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:

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Human Rights Museum: Double trouble for the NDP

Oh, the irony.

Winnipeg firefighters are getting hugs from Gail Asper and Winnipeg taxpayers are getting hosed again.

For the second week in a row we've had to watch a carefully choreographed exercise designed to convince us there's a groundswell of support for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

First, four Crown Corporations handed over one million dollars apiece of money taken from ratepayers who thought they were buying services like car insurance and electricity from government monopolies.

Then, the Winnipeg firefighters union pledged one dollar from each member for five years for the museum, millionaire moocher Gail Asper's vanity project. Between hugs from her, they promised to try and collect the same amount from every firefighter in Manitoba.

Obviously the Firefighters Burn Fund doesn't need the money.

You don't need to be a fire investigator to know something's not kosher here.

In all the smoke and mirrors, is there a smoking gun?

What the ...? What's that?

Is that ...?

The 2007 Speech from the Throne.

It contained this bombshell:

"The provincial government is working with the Asper family, the community and the federal government to obtain capital and operating funding for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Your government has pledged $40 million in the coming year to help establish the first national museum outside of Ottawa."

The inert Opposition asked no questions. But an alert public certainly did.

What $40 million?

The provincial government's contribution had always been pegged at
$20 million.

Why, and when, had it doubled? And why?

It took some digging to unearth an answer, but there it is.

Are you sitting down?

An annual report issued at the end of 2004 by The Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (gee that name has a familiar ring) contained an update on "Activities and Outcomes."

Under that heading there was a subsection titled "Negotiation of government and Forks North Portage contracts." Note the word "contracts."

And next to it sat the ticking time bomb. (Emphasis ours)

"Federal Govt.---Agreement in place for $30M, other capital funding and operating costs yet to be confirmed."

"Province of Manitoba---Letter committing to 10 % of capital costs on file."

Say what? The NDP committed Manitoba to provide ten percent of the capital costs?

Do the math.

The $40 million commitment in the 2007 Throne Speech means
the capital costs are now $400 million.

And that's before a single shovel hits the ground.

Add at least $50 million for an endowment fund to bring 20,000 students to the museum each year and the project is now costing $450 million---before the requisite cost overruns, design changes, and "unexpected" problems.

Capital costs, according to the Friends, includes "site development, building construction, interior furnishings, exhibits and other capital costs."

Now you see why the government is off-loading "contributions" to Crown corporations---to keep them off the government's books and away from scrutiny.

You never know, maybe even the NDP's pet auditor general might start asking questiona about a project headed north of half a billion dollars before the first sod is turned.

The government has given Gail Asper a blank cheque backed with taxpayers' money.

We don't know about you, but we're burning up.


Sunday, April 27, 2008

War in Afghanistan 2008 Week 17

The Taliban suffered their biggest defeat of the year last week in what may turn out to be the turning point in the war.

When even their biggest press cheerleader calls it a disaster, you know it's bad---for the enemy.

And you haven't heard a word of it in the mainstream media.

Remember we told you that the Taliban was bragging openly how they intended to strike a mortal blow to coalition forces in Afghanistan by throttling the main supply line through Pakistan's Khyber pass.

Well, today, "Their Khyber dreams are now in tatters." according to Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief.

"The Taliban and their al-Qaeda associates, in what they considered a master stroke, this year started to target the Western alliance's supply lines that run through Pakistan into Afghanistan. " (Taliban bitten by a snake in the grass, Asia Times Online, Apr 26, 2008)

The Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies were emboldened by a attack March 20 which destroyed 40 gas tankers at Torkham - the border crossing in Pakistan's Khyber Agency leading into Afghanistan's Nangarhar province.

The Taliban were feeling the effects of Pakistani military pressure on their bases in the tribal regions bordering on Afghanistan and they were desperately looking for a way to turn the tide of battle within Afghanistan which has been running against them for two consecutive years. Al Qaeda, meanwhile, was being driven out of Iraq by strategic alliances between local tribes and the United States army and it needed something to recapture its waning influence among Islamic radicals.

