News & Current Affairs

February 13, 2009

Five children shot in Afghanistan

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:01 am

Five children shot in Afghanistan

Map of Afghanistan

Australia is investigating an incident involving its troops in southern Afghanistan in which five children are reported to have been killed.

An official statement said Australian special forces clearing houses in Uruzgan province in a hunt for militants, and came under attack.

They fired back at Taleban insurgents, and five children were among the dead.

Australia’s military has about 1,100 soldiers in Afghanistan, based mainly in Uruzgan province.

The incident took place on Thursday.

No Australian soldiers were injured, but a suspected militant was killed.

Two other adults and two more children were wounded.

The Australian defence department said in a statement it was “obviously concerned about any loss of life.

“It is for this reason that Australian forces operate under strict rules of engagement that aim to avoid and minimise civilian casualties.”

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November 13, 2008

Iran envoy abducted in Pakistan

Iran envoy abducted in Pakistan

The car of the kidnapped Iranian diplomat

The diplomat’s car was hit by bullets

Gunmen have kidnapped a diplomat from Iran and killed his guard in the north-western Pakistani city of Peshawar, police say.

The Iranian diplomat was said to be the commercial attache of the consulate.

The incident happened a day after an American aid worker and his driver were shot dead as they traveled to work in a suburb of the city.

Violence has surged in the north-west in recent months with a wave of attacks blamed on Islamist militants.

A police officer told the AFP news agency that the diplomat was traveling to the consulate in Peshawar when the gunmen attacked his car.

“The attackers sprayed bullets, forcing the car to stop and then dragged out the diplomat while his police guard was killed,” Banaras Khan said.

Worsening security

The gunmen took away the diplomat in a separate vehicle, another policeman said.

Authorities have cordoned off the city’s main road and are trying to trace the diplomat.

In a similar incident two months ago, unknown gunmen kidnapped Afghan consul-general, Abdul Khaliq Farahi, from the same locality after killing his driver. Mr Farahi is still missing.

On Tuesday, American aid worker Stephen Vance and his driver were killed just outside their office in the University Town area in Peshawar. It is still not clear who the attackers were.

Map

Mr Vance worked for Cooperative Housing Foundation (CHF) International, which is working to implement US-funded projects to help develop the troubled tribal belt.

Areas close to Peshawar – the biggest city in north-west Pakistan – are known to be Taleban and al-Qaeda strongholds.

The region has been hit by several bombings and suicide attacks recently.

On Tuesday, a suicide bomber walked up to the gate of a stadium in Peshawar and blew himself up.

The attack happened as the governor of North-West Frontier Province left after a sports tournament.

He was unhurt but at least one man was killed and three people were injured.

The security situation across Pakistan has steadily worsened over the past few years, with Taleban militants holding sway over a large stretch of North-West Frontier Province.

But our correspondent says attacks on foreigners in Pakistan are rare. Across the border in Afghanistan aid workers and other foreigners have increasingly been targeted in recent months.

Gunmen attacked the car of a US diplomat in Peshawar in August, but she was unhurt.

November 1, 2008

Crucial battle on Pakistan’s frontline

A tank fires at militant movement detected at the edge of the town of Loi Sam in Bajaur

A tank fires at militant movement detected at the edge of the town of Loi Sam

Entering the combat zone, we drive past mile after mile of flattened buildings, crops and trees, razed to prevent ambushes.

Even still, soldiers are on high alert, watchful for possible attacks.

They race down the road at top speed, firing occasional rounds from the guns mounted on the backs of their vehicles. Cobra attack helicopters circle overhead.

This is the tribal area of Bajaur near the Afghan border, or rather a small part of it.

The Pakistan army has wrested control of a 38km (24-mile) region from the Taleban, and it has given us rare access to the frontline.

We arrive in the town of Loi Sam, now in ruins. Militants here were targeted by the air force and artillery, followed by a ground offensive that lasted five days.

Civilians fled long ago – hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the fighting.

Key crossroads

A tank guards one of the approaches to the town, firing whenever there is movement in the distance.

Already a bulldozer has begun clearing away the blasted shells of buildings.

“You have to either occupy or remove the structures,” says one soldier, “otherwise the militants will return to them once we’ve left.”

