The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have since 2005, adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL:

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The War in Afghanistan 2007 week 11

Iran's seizure of British sailors is commanding the world's attention but the story that British soldiers are fighting Iranians in Afghanistan has gone virtually unmentioned.

The information appeared in the earliest story about Operation Achilles, the British-led offensive to clear a portion of Helmand province of Taliban fighters. The operation, now in its fourth week, involves 4500 Brit troops and about 1000 Afghan soldiers.

The Telegraph, March 8, 2007
Operation Achilles: Taliban launch attack in Sangin
British troops fight Taliban for key town
By Tom Coghlan in Kabul

British soldiers fought a fierce battle with hundreds of Taliban fighters yesterday as a flashpoint town in southern Afghanistan erupted in violence.


Many of those fighting the British were believed to be foreigners. "There are some very strange people," said one local by telephone. "They cannot speak Pashtu [the local language], they are speaking Dari instead. They are clean-shaven and we believe they are Iranians."

The news blackout over Operation Achilles has grown more impenetrable, if that's possible. And we're beginning to wonder if the Iranian connection is why.


The map of Afghanistan lit up this week like a summer night in firefly country with firefights and ambushes in six provinces. Sounds bad? Not when you realize the attacks were fought off with heavy losses for the Taliban.

On Sunday the action was in two central provinces, Wardak and Ghazni. An attack on a district office in Wardak left 15 Taliban dead at the cost of two police officers killed and the district chief wounded. In neighbouring Ghazni, Afghan army and police launched a joint operation killing 5 Taliban and capturing 22.

It may be coincidence, by Wardak is where 800 soldiers from Turkey are stationed and Ghazni is where a battalion of Polish troops will be located. An advance unit of the 1,200 stong Polish NATO contingent is already in Afghanistan with the rest arriving over the next month or so.

Insurgents also attacked American forces at Fire Base Tillman in Paktika province, bordering on Pakistan. Allied forces back by airpower and artillery stopped the assault in its tracks, killing 12 Taliban fighters.

On Wednesday, Kandahar, where Canadian troops are stationed, was the target. A group of insurgents attacked checkpoint killing two policemen in the Arghandab district . The same day Afghan and NATO forces mopping up west of Kandahar City killed five fighters.

On Thursday, Taliban insurgents attacked a checkpoint manned by Afghan police in Uruzgan province sparking a six-hour firefight. Five Afghan soldiers and eight Taliban fighters were killed. The Taliban forces withdrew taking a wounded policeman hostage with them. Afghan and NATO forces pursued them, rescuing the policeman.

In the country's south, militants attacked a government compound in Zabul province. Three Taliban insurgents were killed.

And on Friday, a group 25 Taliban attacked Sar Hawzeh district centre of eastern Paktika Province. Two police were killed. The Taliban fled but left their wounded commander behind. The man who goes by the name Engineer Majeed had been shot twice. He was apprehended by Afghan forces.

Also this week, a NATO soldier was killed and three wounded during an operation in eastern Afghanistan. Four wounded soldiers were evacuated to a medical facility after the operation Thursday evening, where one died of his wounds, the military said. The three others are in stable condition. The soldier is likely American and "eastern Afghanistan" usually turns out to be Paktika province.

Overall, the big picture shows that Taliban forces lost 48 killed and 23 captured in a single-week's fighting outside the major offensive in Helmand province. Six police, five Afghan soldiers and one NATO soldier died on the allied side. Taliban forces accomplished nothing and achieved nothing.

Action-Packed Kandahar

On a smaller scale, Kandahar province was attracting more than its fair share of activity.

Two of the week's 4 suicide attacks were in Kandahar. On Monday a suicide bomber drove his car into a convoy on the outskirts of Kandahar. He killed himself, but caused no other casualties. The next day, a carefully planned ambush on Canadian troops in the Zahre district west of Kandahar city, saw insurgents launch an attack on a convoy with small arms and RPG's. But the intent was really to drive the fleeing troops into the path of another suicide bomber.

The ensuring explosion flattened the tires of an LAV-3 and wounded two soldiers. One suffered a badly broken arm and was flown to Germany for treatment. Soldiers from India company of the 2 RCR swept the ambush site but didn't find any insurgents.

Neither of the injured men, serving with the Royal Canadian Regiment battle group, reported his injuries until after the attack.

"They continued to perform their jobs like there was nothing wrong with them,'' said Capt. Matt Allen, the commander of the convoy. "When the opportunity presented itself to stop and assess it, that's when they reported their injuries. It was amazing.''

Maj. David Quick, speaking from Patrol Base Wilson, told CP that local Afghans have warned his troops to be on the lookout for trouble.

"Every local we have spoken to while patrolling, every Afghan National Security Force individual that we have worked with have said the time is coming. They have said 'standby'," he said.

Canadian forces weren't just waiting to be attacked, though. Friday night they raided a compound in Maranjan village of Arghandab district and nabbed a notorious Taliban leader who was wanted for trying to kill a powerful local tribal elder. That's going to score points with the locals. In fact, the raid was based on tips from villagers.

The Taliban commander was identified as Taj Mohammed. Two others were also apprehended in the raid-- his brother Raz Mohammed and Bacha Aka. They are accused of trying to assassinate former Mujahideen commander Mullah Naqib earlier this month. According to the Afghan Islamic Press, one of Naqib's sons and a bodyguard died to their injuries and two bystanders were killed when a remote control bomb blew apart Naqib's vehicle as it crossed a bridge.

We can't be sure it's the same man, but a Mullah Taj Mohammed was the former deputy chief of intelligence during the Taliban regime. He was allegedly one of the few with full access to Taliban leader Mullay Omar and was a self-proclaimed "close friend" to Osama bin Laden. If it's him, this is a big catch indeed.

The Operation Achilles Kaliedoscope

It's obviously going very, very well or very, very badly, because there's hardly any official information out there. What we do know:

* Operation Nawruz is over. The four day offensive involved 400 Afghan army forces who swept three districts of Helmand province as a test of Afghan forces fighting independently from NATO ground forces but backed by NATO airpower.

* Canadian, American and Dutch troops remain on picket duty to stop Taliban reinforcements from moving into Helmand province as British troops fight to drive out the local insurgents. There's been no hint that they have had contact with any Taliban fighters coming or going to Helmand. However NATO's Major General van Loon says this is an example of success in that Taliban fighters are encircled without hope of assistance from elsewhere in Afghanistan or from Pakistan.

*NATO forces are zeroing in on the Taliban command structure in southern Afghanistan, having killed or captured at least 10 insurgent leaders and key civilian collaborators in March alone.

* Achilles has so far failed to achieve its goal of removing enough Taliban from the Kajaki area to start the major reconstruction project, refurbishing the Kajaki Dam.

Afghan National Army spokesmen said they had "purged" Nad Ali of 400 Taliban fighters, following a series of chaotic battles. They earlier claimed they had killed 122 Taliban fighters while many others surrendered their weapons. The troops were the first to be equipped with new helmets, flak jackets and weapons to bring their equipment up to the standards of allied forces.

A crucial element of the offensive was the integration of local militias who have agreed to support the national government and to drive out the Taliban. But, as with everything in Afghanistan, their allegiance is a delicate balance.

When The Daily Telegraph met some of the militia men - heavily armed, wild-looking youngsters in local garb and sunglasses - they boasted of killing three Taliban nearby.

However, a senior provincial leader warned that the militia "must be controlled". "These are all Sher Mohammed Akhundzada's men," he explained.

Akhundzada was provincial governor of Helmand until British pressure caused him to be removed in December. British counter-narcotics officials are certain he was a key figure in the province's drugs trade.

A police officer on the Afghan drugs eradication team in Helmand, who cannot be named for his own safety, said that several of the militia commanders control large opium poppy fields.

"The poppy fields have not been destroyed," he said. "That is because they all have allies in the government in Kabul."

Canadian soldiers from Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in Edmonton. launched Operation Margurite in Kandahar last week in support of the Helmand operation. Teaming up with 200 Afghan army troops they patrolled through the Zhari district of Kandahar province to drive out the remnants of the Taliban.

