Posts Tagged ‘civilian casualties’

Western, Afghan troops fire during demonstration

January 13, 2010

The Washington Post

By Abdul Malek

Reuters, January 12, 2010

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) – NATO troops and Afghan security forces opened fire during a demonstration in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, sharply raising the political temperature in one of the most volatile parts of the country.

Accounts differed over the number of casualties and the roles played by NATO and Afghan troops in the incident in Garmsir, a former Taliban stronghold in southern Helmand province now patrolled by U.S. Marines under NATO command.

Continues >>

US: Endorse Goldstone Report on Gaza

September 28, 2009
Promote Justice for Victims on Both sides

Human Rights Watch, September 27, 2009

(Washington, DC) – The Obama administration should fully endorse the report of the United Nations fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict led by Justice Richard Goldstone and demand justice for the victims of serious laws-of-war violations in the conflict, Human Rights Watch said today.

Dismissal of all or parts of the Goldstone report would contradict President Barack Obama’s stated commitment to human rights in the Middle East and reveal an ill-timed double-standard in Washington’s approach to international justice, Human Rights Watch said. It would also undermine efforts to revive the peace process.

“Failure to demand justice for attacks on civilians in Gaza and southern Israel will reveal hypocrisy in US policy,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Obama administration cannot demand accountability for serious violations in places like Sudan and Congo but let allies like Israel go free. That approach will bolster abusive governments that challenge international justice efforts.”

The UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict mandated by the UN Human Rights Council determined that both Israel and Hamas had committed serious violations of the laws of war during the 22-day conflict last December and January, some amounting to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. Neither side, the report said, has conducted adequate, impartial investigations of alleged laws-of-war violations by its forces.

The Goldstone report recommends that the Israeli government and Hamas authorities be given six months to show that they will conduct independent and impartial domestic investigations. It says the UN Security Council should establish a group of independent experts to monitor and report on whether the two sides have undertaken effective and genuine investigations.

Thus far, US officials have dismissed the Goldstone report. Ambassador Susan Rice, US permanent representative to the UN, said her government had “serious concerns about many recommendations in the report.” She and other US officials have cited what they called the report’s “unbalanced and one-sided mandate.” They said the United States wants discussion of the report to stay within the confines of the Human Rights Council, and not be taken up by other UN bodies such as the Security Council.

The original mandate of the mission was indeed one-sided, Human Rights Watch said, because it addressed alleged violations by only Israel. But at the insistence of Goldstone, an eminent international jurist and former chief prosecutor at the UN war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the mandate was revised to allow investigation of all sides. The report, in turn, addressed abuses by Israel, Hamas, and other Palestinian armed groups in detail, as well as abuses by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

“Goldstone’s report, scathing in its criticism of both sides, is the best evidence that his mandate in practice was neither biased nor unfair,” Whitson said. “US insistence that the report stay at the Human Rights Council and not reach the Security Council is a clear attempt to avoid justice mechanisms with teeth.”

The US claim that Israel can be relied upon to investigate itself ignores the well-documented pattern of impunity in the country for past violations of international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said.

“Israel has repeatedly shown that it lacks the political will to investigate itself impartially,” Whitson said. “And Hamas’s record on internal investigations is even worse.”

The Goldstone report, if taken up by the Security Council, provides an opportunity to break this pattern of impunity, Human Rights Watch said. The US will squander that opportunity if it confines discussion of the report to the Human Rights Council because the council’s disproportionate focus on Israel makes it easier for Israel and others to ignore. Indeed, Israel cited the council’s unbalanced record to justify its refusal to cooperate with the Goldstone investigation.

“If the aim is to convince Israel at long last to conduct genuine, impartial investigations of its conduct in Gaza, confining the issue to the Human Rights Council is a terrible step,” said Whitson. “Only the Security Council has the authority and power to convince Israel to take seriously the need for real investigations.”

Rice also downplayed the need for justice by suggesting that it might interfere with the peace process. The US government wanted to “look not to the past but to the future [because] the best way to end suffering and abuses is for there to be a long-term solution and peace,” she said. In fact, continuing attacks on civilians by both sides are the biggest impediment to establishing the trust needed to advance the peace process, Human Rights Watch said.

“The US has it backwards,” said Whitson. “Ending impunity for attacks on civilians is needed for positive movement in the peace process.”

