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Monday, July 23, 2007

The War in Afghanistan 2007: Assessing the first six months part 2

The sands are shifting so rapidly in Afghanistan we can hardly keep up. We've had to combine the latest developments into our six-month overview of 2007.

Afghanistan is abuzz at a report on a private TV channel that rebel leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has declared a ceasefire. A statement, purportedly signed by Hekmatyar, was read out on TV and circulated in Kabul. We've found versions of the statement quoted in news stories, but the most thorough was in a story from Agence France Press

""Hezb-e-Islami members have refrained from killing brothers (fellow Afghans) and the destruction of the country and have resumed political activities," the statement read.

The group "has come to the conclusion that with fighting one can neither build a government nor a country. We have experienced this in the past 20 years of war," it said.

However, it called on the "Americans and British" -- a reference to a 37-member NATO force and separate US-led coalition -- to withdraw from Afghanistan as the Soviets did after their 1979-1989 occupation of the country.

"This is for us to start working together for establishing an Islamic government through political struggles," it said.

The authenticity of the statement read over the phone to AFP by a national security council official could not be independently confirmed.

A spokesman who has acted for Hekmatyar in the past denied the statement was authentic. But giving it validity was the news from the Afghan Ministry of Defence that only a week ago 30 fighters, aligned with Hekmatyar's faction Hezb-i Islami, "had laid down their weapons and agreed to cooperate with the government." The fighters come from the Tagab Valley of Kapisa province, a region about 60 kilometers (45 miles) north of the capital, Kabul.

Hekmatyar was an on-again, off-again ally of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but in recent months he had condemned attacks on civilians, especially schools and hospitals, which are often the targets of Taliban insurgents. Early in the year he disrupted plans for a Taliban spring offensive by announcing he was dropping out of the coaliton of insurgent groups that were supposed to lead a general uprising of tribes and return the Taliban to power.

If, indeed, he's stepped away from outright insurgency against the government, then it's because he's concluded who's winning and its not his former allies.

The second seismic tremor to alter the Afghan political landscape was a report on Radio Free Europe of a Taliban pamphlet in Helmand province that criticizes Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and his leadership council for surrendering command of insurgent groups to non-Afghan commanders.

The pamphlet says the council supposedly met in Quetta, Pakistan, and decided to put Al Qaeda fighters in charge of Taliban operations.

"We criticize the decision of Mullah Mohammed Omar," said a copy obtained by a tribal elder who read its contents to a reporter from RFE. "They want to appoint Uzbek or Chechens instead of a Taliban commander. And Mullah Muhammed Omar, you should know that Pashtuns never want to be slaves. We will not accept a Chechen or Uzbek commander."

A Taliban spokesman in Pakistan claimed the pamphlet was a part of a disinformation campaign by the Americans. If so, it's brilliant. If not, it means a big division in Taliban ranks, especially in the South where Canadian and British troops are stationed.

And if bad news comes in threes, here No. 3 for the Taliban, who are on their way to becoming the Palistinians of the East in their penchant to never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

The Taliban, driven out of Afghanistan in 2001, had by last year rebuilt their training grounds in the tribal regions of Pakistan. They made a deal with the Pakistani government that if they paid lip service to an agreement not to launch attacks into Afghanistan, the government would turn a blind eye to their activities and leave them alone.

But they couldn't leave well enough alone. Some factions kept trying to extend hardcore fundamentalist sharia law into Pakistani villages. When the leaders of the pro-Taliban, pro-Al Qaeda Red Mosque tried to do the same in the capital of Islamabad, the government drew a line.

They eventually raided the mosque, sparking in turn a suicide bomb campaign of retaliation which has killed more than 100 people so far. But the Taliban in the tribal regions decided they would go even further. They renounced the deal with the government.

Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Now, according to the Washington Post, Pakistan has plans for an offensive.

"There will now be a full-scale military action against Taliban hideouts in the entire tribal areas," a Pakistani brigadier general told the Washington Post.Nobody could be happier about this than the U.S. which has complained to Pakistan about the sanctuary the Taliban enjoyed.

According to the Asia Times in June, Pakistan had given NATO permission to press hot-pursuit operations into Pakistan. You can bet the boundaries of action have been extended even more.

Whew. That was just this past week.

And that's doesn't even include the arrest in Quetta, Pakistan, of four of Mullah Oman's senior aides by Pakistani security forces.


Those arrested included two men responsible for Mullah Omar's letters and communications - Mullah Jahangir and Mullah Mohid. The other pair were said to be Mullah Nazir, who was the Taliban commander in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan, and Mullah Tahir, the former Taliban commander of Kabul.