It was designed purely as a show of force, allowing Canadian soldiers to meet with local villagers and discuss future reconstruction plans. Any Taliban who chose to stand and fight would be confronted, but that didn't appear to happen, and the Canucks mostly dismatled booby traps and removed mines. When the area is deemed secure, a new police check point will be set up. Important work? Yes. Exciting? No.

We have no idea who Operation Marguerite was named after.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai came to Helmand on Thursday, his first visit to what has been called the most troubled of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. He was accompanied by Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and some members of the two houses of parliament from that province.

From Afghan Recovery Report, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR):
Addressing a gathering of tribal elders in Lashkargah, capital of Helmand, Karzai said the main reason behind lawlessness in the province was people's non-cooperation with the government. He didn't pull any punches."I am not blaming Pakistan and other countries - I blame you, the local people," he thundered, addressing approximately 2,000 hand-picked representatives in the central mosque of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. "You are making problems. You do not want security in your province."

Karzai also answered the question why Operation Achilles has not included an assault on the village of Musa Qala which was overrun by Taliban forces at the beginning of Februrary and continues to be held by insurgents despite pleas for help from village elders.
"I do not want to take Musa Qala by force," said Karzai. "I want to solve problems through negotiations with all sides. I am asking the Taliban to stop attacking. I say to them, 'why are you killing your own people?' "

It's a different story on the ground.
Fighting continues to rage in Helmand even though we are told little about it.

On Thursday a building and courtyard near the Kajaki Dam was hit by a 500 pound bomb dropped by a F-15E Strike Eagle. A Taliban commander and his men were killed. Two days earlier another F-15 levelled a building with a 500-pounder.

British Harrier jump-jets fired rockets and dropped 540-pound bombs on insurgents in the tree line around Garmsir.

But it's Sangin that's getting a pasting. A B-1B Lancer dropped 500-pound and one-ton bombs on buildings, a tunnel, and a wall from which small arms fire and RPGs were being fired near Sangin Thursday. The day before one-ton bombs were dropped on four buildings, an F-15 flew cover for an ambushed convoy, and F-15s peppered buildings and firing positions with 500-pounders, 250-pounders, and one-ton bombs.

This week NATO aircraft showed up over Tarin Kowt, in Uruzgan province, a possible indicator that Taliban fighters fleeing Helmand are getting caught in the net to the north. 500-pound guided bombs were dropped on insurgents in the open and hiding behind a wall, suggesting that casualties among the Taliban are climbing astronomically.

The Taliban, though, has a different take on what's happening. From Jihad Unspun (a pro-Taliban website)

As Brits Still Trapped In Helmand
Mar 28, 2007 By Sayed Ullah JUS Pakistan Correspondent

The Taliban are kicking up their martyrdom operations as part of their "Spring Storm" offensive with back to back sacrifice operations carried out on Tuesday and Wednesday as a contingent of Brits remain trapped in Helmand province with no way out and supply drops by air becoming very risky.


According to reports from Naba (a stringer???), British occupation forces who are trapped in a building in the Sinjeen control of Helmand province, south of Afghanistan have pleaded with pro-Taliban local leaders in the area to negotiate for them in order that they can return to their bases. The Brits were caught in an ambush set by the Taliban as a test for "The Spring Storm"

Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf said the besieged British soldiers in the building in Sinjeen, trapped for several weeks now, from weeks, made a call with loudspeakers in Pashtu on Sunday asking to leaders to free them saying "Release us and prepare a way out so that we may return to our bases". NATO has been reluctant to interfere on the basis that this may be a double military deception plan.

The enemy's response to allied firepower has been suicide bombers, the murder of a woman and kidnappings.

* A suicide bomber dressed as an army officer tried to enter the office of a police chief in Lashkar Gar on Tuesday."While being searched he detonated [the bomb], killing four policemen and wounding one," said Mohammad Mullahkhail, the town's police chief. Mullahkhail, who handles passport affairs for the province, said that the attacker had a passport application and was trying to get into his office.

* Wednesday, a Taliban suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up near the car of a senior Afghan intelligence official in a business district in Kabul. Four civilians died.

*On Monday, the head of the women's prison in Helmand was kidnapped and murdered.

* Last Sunday, local villagers in Farah province prevented the kidnapping of four Indian engineers, part of a dam survey group. The villagers and police engaged the Taliban in what was described as "a raging gunbattle." A Taliban commander and two of his fighters were killed. Another commander was arrested.

* A man claiming to be a local-level Taliban commander named Tur Jan said Thursday he is holding a medical team hostage in Kandahar province. The man said he kidnapped the five-member team--an Afghan doctor, three nurses and their driver--March 27 and that he would exchange them for a list of Taliban prisoners in government jails.

Taliban News from Pakistan

The ceasefire between Uzbek fighters linked to Al Qaeda and local tribesmen who support the Taliban in the South Waziristan tribal region of Pakistan has collapsed. The local villagers with the help of Pakistani artillery are again killing Uzbek fighters and driving them out of the region. But there's nowhere for them to go. So the internecine bloodletting will go on, eliminating dozens of potential insurgents who won't be killing anyone in Afghanistan.

On Friday alone, the number of foreign fighters and locals killed was 54. Go to it, boys.

No Slacking

In the Pakistani village of Tank, which is on the edge of South Waziristan, a Taliban recruiter was killed when he went into a school to recruit suicide bombers. The school teaches boys aged 5 to 17.

Police said the militants had asked the school's administrators to assemble the students so they could address them. A spokesman said: "We heard that they were looking for children to prepare them for jihad and for suicide attacks." The principal called police and the recruiters tried to run.

One of them threw a hand grenade that killed a police officer, said Khan. The other officers opened fire, killing the militant and injuring one of his companions. The third suspect was arrested.

And a Final Note

The Afghan academic year began March 24 as schools opened their doors to more than 6 million pupils, almost doubling the number of students from five years ago. Enrollment rates for girls in some areas is approaching 50 percent.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Magnus Avenue shooting a test of Katz's crime fighting resolve

Today is Day Two.

Day Two of the test of the Mayor's credibility.

On Oct. 10, 2005, 17-year-old Phil Haiart was shot and killed on Maryland Street. He was hit by a stray bullet as two street gangs shot at each other. He was young, white, the son of a well-known Winnipeg surgeon and a recent graduate of St. John's-Ravenscourt.

Exactly 15 days later Mayor Sam Katz joined Police Chief Jack Ewatski to announce the creation of Operation Clean Sweep, a dedicated unit of 45 police officers assigned to target visible street crimes such as prostitution, drug dealing and street-level violence.

" It is time to take back our streets. We have the police force, and they have the intelligence on the criminals "
huffed Katz.

" Public safety is our number one concern, and that's why we are taking our enforcement efforts to another level " puffed Ewatski.

"The police know who they are, what they do and where they operate. We don't need an ivory tower policy discussion. We need to start cracking down, and this Operation is a major step in the right direction."
proclaimed Mayor Sam.

Fifteen days to the announcement. Another 27 days for the first police patrols to start.

On Monday-- two days ago-- a 38 year old man was shot in the head as he sat in his Jeep Grand Cherokee parked on Magnus Avenue. We don't know much about him yet, other than he was parked outside a known crack house which had been the scene of a gang-to-gang shootout last November. We're betting he's wasn't a surgeon's son or a graduate of a fancy high school.

And we don't care. Because policing decisions aren't made on the basis of who the victim is... Are they?

We don't have a double standard for when the police "service" constitutes a special unit to fight disorder in a neighbourhood... Do we?

We won't see the mayor and the police making excuses why they acted when a nice white boy got shot but not when a po' boy in the North End got popped ... Will we?

The clock has started. It's at Day Two.

"This used to be the nicest street. They've ruined everything," lamented a woman to the Winnipeg Sun. The decent residents of Magnus Avenue have been pleading for help for years. They've been asking their city councillor to do something. After all, Coun. Harry Lazarenko lives at 633 Magnus Ave.

But he couldn't be bothered.

They've begged the police to get rid of the drug dealers and the crack whores and their pimps. And the police said "we're helpless, boo hoo hoo."

In fact, the decent residents of Magnus Avenue are exactly like the decent residents of Maryland Avenue when Phil Haiart got killed. Ignored by City Hall. Ignored by the Police. Ignored by the Press.

Well, maybe not the Press. Not always.