Human Rights Watch urged the United States to support a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that endorses the fact-finding mission’s report in its totality, including the recommendation that it be submitted to relevant UN bodies for follow-up. The Human Rights Council will debate the Gaza report in Geneva on September 29.

Unlike in the past, the governments that traditionally reject criticism of Hamas now seem willing to allow a blanket endorsement of the Goldstone report at the Human Rights Council, but only if backers of Israel take the same approach.

“If the United States and other allies of Israel start picking and choosing among the Goldstone recommendations, that will undermine this historic opportunity to put the Human Rights Council on a more principled course,” said Whitson.

Breaking the Silence on Gaza

July 21, 2009
by César Chelala |, July 20, 2009

A new set of revelations by soldiers who participated in the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) operation in Gaza offers a disturbing picture of the actions carried out in that territory. Testimony regarding their conduct in Gaza by Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli soldiers, confirms previous denunciations by human rights organizations and signals that urgent attention must be paid to the economic and medical needs of a repeatedly abused civilian population.

Operation “Cast Lead” was initiated December 27, 2008 and ended January 18, 2009. Over 1400 Palestinians were killed, 900 of them civilians (65%), including 300 hundred children (22%). Extensive areas of Gaza were razed to the ground and thousands of people were left homeless, even months after the operation ended. The economy of Gaza was all but destroyed.

Full article

Residents seethe as Pakistan army destroys homes

May 29, 2009

By Chris Brummitt, Associated Press, May 28, 2009

A Pakistani woman carries her soon as she walks through the rubble of houses destroyed in an air strike in Sultanwas village, in Buner district, Pakistan, on Wednesday, May 27, 2009

SULTANWAS, Pakistan (AP) — When Pakistan’s army drove the Taliban back from this small northwestern village, it also destroyed much of everything else here.

F-16 fighter jets, military helicopters, tanks and artillery reduced houses, mosques and shops to rubble, strewn with children’s shoes, shattered TV sets and perfume bottles.

Commanders say the force was necessary in an operation they claim killed 80 militants. But returning residents do not believe this: Although a burned-out army tank at the entrance to Sultanwas indicates the Taliban fought back, villagers say most fighters fled into the mountains.

Beyond any doubt is their fury at authorities for wrecking their homes — the sort of backlash the army doesn’t want as it tries to win the support of the people for its month-old offensive against the Taliban in Pakistan’s northwest frontier region near the border with Afghanistan.

“The Taliban never hurt the poor people, but the government has destroyed everything,” Sher Wali Khan told the first reporting team to reach the village of about 1,000 homes.

“They are treating us like the enemy,” he said as he collected shredded copies of a Quran from the ruins of a mosque, one of three that were damaged, possibly beyond repair.

The anger in this village is an echo of recent years, when previous army offensives against the Taliban in the northwestern frontier area caused widespread civilian casualties and damage to homes. The military’s heavy-handed approach here shows it may still be more equipped to fight conventional war with India than guerrilla warfare in the shadows of mountain villages and towns, where militants use civilians as cover.

The Associated Press traveled to Sultanwas on Wednesday after the Pakistani army briefly lifted a curfew in the Buner district to allow residents to return.

But the fight for the region is clearly not over. Just beyond the village, a makeshift army checkpoint shows where its control ends. Beyond that, the army and villagers say the Taliban are in charge, patrolling streets on foot and in pickup trucks.

The United States wants a resounding victory against insurgents who are threatening not only the stability of this nuclear-armed country, but also the success of the American-led mission in neighboring Afghanistan.

The army launched its operation in April to take back the northwest after the militants lost popular support across the region partly because of their defiance of a peace deal with the government. The Taliban have also carried out atrocities in the northwest and claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians elsewhere in Pakistan.

But residents of Sultanwas say the militants in their village threatened no one.

Khan, a 17-year-old who is quick with a smile and hopes to attend medical school, said about five militants occasionally came to a mosque. There, he said, they preached an ultraconservative brand of Islam and called for overthrowing the government because it was not implementing Islamic law. He said he did not agree with either position.

Khan fled with his family and most other residents when the army warned them last week to get out because the offensive was about to reach them.

The Taliban entered Buner last month from the Swat Valley, an advance that triggered the military’s offensive. There was very little damage to buildings in the road leading to Sultanwas, which military officials said used to be one of the Taliban’s major strongholds in the district.