For the army, this is a crucial victory: Loi Sam lies at a key crossroads between Afghanistan and Pakistan. From here local and Afghan insurgents could launch attacks in both countries.

“The militant activities from this tribal agency were radiating in different directions, towards Afghanistan, the rest of the border region and [Pakistan’s] settled areas,” says army spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas.

“Now we have this area under control, it will affect militant activities elsewhere, and we’ll capitalise on that.”

“The worst is over,” agrees Maj Gen Tariq Khan, who is in charge of the offensive. “I think we have turned the corner.”

Guerrilla warfare

The battle has been slow and deliberate. It took six weeks for the army to secure the road from the headquarters of the local security forces, the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC), to Loi Sam, a distance of 13km.

Troops fought compound to compound in a terrain ideal for guerrilla warfare.

“There are road bends, there are depressions, there are houses located inside the depressions, trenches prepared, caves, tunnels, everything prepared,” says Col Javed Baloch, commander of one of the posts along the road, “so it was difficult to find them, to spot them, and then take the area.”

The Taleban has made extensive use of bunkers and tunnels which connected different compounds.

One commanding officer, Maj Kamal, took me 5m underground for a tour of the network.

He says his men blocked 20 or 30 passageways, including one that stretched 100m to a stream.

Many in Bajaur trace the roots of the uprising to a suspected US missile strike on an Islamic seminary, or madrassa, in November 2006, which killed around 80 people.

That radicalized local Islamists, they say, who were reinforced by militants from other Pakistani tribal areas. There was also an influx of fighters from Afghanistan.

A soldier keeps watch
Until and unless Afghanistan is made stable, you can do a million development activities in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and there will be no result
Shafir Ullah
Government representative in Bajaur

The battle for Bajaur was triggered when the FC tried to re-establish a check post in Loi Sam in early August. Fierce resistance led to the siege of the FC base before the army was called in.

Like other army officers, Maj Gen Tariq Khan criticises unilateral US air strikes on suspected insurgent targets as deeply counter productive.

But, he says, during the Bajaur operation there has been improved intelligence sharing and co-ordination with coalition forces, which has reduced cross-border militant infiltration from Afghanistan. “We’ve seen practical on-ground adjustments in relevance to our operations,” he says.

“I’ve got a very positive response and I feel we’ve set up some system in which we’re in some kind of regular touch, and I think that’s the way to go.”

Hearts and minds

Now that the fighting has subsided, attention is turning to reconstruction and development: acknowledgement that winning hearts and minds in the impoverished tribal region along the border is essential to fighting the insurgency.

Map

But that won’t be enough, says Shafir Ullah, the government representative in Bajaur who deals with tribal elders.

“The reasons [for the insurgency] are poverty, backwardness and others, but the real problem is linked with Afghanistan,” he says.

“Until and unless Afghanistan is made stable, you can do a million development activities in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and there will be no result.”

The Taleban have been pushed back – the army claims it has killed 1,500 – but they haven’t been defeated.

Two soldiers were killed by rocket fire in Loi Sam shortly after we left the town, bringing the army’s death toll to 75. Nearly 100 civilians have also died, says Shafir Ullah.

One hillside post is so exposed to Taleban fire that the soldiers have dug in for protection.

Forty men can fit in the massive bunker at any one time, a few are saying their prayers and reciting the Koran in a makeshift underground mosque when we visit.

This is not a popular war in Pakistan: some have criticized the military for killing fellow Muslims.

Others accuse it of fighting “America’s War”. But the army insists it is fighting to defend Pakistan, not just responding to US pressure for action against the Taleban.

Even as dusk falls artillery guns continue to pound militant positions. The war in Afghanistan has spilled over into Pakistan.

This is the other, rarely seen, side of the battle against the Taleban.

September 22, 2008

Pakistan to target rebel hotspots

Pakistan to target rebel hotspots

Pakistan’s government has pledged to take targeted action against militants, a day after a suicide bomb killed 53 people in the capital, Islamabad.

Interior Ministry adviser Rehman Malik said raids would be carried out in some “hotspots” near the Afghan border.

Earlier, the authorities revealed that a truck laden with 600kg of high-grade explosives had rammed the Marriott Hotel security gate before blowing up.

Rescuers have been combing the wreckage for survivors and bodies.

The blast left 266 people with injuries.