The press was there when Ryan Neufeld, 20, was killed and three of his friends wounded in a drive-by shooting at 355 Magnus Avenue. on New Year's Eve 2005. It was 39 days into Operation Clean Sweep, but that was across town.

And the press was there in February, 2006 when 19-year-old Edwin Yue was shot and killed in Magnus Foods, which actually on Main Street but only one storefront south of Magnus Avenue proper.

And the press was there Monday. And within minutes they were being shown the crack houses along Magnus, which have operated under the noses of the police and politicians for the very years that Operation Clean Sweep was running at the behest of Mayor Sam Katz and Police Chief Jack Ewatski.

Now its Magnus' turn. Now they're waiting to see when the Mayor and the Police Chief will announce a special unit assigned to clean up Magnus Avenue, starting from Main Street west to McGregor, the short stretch where the murders and the shootings and the drug dealing and the street prostitution are threatening to overwhelm the honest, law-abiding, taxpaying homeowners who still live there. Call it Clean Sweep North. Call it Fair Play. Call it whatever, but there's no excuses for not calling it - now.

The Mayor can't cry about a manpower shortage. Winnipeg has five police officers babysitting Level 4 car thieves, and plans to add another five. The force has 3 police officers in city schools and plans to add another three. That's 16 highly trained police officers engaged in babysitting and early childcare duties. We must be flush with police if we can spare 16 officers.

And two recruit classes of 48 constables each will graduate in the next two months.

If Sam Katz could find 48 cops for the West End two years ago, he can find 48 for the North End today.

If he wants to.

The clock is ticking.

Today is Day Two.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Free Press Fairy Tales and Fish Stories

Reporter Geoff Kirbyson must be nicknamed Rumpelstilskin in the Winnipeg Free Press newsroom because he keeps getting assigned to turn straw into gold.

Kirbyson is the go-to guy when the FP gets bad-to-mediocre news and wants to spin it into something more positive.

Like when circulation shrank according to figures released last November and he had to write a story about how good the FP's circulation was.

On Friday he had to take the latest survey of newspaper readership and weave it into a story for advertisers about how the FP dominates the Winnipeg market. For the record, the 2006 Newspaper Audience Databank (NADbank) survey said 71 percent of adults in Winnipeg read something in the Winnipeg Free Press every week.

But his story was so full of weasel words (every sentence talked about percentage of this and percentage of that without ever giving a single number for reference) and spin from editor Bob Cox and Publisher Andy Ritchie that we had to wonder "What are they hiding?"

Part of the answer appeared in the Winnipeg Sun which, lo and behold, had numbers for comparison:

" In the 18-plus category, Sun weekday readership rose by 9,200 or 8.5% last year while Winnipeg Free Press readership declined by 3,300 or 1.4%. The Sun has also seen a significant jump in Saturday readership with an increase of 9,200 or 9.9% compared with 2005, while Free Press readership decreased by 2,400 or 0.8%. "

But even more intriguing was the story these numbers told.

If true, then its going to take every scintilla of Geoff Kirby'son's Rumpelstilskin powers to spin their way out of this one.

If the FP's weekday readership declined 1.4 percent (3,300 readers), then their weekday readership was 235,700. As we reported in The Black Rod, the industry rule of thumb is 2.1 readers per copy sold (or given away). The latest estimate from the Newspaper Association of America is 2.3 readers per copy distributed.

Taking the industry standard, the weekday circulation of the Winnipeg Free Press in 2006 was (235,700 divided by 2.1 = ) 112, 238.

Taking the NAA estimate, the weekday circulation of the Winnipeg Free Press in 2006 was (235,700 divided by 2.4) a feeble 98,208.

FP has been claiming a weekday circulation of 117,966.

That's 4.8 percent higher than the industry standard says it was.

But if the NAA estimate is accurate, the FP has been inflating its circulation figures by a jaw-dropping 16.7 percent.

If memory serves us well, and we admit it's been a few years, the fairy tale of Rumplestilskin ends very badly indeed. Free Press publisher Andy Ritchie proved himself to be an astute teller of tall tales himself in the Kirbyson story.

"Winnipeggers are interested in the news and in reading good quality journalism," he said. We presume he was talking about the Free Press, for he later bragged it was a newspaper 135 years old and "very well written."

The Black Rod read the FP very carefully for three days in a row, starting the day of the NADbank story and here's what we found:

Headline: Dad who drown saving son gets bravery award. (Mar.23. 2007)
What the hell does that mean?
Dad who drown?
What language is that?
Headline in the Globe and Mail on the same story: Bravery medal awarded to man who died trying to save his son

Headline: Whitening of North America (Mar. 24, 2007 P. A 17)
The story: People are eating more white bread, white sugar and white rice.
Paragraph 10: People around the world have traditionally known about the healing powers of several types of food, but now researchers casn back them up.
Again, what language is that?

Headline: Hudson is finally Peguis chief (Mar. 24, 2007)
The story: Hudson, an industrial engineer, beat Stevenson by 63 votes in Thursday's election.
Paragraph 14: An official vote count has yet to be released, but both camps said the tally stood at 1001 votes for Stevenson and 938 votes for Hudson.
Repeat: Hudson beat Stevenson by 63 votes.
" The tally stood at 1001 Stevenson, 938 Hudson."

The Winnipeg Free Press has editors. Their reporters don't write in their pyjamas. They are all professional journalists.

Headline: Van Wilder star heading into Heaven via Winnipeg shoot (Sat. Mar. 24, 2007)
The story: Ryan Reynolds, the Vancouver-born star of comedy (van Wilder) horror (Blade 3) and action movies (Smokin' Aces) is slated to star in the drama Heaven, which will should commence filming in Winnipeg in the next two weeks.
We're glad that the movie will should be filming so soon. Especially since:
Headline: Walker to star in film shot in city (Mar. 25, 2007)
The story: Actor Paul Walker, the star of the Fast and the Furious is cast in the film Heaven and contrary to a story in Friday's Free Press, Ryan Reynolds is not.

If this keeps up they're going to start losing readers. Hey, waitaminit...

Last week Winnipeg Free Press columnist Gordon Sinclair went to bat for people caught on video doing embarassing things in public. Things like defecating into a planter in broad daylight only to have the video posted on Youtube for everyone to see and laugh at, an actual posting which prompted the column.

It seems, according to Sinclair, that surveillance video is only one small step removed from an Orwellian fascist state.
Or something like that.

Sinclair's rant was so wildly out of left field we had to ask where's this coming from. Then we realized we knew.

He isn't losing sleep over some downtown derelict's alleged right to privacy.

His sleepless nights are caused by the fear that his own public temper tantrum is going to show up on Youtube for all to see.

Sinclair tries to get support for his cockeyed spin of the YouTubing of the video by enlisting the support of former Free Press editor Duncan McMonagle ( in accordance with Freep standards the name was misspelled 'McMonigal' but we digress...).

The journalism instructor is not quoted about the content of the actual video itself, but agrees with Sinclair that "as a notion for Canadians I believe (privacy) has ceased to exist". He refers to his use of Google Earth in the classroom, to back up Sinclair's paranoia that someone may be watching him -- even in his backyard.

Sinclair shouldn't be worried, since intimidating women and throwing objects at them is well within Bob Cox's standards for FP columnists -- unless they manage to offend big advertisers.

And we all know small gas stations don't advertise -- so their employees don't count.

But we received one email from a reader that expressed strong opinions about L'affair Sinclair we'd like to share, as well as an email from someone well-versed in Bob Cox's standards for columnists.

"F" said:

Why is that Gordon Sinclair, along with Wolf Blitzer wannabe Duncan McMonagle, are still revered by some as true patriots to journalism when it is blazingly clear that neither have any credibility or integrity.

Case in point. This past Thursday's Freep included another back-of-a-napkin piece by Sinclair in which he references Duncan, but amazingly this Duncan spells his name presumably based on some other dialect.

Similar to how Kelvin changed its name to the Elmwood Community Centre.

Today's Free Press offers the correction.

As those who have endured Blitzer's Journalism class at Red River would know, this is indeed a failing grade.

Dallas Hansen said:

... While I might've been a jackass in the Liquor Mart, it wasn't merely because I was personally inconvenienced. As a concerned civil libertarian, I find it reprehensible that obviously adult citizens should be obliged to produce identity documents to procure so common a consumer good as a bottle of wine.