The army says it is making every effort to avoid damaging buildings in the offensive. Reporters on a military-escorted trip to part of the Swat Valley last week saw no significant destruction.

But the army used helicopters, F-16 jets, tanks and artillery in the battle for Sultanwas. While the military says this tactic reduces army casualties by “softening up” areas before troops move in, critics question its effectiveness against a small and, for the most part, lightly armed insurgent force moving in and out of towns.

Khan and others insisted the militants were not living in their homes either before or after the attack.

There were no bodies, blood or obviously buried corpses in the rubble, which spans an area the size of two football fields, roughly a third of the village. A reporter could find no sign any rebels had dug in there or used the area as a base. Residents said the same.

“When the operation started, the Taliban all ran away from the area,” said Rosi Khan, citing an account from the only three villagers who he said stayed behind. He could not say where those villagers are now.

Spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said fleeing villagers had told military officials that militants were using Khan’s house and others nearby. He said 80 insurgents were killed in the operation, and that other militants apparently removed their bodies.

But two officers involved in the Buner operations said most of the roughly 400 fighters believed to be there escaped to the mountains — terrain they know far better than do army troops trucked in from elsewhere in Pakistan. The two officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give information to reporters.

It is a pattern the military says the outgunned and outnumbered militants are following elsewhere in the region, including in the main Swat Valley city of Mingora.

A defense attache for a Western embassy said the Swat operation appeared to be better organized and more coordinated than earlier ones in the northwest. But he questioned whether the 15,000 troops deployed against roughly 4,000 militants were enough to secure the region.

Besides Swat, Pakistan needs to keep troops elsewhere in the border region where al-Qaida and other militants are strong. But most of its roughly 700,000-member army is stationed on or close to the border with India, the country’s traditional rival.

To claim victory, the government will have to ensure the militants do not return to the Swat Valley and Buner, and that the 2.4 million people who fled the fighting stay on the government’s side when they come home.

The army is appealing for refugees to return to Sultanwas, but as elsewhere in Buner, few were heeding the call.

A week after the battle for this village ended, there was still no police, electricity or civilian administration.

“The political leadership is not here, there is no police,” said a senior army officer, who asked not be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “How can you expect them to return?”

An AP photographer saw several people looting food and drinks from a damaged store in Sultanwas. They stopped only when other villagers reprimanded them.

At a checkpoint in Sultanwas, young men riding in buses from Taliban-controlled Pir Baba were ordered to lift their shirts and be searched, but there was little sign they were making serious checks of all those leaving the area.

In Pir Baba, Taliban fighters armed with rocket launchers and assault rifles are patrolling the streets, said Mohammed Yusuf, a 50-year-old farmer who was leaving but intended to return after buying vegetables at the nearest open market, several miles away.

“They are on the streets in the morning and evening,” Yusuf said. “They are friendly. Some of them I know from my area.”

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press

UN praise for Sri Lanka criticised

May 29, 2009

The United Nations was today accused by human rights groups of failing to hold the Sri Lankan government accountable for alleged abuses against civilians ­during the suppression of the Tamil Tiger insurgency.

The accusations followed a resolution in the UN human rights council welcoming the Sri Lankan government victory, with no reference to human rights concerns over civilian casualties and the 300,000 Tamils made homeless, many of whom are interned in government camps.

But criticism was also aimed at the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, who ­visited the biggest camp over the weekend and complimented the Sri Lankan government on its humanitarian role, and the security council for not speaking out officially about the human cost of the military victory.

“The human rights council performed abysmally,” said Tom Porteous, London director of Human Rights Watch. “It’s there to monitor human rights and the laws of war, and it completely failed – and failed to register any concern over the situation.”

The Sri Lankan government took the unusual step of submitting its own resolution to a council session in Geneva convened to examine its conduct in the conflict. Colombo won substantial support from friendly governments, derailing an attempt to launch an inquiry into war crimes allegations.

“It was a deplorable result, a self-congratulatory resolution that Sri Lanka imposed on the council,” said Peter ­Splinter, Amnesty International’s representative in Geneva.

Sen Kandiah, a Tamil community leader in Britain, said: “The Tamil diaspora feel the system is not working. We feel justice is not going to be done.”

The Geneva resolution hailed “the liberation by the government of Sri Lanka of tens of thousands of its citizens that were kept by the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] against their will as hostages”. It won 29 votes, with six abstentions. Britain’s was one of 12 votes against it. A European diplomat admitted that if EU states had been more organised they might have put forward a more critical resolution that could have been accepted by the council.

Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, Rohitha Bogollagama, todaysaid the government had been able to defeat countries that were “trying to undermine Sri Lanka’s efforts in countering terrorism”.

Colombo was also buoyed by the remarks of Ban Ki-moon after his visit to Menik Farm internment camp, noting the government’s “tremendous efforts”. The comments infuriated aid workers. “It seems to me Ban … didn’t raise the really hard questions about human rights,” Porteous said.

Report: 25,000-30,000 Civilians Maimed in Final Days of Sri Lanka War

May 25, 2009

Reporter Says Slain Rebel Leaders Were Promised Safety Right Before Final Offensive

by Jason Ditz |, May 25, 2009

While the Sri Lankan government maintains that no civilian casualties were caused in the final offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka’s branch of the French-based aid organization Handicap International says that between 25,000 and 30,000 people are believed to have been seriously maimed in the final days of the military offensive against the separatist rebels.

Sri Lanka declared victory in the 26 year long civil war last week, having killed the leader of the LTTE and captured the last tiny swath of the island controlled by the rebels. The final months of the violence took a considerable toll on the Tamil population of the island’s north.

Information about the final clash has been tough to come by, but journalist Marie Colvin gave a compelling report of the final hours today, in which she obtained a guarantee of safety for top rebel chiefs just hours before the final offensive, and was reassured by the government that the army would not harm them. All the chiefs involved in the deal were slain.

Civilians say they’re casualties of Pakistan’s fight against the Taliban

May 15, 2009

MARDAN, Pakistan — The Pakistani army denies knowing that its war against Islamic militants has caused civilian casualties, but patients and family members at a local hospital told McClatchy Thursday that multiple relatives were killed when the military shelled or bombed their homes.

So far, there appear to be just a handful of civilian casualties from the fighting in Swat, a valley 100 miles from Islamabad. More of them, however, along with damage to homes and businesses and the plight of the hundreds of thousands who’ve been displaced by the fighting, could undermine hard-won public support for fighting the Taliban.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani recognized the danger, telling parliament Thursday: “Militarily we will win the war, but it will be unfortunate if we lose it publicly.”

On a visit Thursday to the District Headquarters (DHQ) hospital in Mardan, the first major town reached by those fleeing the war zone, a McClatchy reporter found doctors and nurses struggling to cope with civilian casualties

Fareedon, a 36-year-old who goes by one name, was lying in a bed at the simply equipped and poorly maintained DHQ hospital. He said that he lost three of his children, a 12-year-old boy and girls aged 8 and 5, when a mortar hit their house in Landkhai village in the southwest corner of Swat. He said that 10 to 12 houses and a school in the village were shelled on May 11. He was injured in the foot and the thigh.

“It (mortars) is falling on our houses,” said Fareedon. “Ordinary people die. Not one Taliban has been killed.”

At Aboha village, also in southwest Swat, a shell killed six people, said Sajjad Khan, 18, who’d brought his injured 13-year-old brother, Sohail, to the hospital. They said they lost a sister and a cousin, and another wounded cousin lay on a nearby hospital bed.

“What is this child guilty of?” said Sajjad, pointing to his brother. “What is the guilt of those that died?”

He said they tried calling an ambulance but none would come because of a curfew.

In another bed was 8-year-old Aktar Mina, with a broken leg. In a two-hour attack, missiles or bombs from fighter planes hit several homes on Sunday in her village in Gut Peochar, a remote part of Swat that reputedly is a Taliban stronghold, according to relatives crowded around her bed.

Her mother carried her for four days until they could find transportation, said the girl’s cousin, 30-year-old Saeed Afzal. Eight people were killed, including the girl’s aunt and seven of the neighbors’ children who were taking shelter in the house, he said.

“When the fighting began, the Taliban all vanished. It is ordinary people being bombed,” said Afzal.

There was no way to verify the stories independently, and according to doctors at the hospital, there are only a few patients with injuries from the fighting in Swat, with four admitted on Wednesday, for instance.

“We were expecting much more than this. There’s no rush of the injured. It is a mystery,” said Dr. Wajid Ahmed, of the casualty department.

It’s possible that the badly injured haven’t been able to make it out of the war zone, said doctors, who’re also coping with an outbreak of disease among the “internally displaced people” who’re living in giant camps on the city outskirts.