Although most of those killed were Pakistani, the Czech ambassador and two US defense department workers were among the dead.

The attackers had disguised the truck well as it was covered with a tarpaulin and loaded with bricks and gravel
Rehman Malik

A Vietnamese citizen was also killed in the blast, in which at least a dozen foreign nationals were wounded.

The Danish Foreign Ministry said one of its diplomats was missing.

No group has taken responsibility for the attack, but Mr Malik suggested responsibility lay with al-Qaeda and Taleban militants based in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) on the Afghan border.

“In previous attacks, all roads led to Fata,” he said.

The attack might have been retaliation for army bombardments of suspected Taleban targets with jet fighters.

Room-by-room search

The heavily-guarded hotel was attacked at about 2000 (1500 GMT) on Saturday.

CCTV footage of the moments before the blast show a six-wheeler lorry ramming the security barrier at the hotel gate.

Rescuers in Islamabad, 21/09

Rescue teams combed the scene for bodies and survivors

Shots are fired and the vehicle starts to burn. Security guards initially scatter, but return to try to douse the flames.

The footage breaks of at the moment of the blast because the camera was destroyed. It created a crater about 8m (27ft) deep, and triggered a fire which engulfed the 290-room, five-storey building for hours.

Officials said the lorry contained explosives as well as grenades and mortars. Aluminium powder was used to accelerate the explosion and added to the ferocity of the blaze.

“I do not believe this is a breakdown in security. The attackers had disguised the truck well as it was covered with a tarpaulin and loaded with bricks and gravel,” Mr Malik said.

Witnesses described a scene of horror as blood-covered victims were pulled from the wreckage and guests and staff ran for cover from shattered glass and flames.

The fire has now burned out and rescue workers have been searching the building room-by-room, pulling bodies out of the blackened debris.

‘Confronting the threat’

Immediately after the bombing, newly-elected President Asif Ali Zardari vowed to root out the “cancer” of terrorism in Pakistan.

Map

He has now flown to New York to attend the UN General Assembly session, where he will meet US President George W Bush on the sidelines.

The meeting comes amid tension between the two countries over US attacks on militants in tribal areas of Pakistan, close to the Afghan border.

In the wake of the attack, President Bush pledged assistance to Pakistan in “confronting this threat and bringing the perpetrators to justice”.

The Marriott is the most prestigious hotel in the capital, and is located near government buildings and diplomatic missions. It is popular with foreigners and the Pakistani elite.

The hotel has previously been the target of militants. Last year a suicide bomber killed himself and one other in an attack at the hotel.

September 20, 2008

Dozens killed in Pakistan attack

Dozens killed in Pakistan attack

A bomb attack has hit the Marriott Hotel in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, killing at least 31 people.

The blast created a 20ft (6m) deep crater, and destroyed the entire front section of the hotel.

She says the building is engulfed in flames, and rescue workers are carrying out bloodied victims and bodies.

Police say the blast occurred as a lorry approached the hotel and they suspect it was a suicide attack.

Police estimate that the blast was caused by more than a tonne of explosives. They are warning that the hotel could collapse.

Heavy security

Our correspondent says that the centre of the blast was at the front of the building close to the area where security checks are carried out.

Employees flee from the foyer of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad
I don’t understand what it was, but it was like the world is finished
Hotel employee Mohammad Sultan

She says that about two-thirds of the 290-room hotel is on fire, and the wounded and dead are still being brought out, on stretchers or wrapped in sheets.

She says the emergency services have been unable to reach the upper floors of the hotel, where more people are feared to be trapped.

A hotel employee, Mohammad Sultan, said he was in the reception when something exploded, forcing him to the ground.

“I don’t understand what it was, but it was like the world is finished,” he told the Associated Press news agency.

There are reports that the explosion brought down the ceiling of the banquet hall, where some 300 people were sharing a meal to break the fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

The Marriott is located near government buildings and diplomatic missions. Security there is tight, with guests and vehicles subject to checks.

The hotel is popular with foreigners visiting Pakistan or members of the expat community, and has previously been the target of militants.

Last year a suicide bomber killed himself and one other in an attack at the hotel.

Insurgency

The bomb attack comes just hours after Pakistan’s newly installed President, Asif Ali Zardari, said he would not allow Pakistan’s territory to be violated by terrorists or foreign powers fighting them.