"After coming under intense pressure in its traditional strongholds in the North and South Waziristan tribal areas, al-Qaeda and the Taliban staged a joint shura (council). This meeting concluded that they had to be especially careful of local political parties and tribals who were all too ready to sell themselves in the US's quest to find Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. The council pointed to the example of Iraq, where the US's policy of courting Sunni tribes to turn against al-Qaeda has had marked success." wrote Shazhad, calling on his insider terrorist sources.

"At this point, the council hit on the idea of taking the initiative and turning Taliban and al-Qaeda attention on Khyber Agency with the aim of bleeding the Western coalition without having to launch major battles. "

The U.S. worked to replicate its success in Iraq by forging alliances with tribes within the Khyber Agency. The Taliban responded, wrote Shazhad, by threatening tribal chieftains and launching "a suicide attack on a jirga (meeting) convened to discuss eradicating the Taliban from the area. Over 40 tribals were killed. "

As we predicted, the Taliban would pay heavily for this campaign of intimidation.

In order to infiltrate the Khyber region, they had to find a local host they could trust. They settled on a man named , Haji Namdar, a travelling trader rather than a local tribe member, who shared Al Qaeda's Salafi ideology. He was supposed to set up a series of safe houses for Taliban fighters to hide in following attacks on convoys headed for Afghanistan.

Last Monday, the Taliban captured two employees of the World Food Program and their plans blew up in their faces.

Here's the story by Asia Times Online, interspersed with supporting accounts from other Pakistani news agencies:

"Anyway, with the Taliban's arrangement with Namdar, the stage was set and they steadily stepped up their attacks on convoys heading for Afghanistan, leading to the capture of the two WFP members and their vehicle on Monday." (Asia Times Online.)

"At about 11 a.m. local time, gunmen halted and hijacked a UN vehicle carrying a driver and a logistics coordinator from the Pakistani city of Peshawar to the Afghan border in the pass, said Ishrat Rizvi, a press officer with the UN in Islamabad, the capital. The two men were assigned to arrange customs clearance for truckloads of WFP food being sent into Afghanistan, she said." (Pakistani Troops Free UN Workers; Combat Closes Khyber Pass, James Rupert, Bloomberg News, April 21)

"Unlike in previous Taliban attacks in the area, local paramilitary forces chased the Taliban after this incident. The Taliban retaliated and five soldiers were killed, but then their ammunition ran out and they surrendered the two workers and tried to flee, but they were blocked. The Taliban called in reinforcements, but so did the paramilitary troops, and a stalemate was reached. Eventually, the Taliban managed to capture a local political agent (representing the central government) and they used him as a hostage to allow their escape."(Asia Times Online)

"According to the Political Administration, the armed and masked miscreants kidnapped three officials of World Food Programme (WFP) from Neki Khel area of Landi Kotal tehsil while they were on their way to Torkhum in a vehicle...Responding quickly, the Khasadars chased the kidnappers and after an exchange of fire near Ziaray Kandow area the miscreants changed their route.However they were again intercepted by the law enforcers in Walikhel area from where they also picked up the political Tehsildar.In a shootout in Walikhel area security personnel Riaz was killed while four Khasadar sustained injuries. The law enforcers tightened their cordon around the kidnappers who first released the Tehsildar and after some distance the WFP officials were also set free by the fleeing miscreants. (Associated Press of Pakistan, Pakistan - Apr 21, 2008)

And that's when things went from bad to worse for the Taliban.

"They retreated to their various safe houses, but to their horror, paramilitary troops were waiting for them and scores were arrested, and their arms caches seized...The only person aware of the safe houses was Namdar, their supposed protector: they had been sold out." wrote Shazhad.

In a hurried post mortem, Al Qaeda sources declared that the CIA paid Namdar $150,000 (local currency) to betray the Taliban insurgents.

"The immediate result is that Taliban operations in Khyber Agency have been cut off. This in itself is a major setback, as the attacks on supply lines had hit a raw NATO nerve.

In the broader context, Namdar's betrayal vividly illustrates the dangers of traitors within the ranks of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The fear is that the various peace deals being signed now between the Islamabad government and selected tribal leaders could lead to a whole new batch of betrayals. " concluded Asia Times Online.

As if to underscore the growing impotence of the Taliban in the area, the Globe and Mail in Canada and the Scotsman in Scotland (of course) wrote this week about Mangal Bagh, an Islamic warlord who claims total control of the Khyber agency with 10,000 men under his control and who rejects the Taliban.