The hospital’s main concern now is a flood of people with diseases caused by poor hygiene and overcrowded conditions. Out of the 582 patients seen at the hospital Wednesday, 283 were refugees from the fighting in Swat and the surrounding districts, and most fell ill in the camps.

There were three or four babies and young children on most of the mattresses in the children’s ward, where 28 exhausted little patients occupied the 10 beds. All the children were suffering from dangerous acute diarrhea.

“Let’s hope this (war) ends soon. Otherwise, as the weather gets hotter, it will be a disaster,” said Ahmed.

The Pakistani army has either declined to answer questions about civilian casualties or said it has no record of any. However, the army has produced precise claims for the number of Taliban it’s killed. Earlier this week, the army said 751 militants had been killed, and Thursday officials added 54 more.

Past Pakistani military operations against Islamic militants in Swat and in the tribal belt along the Afghan border have caused significant civilian casualties and collateral damage to houses, businesses and other buildings.

Human Rights Watch warned earlier this week that the army must avoid civilian casualties, and the army repeated its pledge to take care of civilians.

“The security forces are making all efforts to minimize collateral damage, and therefore we have changed some of our plans to ensure that we do not cause collateral damage,” said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army’s chief spokesman, at a news briefing Thursday. “We have taken all measures to avoid fighting in populated areas so far.”

Thousands of residents remain trapped in Mingora, Swat’s biggest town, which has no electricity, no running water and dwindling food supplies. Many Taliban militants are believed to be holed up there, and Abbas said that the army wants as many people as possible to be leave Mingora before the anticipated “street-to-street” fighting begins in the town.

On May 8, the Pakistani army launched its “full-scale” operations to wrest back control of Swat valley from Taliban extremists. Some 15,000 troops are involved.

Since the fighting began, the army said that some 750,000 people have fled Swat and the surrounding districts, increasing Pakistan’s population of “internally displaced people” to 1.3 million. Hundreds of thousands already had been made homeless by anti-Taliban operations elsewhere in the northwest part of the country.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

UN urges Tamil Tigers to surrender

April 23, 2009

Al Jazeera,April 23, 2009

Aid groups are demanding a ceasefire to allow civilians to flee the war zone [AFP]

The UN Security Council has demanded that Tamil separatists holding out against the Sri Lankan military surrender and allow civilians trapped in the war zone to leave.

Wednesday’s call by Claude Heller, the council’s rotating president, came as rights groups pressed the UN to do more, warning that tens of thousands of civilians remain stuck in “catastrophic” conditions.

Heller said: “We demand that the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] immediately lay down arms, renounce terrorism, allow a UN-assisted evacuation of the remaining civilians in the conflict area, and join the political process.”

‘Human shields’

Diplomats told reporters after the closed session that the security council “strongly condemned” the Tigers and accused them of using civilians trapped in a small strip of land as human shields.

In video
Sri Lankan civilians ‘escape’ rebel stronghold
Sri Lankan fighting exacts grim civilian toll

The security council also expressed its “deep concern” about the worsening humanitarian situation, but so far has not taken any action.

Rights groups are calling for a two-week ceasefire to let civilians out.

Anna Neistat, of Human Rights Watch, said: “We do have numerous civilian casualties, but we are not yet at the stage where a Tamilloodbath is going on full scale. It is a matter of days if not hours.”

The Sri Lankan military says it has “rescued” 80,000 Tamils over the past three days. The government ordered the Tigers to surrender on Tuesday, saying the military was about to start its final assault.

Catherine Bragg, the UN deputy humanitarian affairs chief, said the UN had not yet received permission to enter the conflict zone or to monitor the screening of civilians who manage to escape the fighting, a claim disputed by the Sri Lankan government.

The Sri Lankan government was also criticised for not providing full assistance to all civilians fleeing the Tiger-held zone.

‘Human sandbags’

David Chater, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in the northeastern Trincomalee, said: “[The government] sfay that it is the Tamil Tigers who are holding the Tamil civilians there, using civilians as human sandbags. I’ve certainly talked to many people and they’ve told me that is correct.

