

The Helmand Taleban, unlike comrades elsewhere in Afghanistan, have been able to capture territory and hold it, mostly in the southern parts of the province. They constantly threaten traffic on the highway that connects Kandahar with Herat.

Kandahar, Quetta

Kandahar has the symbolic importance of being the spiritual centre of the Taleban movement and also the place of its origin. The supreme Taleban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, made the city his headquarters when the Taleban came to power in 1996. Top al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama Bin Laden, preferred it to the country’s political capital, Kabul.

As such, the control of Kandahar province is a matter of great prestige. The first suicide attacks in Afghanistan took place in Kandahar in 2005-06, and were linked to al-Qaeda. Kandahar has seen some high-profile jailbreaks and assassination bids, including one on President Karzai.

The Afghan government has prevented the Taleban from seizing control of any significant district centre or town. International forces have large bases in the airport area as well as at the former residence of Mullah Omar in the western suburbs of Kandahar city.

But the Taleban have a strong presence in the countryside, especially in southern and eastern areas along the border with Pakistan. Afghan and Western officials have in the past said the Taleban have used Quetta, the capital of the Pakistan province of Balochistan, as a major hideout as well as other Pakistani towns along the Kandahar border.

Mullah Omar is probably in hiding in Kandahar or Helmand.

Zabul, Toba Kakar

Afghanistan’s Zabul province lies to the north of Kandahar, along the Toba Kakar mountain range that separates it from the Pakistani districts of Killa Saifullah and Killa Abdullah. The mountans are remote, and have been largely quiet except for a couple of occasions when Pakistani security forces scoured them for al-Qaeda suspects.

Reports from Afghanistan say militants use the area in special circumstances. In early 2002, Taleban militants fleeing US forces in Paktia and Paktika provinces took a detour through South Waziristan to re-enter Afghanistan via Zabul. Occasionally, Taleban insurgents use the Toba Kakar passes when infiltration through South Waziristan is difficult due to intensified vigilance by Pakistani and Afghan border guards.

Zabul provides access to the Afghan provinces of Ghazni, Oruzgan and Kandahar. There are few Afghan or foreign forces in the area, except on the highway that connects Qalat, the capital of Zabul, to Kandahar in the south-west, and Ghazni and Kabul in the north.

South Waziristan, Paktika

South Waziristan, a tribal district in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), is the first significant sanctuary Islamic militants carved for themselves outside Afghanistan after 9/11. Militants driven by US troops from the Tora Bora region of Nangarhar province in late 2001, and later from the Shahikot mountains of Paktia in early 2002, poured into the main town, Wana, in their hundreds. They included Arabs, Central Asians, Chechens, Uighur Chinese, Afghans and Pakistanis. Some moved on to urban centers in Punjab and Sindh provinces. Others slipped back into Afghanistan or headed west to Quetta and onwards to Iran. But most stayed back and fought the Pakistani army during 2004-05.

The eastern half of South Waziristan is inhabited by the Mehsud tribe and the main militant commander here is Baitullah Mehsud. The western half, along the border with Afghanistan, is Ahmedzai Wazir territory where the chief commander is Maulvi Nazir. The Mehsuds only live on the Pakistani side, while the Wazirs inhabit both sides of the border.

These sanctuaries directly threaten Afghanistan’s Paktika province, where the US-led forces have a base in the Barmal region and several outposts along the border to counter infiltration. Pakistani security forces also man scores of border checkposts in the region.

However, infiltration has continued unabated and the number of hit-and-run attacks on foreign troops has been one of the highest in this region. Militants based in the region are known to have carried out strikes as far away as the Kandahar-Kabul highway.

North Waziristan, Paktia, Khost

The North Waziristan region is dominated by the Wazir tribe that also inhabits the adjoining Afghan provinces of Paktika and Khost. North and South Waziristan form the most lethal zone from where militants have been successfully destabilising not only Paktika and Khost, but other Afghan provinces such as Paktia, Ghazni, Wardak and Logar. Groups based in Waziristan region are known to have carried out some recent attacks in the Afghan capital, Kabul, as well.

