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War in Afghanistan 2007, Week Four

A NATO official has dropped a bombshell about Canadian policy in Afghanistan which may have deadly implications for the troops in the field.

Mark Laity, the senior civilian NATO spokesman in Kabul, told the Greek news agency AKI that the Canadian forces administering Kandahar Province are following the example of British forces and signing controversial peace deals.

Under the deals, known as the Helmand Protocol, the International Security Assistance Forces surrender control of provincial districts to councils consisting of local clerics and tribal elders. Nato troops and Taliban fighters are supposed to withdraw from the districts. The councils chose their own police chiefs and pledge loyalty to the central government. They are in charge of keeping Taliban insurgents out.

Yeah, sure.

The first such deal was signed last October in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province, which the Brits administer. The British are expanding the idea to the Sangin and Nawzad districts of Helmand. And now, according to Laity, to the Panjwai and Zhari districts of Kandahar, the two areas where Canadian forces successfully fought pitched battles last September to free from Taliban domination.

The peace deals have been criticized by Afghan and other NATO allies as being a virtual surrender to the Taliban. Instead of leaving, as required, Taliban forces use the areas to rest and recover after battles, and to plan future attacks. In their propaganda they brag of having defeated the British, inspiring new recruits.

A journalist in Pakistan friendly to the Talibian recently wrote about Musa Qala this way:

(Dec 7, 2006, Rough justice and blooming poppies, By Syed Saleem Shahzad) The British were based in the governor's office and faced daily attacks. The British garrison was subsequently relieved by a Danish infantry team, which came under renewed Taliban attacks. After a month, the Danish forces handed control of the base back to British forces, who in mid-October left the village.

They had struck a deal with the Taliban and handed over everything to pro-Taliban tribal elders. Now the area is free of NATO forces and the Afghan National Army (ANA) and is a strategic back yard for the Taliban from where revenue is generated and disbursed, arms stockpiled and pro-Taliban forces regrouped.

British military officials say the deals are actually victories for Nato forces. They marginalize the insurgents and let NATO avoid the bloody fighting that costs military and civilian casualties.

Reconstruction projects are under way in Musa Qala; schools are open, and buildings damaged by fighting are being rebuilt.

"That is not a bad achievement and credit goes to the local elders for standing against the Taliban." said British army Lt. Gen. David Richards.

An extension of peace deals to Kandahar may explain the sudden timidity of Canadian forces. During the recent Operation Baaz Tsuka, NATO generals said they had an estimated 700 taliban boxed in. But instead of cleaning house, and winning a decisive victory, the Canadians showed no interest in finding the insurgents.

Last Saturday night, the Canadians were in a three hour firefight with Taliban fighters. The Canadians called in heavy artillery, tanks and air support. A NATO spokesman the next day said, ""There was no indication that anyone was injured in that, Taliban or otherwise.''

But if you have a three hour gunfight and don't kill anyone---YOU LOST.

The true test of these peace deals may be just around the corner. In a month or two, the annual spring offensive will begin. NATO generals have said that Kandahar remains the "holy grail" for the Taliban. They're expected to put all their strength into capturing Kandahar City to prove they can defeat NATO. Canadians will be in the bullseye.

If Taliban fighters find their movements curtailed and NATO alerted to their attacks by village elders, then the policy will be judged a success.

But if the assault is fuelled by weapons and ammunition stockpiled in Kandahar and Helmand province and conducted by insurgents who have been biding their time in villages protected from NATO interference by the peace deals, then the British and Canadian generals who approved them should be cashiered.

In February, Lt. Gen. Richards is being succeeded as head of NATO forces in Afghanistan by four-star American General, Lt. Gen. Dan McNeil. Afghan officials expect, or maybe just hope, that he will put an end to these peace deals. There are already hints that officers are expecting a more hardline approach to fighting the Taliban.

An airstrike was launched on a compound near Musa Qala this week. NATO officials said they believed a senior Taliban leader and his deputies were killed. This follows the current policy of cutting the head off the snake---killing or capturing leaders and trying to win over the leaderless footsoldiers. And anyway, the guy wasn't supposed to be there anyway according to the deal.