Focus: Sri Lanka

Q&A: Sri Lanka’s civil war

The history of the Tamil Tigers

Timeline: Conflict in Sri Lanka

‘High cost’ of victory over Tigers

Caught in the middle

“I think perhaps the Sri Lankan government could be held responsible for some of the injuries if they are being caused by indirect fire – that is shelling, bombing, mortars,” he said.”But they made it very clear to me that they say they are using minimum force, these are their fellow civilians they do not want to harm them, their target is the Tamil Tigers.”

Chater said that many of the refugees said that they were bitter about the way the LTTE had treated them.

“There seems to have been a sea change in the opinion of the Tamil civilians about the Tamil Tiger leadership.

“[After] seeing the men that were supposed to be protecting them, fighting for their own homeland, exploiting them, shooting at them when they tried to escape, stealing the humanitarian food supplies.

Chater said that this that has had eroded support for the LTTE which could hamper any guerrilla force operating after the conventional military war is over.

Susan Rice, the US ambassador, suggested that both sides might be guilty of violating international law.

“The fact that both sides have been shooting at civilians as they leave the safe zone is one gross manifestation of the apparent violation of international humanitarian law,” she said.

In remarks to the US congress on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said “the Sri Lankan government knows that the entire world is very disappointed” at the “untold suffering” being brought by its offensive against the Tigers”.

She added that “there seems to be very little openness on the part of the Tamil Tiger leadership to cease their efforts so that we could try to get in and help the people”.

Prominent Tigers ‘surrender’

China and Russia are among some countries which have opposed the idea of a formal security council discussion of the conflict, which has spanned 26 years, saying it is an internal matter for the Sri Lankans.

The UN estimates that more than 4,500 civilians have been killed in the past three months and the International Committee of the Red Cross says up to 50,000 people remain trapped in the less than 20sq km area still held by the Tigers.The Sri Lankan military said on Thursday that the group’s former media spokesman and an interpreter who both played prominent roles in dealing with the media, had surrendered.

The Tigers have been fighting for an autonomous homeland for ethnic Tamils in the north of the country, arguing that they are marginalised by the majority Sinhalese government.

A Norway-brokered ceasefire fell apart during 2007 and the government said it would “wipe out” the Tigers by the end of 2008.

Afghanistan, the Next US Quagmire?

February 20, 2009
by Thalif Deen |, Feb 20, 2009

The United States is planning to send an additional 17,000 troops to one of the world’s most battle-scarred nations – Afghanistan – long described as “a graveyard of empires.”

First, it was the British Empire, and then the Soviet Union. So, will the United States be far behind?

“With his new order on Afghanistan, President (Barack) Obama has given substantial ground to what Martin Luther King Jr., in 1967 called ‘the madness of militarism,'” Norman Solomon, executive director of the Washington-based Institute for Public Accuracy, told IPS.

“That madness should be opposed in 2009,” said Solomon, author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.

The proposed surge in U.S. troops will bring the total to 60,000, while the combined forces from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), including troops from Germany, Canada, Britain and the Netherlands, amount to over 32,000.

When in full strength, U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan could reach close to 100,000 by the end of this year.

Still, in a TV interview Tuesday, Obama said he was “absolutely convinced that you cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban (insurgency), the spread extremism in that region solely through military means.”

“If there is no military solution, why is the administration’s first set of decisions to continue drone attacks and increase ground troops?” Marilyn B. Young, a professor of history at New York University, told IPS.

She said the uncertainty around Afghan policy seems to be spreading even while the Obama administration announces an increase in troops.

“This is one of the ways events seem to echo U.S. escalation in the Vietnam War,” said Young, author of several publications, including “Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or, How Not to Learn From the Past.”

On Tuesday, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released a report revealing that in 2008, there were 2,118 civilian casualties in Afghanistan, an increase of almost 40 percent over 2007.

Of these casualties, 55 percent of the overall death toll was attributed to anti-government forces, including the Taliban, and 39 percent to Afghan security and international military forces.

“This is of great concern to the United Nations,” the report said, pointing out that “this disquieting pattern demands that the parties to the conflict take all necessary measures to avoid the killing of innocent civilians.”

During his presidential campaign last year, Obama said the war in Iraq was a misguided war.

The United States, he said, needs to pull out of Iraq, and at the same time, bolster its troops in Afghanistan, primarily to prevent the militant Islamic fundamentalist Taliban from regaining power and also to eliminate safe havens for terrorists.

But most political analysts point out that Afghanistan may turn out to be a bigger military quagmire for U.S. forces than Iraq.