A worse blow to freedom is how the sale of liquor by private merchants is outlawed. Department store clerks in the Soviet Union were notorious for their surly service and the state-monopoly MLCC's employees, backed by big labour and the provincial government, exemplify that phenomenon.

I wrote advocating the privatization of liquor weeks later not as a vindictive measure but because it's an idea that, if implemented, I do strongly believe would benefit Manitoba consumers and businessess and this is a notion shared by many, including Peter Holle and the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

During my two years as a regular on the op-ed page, I frequently found inspiration in things that annoyed me: bad transit, the Downtown BIZ, ADHD over-diagnosis, etc.

Indeed I lost my temper and shot my mouth off but I didn't throw anything and in fact the next time I went to the Liquor Mart (actually the night before the notorious column went to press) there was a lengthy queue at both open registers and one of the employees whom I had berated that fateful day espied me at the back of the line, pulled me aside, and opened a new register bringing me to the head of the queue. "I won't ask you for ID this time...." "Thanks, much appreciated," I said sheepishly.

Mr. Sinclair is also a man in what, his 60s? While I'm mellowing fast, I still have something of an angry young man to purge. He should've hit the mellow stage a long time ago.

Unlike my scenario, where my rage against the rapid erosion of civil liberties manifested as an epithet against government-monopoly liquor retailers who refused my money without my first showing identity documents, Mr. Sinclair's scenario was one in which he blundered by taking a consumer good (tank of gas) without having brought means of payment.

I've never been in such a situation but if I had I would be nothing less than profusely apologetic.

Dallas Hansen

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The War in Afghanistan 2007 Week 10

More than two weeks into the British-led Operation Achilles in Helmand Province and the news blackout is tighter than ever. The sliver of news we compiled last week is a veritable feast compared to what's leaked out of the battle zone since. Still, undaunted, we've corralled what wee bits of information we could track down to provide you with the best glimpses we could of what's being billed as NATO's biggest offensive on Afghanistan yet.

But first...

if it's not one thing, it's another...

Another wheel has falled off the Taliban war wagon and Taliban leader Mullah Dadullah (love the name), has had to send a mechanic to fix it so that he can finally launch the damn Feared Taliban Spring Offensive.

Taliban insurgents and their allies have been killing each other by the score all week in the South Waziristan tribal region of Pakistan. Instead of crossing the border into Afghanistan to support the expected spring offensive, they're expending their terrorist instincts on internecine battles. Go to it boys.

That is great news for Afghan civilians, NATO forces and especially the Canadian troops newly arrived in country who are still adjusting to the war zone in Kandahar province.

The story, as patched together from intelligence sources in Pakistan and reporters close to the Taliban, is this:

Last year, up to 1000 Uzbeks moved into Waziristan to escape a crackdown in Uzbekistan. They were given sancturary by Al-Qaeda supporting tribes. This group brought a holier-than-thou attitude to the region. Literally. They see themselves as the vanguard of the Brave New Muslim World, and as a result they justify killing anyone who opposes shariah law and overthrowing any government that disagrees, including the government of Pakistan.

Two weeks ago, the Uzbeks tried to kill a pro-government (Pakistan) tribal elder, as he walked through a bazaar. It was the second time in three days they had tried to assassinate him. The assassins missed him, but the attack killed his brother and a passerby. Their target got his tribal posse together and the war was on. More than a dozen Uzbeks--and three tribesmen--were killed before a truce was brokered by the local Taliban.

Then on Monday, the body of Saiful Adil, an Arab linked to Al Qaeda, was found on the outskirts of Wana, the capital of South Waziristan. One of the most powerful local Taliban leaders, Maulavi Nazir, blamed the Uzbeks and launched a drive to disarm them and drive them out. But the Uzbeks have their own supporters, look for the names Noor Islam and Maulavi Abbas to come up, and the war was on a second time.

So far at least 160 have died, including about 130 Uzbeks and Chechen fighters, 25 local insurgents, and 10 civilians. Three children were killed when a grenade hit a school bus. More than 80 foreign fighters have been captured and tribal fighters were looking for another 200 scattered throughout the mountains. The fighting has spread to six villages along the Afghan border. There was a brief truce Wednesday so the sides could bury their dead, but hostilities are back on. Hooray.

The Pakistani press has reported rumours that "a very senior Taleban leader" has come from Afghanistan to try to arrange another ceasefire. Who this is depends on your source of rumours.

The Asia Times says:
Well-placed sources maintain that the chief commander of the Taliban in South Wazirstan, Baitullah Mehsud, was in Afghanistan's Helmand province when the fighting, in which scores have died this week, erupted. He immediately rushed to South Waziristan on the orders of Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah.

The newspaper Dawn says:
"The sources said Siraj Haqqani, the son of a veteran Afghan mujahid and Taliban leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and his aide, Bakhta Jan, had reached Wana to intervene and persuade the combatants to stop fighting and settle the issue through dialogue." Jalaluddin Haqqani is the military commander of the Afghan Taliban.

Jihad Unspun says:
Mujaid Mullah Dadallah has also been reported to have arrived in the area to stop the fighting but this has not been confirmed.

We say: Who cares? Keep fighting. Don't listen to any mediators. Tying up more than a thousand fighters in Afghanistan is a good thing.

A Pakistan government official said Friday Uzbeks in the neighbouring tribal region of North Waziristan were trying to come to Wana to support their brethren but authorities would try to stop them. We say: nah. Let 'em go. The more the merrier.

An intriguing question is whether the outbreak of fighting in Waziristan is an American psy-ops success. Don't laugh. Consider the evidence.

Since taking over NATO operations in southern Afghanistan, U.S, General Dan McNeill has switched gears from his Dutch predecessor and is now aggressively taking the fight to the enemy. To the surprise of the Taliban, this has included seizing Taliban leaders right under the noses of their troops in Pakistani villages.

On March 7, the day after Operation Achilles was launched, two military helicopters landed in a village next to Paktika province, and special forces personnel snatched captured Hakimullah Mehsud, a close friend of Baitullah Mehsud (see above).

The same week, a shepherd who was in the wrong place at the wrong time was seized on the Pakistan side and flown to Afghanistan for questioning. On March 17, coalition ground forces raided four buildings "near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border" and detained six men. There's never been an explanation of who these men were, so we're guessing the raid was on the Pakistan side of the border.

All these kidnappings, on the heels of targetted assassinations of Taliban leaders since December, has made them antsy. As Neil Young sang, Paranoia strikes deep. This eventually erupted in a wave of murders of suspected spies.

And finally, to the Tinted Window showdown.

In mid-February, Taliban tribal militiants banned tinted windows in vehicles in Waziristan.

It was getting hard to check vehicles for spies and American agents if you couldn't see in. Uzbeks complained that the new rule was aimed at them and a number of ugly confrontations took place.

Was this the origin of the eventual all-out war between the local tribes and Uzbeks? We can only hope.

Let's turn now to the British-led Operation Achilles in Helmand province. It looks like the fighting has died down around Kajaki Dam, but not around Sangin, which was the most attacked British outpost in Afghanistan. The skies around Sangin are filled with planes daily supporting the British forces. 500-hundred and thousand-pound bombs are dropping onto buildings, compounds, and cave entrances.

Friday the suspected Taliban commanders house was the target of GBU-31s and GBU-38s from B-1B Bombers. The full arsenal of airpower is being launched at Taliban forces, B-1Bs, Harrier jump jets, F/A-18s, you name it.

It appears Taliban forces are being forced west, with fighting reported in Farah province, which butts up to Helmand and borders Iran. Farah houses 1,600 ISAF soldiers, mostly Spanish and Italian, based in Farah City.

But what's exciting is that Operation Achilles is partially a test of how well the Afghan army can fight on its own. Now we can see how many of the operations in March were a softening up of the area where ANA forces would make their solo debut.

On Tuesday, three Taliban fighters were killed in the Gershek district as Afghan and NATO soldiers targeted a "known Taliban commander and suicide bomb facilitator." He was suspected of controlling 200 fighters in the area. A NATO spokesman said the man ordered assassinations of Afghan government officials and helped move suicide bombers into Helmand through Kandahar City.