The Scotsman wrote:

"He has received repeated entreaties to combine forces with the Pakistani Taleban, who run other parts of the country's wild north western border, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). A traditional jirga - meeting of elders - was held between Lashkar-i-Islam and the Taleban about 40 days ago.

"I told them (the Taleban] that what I am doing is enough. It is the right direction. There is no need to join you," he said.

"The Taleban consists of religious scholars. We are fighters for Islam, lay people. We don't have any religious figures in our organisation."

On Sunday, Pakistan announced a peace agreement with Mangal Bagh who assured the government no armed attacks would be carried out in the tribal areas.

The fighting in Afghanistan spilled over into Pakistan on Wednesday when Taliban insurgents learned that the rules have changed and hot pursuit doesn't end at the border.

Insurgents attacked three government checkpoints in Afghanistan's eastern Kunar province then made a run for it into Pakistan. But Afghan army troops backed by U.S. warplanes and helicopter gunships chased them all the way. Ten Taliban fighters were killed and one Pakistani border trooper also died in the fighting. Pakistan protested the incursion, the coalition forces said "sorry" and the Taliban got the message.

Back in Afghanistan proper, the much vaunted Taliban Spring Offensive is turning out to be an assault on policemen across the country. At least 21 police officers were killed during the week with many others wounded.

* April 21. An attack on a police checkpoint in the Marouf district of Kandahar leaves 3 policemen dead. Four insurgents were killed.

* April 23. An attack on a police post in the Gereshk district of Helmand province. Five police are killed and seven Taliban.

* The same day, a suicide bomber targets the police chief of Gereshk as he leaves police headquarters. Two policemen were killed and three wounded, but the police chief was unhurt.

* April 23. A roadside bomb in Badghis province killed three policemen.

* April 23. Five policemen are killed and four wounded in an attack on a police post in Kunar.

* April 24. A gun battle raged for three hours when insurgents attacked a police checkpoint in Paktia province. No injuries were reporter.

* April 26. A mine explosion killed two police and wounded four in Ghazni.

* April 26. A roadside bomb killed one policeman and wounded another in Farah province.

Once upon a time reporters would pepper their "exclusive" interviews with Taliban spokesman with boasts of how they disregarded American airpower. Not any more.

Seven Taliban planting roadside bombs got the surprise of their lives last week when they got blown up by an airstrike in Paktia province. Another 15 insurgents were killed by an airstrike in Paktika province next door three days later.

Kandahar province, where Canadian troops are stationed, was less of a hot spot this past week.

A roadside bomb damaged an American vehicle and slightly injured the two troops inside. Security officials arrested a man they described as a facilitator for suicide bombers. Two days later a suicide bomber blew himself up in Spin Boldak, a town near the Pakistan border, killing three civilians and wounding 14.

In eastern Laghman province, four Taliban insurgents were moving explosives in a car when it went BOOM. The joke was definitely on them.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

BUSTED: The Human Rights Museum shell game

Watch for the shell game.

That's the one thing we learned from the Upper Fort Garry fiasco. When un-elected millionaires want to use taxpayers' money to fund their pet projects, they start by running an elaborate shell game to divert the taxpayers long enough to pick their pockets.

Well, "shell" meet "game". It's happening again.

You remember the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, don't you? The last we heard of it millionaire moocher Gail Asper was panhandling for $20 million, the money she had to raise by the end of April to get construction started. She came up at least $17 million short, not that this was reported in the mainstream media.

Instead, up popped a story this week that thousands of artifacts have been discovered on the site of the proposed museum and that this has "persuaded museum officials to abandon plans for underground parking."

The story in the Winnipeg Free Press conveniently made no mention of the cost of the museum since, apparently, nobody knows. The announced cost of the miracle project varies widely.

But one fact is sure, the project is a true miracle---the upper range for cost hasn't changed by a single penny for years, even as construction costs for other projects have been climbing 1-2 percent A MONTH.

But it was the mention of underground parking that caught the attention of The Black Rod.

You see, there's a community in Winnipeg that knows a lot about what's going on behind the headlines. We speak of the architectural community which is privy to plans and projects still behind closed doors. They had to keep this information to themselves, so they communicate with each other, spilling just enough beans to release the pressure and win kudos from their colleagues.