Solomon of the Institute for Public Accuracy said Obama’s moves on Afghanistan have “the quality of a moth toward a flame.”

In the short run, Obama is likely to be unharmed in domestic political terms. But the policy trajectory appears to be unsustainable in the medium-run, he added.

“Before the end of his first term, Obama is very likely to find himself in a vise, caught between a war in Afghanistan that cannot be won and a political quandary at home that significantly erodes the enthusiasm of his electoral base while fueling Republican momentum,” Solomon argued.

Dr. Christine Fair, a senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation and a former political officer with UNAMA in Kabul, told IPS she is doubtful that more troops will secure Afghanistan.

“Perhaps several years ago more troops would have been welcomed. My fear is that more troops means more civilian losses and further erosion of good will and support for the international presence,” Fair said.

“I would personally prefer a move from kinetics and towards using this increased capacity to help build Afghan capacity,” she noted.

“I also think greater support from the international community for reconciliation is needed. Afghans need to own this process,” said Fair, a former senior research associate with the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the U.N. Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington.

However, she said, the international community has legitimate interests in remaining in some capacity to ensure that Afghanistan does not again emerge as a safe haven for al-Qaeda and other international terrorist groups.

Fair also co-authored (along with Seth Jones) a USIP report released early this week, titled “Securing Afghanistan,” which spelled out the reasons why international stabilization efforts have not been successful in Afghanistan over the last seven years.

“Security issues in Afghanistan are extraordinarily complex, with multiple actors influencing the threat environment – among them, insurgent groups, criminal groups, local tribes, warlords, government officials and security forces,” the report said.

Afghanistan also presents a multi-front conflict that includes distinct security challenges in the northern, central and southern parts of the country, the study declared.

In Afghanistan, Solomon argued, the U.S. president is proceeding down a path that can only be too steep and not steep enough.

The basic contradiction of his current position – asserting that the situation cannot be solved by military means yet taking action to try to solve the problem by military means – signifies that Obama is bargaining for short-term wiggle room at the expense of longer-term rationality, he added.

“In a very real sense, Obama is kicking a bloody can down the road, unable to think of any other way to confront circumstances that will grow worse with time in large measure because of his actions now,” he said.

Even while disputing some thematic aspects of the “war on terrorism” at times, Obama is reinvesting his political capital – and re-dedicating the Pentagon’s mission – on behalf of a U.S. war effort that is probably doomed to fail on its own terms, Solomon said.

“Reliance on violence is a chronic temptation for a commander-in-chief with the mighty U.S. military under its command. We’ve seen the results in Iraq – or, more precisely, the people of Iraq and many American soldiers have seen and suffered the results,” he added.

(Inter Press Service)

Afghan Official Claims 15 Civilians Killed in US Strike in Herat

February 19, 2009

Eyewitness say six women, five men, and four children in the village of Karez Sultan were killed in the strike. Several hundred animals are also said to have been killed there.

By Shapoor Saber in Herat | RAWA News, Feb 18, 2009

Afghans carry body parts of the victims
Afghans carry body parts of the victims, who the villagers said were killed in an air strike in Gozara district of Herat province west of Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009. (AP photo)

Photo Gallery of US victims in Afghanistan
The Afghan Victim Memorial Project by Prof. Marc

United States forces in Afghanistan claim to have killed up to 15 militants associated with an infamous warlord in Herat province in an airstrike on February 16, but district officials and eyewitnesses say that the dead were a family of Kuchis, or nomads, who were camped out nearby.

“A Coalition forces precision strike targeted Ghulam Yahya Akbari, a key insurgent commander, near Gozara district, Herat province, Monday. Killed in the attack were up to 15 militants suspected of associating with Yahya,” read a press release issued by Lieutenant Commander Walter Matthews of the US Forces Public Affairs Office.

Yahya himself, it seems, was not hurt in the attack, despite an earlier Coalition press release reporting his death.

“They tried to hit me but struck a family of Kuchis instead,” said Yahya, speaking by telephone to IWPR, Tuesday, February 17.

Ghulam Mahboob Afzalzada, district governor of Gozara, insisted the strike had claimed the lives of Kuchis, a nomadic people who shepherd their animals throughout the country.

“Foreign forces, without coordinating the attack with the local government, killed innocent people,” said Afzalzada, speaking from the scene of the attack Tuesday afternoon. “All those killed were civilians.” All are Kuchi nomads.”