On Thursday, ANA forces backed by NATO airpower attacked in two areas of Gereshk. "Eleven Taliban were killed in one attack and 27 in another. There were no casualties among NATO or our troops," in what one local official called a mop-up in Helmand province. Three police officers were killed, however, and 10 Taliban fighters captured.

Sher Mohammad Karimi, the Defense Ministry's chief of operations, said a report from the field described the Taliban fighters as "very badly demoralized" and running from the fight. He said the fighters' bodies had been left on the battle site, allowing soldiers to make an accurate count.

Tom Coglan of the U.K. Telegraph is embedded with British forces in Helmand and was there when the Afghan army attacked:

British commanders knew there was a major Afghan-led operation unfolding somewhere in front of the Dragoons' Scimitar and Spartan light tanks, the biggest ever by the fledgling Afghan National Army, with hundreds of Afghan troops and police infiltrating from three points to dislodge unknown numbers of Taliban fighters in the villages ahead.

Constant fire, both small arms and mortars, echoed across the plain to the southeast. Ahead of the Dragoons clouds of dust indicated streams of vehicles beginning to flee at high speed. Were they Taliban or civilians?

As a succession of cars and minibuses passed through their lines, the Dragoons were fairly certain they were getting a mixture of the two.

"One car had two big chaps of fighting age inside," said Sgt. Matthew Lambie, 33, after stopping three vehicles fleeing the fighting. "They were wide-eyed and hostile and dressed in black turbans... They'd just driven through the fighting area but they denied that they knew anything about any fighting at all. They were dead cert Taliban."

However, with no weapons in the car, the Dragoons could do nothing.
Half an hour later, probing ahead of the rest of C Squadron, a dozen Royal Marines in machine-gun mounted jeeps with a troop of four Scimitar tanks came under fire close to the canal marking the western limit of Nad Ali district.

Ahead they saw a jumble of compounds, some of which appeared to be under fire from forces they could not see. Mortar rounds began falling close around them together with small arms fire. The Scimitars under Capt Jon Harris, a cigar-smoking 26-year-old with a dusty blond beard, identified a compound from which the fire against them was coming.

Thirty rounds of cannon fire from the Scimitars later it ceased, as dust and smoke billowed round the building.

An Afghan general said the operation in Helmand shows what Afghanistan's army can do "without the help of foreign troops." A spokeswoman for NATO confirmed that coalition troops did not participate in the fighting. She said NATO is "stepping back further and further" as it trains Afghanistan's army and police forces.

The one-day operation cleared 3 villages near Gereshk. Troops were involved in a "clean-up" on Friday which included assessing damage and searching for weapons. An ANA spokesman said 69 Taliban were killed, with 49 bodies left on the battleground. Another 17 insurgents were captured. Seven police were also killed and 19 men from the police force, army and the intelligence service were wounded," he added.

NATO is being extremely tight-lipped about Operation Achilles, but as best we can tell the mission will end April 10. That's when Spanish troops will end their cordon duties to keep Taliban fighters from fleeing into Badghis province in the west of the country where the 690 Spanish troops are based.

The bellylaugh of the week came from a story in Der Spiegel which said The German government and NATO's North Atlantic Council have criticized US General Dan McNeill, the new NATO commander in Afghanistan. McNeill has been operating too independently and has been too brash in his choice of words, critics say.

Note to Germany: If you don't want to join the A-Team you don't get to sit at the table with the adults. You sit at the children's table and eat children's portions. It's big boys' games and big boys' rules, so stop whining.

And Achilles is only the preliminary round for a much bigger operation, according to The Independent.

British troops prepare for decisive Afghan battle
By Kim Sengupta and Raymond Whitaker
The Independent March 11, 2007

As more NATO troops arrive in country, Operation Nawruz will unfold.

The blueprint for Nawruz was drawn up by General David Richards, the British former commander of the Nato force, and adopted by his American successor, General Dan K McNeill. The new British battle group - a mobile reserve Gen Richards had asked for, and been denied, during his nine months in charge - will operate well beyond Helmand, where British forces are concentrated. It will also range across the five other provinces of Nato's southern regional command: Kandahar, Oruzgan, Zabol, Nimruz and Daykondi.

At about the same time as the reinforcements arrive, a British commander, Major General "Jacko" Page, will take over the regional headquarters in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, from the Dutch. He will be responsible for Operation Nawruz, which is due to spread across the south and east of Afghanistan, as well as striking towards Taliban crossing points along the Pakistani border.

Much of the operation will be led by intelligence which, Nato commanders claim, has greatly improved recently. They point out that Kandahar was experiencing a suicide bombing almost every day a few months ago, but since information from local people led to the discovery of a number of "bomb factories", the attacks have all but dried up.

The Taliban have responded to their unravelling situation with their usual terror tactics.

Taliban guerrillas chopped noses and ears off of at least five truck drivers in eastern Afghanistan as punishment for transporting supplies to NATO troops. The drivers were part of a convoy headed for a coalition military base when they were attacked in the province of Nuristan on Saturday.

And on Monday a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of four SUVs leaving the American embassy in Kabul. A teenager nearby was killed. The world press trumpeted it as an attack on the American ambassador to Afghanistan, although he was not in the convoy. Last month the press said a suicide bomber targeted U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney even though he was a mile away when the bomb went off. No slanted reporting there.

The Taliban released an Italian reporter they had been holding hostage, in return for five Taliban prisoners being held by Kabul. One of them was Mullah Dadullah's brother. Dadullah immediately said he would capture more reporters. The Italian said he was present when his driver Sayed Agha was murdered by having his head cut off. An interpreter who was with the reporter has not been heard from.

And a final reminder of why we fight:

From the Asia Times

Religious extremists in the district of Swat have derailed the government's anti-polio campaign. At the forefront is a charismatic local cleric, Maulana Fazlullah. "Anyone getting crippled by polio or killed by an epidemic is a martyr," he announced at a sermon during Friday prayers

And finally, what do you make of this?

A Pakistani citizen was arrested by the Afghani authorities charged with facilitating the entry of Al-Qa'ida leader Osama Bin Laden into Afghanistan, the London-based daily Al-Hayyat reported. The paper quoted sources in the Pakistani Foreign Affairs Ministry, who said they were recently informed of the matter by their Afghani counterparts. The Pakistani, Sayyid Akbar, reportedly smuggled Bin Laden into the Nouristan province in eastern Afghanistan and provided him with shelter for an unknown period of time.

The Afghani intelligence services are accusing Akbar of being the liaison officer between Pakistan's intelligence services and Bin Laden. Akbar is now being interrogated and is believed to have been a close aide to Bin Laden in the past two years, according to the spokesman for Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Karim Rahimi. Kabul has not specified when Bin Laden was smuggled into the country, but underlined this had taken place in the past few months.
[By The Media Line Staff & Mideastwire Staff on Tuesday, March 13, 2007]

Nouristan is located in the far eastern part of the country, along the border with Pakistan, north of Peshawar. The capital is Jalalabad.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Spring Cleaning for 2007

The first day of spring means only one thing --- our annual spring cleaning issue.

It's the time to clear off the desks at the Baxter Building starting with ...

CBC's News at 6:00 has become a popular topic around town for many of the wrong reasons. If they thought a circus act was what viewers wanted, they got it.

Producers didn't realize how tiny Janet Stewart is.
It didn't matter on CKY/CTV because she just had to stay behind the desk and read the news straight to camera and share duties with Gord Leclair. But at CBC she has to interact with Murray Parker, Mike Beauregard, reporters and guests single-handedly. Putting her next to real-sized people makes her look even more Lilliputian. Seeing not-at-all-tall Mike Beauregard tower over her has viewers fiddling with their tv remotes trying to adjust the screen.

Not that it matters. It's just comic relief from the leaden interaction between Janet and Mike at the best of times. There was zero chemistry between the two from Day One. Murray Parker was supposed to give her someone to play off of. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But he's so uncomfortable on the set he sloughs off her every overture. She feeds him a soft pitch and instead of playing with it, he almost bolts to the next segment.

And what's with the hair? We thought Crystal Goomansingh was wearing a fright wig until we realized it's her own hair and she's chosen that style. Yikes... And Janet Stewart's hair is twice the size of her face. If it gets any bigger she'll turn into the Munster's Cousin Itt. Murray's hair looks like it's been in a climate-controlled trunk since 1975. Like his delivery of the weathercast. These people should be talking to Marisia Dragani.

