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 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:

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.

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