Tribal identities are particularly strong in Paktika, Khost and Paktia. During the Taleban rule of 1997-2001, these provinces were ruled by their own tribal governors instead of the Kandahari Taleban who held power over the rest of the country. In the current phase of the fighting they coordinate with the militants in Kandahar and Helmand, but they have stuck with their own leadership that dates back to the war against the Soviets in 1980s.

The veteran Afghan militant Jalaluddin Haqqani is based in North Waziristan. He has wielded considerable influence over the top commanders in South and North Waziristan. He is also reported to have maintained links with sections of the Pakistani security establishment and is known to have mediated peace deals between the Pakistani government and the Wazir and Mehsud commanders in the region. Mr Haqqani is now an old man, and his son Sirajuddin has taken over most of his work.

There are many Arab and other foreign fighters in North and South Waziristan. This is due to Jalaluddin Haqqani’s close links with the al-Qaeda leadership. He married an Arab woman in the 1980s.

In view of the sensitivity of Waziristan region, US-led forces have set up a large base in Khost from where they conduct operations not only along the Waziristan region to the south but also in parts of the border region in Paktia and Nangarhar provinces to the north.

Kurram, Khyber, Nangarhar

As the Pakistani military strategists who organised Afghan guerillas against the Soviets in the ’80s discovered to their delight, Kurram is the best location along the entire Pakistan-Afghanistan border to put pressure on the Afghan capital, Kabul, which is just 90km away. But because the region is inhabited by a Shia tribe that opposes the Taleban for religious reasons, the Taleban have not been able to get a foothold here. Analysts say this is the main reason why the Taleban have taken so long to improve their strength in areas around Kabul, such as Logar and Wardak.

Some militant groups in the Khyber tribal district have carried out attacks on foreign and Afghan troops in Nangarhar province. But the Pakistani government has kept a close watch on them. One reason may be to curb the ability of these groups to block the highway through Khyber which serves as the main conduit for supplies to international forces in Afghanistan that come via the Pakistani port of Karachi.

Mohmand, Bajaur, Kunar

Analysts have long suspected Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal region to be the hiding place of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other top al-Qaeda leaders. The Mohmand and Bajaur tribal districts are also believed to be the stronghold of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the main Afghan guerrilla leaders of the 1980s. Mr Hekmatyar fought the Taleban in 1990s, but after 9/11 started working with them. The actual extent of cooperation is not known. The groups in Mohmand and Bajaur are members of an umbrella organisation which is headed by South Waziristan’s Baitullah Mehsud known as the Tehreek-e-Taleban (Pakistan Taleban).

Militants based in Mohmand and Bajaur have been striking at installations and supply lines of international forces based in the Narai region of Afghanistan’s Kunar province. In recent months, they are also reported to have crossed the Hindu Kush foothills to carry out attacks on foreign troops in the Sarobi, Tagab and Nejrab areas around Kabul.

Oruzgan, Ghazni, Wardak, Logar

For a long time the Taleban were unable to maintain sustained pressure on the country’s south-central highlands. But with safe sanctuaries in the border region – from the Baramcha area of Helmand province in the south, to some parts of Pakistani Balochistan, the Waziristan country and Bajaur-Mohmand territory to the east – the Taleban finally have the capacity to challenge the government in this region. The roads in Ghazni and Oruzgan are not as safe as they were a couple of years ago and officials are losing the will to maintain the government’s authority.

Training camps run by al-Qaeda and Taleban groups have multiplied in secure border regions over the last few years. Safe havens have also afforded the militants endless opportunities to find new recruits. The Waziristan region is also known to be a haven for young suicide bombers and trained in remote camps. The Taleban also appear to have had access to sophisticated military equipment and professionally drawn-up battle plans.

The strategy appears to be the same as in 1980s – ‘death by a thousand cuts’. Sporadic attacks on the security forces and the police have grown more frequent over the years, and have also crept closer to Kabul. At the same time, the Taleban have destroyed most of the education infrastructure in the countryside, a vital link between the central government and the isolated agrarian citizenry.

Oruzgan has mostly come under pressure from groups in Kandahar and Helmand. These groups, as well as those based in the Waziristan-Paktika-Khost region, have also moved up the highway via Ghazni to infiltrate Wardak on the left and Logar on the right. Safe and quiet until less than two years ago, both these provinces are now said to be increasingly infiltrated by Taleban fighters. The same is true of militants putting pressure on Kabul from Sarobi and Tagab in the east, with their tentacles stretching back to Laghman, Kunar and Bajaur.