She went away to Makeover City and came back a swan. Vavavoom. She's made us forget her friend Whatserface completely.

Is that Tory leader Hugh McFadyen flip flopping on the ground like a dying fish?

Last spring, when the Conservative Party caucus was holding up the provincial budget to force an Inquiry into the Crocus Fund debacle, McFadyen stroke into the Legislature and told them to knock it off. Crocus was old news, he sniffed. This spring he's planning to, of all things, hold up the Legislature until he gets an inquiry into Crocus. What's he going to do? Ring the bells again?

Last summer, a Winnipeg Free Press/ Probe Research poll claimed infrastructure was the No. 1 issue on the minds of voters. In November at the annual P.C. convention, McFadyen announced that infrastructure and education were now the new Tory priorities replacing health care.


The latest Winnipeg Free Press/ Probe Research poll says health care is once again the top priority for Manitobans. Expect a flip in P.C. priorities any day now. Or is that flop? **********

The biggest flop has been Don Orchard's secret team of ferrets. The team was announced with great fanfare by McFadyen when he called off the bell-ringing. With full access to Tory turncoat John Leowen's files on Crocus the team, and with former MLA General Don Orchard at the helm, they were going to uncover new leads to embarrass the government and force an inquiry.

But how embarrassing was it when the major leaks in the cabinet coverup came to the Manitoba Liberal Party and the daily newspapers?

Orchard's Irregulars had to read the secret cabinet memos and Finance Department e-mails in Tom Brodbeck's column. The Curse of John Loewen strikes again.

Who's feeling more foolish today? Kristine McGhee who jumped the Liberal Party ship for the Conservative Party shores because she thought she had a better chance as the P.C. nominee in Kirkfield Park? Jon Gerrard who recruited her as a coveted candidate only to have her abandon the party and signal her lack of faith in its future? Or Hugh McFadyen who had to watch McGhee lose the nomination in Kirkfield Park and with her all the momentum her defection brought?

And just how pathetic is the Opposition?

They got a crack at questioning government officials at a rare meeting of the Public Accounts Committee soon after the existence of Finance Minister Greg Selinger's help-Crocus memo to caucus was exposed. The meeting lasted 3 hours. The Opposition spent 1:45 debating motions instead of asking questions. That's how pathetic.

You remember CJOB's veteran broadcaster Roger Currie. He's moved to Regina and he wrote an op-ed piece for the Winnipeg Free Press about his decision. But did you read to the end?

"Why on Earth did I ever leave here 25 years ago? I marvelled at the beautiful greenery and the myriad of great activities there was to enjoy.

At the same time I went to work and read the news out of Winnipeg, most of which was tales of horrible crime, of visitors being mugged and robbed. etc. It almost made me think 'Boy, I'm sure glad I moved away from there.' "

Bet you expected him to talk about Spirited Energy, didn't you? Paging Anita Neville...

And where are all those Winnipeg Free Press columnists who attacked Mayor Sam Katz for saying he felt like Hugh Hefner surrounded by beautiful women (in his case medal-winning women speedskaters). Cat got your tongue? Suddenly there's nobody to defend a woman's honour when one of their own browbeats a "petite" gas station attendant to the point she called the police and that was even before he threw something at her head which he himself said "if my aim had been off, could have hurt someone."

You don't think the Winnipeg Free Press has a double standard when it comes to the Mayor do you?

While the union and the Sun prepare to fight over the loss of 6 newsroom jobs, word around town is that 6 employees have already taken the early golden handshake. The biggest hole will be left with the departure of another weather-beaten veteran of the Winnipeg newsworld, Bob Holliday. With him goes half a century's worth of knowledge about the city, the cop beat and the history of local watering holes. Readers do not yet realize the degree of change coming to the Sun as a result of Quebecor's corporate news policies.

Police have been mum about a recent meth lab bust. Normally a press conference would be expected the next day with police displaying the seized equipment and booty, but in this case a Get Smart-like cone of silence has decended on the case. Surely the media would be intrigued by discovery of a meth lab on a swanky Tuxedo street like Swindon Way.

And finally two comments from our mailbag we haven't been able to respond to yet.
The first from 'M':

Hrmmm... can't find your email on the blog site.

Anyway, I continue to really enjoy your articles on Afghanistan. The link to the Edmonton photojournalistwas a great find.

I continue to swing wildly back and forth on my opinion of your local opinions. Chomiak is and alwayswill be a bust, sure, but I'm not sure about your solution re: car thieves. Yes,possibly,the CFS Act could be extended to these kids, though I imagine that process would take a few hits from the courts. But have you run the numbers to see how many of thesekids are already in CFS or foster care?

Fair number of them, though I can't tell you offhand how many. There's a limited number of beds availablegenerally,and there is only a few handfuls of beds inthe locked facility that's available. That locked facility being easier to escape from than GothamCity's Arkham Asylum.

Kids on the run are going back home, or are staying atfriends' places because they know that the police will find them at home. And they'll steal cars some more.While you may not like the officer's comments on thesekids, it doesn't make them wrong.

While it's legally possible to assign criminal responsibility to kidswith Fetal Alcohol Effects, rehabilitation is difficult. So is the answer then to find someway tolock away these kids forever?

Finally, I'll take a rise in attempted thefts of a car with a drop in thefts of a car most days. Attempt theft cannot turn into dangerous driving causingbodily harm or death. Theft can.


And finally this one from 'R':

Good grief.

So a conversation takes place between two public figures in a public place, and Wiecek has broken the law? C'mon...

I noticed that Harper paused for a few photo ops with Martin too. Either that was another invasion of his privacy, or he wants to have it both ways...

Harper's sneering contempt for the media and their essential role makes him a joke. The fact you agree with him makes you a lapdog for Harper.

Well, I guess we'll hear about Wiecek's arrest any time now. Or will the cops display a "liberal bias" and look the other way?

Which definition fits you - the first or the second?

not quick or alert in perception, feeling, or intellect; not sensitive or observant; dull.
not sharp, acute, or pointed; blunt in form.

It's a good thing you're not a real journalist. All Harper or any other politico would have to say is "this is private, ok?", and you'd put your head back in the sand.


Call us strange, we believe the law applies to "real" journalists as well as to private citizens.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

War in Afghanistan 2007, Weeks 8 and 9

Why We Fight

Excerpts from transcripts of terrorist suspects' military hearings
--"I was Emir (i.e. commander) of Beit Al Shuhada (i.e., the Martyrs' House) in the state of Kandahar, Afghanistan, which housed the 9/11 hijackers. There I was responsible for their training and readiness for the execution of the 9/11 Operation. "

Al Qaeda terrorists killed about 3000 people in their attacks Sept. 11, 2001. They intended on killing the 50,000 who worked in the World Trade Centre each day. They will try again if we let them.

AFGHANISTAN: Taliban blocks polio vaccination
15 Mar 2007 17:47:48 GMT
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Afghanistan had a severe polio outbreak in 2006, largely because of conflict in the south severely impeding access to children during immunisation rounds.
Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Nigeria are the four countries worldwide where polio remains endemic, according to the WHO.
Of the 31 confirmed cases of polio in Afghanistan in 2006, 29 occurred in rural areas of the south - designated by UN security officials as "very high risk areas".
The WHO estimates that in 2006 alone, vaccinators were unable to access an estimated 125,000 children in the south and south-eastern regions of the country due to insecurity. Of this number, about 75,000 were in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul and Nimruz, and 50,000 in the south-eastern provinces of Paktia, Paktika, Khost and Ghazni.
From: IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Anyone who has lived through the years when polio threatened our children knows why we must eradicate the religious fanatics who are helping the spread of the disease in Afghanistan and elsewhere throughout the world. An army of 200,000 Canadians, not 2000, would be too small to protect our shores from this insidious disease.

Over There

Our last weekly look at the NATO mission in Afghanistan was delayed for unavoidable reasons so there's a lot to catch up on.

The Feared Taliban Spring Offensive has apparently lost is wheels even before leaving the driveway.