Asif Ali Zardari (file photo)

Pakistan has been a key ally of the US in its “war on terror”

In his first speech to MPs since he replaced Pervez Musharraf in August, he vowed instead to “root out terrorism and extremism wherever and whenever they may rear their ugly heads”.

He was speaking in Islamabad, just several hundred metres to the east of the Marriott.

Pakistan has been a key ally of the US in its “war on terror”, but relations have become strained over tactics.

In recent months, Pakistan has voiced growing disquiet over US raids targeting militants in its territory, launched from neighbouring Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda and Taleban militants based in Pakistan’s north-west tribal region have repeatedly carried out attacks across the border in Afghanistan.

Militants have also carried out waves of attacks in Pakistan in recent years.

 


Are you in the area? Did you see what happened? Send us your comments and eye witness accounts

September 12, 2008

Deadly strike in Pakistan hotspot

Deadly strike in Pakistan hotspot

Map

At least 10 people have been killed in north-west Pakistan in a suspected missile strike, officials say.

The missile struck a home before dawn near Miranshah, the main town in the North Waziristan region on the Afghan border, intelligence officials said.

Some reports, quoting local officials and eyewitnesses, said the missile was fired by a US drone.

The attack comes amid growing concern in Pakistan over unilateral military action by the US.

American and international troops are fighting Taleban and al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan.

Cross-border

“The pre-dawn strike destroyed the house,” news agency AFP quoted an unnamed official as saying.

Another 10 people were wounded, he said.

The missile landed in a house in the Tol Khel area on the outskirts of Miranshah, the agency reported.

It would be the fifth cross-border attack since the beginning of this month allegedly carried out by US forces, who have not officially confirmed their involvement.

On Monday, at least 14 people were killed and 15 injured in a suspected US missile strike in North Waziristan, witnesses and officials said.

The attacks follow persistent US accusations that Pakistan is not doing enough to eliminate Taleban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the border region.

The upsurge in strikes has alarmed Pakistani military and government officials, who say it seriously undermines their counter-insurgency operations.

Pakistan’s counter-insurgency quandary

Pakistan’s counter-insurgency quandary

The residents of Sheikh Yasin camp are not celebrating the inauguration of Pakistan’s new president.

Taheer, a farmer now resident in the Sheikh Yasin camp
The army’s killing people because America gives it money to fight terrorists, so it has to show it’s doing something
Taher, a farmer now resident in Sheikh Yasin camp

They jostle each other as they wait for hand-outs of bread and queuing for soup, ladled out from huge vats under a canvas tarpaulin crusty with flies.

More than 2,000 people have fled to the camp to escape an army bombing campaign against the local Taleban in the Bajaur tribal area near the Afghan border. More civilians were killed than militants, they say.

For many Pakistanis, this is what the “war on terror” has brought: displacement and death. There is resentment and anger.

Double game

Despite, or perhaps because of, the high price that Pakistan has paid since 9/11, there’s no consensus in the country about how to confront Islamist militancy.

Now with a new president and a relatively new government, once again questions are being raised about the country’s counter-insurgency policy.

Pakistan’s former military leader Pervez Musharraf swung between military offensives and peace talks with militants.

Neither worked, and the general, although a key American ally, was accused of playing a double game by maintaining links with the Taleban.

It’s not clear if it will be any different under the new civilian President, Asif Zardari, who took the oath of office this week. During his party’s short six months in government, it has also tried both war and peace.

But at his inaugural press conference, Mr Zardari seemed to signal a new line. He shared the podium with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president who has accused Pakistan of harboring and supporting the Taleban.

They pledged co-operation against the militants, something for which Washington has long been pressing.

‘America’s man’

“I think so far Mr Zardari has been more forthright and more articulate [than Musharraf] in his belief that the war on terror has to be fought with greater intensity and sincerity,” says Tariq Fathimi, a former ambassador to the United States.

“He has also been very categorical in stating that the war on terror is something that’s in the interest of Pakistan, and that must be something that pleases the Bush administration.”

resident of Sheikh Yasin camp

For Sheikh Yasin residents, the ‘war on terror’ has brought only misery

But for many in Pakistan, his performance has only strengthened impressions that he’s America’s man, and that’s a problem.