On Monday, Squadron Leader Dave Marsh, the spokesman for ISAF's Regional Command South, based at the Kandahar airfield, told Radio Free Europe that precision bomb strikes against Taliban leaders have been replaced by arrests conducted mostly by British special forces. They must have made an exception for Musa Qala.

And in eastern Afghanistan, when insurgents fired rockets at U.S. soldiers in Paktika province from Pakistan's North Waziristan, American planes dropped four bombs on their heads. Pakistan protested the cross-border attack and said one of its soldiers at a border post was killed. Oops, sorry. What was he doing standing next to the guys with the rockets in the first place? The message got through. The U.S. isn't fooling around any more.

Apart from these incidents, military action was slow across Afghanistan this week.

The firefight involving Canadians happened at a fortified position known as Strong Point West which defends Route Summit, the road being built to connect Panjwai district with Highway One, the country's main road connecting Kabul and Kandahar City. Think an Asian TransCanada Highway, as one reporter dubbed it.

To see for yourself what Strong Point West looks like, go to:
8 rows down, second from the left.

We'll be hearing a lot more about Route Summit in 2007. It is the front line of the war in Kandahar province. At least three Canadian soldiers died last fall defending construction crews. And the Taliban will be trying to cut the highway to isolate Kandahar.

Route Summit is one of the reconstruction projects that Canadian politicians pretend they don't know about when they question Canada's mission in Afghanistan. It is just as vital to the future of Kandahar as the Kajaki Dam in Helmand province (discussed in The Black Rod, Week Three).

The road is 4.5 kilometres long. Canada is building 1.4 km. at a cost of half a million dollars (U.S.) Germany is paying to pave the other 3.2 km. and the U.S. is building a bridge over the Arghandab River.

The hope is that the road will revitalize the local economy by letting farmers sell their crops of grapes and wheat at markets in Kandahar City and Kabul. Currently a lot of farmers grow marijuana because there's a ready market from drug lords in the area.

Col. Fred Lewis, deputy commander of the task force in southern Afghanistan, told The Canadian Press, that farmers could make more than double from farming grapes--once the road is opened and if the drug lords let them.

"An Afghan farmer gets $200 a month for farming opium but my understanding is when he farms grapes he gets $500 a month. The ones making all the money are the drug lords," he said. "When you're making in the millions, are you willing to have a gang along who shows up at two in the morning who says to Farmer Smith: 'You're growing opium next year, right?' "

Suicide Bombers

The Taliban's winter campaign of suicide bombing faltered badly this week.

* In Kandahar province last weekend, Afghan police conducted raids arresting 11 people preparing a wave of suicide bombings. Nine people were arrested in a bomb-making factory, preventing the deaths of scores of innocent victims. A second raid nabbed two alleged suicide bombers in Kandahar City, the capital.

* On Friday, police in Lashkar Gar, the capital of Helmand province, got a tip about a suicide bomber. They spotted him and tried to get him to surrender. When he refused, they shot him and he detonated the explosives vest he was wearing. He went boom.

* A suicide bomber on foot blew himself up in Khost province when he realized he wouldn't make it past a checkpoint to a U.S. military base. Eight people---two police and six laborers--were killed.

Hat Tip to Uruzgan weblog for catching that we had it wrong when we reported (in Week Three) about a suicide bomb attack in Uruzgan province. We said the only casualty was the bomber who blew himself up 30 yards from a convoy. In actuality, it was a remotely detonated car bomb which blew up and five Dutch soldiers in the convoy were wounded, some seriously. One may have been blinded.

A senior Canadian officer in Afghanistan wrote about the incident in his blog:

The story of the week also goes with the most dangerous event of the week. Two days ago, up north in the province of Uruzgan, a convoy of Dutch vehicles was hit by a large roadside bomb hidden in a vehicle parked by the side of the road. Despite being in an armoured vehicle, five Dutch soldiers were wounded.
Later in the field hospital, when asked about their experience, one described seeing the engine block of the bomb vehicle fly past his head on one side and the license plate fly past on the other. The license plate clipped his face, causing a nasty wound. In retrospect, he was glad it wasn't the engine block.

The Taliban extended their suicide bomb attacks to Pakistan this week, apparently in retaliation for a government air raid on a border village hosting Taliban fighters.