--Powerful warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who was supposed to be tying a noose of fighters around Kabul announced he was ending his association with the Taliban. He'll stay a rogue warlord fighting the non-believers. But his forces will be restricting their fighting because of a lack of resources.
-- Coalition forces, with the help of the Pakistan government, have killed and arrested many of the top Taliban leaders who were supposed to be planning and financing the Feared Spring Offensive. That's left the whole thing on the shoulders of Mullah Dadullah. Apart from a great name, his claim to fame is that he fought the Russians way back in the Jurassic Age when they were still communists. Dadullah's reputation ran out last year when Mullah Omar replaced him with a younger leader at the head of the 2006 Feared Spring Offensive. That turned out a bust and Dadullah got the consolation prize, the 2007 Feared Spring Offensive against a bigger, better armed army. A great name will only carry you so far.
-- The British stopped making peace deals and went to war in a big way. They've pre-empted the idea of a spring offensive and they're taking it to the Taliban in Helmand province where the insurgents are suddenly playing defence. Who's your daddy, Dadullah?

The Brits launched Operation Achilles on March 6 but it looks like a major news blackout is in effect. We've had to pull together bits and pieces from a dozen sources just to glean a hint of what's happening.

We know the first goal of Achilles is to push Taliban fighters away from the vital Kajaki Dam project which will change the face of Afghanistan once a new turbine is installed and power lines hooked up. The push will continue to drive insurgents out of their strongholds in Sangin, Garmsir, and Now Zad where they have operated openly without fear of the British forces in the area. And we know this is just the start of something much, much bigger. More about that next week.

The eyewitness accounts of the fighting can be counted on one finger, two if you count the official military spokesman. Somehow Rupert Hamer of the Sunday Mirror got a dispatch out before before the veil came down. His story of "the Army's bloodiest battle for more than 50 years" is as chilling as it is thrilling.

"We're taking the fight to the Taliban in his back yard," said Lieutenant Colonel Matt Holmes, Commanding Officer of 42 Commando. "They are on the back foot."

"Each night is alive with the sound of helicopters heading through the darkness to support attacks up to 50 miles away. The RAF's Chinook choppers rarely stop - ferrying troops and picking up the injured and dead.
A squadron of Apache attack helicopters is also in huge demand. I spoke to one pilot who could hardly lift himself from his cockpit after seven hours of solid flying.

Two days ago I watched as soldiers carefully lifted a black body bag from a Chinook. It was a dead Taliban fighter airlifted from the battlefield so his relatives could bury him quickly in accordance with his Muslim faith.

Later I witnessed two captured Taliban fighters being led into another Chinook. They had been given flak jackets and helmets to protect them on their journey."

Achilles began when K Company of 42 Commando attacked 25 fortified compounds held by the Taliban close to the vital Kajaki Dam hydro electric power station...Supported by bombers and Apaches from 664 Squadron the Marines used machine guns, grenade launchers and Javelin anti-tank missiles to clear buildings.

In the nine-hour offensive they destroyed caves and tunnels used by insurgents to hide and launch mortar and rocket attacks. Twelve hours later a 200-strong force from 45 Commando attacked a Taliban headquarters south of Garmsir near the Pakistani border. Royal Marines from Z and I Companies launched a ground assault on rebel compounds. Bombers hit an ammunition dump and a large arms cache was captured.

Elsewhere troops from 29 Commando Royal Artillery and 42 Commando have been in "massive fire fights" with Taliban in the notorious town of Sangin...J Company found a building worker shot three times in the head and left as a warning to opponents of the Taliban. Shortly after they were attacked by up to 50 insurgents from three sides. They fired 22,000 rounds in just 25 minutes, killing a "significant" number."

TF Helmand spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Rory Bruce described an attack by 200 troops, supported by Afghan artillery for the first time, on two large Taliban compounds south of Garmsir in southern Helmand.

"As the TF Helmand ground forces closed in, large numbers of enemy forces were seen going in and out of one building. The building was engaged by precision fires with a direct hit causing a secondary explosion. This suggests it was used as a significant arms and ammunition storage facility," he said.

During the fight, insurgents fled to a mosque. Coaliton forces ceased fire on the Taliban until the enemy opened fire from the mosque. Then it was open season. Other Taliban fighters ran into homes of local civilians, using them as human shields. And that's just the first four days.

Maj. Gen. Ton van Loon, NATO's commander in the south, said that at its peak, "Operation Achilles will eventually involve over 5,500 troops (4,500 NATO, 1000 Afghan). The offensive is NATO's largest-ever in the country. But it involves only half soldiers in Operation Mountain Thrust, a U.S. offensive in the same region just nine months ago.

While the British force the battle, other coaliton forces have set up blocking points to keep the Taliban fighters penned in.

The U.S. Paratroopers from the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, "coordinated a convoy and night air assault in the Ghorak Valley of the Helmand Province," said Army 1st Lt. Mathew Catalono.

Canadians troops from the Royal Canadian Regiment have completed their deployment into the Maiwand District of Kandahar to block the movement of Taliban. And Spanish troops have "hermetically sealed" the border of Helmand to stop insurgents from getting away to the provinces in the north.

The Dutch are supplying F-16 jet fighters, Apache helicopters and just under 100 soldiers, from the 'Tiger Company' unit of the Air Assault Brigade. The Dutch unit is being kept in reserve.

The initial phase of Operation Achilles caught the Taliban by surprise. Early reports said that wounded Taliban fighters were being taken across the border into their refuges in Uruzgan province where Dutch troops refuse to challenge insurgents.

Two Taliban commanders fled with 100 fighters to Nahr-e-Saraj, 80 miles west of kandahar. A third was captured at a checkpoint in Kandahar trying to get away while wearing a woman's burqa.

But enough stood and fought. And died. Six British soldiers have been killed in the past two weeks. Lance Corporal Lee High of K Company, 42 Commando, was almost number seven. He was leading a team of eight Royal Marine Commandos in the Kajaki area when he got shot.

"A red tracer bullet was fizzing in my chest plate," he said. "I was hit there twice. Then I felt another punch in my leg. Blood flowed from where the bullet had ripped into me."

His story is almost the only one to slip through the cordon of silence. We've been trying to piece the two-week battle together from accounts of air strikes. And every day is a carbon copy of the day before---a sky filled with B-1B Lancers, F-15E Strike Eagles, FA-18 Super Hornets, and RAF Harriers dropping guided bombs and rockets and firing cannon on insurgents fire positions, mortar sites, buildings, compounds, and the occasional vehicle. A French Mirage showed up one day to launch rockets into Now Zad. And a C-130 Hercules pops up occasionally to drop leaflets over targeted villages.

Sangin locals said the leaflets dropped by Nato aircraft urged them to evict the Taliban. "The message says that we must tell the Taliban to leave," said one local resident, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. "But the Taliban are stronger than the people here. The message warns that there may be heavy fighting."

When the 1st Battalion of the 508th Parachute Infantry Division almost ran out of fuel last Monday a C-130 Hercules air dropped 24 55-gallon drums onboard (9000 pounds) eight hours later. The load landed within 100 feet of the desired point of impact.

"It's an amazing statement on the creativity and ingenuity of our tactical airlift crews," said Lt. Col. Mike Taheri. commander of the 774th EAS. Amen, that.

Still, it appears that the early fighting was concentrated on the Kajaki Dam and Garmsir areas. Trench systems, enemy bunkers, and insurgents in open areas got the full treatment. When insurgents fled into buildings, guided bombs would knock down the buildings. When enemy fighters fired rockets from compounds, airstrikes would rocket the compounds.

But its the story of Sangin that will make the books when its finally told. The Brits believe up to 600 Taliban are defending Sangin and the villages around it. And coalition planes are pounding the area day after day.

The pilots have watched coalition vehicles hit IEDs and B-1Bs have launched flares to assist coalition forces which suffered casualties from small-arms fire. They've blown up weapons caches (a large initial explosion followed by 10 secondary explosions) and sealed fighters in caves near Sangin. They've blown away insurgents on a mountain top and more hiding in the woods. And building after building after building has been bombed to suppress mortar and small arms fire and destroy armaments.