Most Pakistanis are opposed to their government’s participation in what they call America’s war. And a recent surge in US air strikes against suspected militant targets in Pakistan’s border region has not helped the new government.

“It is making things rather impossible for us,” says Rehman Malik, head of the Interior Ministry, “because when the people hear of an alien attack, nobody likes it, we’re talking about the sovereignty of our country.

“So we are fighting our war… and now we are asking the international community to help us.”

It’s not just the people – Pakistan’s army is also angry, and it’s still the country’s most powerful institution. Any new policy or approach by Asif Zardari would need its backing to be successful.

Analysts say the army is unsure about Mr Zardari but willing to work with him, especially if he can deliver clear parliamentary support for military action.

Pakistani soldiers in NWFP

The army is eager to get the government’s support

That source of popular legitimacy was sorely lacking under the previous administration. But the US air strikes complicate the relationship with the government.

“Within the army there is strong thinking that we are being let down by the government if it doesn’t respond,” says retired General Talat Masood.

“Because then, what would the people of Pakistan think about the army, which is just allowing national sovereignty to be violated in such a gross manner?”

There’s no doubt Pakistan is facing a huge problem of Islamic militancy. But many are convinced it can’t tackle this if it’s seen to be acting at America’s behest.

“Probably the only way to reverse it is to initiate a parliamentary debate,” says Zaffar Abbas, the Islamabad editor of Dawn Newspaper, “to have a home-grown policy to deal with militancy and religious extremism, which is somewhat de-linked from the American demand to have an international campaign against terrorism.

“Unless they are able to do it, it will be nearly impossible to deal with this menace of terrorism.”

Asif Zardari may have signalled that he’s willing to work closely with America. But as a democratically elected leader, he also says he’ll be directed by parliament.

How he handles that is crucial. His challenge is to truly make this Pakistan’s war.

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.

September 9, 2008

Bush to announce troop reshuffle

Bush to announce troop reshuffle

US soldier in Falluja

The bulk of the 146,000 US troops deployed in Iraq will remain behind

US President George W Bush is set to announce plans to withdraw about 8,000 troops from Iraq by February and to send additional forces to Afghanistan.

Mr Bush will say in a speech on Tuesday that the improving security situation in Iraq will allow a “quiet surge” of troops in Afghanistan in coming months.

A Marine battalion due to go to Iraq in November will be sent to Afghanistan, followed by an Army combat brigade.

There are currently 146,000 US troops in Iraq and 33,000 in Afghanistan.

Any long-term decision about their future deployment will be left to Mr Bush’s successor, who will take office in January.

‘Degree of durability’

The continued decline in violence in Iraq since last year’s US troop “surge” has given President Bush a chance to ease the growing strain on his country’s military.

If the progress in Iraq continues to hold, Gen Petraeus and our military leaders believe additional reductions will be possible in the first half of 2009
President George W Bush

Acting on the advice of his generals, Mr Bush will announce on Tuesday that a Marine battalion, comprising about 1,000 troops, scheduled to leave Anbar province in November will return home as planned without being replaced.

An army brigade of between 3,500 and 4,000 troops will also leave in February, accompanied by about 3,400 support forces, he will say.

“While the progress in Iraq is still fragile and reversible, Gen [David] Petraeus and Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker report that there now appears to be a ‘degree of durability’ to the gains we have made,” Mr Bush will say in a speech at the National Defense University, according to the White House.

“And if the progress in Iraq continues to hold, Gen Petraeus and our military leaders believe additional reductions will be possible in the first half of 2009.”

Our correspondent says the withdrawals announced on Tuesday will mark the start of a slow and limited draw-down based on what Mr Bush calls “return on success”. However, it will still leave the bulk of US forces behind in Iraq.

Last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said that although a timetable for the withdrawal of the remaining troops did not exist, he had tentatively agreed with the US military to end the presence of foreign combat troops by 2011.

The Iraqi government is currently negotiating a security agreement on the future of US forces in Iraq before a UN mandate expires.

Afghanistan ‘fragile’

In his speech on Tuesday, Mr Bush will also signal that the US will make modest increases in the strength of its forces in Afghanistan to combat the growing threat posed by the Taleban.