On Monday, a car rammed a convoy at a checkpost in North Waziristan and exploded, killing four soldiers and one woman bystander, raising concerns that the peace deals (them again) with pro-Taliban villages in the region were disintegrataing. And on Friday, a suicide bomber on foot killed himself and a security guard when he was stopped from getting into a nightclub in the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. The attack came just hours before a reception to mark the 58th Republic Day of Pakistan's neighbour India, which may have been the actual target.

Little Fighting

Compared to last week, there was little action across Afghanistan, but it appears Afghan police were in the thick of what there was.

* As mentioned earlier, Canadians at Strong Point West in Kandahar were attacked, with no casualties on either side.

* A Taliban ambush Tuesday on a two-vehicle convoy of police in Uruzgan province left nine Afghan border police dead.

* The same day Uruzgan police engaged Taliban fighters in a five-hour gunfight, killing 12. Two police were killed and the local police chief was wounded in the battle.

* Thursday, a band of insurgents attacked a police post in Paktika province but was fought off, leaving 12 dead behind.

And in a classic situation of chickens coming home to roost, a member of Parliament who was a former Taliban government official was assassinated in Kabul by his former colleagues on his way to Friday prayers.

Maulavi Mohammed Islam Mohammadi, was the Taliban's governor of Bamiyan province when the fifth-century statues of Buddha were blown up with dynamite and artillery in March 2001. He was elected in 2005 as MP from the northern province of Samangan.

He always blamed foreign fighters for the destruction of the historic statues which the Islamic fundamentalists considered idolatrous and anti-Muslim.

"It was foreigners like Chechens and Arabs with the Taliban who made the decision. They were crazy people," Mohammadi told The Associated Press at the time. "Even though I was governor, I had no power."


* Another nod of appreciation goes to reader R.G., who provided more information on the news (see Week Three) that anthrax was discovered in a house where an official Taliban spokesman was arrested. The BBC story he directed us to stated:

"A biological substance, anthrax, was also seized from those arrested. They planned to send the substance in envelopes addressed to] government officials. The envelopes would have exploded once opened."

* And the saga of the Heroes of Helmand has made headlines throughout the U.K., even if it has been ignored by Canada's news media.

You can read interviews with the daring Royal Marines who strapped themselves to the stabilizer wings of Apache helicopters to go back into the middle of a firefight to rescue a downed soldier. Best of all, you can see the official photos of the Apache helicopters with the tied-on soldiers at:

The fact that the mainsteam media in this country hasn't latched onto the Helmand heroes speaks volumes about the slant it is taking to the war.

Anything negative is news. Anything positive is impossible.

This week the world was informed once again how big Canada's contribution to Afghanistan has been. And once again the mainstream news media buried the news, if it carried it at all.

This week the world was informed once again how big Canada's contribution to Afghanistan has been. And once again the mainstream news media buried the news, if it carried it at all.In an interview with The Guardian, Lt. General David Richards said the Canadian-led Operation Medusa last September had turned the tide of the whole conflict.

"The people need to have faith in the fighting prowess of the side they back. No faith, no support; they just will not take the risk of backing the wrong side. This we achieved in early September in the pivotal battle of Medusa in which the Taliban set out to defeat Nato/ISAF in a conventional battle as a precursor to entering Kandahar and then bringing down Karzai's government. We killed over a thousand Taliban fighters in the battle and they, publicly and uniquely, acknowledged they had been forced to conduct a 'tactical withdrawal'.

It was the biggest defeat of Taliban forces since the stunning US victory over them in 2001. It achieved the moral superiority over our enemy that is so crucial in war and reassured the population that we could not be beaten militarily."

Compare the coverage this interview received with the blanket coverage of every word ever uttered by murder suspect Robert Picton, and you can see the MSM's priorities.

But, believe it or not, there was one ray of light in the way the press covers the war against the Taliban.
Early in the week, when reporting on the Taliban's plan to open schools to counter the success of the central government's schools in the country, Reuters added this final paragraph.

The Taliban operate across large parts of the Afghan south and east but they have been unable to hold or administer any significant territory if challenged by Nato and US forces.

It's more than the Canadian papers ever concede, but it's a start.