Eyewitness say six women, five men, and four children in the village of Karez Sultan were killed in the strike. Several hundred animals are also said to have been killed there.

“There was a [Kuchi] man and his family, including women and children,” said local resident Gul Ahmad, who was standing near the site of the strike Tuesday afternoon.

Speaking by telephone Tuesday morning, Captain Elizabeth Mathias said that US military had no information on civilian casualties. The press release, issued later in the day, said that the Coalition forces were arranging for a combined Coalition and Afghan assessment team.

Afghans dig graves for the victims

Afghans dig graves after an air strike in Gozara district of Herat province February 17, 2009. In an air strike in western Afghanistan that Afghan police say killed 12 civilians and U.S. forces said killed 16 militants. (Reuters Photo)

Afghans look at animals killed after the air strike

Afghans look at animals killed after the air strike at a tented nomad encampment, in Gozara district of Herat province February 17, 2009. (Reuters Photo)

“There are no official reports of civilian casualties at this time,” said Lieutenant Colonel Rick Helmer, spokesperson for US Forces Afghanistan. “However, when we receive confirmed reports of civilian deaths we take those reports very seriously and investigate them along with out Afghan counterparts. Coalition forces make every effort to prevent the injury or loss of innocent lives.”

Civilian casualties are an extremely sensitive issue in Afghanistan, causing anger among the population and tension with the Afghan government. President Hamed Karzai has become increasingly outspoken in his criticism of foreign troops, who, he says, carry out their operation without sufficient coordination with the Afghan government.

There was a 40 per cent rise in civilian casualties last year, according to a United Nations report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, released on Tuesday. In all, 2118 civilians were killed, 828 of them by Afghan government or foreign forces. However, said the report, the figures could be much higher.

“UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) does not claim that the statistics represented in this report are complete; it may be that, given the limitations of the operating environment, UNAMA is underreporting civilian casualties,” read the report.

The UN report also questioned the ability of the military to investigate thoroughly in cases where locals allege that civilians have been killed.

“International forces showed themselves more willing than before to institute more regular and transparent inquiries into specific incidents, although the independence of these inquiries is still questionable,” it said.

Several high-profile incidents last year undermined the credibility of the international forces in reporting civilian casualties. First came an attack in July in Nangahar province that killed 47 members of a wedding party, including the bride.

In August, a bombing in Herat province left more than 90 civilians dead, according to the UN and the Afghan government. In both instances, the international forces claimed to have targeted and killed only militants. Only after many weeks and mounting pressure did they acknowledge that some intelligence mistakes may have been resulting in civilian deaths.

Yahya, who is also known as “Siyawooshan” after his home village in Gozara district, is a controversial figure with a long and colourful history in Herat. He began his fighting career as a jihadi commander associated with Mohamamd Ismail Khan, former “Emir” of Herat and currently minister of power and water management.

At the time of the mujaheddin civil war, in the mid-nineties, Yahya was mayor of Herat, where he earned a reputation for honesty and brutality in almost equal measure. During the Taleban regime, he fled to Iran, returning to battle the Islamists in the Herat area. He became head of the department of public works after the fall of the Taleban, and worked once again with Ismail Khan, until the latter’s appointment to Kabul.

Yahya did not get along with Ismail Khan’s successor in Herat, Sayed Hussein Anwari, whom he accused of unfairly distributing land and positions to the Shia minority.

Sacked by Anwari, Yahya retreated to his native Gozara district and took up arms against the government. For the past two years, he is said to have carried out missile strikes against the UNAMA compound in Herat, the nearby foreign military base and airport.

He is also reported to have supported himself and his men by kidnapping for ransom, including one Indian citizen who reportedly died while in Yahya’s custody.

He has been linked to the Taleban, al-Qaeda, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami faction, but insists he is operating on his own.

While the US forces insist that Yahya is “known to move throughout the mountains in this area, hiding amongst the civilian population to avoid detection”, he is easily accessible to reporters, who call him on his mobile phone to arrange interviews.

Yahya is feared by many and revered by some, according to those who live under his iron rule in Gozara district.

Most ordinary Heratis just want to live in peace.

“None of these [militant] groups are respecting us,” said Abdul Zahir, 30, a resident of Herat city, speaking for many locals. “The opposition factions kidnap people, and the foreigners kill innocent civilians.”

Shapoor Saber is an IWPR trainee in Herat.

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