Taleban in opium field in south-west Afghanistan, April 2008

Aid agencies point to a 50% increase in insurgent attacks in Afghanistan

“For all the good work we have done in that country, it is clear we must do even more,” he will say.

“Unlike Iraq, it has few natural resources and has an underdeveloped infrastructure. Its democratic institutions are fragile.”

“And its enemies are some of the most hardened terrorists and extremists in the world. With their brutal attacks, the Taleban and the terrorists have made some progress in shaking the confidence of the Afghan people.”

In November, a Marine battalion that was scheduled to deploy to Iraq will instead go to Afghanistan. It will be followed in January by an army combat brigade.

The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief said last month that violence in Afghanistan had reached its worst level since 2001, when US-led forces overthrew the Taleban, with more than 260 civilians killed in July.

Afghanistan’s government said the bloodshed was connected to peace deals Pakistan’s government had sought with Islamist militants in the north-western tribal areas along the border.

US to review Afghan attack case

US to review Afghan attack case

US forces in Afghanistan are to review an inquiry into an air raid last month after new video evidence emerged indicating scores of civilian deaths.

The US had earlier said that no more than seven civilians died in the attack on the western province of Herat.

However, the Afghan government and the UN said up to 90 people were killed, including many women and children.

The US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says such attacks are eroding support for the government and foreign forces.

HRW says civilians deaths from international air strikes nearly tripled between 2006 and 2007.

Disturbing footage

The US general in charge of NATO-led troops (Isaf) in Afghanistan said at the weekend that he was requesting the US military’s Central Command to review the investigation into last month’s air raid.

Gen McKiernan said Isaf realized there was “a large discrepancy between the number of civilian casualties reported by US and Afghan National Army soldiers, and local people”.

The US and Nato need to dramatically improve their co-ordination with each other and with the government of Afghanistan
Rachel Reid
Human Rights Watch

The US military subsequently said it would “appoint a senior US military officer to review the investigation into the combined Afghan National Army (ANA) and US forces operation”.

A US military statement said: “This review will consider new information that has become available since the completion of the initial investigation.”

Disturbing video footage – apparently of the aftermath of the raid – has been seen by top military figures and diplomats in Kabul.

The shaky footage – possibly shot with a mobile phone – shows some 40 dead bodies lined up under sheets and blankets inside a mosque.

The majority of the dead are children – babies and toddlers, some burned so badly they are barely recognizable.

The covers are removed for the camera one by one: a little girl of perhaps four with brown curly hair; a boy with his eyes still eerily open; another girl with huge injuries on the side of her head.

Graves being prepared Azizabad for people killed in last month's attack by US forces

Villagers say up to 90 civilians died in last month’s attack by US forces

Another boy has his hand up as if to protect his face which was crushed under the rubble.

Clearly heard on the tape is the crying of relatives and the survivors of the bombing raid.

US forces had originally said seven civilians were killed in a “successful” US raid targeting a Taleban commander in Azizabad village in Herat’s Shindand district.

However, the UN, the Afghan government and an Afghan human rights group said the number of civilian deaths was far higher.

Their estimates of the number of civilians killed varied between 76 and 90, with the UN eventually concluding that children accounted for 60 of the dead.

The dispute over the figures had escalated into a fierce behind-the-scenes battle behind the UN and the Pentagon.

Warning over deaths

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Monday that decreased reliance on ground forces and greater use of air power was leading to “mistakes” that had “dramatically decreased” support for the Afghan government and international troops.

“Civilian deaths from air strikes act as a recruiting tool for the Taleban and risk fatally undermining the international effort to provide basic security to the people of Afghanistan,” Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW, said in a statement.

Hamid Karzai visiting Azizabad

Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Azizabad after the air strike

The group found that in 2007 at least 321 Afghan civilians had been killed in international air strikes – a rise from at least 116 in 2006.

This figure was much lower than the number of civilians killed in militant attacks, the group said. Nearly 950 people were killed by insurgents in 2008, compared with 700 in 2006.

HRW said most of the air strike casualties occurred in unplanned raids, when air power was called to give support to troops on the ground.

“The US and Nato need to dramatically improve their co-ordination with each other and with the government of Afghanistan,” HRW’s Rachel Reid told the BBC.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly warned the US and Nato that civilian deaths undermine his government and damage the reputation of foreign forces in the country.

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