An intriguing detail has popped up over the past two weeks---references here and there to anti-aircraft weapons. A F-15 bombing of a compound in Sangin March 8 to destroy shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons. An air strike in March 11 in the Gereskh district to kill a Taliban weapons man who "moves anti-aircraft weapons in South Afghanistan"; his stop in an isolated area to meet some Taliban insurgents becoming his last stop.

Last month a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet was watching a dozen insurgents near Sangin when he was picked up by an unknown radar signal. He released flares and manoeuvred away. And a helicopter carrying journalists last week took evasive manoeuvres for the same reason.

Just before Operation Achilles was launched, a British reporter spoke with residents of Sangin. "The Taliban have an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a mountain looking down on the town," said one resident.

We count seven suicide or roadside bomb attacks in the past 10 days.
Friday, March 9, A roadside bomb on a bridge in Kandahar province killed two civilians. It was an assassination attempt on an ex-mujahideen commander who was wounded along with his two sons and a grandson. Two guards were also injured.
Monday, March 12, a roadside bombing kills 9 policemen in Farah province.
Tuesday, March 13, A suicide bomber at a checkpoint with Pakistan in Spin Boldak, Kandahar, kills three civilians. A roadside bombing aimed at a NATO convoy in Lashkar Gar, the capital of Helmand province, injured two civilians. Fifteen minutes later, a second bomber approached an Afghan army base on foot and blew himself up, wounding the battalion commander.
Wednesday, March 14, a suicide bomber attacks a police convoy in a bazaar area of Khost, killing four civilians and one policeman. Another nine policemen and two children were injured.
Saturday, March 17, a suicide bomber (say Afghan police) or a roadside bomb (say NATO spokesmen) targeted a Canadian convoy near Kandahar. One child was killed and two severely injured.

Afghan police conducted a search operation in Kandahar province, arresting a "high-ranking suicide attack coordinator" in Panjwayi district. An ISAF statement Monday said that Mullah Mohammad Wali organised suicide attacks in Kandahar for the Taliban.

Civilians and police were the victims of the bomb campaign. Across the country, 18 policemen were killed in 3 days. The danger of suicide bombers in cars has increased the risk to motorists in the cities of southern Afghanistan. At least 10 drivers have been killed by coalition forces since January for driving too close to convoys.

There's so much more, but we'll end today on a high note, with news you haven't seen anywhere else.

Kandahar Fruit Exports Are Up 50 Percent Despite Taliban Woes
Habibullah Farid, the administrator of the Chamber of Commerce in Kandahar province told Pajhwok Afghan News, that despite security problems in the province, exports were not badly affected. He said that in the current year they have exported 410,591 tonnes of fruit and dry fruit, worth $33.6 million. Last year the export of fruit in Kandahar province was worth $22 million.The fruit was exported to Pakistan, India, Dubai, Bangladesh and Malaysia. Farid said the fruits exported included raisins, pomegranates, grapes and melons.

And we've just discovered Graham Thomson's blog reports from Afghanistan for the Edmonton Journal. Great photos capture what words can't.

Check it out.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Winnipeg Free Press Double Standard Saves Gordon Sinclair

It looks like the Winnipeg Free Press owes its former columnist Dallas Hansen a big fat honking apology.

Contrary to the sanctimonious position editor Bob Cox took when he fired Hansen last December, the standards for behaviour by columnists appears to be extremely flexible. Veteran columnist Gordon Sinclair has proven that in spades.

The Black Rod wrote at the time of the Hansen firing that Free Press columnists frequently misuse their columns to take cheap shots at retailers and servicepeople who don't show the proper obsequiousness. Sinclair's March 13 column, although cloaked as an apology, fits the bill.

It seems that 9 days earlier, Sinclair stopped for gasoline at an unnamed service station only to get into a fierce argument with the "petite young woman behind the counter" and "the gas jockey."

It all started when Sinclair discovered he had no money to pay for the gas. Here's my number, see ya later, he told the girl. To his shock, she didn't care who he was, he wasn't leaving without paying. Oh yeah? What are you gonna do? Call the cops? he blustered.

Yes, she said.

Actually, he didn't exactly mention his celebrity profile himself, if you believe his version of the story. Given the Hansen precedent, that's frowned on by FP brass. Instead, he let someone else trumpet his exalted status---"a customer who was standing beside me."

Said customer "recognized me" and "said something about my being 'in the newspaper'."

Is that vague enough for you? Something about my being in the newspaper... What something? It doesn't matter, sniffs Sinclair, the professional detail-seeking journalist. "She and I both ignored him."

Sinclair could have called a cab, gone home, got his wallet and returned. He could have left the car and taken a bus home. He could have walked. But not "Don't You Know Me" Gord. He was driving.

Told he could go if he left behind something of value, he retrieved his "plastic-wrapped registration" and flung it at the woman's head. Oh, yeah, he says he flung it at the wall behind her head. You split that hair. He almost did.

He did come back with the money for the gas and with a fresh load of venom. He resumed arguing with the girl. He finally left when the gas jockey jumped in to protect the "petite" girl and she got out from behind the counter to see him out the door.

Oh dear. What have I done? "By the time I got home, I was more angry at myself than anyone else," he claims.

Yes, we write with some doubt about Sinc's contrition.

For it seems to have blossomed only when the police showed up at his door the following Saturday. That's when he decided he should apologize for his behaviour.

Sinclair has been in the business long enough. He knew that news of the police visit would leak out. He had to get ahead of the curve the only way he could, write his version. His, the only version, of course.

But he couldn't restrain himself completely. After all, columnists get the last word, right?

* The mystery man who vouched for him goes unidentified. Was he a friend of Sinclair's?
* The registration is whipped at the wall, not her face.
* She blamed him for throwing it "at" her. What's she know? "I said I didn't throw it "at" her, I threw it over her head."
* The gas jockey "chirped" in. No bias in that choice of verb.
* The gas jockey accused Sinclair, a tall, imposing man, of being a bully. What's he know? The petite woman behind the counter wasn't too scared to step out from the behind the counter, was she, snaps Sinclair.

He eventually apologized to her, but he couldn't help taking one last cheap shot at her in the column. The confrontation at the gas station ended when "(She) sent me on my way with this: I hope you have an accident."

Funny how he remembers her every word, but can't recall what the "nice man" who recognized him said.

Something about being in the newspaper, wasn't it?

None of this apparently warranted a "note from the editor." That, strangely, was reserved for Dallas Hansen.

Hansen, if you recall, got into a argument with staff at a liquor store when they asked for I.D. and he took umbrage. He told them he was going to write about the incident in his Winnipeg Free Press column. And he did, in the context of arguing for the privitization of liquor sales. He topped the column with a story about going to a liquor store with his girlfriend and both of them being refused service, him for not having I.D. and her for having expired identification.

The police were never called on Hansen because of his arguments with liquor store staff. Still, Bob Cox fired Hansen after the Liquor Commission complained and brought video of the incident for him to see.

The video showed no girlfriend. Hansen, and his girlfriend, said on his blog later that there were two liquor store incidents, one earlier with girlfriend, one later sans. Cox had even met the girlfriend at a staff party.

Cox said Hansen used profanity and made rude gestures. And he crossed the line when he traded on the name of the Free Press in a personal matter unrelated to any journalistic purpose.

Gordon Sinclair, on the other hand, had only had a "heated" argument with the staff of a service station, had thrown an object at the woman---repeat, woman---behind the counter, had been so threatening the gas jockey and an unidentified man stepped in to "cool things down", and had been visited by police who informed him he was barred from the gas station.

Then he wrote a column about what can only be described as "a personal matter unrelated to any journalism we are doing."

Cox apparently didn't phone the employees of the gas station for their version of what occurred, and whether any profanity had been used.

He didn't ask for the identify of the "nice man" who identified Sinclair as a Free Press columnist.

And he didn't care that Sinclair told the woman he wanted to write about what happened, which appears to be an imperceptible step from what Hansen told the employees at the liquor store.

And he didn't ask to see the video.

Service stations, like convenience stores, usually have video cameras.
Wouldn't it be interesting to see Gordon Sinclair in full fury.

The Winnipeg Free Press thought that prying into Mayor Sam Katz's sealed divorce records was good journalism.

Why isn't a public hissy fit by a prominent Winnipeg columnist of equal public interest ?

We'll just have to keep watching YouTube -- in case a certain "gas jockey" knows his way around the Internet.