Swat

A former princely state, Swat, in northern Pakistan, was governed by a British era law which a court declared unconstitutional in early 1990s, triggering a violent campaign for the introduction of Islamic law in the district.

The insurgency was effectively put down in 1994, but it re-emerged after 9/11, and was joined by many battle-hardened militants from Waziristan, Bajaur and the neighbouring district of Dir. During a 10-month long operation that still continues, the security forces have disrupted the infrastructure of the militants but is still to clear them out of the area. The militants have been targeting the security forces, the police, secular politicians and government-run schools.

August 20, 2008

Sarkozy renews Afghan commitment

Sarkozy renews Afghan commitment

President Sarkozy with President Karzai at the presidential palace in kabul

The French president insisted that France was committed to Afghanistan

President Sarkozy has pledged France’s continued commitment to Afghanistan after visiting French troops and meeting President Hamid Karzai.

He was speaking in Kabul after French troops suffered some of their worst casualties in recent times.

Ten French soldiers were killed and 21 injured in an ambush by Taleban fighters east of the capital, Kabul.

Mr Sarkozy said France was committed to the fight against terrorism, and  the mission in Afghanistan would continue.

‘Indispensable’

“Even though the toll is so high, you should be proud of what you are doing. The work that you’re doing here is indispensable,” Mr Sarkozy told his troops.

“We’re going to make sure that the means are put in place to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.” France has 2,600 troops serving in Afghanistan.

The 10 deaths brought to 24 the number of French troops killed in Afghanistan since 2002, the AFP news agency reports.

There was more violence on Afghanistan on Wednesday. A bomb went off in a busy market in the south-eastern province of Khost.

Officials say that in addition about 19 Taliban fighters were killed in two separate clashes in Khost and in the province of Paktia.

Tributes paid

The loss of life is thought to be the heaviest suffered by the French military since 58 paratroopers were killed in Beirut in 1983.

The arrival of Mr Sarkozy, who was accompanied by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Defense Minister Herve Morin, was marked by a flurry of helicopters across Kabul on Wednesday.

The cause is just, it is the honour of France and its armies to defend it
Nicolas Sarkozy
French president

On a brief visit on Wednesday, he saw the mortuary at the French camp in the capital and spoke to injured soldiers who were involved in the battle. He also held talks with President Hamid Karzai.

His message was one of support not just to the troops, but also to the Nato alliance and Mr Karzai.

The French deployment is not popular at home and the decision was made in April to send extra fighting troops to an even more dangerous part of the country, our correspondent adds.

Ambush

The French troops were caught up in fighting that started on Monday in the area of Sarobi, some 50km (30 miles) from Kabul.

French troops in Afghanistan (archive image from 2006)

Mr Sarkozy said the troops were killed in “an ambush of extreme violence”

French defence officials said about 100 soldiers – from France, the US and Afghanistan – were on a reconnaissance mission when bad road conditions forced them to stop their vehicles.

A group of French soldiers was sent ahead on foot to check the terrain, but they were ambushed by Taleban fighters and nine were killed.

A tenth French soldier was killed when his vehicle overturned on the road.

An Afghan intelligence officer told the BBC the troops were ambushed from several directions by heavily armed Taleban and al-Qaeda forces.

The fighting went on for 24 hours and it is understood that reinforcements had to be called in to airlift the troops to safety.

The deaths came amid warnings that insurgents are closing in on Kabul.

The French recently took over control of the Kabul regional command, which includes Sarobi.

ISAF REGIONAL COMMANDS AND TROOP NUMBERS
Map showing foreign troop deployments in Afghanistan

August 8, 2008

American deaths in Afghanistan war reach 500

American deaths in Afghanistan war reach 500

KABUL, Afghanistan – The deadliest three months for American forces in Afghanistan have pushed the U.S. death toll to at least 500, forcing a war long overshadowed by Iraq back into the headlines.

Larger, more sophisticated militant attacks have also caused a sharp rise in Afghan civilian deaths — at least 472 in the first seven months of the year, most in suicide bombings, according to an Associated Press count.

In all, at least 600 Afghan civilians were killed from January through July, a 30 percent increase from the same period last year, according to AP figures compiled from coalition and Afghan officials. That includes at least 128 killed by U.S. or NATO forces.