Remember, this was supposed to be the Taliban Year of Decision when they drove foreign troops out of Afghanistan, overthrew the central government and returned to power. Instead, their leaders were killed or arrested, their spring offensive was pre-empted, and they were driven out of important valleys in Helmand province where they had held sway even after 2001.

The only victory they are left to hope for is to get one of the NATO allies to quit. They tried kidnapping French, Italian and German aid workers. They collected huge ransoms and the French pulled out their 200 special forces, although that's not thought to be related to the kidnappings. They're trying now to intimidate South Korea to withdraw its 200 troops. We'll have to see how that turns out.

The Taliban insurgency has admitted it can't outfight the U.S. and NATO forces and they've switched their efforts to ambushes, suicide bombings and roadside bombs to create instability.

The international forces have bolstered their troop strenght by 9000, including 1200 Polish troops, half of them special forces, who are based in eastern Afghanistan. The Polish Battle Group took responsibility for the security of several areas in the eastern Afghan provinces of Ghazni and Paktika in late May.

Three hundred Australian soldiers have been bolstering Dutch troops in Uruzgan province. In June hundreds of Taliban fought a five-day battle against the 3000 Dutch troops and Afghan militia around the town of Tarin Kowt. The Dutch proved tough soldiers and beat them back. But overall the Dutch task force stated strategy has been to avoid direct confrontation with the Taliban. That's allowed them to use Uruzgan as a sanctuary where they can go to recuperate and prepare future operations in neighboring Helmand and Kandahar provinces against the British and Canadians.

The Aussies will provide the backbone in Uruzgan. Their stated mission is to go after take the fight directly to the Taliban.

The Afghan national army continues to grow as a major threat to the insurgents. Afghanistan plans an army of 70,000 by 2009 (two years behind the initial schedule.) At the end of 2006, the ANA stood at 30,000 soldiers and has now grown to about 35,000 with 10,000 in training. International forces from around the world are training recruits-the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, New Zealand, Romania, Bulgaria, Mongolia, Turkey and, now, India.

Because ANA soldiers, NCO's and officers are trained separately by different nations they have to prove they can work as a unit. That's what Canada's training detachment does.

This spring ANA units began taking the lead on operations at the corps level. They still fight with NATO and U.S. mentoring units and NATO combat support-artillery, engineers, communications and medical and logistics services. And they lack the modern weapons, body armour, and armoured vehicles of the NATO forces. But they've proven themselves brave, often fool-hardy, fighters in battle.

Critics love to point out that desertions are high and the re-enlistment rate for the first 3-year enlistees is only 35 percent (or 42 percent, the number varies by news source) instead of the 50 percent expected. What they fail to mention is that Taliban forces are often mercenaries hired for one battle or a single mortar attack, so the growth of the ANA, however slowly, is already turning the tide in the field.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has said he expects Afghan security forces will be gradually taking control of parts of Afghanistan in the spring of 2008.

The weak link in the security infrastructure continues to be the Afghan police. Nobody has much good to say about them. They steal from the citizens, extort money and goods and generally scare regualar Afghanis. On the other hand, they are suffering the most casualties of any of the government security forces. In a three month period this spring, more than 100 police officers were killed in ambushes and attacks.

Police checkpoints are being thrown up wherever ISAF forces move into an area, to restrict the movement of the insurgents. The Taliban have made the police special targets because they can often overrun stations manned by lightly armed and unmotivated police officers.

In a conference call this week with bloggers who cover military matters, U.S. Army Col. Raymond Bouchard, a senior advisor to the Afghan police, said new, better armed rapid-response units of Afghan police have been trained and will soon be deployed to counter such Taliban attacks.

Taliban Success Story

The single success the Taliban can claim unequivocally is the capture of Musa Qala, a village of 14,000 people in north Helmand province. They took control of Musa Qala in February and have held it ever since. The Taliban has set up sharia courts to enforce fundamentalist Islamic behaviour.

Residents of Musa Qala have said that TV sets and cassettes dangle from trees to remind villagers not to play music or watch television even in their own homes. Four men were hanged as spies in late June and their bodies left hanging for days to intimidate the villagers. The Taliban have imposed heavy taxes on the villagers which they must either pay or pay in kind by joining the insurgents.

"We could take the district in less than 24 hours, but we fear that non-combatants could be affected," General Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghanistan's Ministry of Defence said.

But residents of Musa Qala pleaded with the central government and NATO in the spring to retake the village regardless of the risk to civilians. They said they were willing to die in air strikes if the Taliban could be driven out.

Tomorrow: The Defining battle of 2007

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