There are about 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the highest since the war began, meaning more troops than ever are patrolling this country’s mountainous terrain and exposed to ambushes and roadside bombs.

The U.S. military suffered 65 deaths in May, June and July, by far the deadliest three-month period in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. The previous deadliest three-month period was in the spring of 2005, with 45 U.S. deaths.

In July, more U.S. troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq for the month, for the first time since the Iraq war started in 2003. In all, 92 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan this year, a pace that would surpass last year’s death toll of 111.

The spike in violence is forcing U.S. leaders, including the presidential candidates, to call for still more troops here.

More than ever, the U.S. government recognizes the situation Afghanistan “is serious and needs to be dealt with,” said Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the RAND Corp., a Washington-based think tank that often does studies for the Pentagon.

“I think it is an important step that … the gravity of the situation has been recognized and that there are some steps in place to turn the tide in Afghanistan,” he said. “Whether that is successful or not is of course an open question.”

Overall, at least 500 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Qatar and United Arab Emirates in support of the Afghan mission, according to an AP analysis based on Defense Department press releases.

“In terms of milestones, it’s important to point out that no casualty is more significant than any other,” said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Wright. “Each service member is equally precious, and each loss of life is equally tragic.”

The AP count is based on information from U.S., NATO or Afghan officials, often impossible to independently verify because of the remote or dangerous locations of the incidents.

The Defense Department count often lags by several days. The most recent Defense Department count, issued Saturday, showed 496 U.S. troop deaths in and around Afghanistan.

Counting coalition troops, Taliban militants and Afghan civilians, more than 3,000 people have died in violence this year, according to the AP count.

In the past, the Taliban appeared to try to minimize civilian casualties by launching its large-scale attacks primarily against U.S., NATO or Afghan troops.

But this year a February bombing at a dog fighting competition in Kandahar killed more than 100 people, mostly civilians. An attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul last month killed more than 60.

Steven Simon, a senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the recent attacks with high civilian death tolls reflect a migration of both tactics and fighters from Iraq to Afghanistan.

“The reported presence in Afghanistan of the head of al-Qaida in Iraq underscores the extent to which blowback from Iraq is being felt in Afghanistan,” Simon said in an e-mail. “At this point, al-Qaida’s leadership seems to be looking at the Afghan theater as the next big thing.”

Afghan and U.S. officials say a big reason for the spike in violence is because militaries use sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan where they can arm and train fighters who launch attacks across the border on U.S. and Afghan forces. More al-Qaida fighters have been using the region to launch attacks than in previous years, U.S. officials say.

Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, blamed the rise on violence principally on two factors: a peace agreement earlier this year between the Pakistan government and some militants in its tribal areas near the Afghan border, and support given by Pakistan’s intelligence agency to Taliban fighters.

Pakistan denies it is helping Taliban fighters or that it has entered into peace agreements with militants who launch attacks in Afghanistan.

Insurgent attacks have jumped by 50 percent in the first half of 2008, according to data from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, a Kabul-based group paid for by Western donors that advises relief groups on security.

In a report last week, ANSO said it logged 2,056 insurgent attacks in the first half of the year, a 52 percent increase from the same period last year.

The group said violence was up sharply in relatively peaceful northern and western Afghanistan and the region surrounding Kabul.

Both major presidential candidates, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, have called for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan. President Bush has said more troops will be dedicated to the Afghan fight in 2009 but has not said how many.

U.S. military officials have said the Afghan effort needs three more brigades of troops, or about 10,500 forces.

Any new forces sent here can expect to face vicious attacks from an increasingly brazen Taliban force. Last month more than 200 militant fighters attacked a remote U.S. outpost in a dangerous and mountainous region of northeastern Afghanistan. Nine U.S. troops were killed and 15 wounded.

Even local Afghan civilians joined in on the attack, a sign the U.S. and NATO face steep challenges in their bid to win the population over to the side of the Afghan government.

“The size of the operation and the ability of the group to get support within the town was somewhat alarming, and it shows that there is clearly some concern with local Afghans, and that’s a concern because civilians are the center of gravity in a counterinsurgency,” said Jones. “The dangerous message is that there was involvement by the civilians.”

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