Well, something about the rights museum and underground parking twigged an elephant memory and a search of our voluminous files.

Sure enough, up popped a discussion thread from May 2007, almost one year ago. It turned out to be a roadmap of the shell game being played before our eyes today.

( E-noms have been changed to protect the innocent. Emphasis ours.)

It started with this question May 15, 2007, from Expresso:

Anyone have any smart ideas about what to do with parking for the CMHR?

Old Barn replied presciently:

^ depends if the current surface lots at the Forks are still available by then. If so, they have plenty of capacity.

If not, then I would imagine another (larger) parkade is in the Forks future...

Expresso said :
Just wondering what the thoughts were on surface parking versus hiding it underground, or another parkade. Then there will need to be large vehicle storage for buses somewhere.

Green parking - is that an oxymoron?

Surely You, who appeared most in-the-know, stepped into the conversation the next day:

the second that the museum is official the forks will begin construction on a multi storey parkade along the rail line.

Expresso said:
Underground parking is both more expensive than an above ground structure and then there is always the issue of archaeological mitigation at The Forks - I'm not sure if this is accurate or just a rumour. But the Inn at the Forks went without a basement to avoid this issue. The parkade at the forks is only a half-level below grade - not deep enough to hit anything significant.

The Forks has always planned on a parkade adjacent to the rail line with commercial in front along Waterfront (south of York). Except the CEO said not too long ago that a parkade was a last resort (or similar). The Forks can't afford to build one unless they charge for parking (which they should) which will likely trigger the rest of the site to charge for parking (which it should) and could finally lead The Forks to financial self sufficiency (about time).

Buses need to find somewhere else to go. Every bus in the city currently waits at the Forks. They need to move on.

If CMHR could just raise another $10M for a parkade they would have a pretty strong revenue stream ...

Just my 2 cents...

Surely You said:
you cant dig down more than 1m at the forks...that is the amount of fill that was put there by the rail yard....not sure how they are going to build a 25 storey tower without doing that....but for now, that is the rule....the ballpark had to abide by it.

i heard the parking garage plan from the horse's mouth only a couple of months ago.

underground parking is expensive because it needs to be mechanically exhausted...there is also the issue of the water table...the reason hydro eliminated one level.

I know the horse of which you speak! The parkade is in the Concept Plan available for download from The Forks' website. August mentioned it in the Free Press article last month:

"The Forks CEO Jim August said he will start working next week on landscaping and a "green" transportation plan, including whether to locate parking behind the building against the rail line and how to set up some public transit or a people-mover trolley that can link the museum to other downtown attractions. A parking structure is really a last resort, August said."

I guess I'm wondering if the parkade is still Plan A or the last resort. As far as I know it's always been Plan A.

Now compare that (written 11 months ago) with the shell game being played today.

* Parking fees considered to keep The Forks green, (Winnipeg Free Press, April 17, 2008, Lindsey Wiebe)
"The Forks is considering charging a fee for visitors coming by car as part of a range of ideas aimed at getting the historic site carbon neutral by 2010.
The concept hasn't been formally discussed yet, said chief operating officer Paul Jordan, but it could involve charging motorists a couple of bucks to park on-site, with the money going towards carbon offsets."

* Museum sits on artifacts, officials decide to scrap underground parking. ( Winnipeg Free Press, April 23, 2008, Joe Paraskevas)
"Archeological artifacts found beneath the proposed site for the human rights museum at The Forks have persuaded museum officials to abandon plans for underground parking, according to a report going before city council today."

* Forks eyes 800-stall parkade (Winnipeg Free Press, April 24, 2008, Joe Paraskevas.)
"A new 800-stall parkade at The Forks could be considered when city officials and others look at the future of parking at the historic site this summer, a senior Forks manager said Wednesday."

The only thing missing so far, is the linkage between the parkade fees and the human rights museum.

You're not against human rights, are you? You're not a neo-Nazi?

While we're predicting the future by looking at the past, let's give the final word to Surely You, who updated his pals earlier this month.

my buddy confirmed to me that construction of the human rights museum is officially set for february 2009

there will apparently be a public archaeological dig this summer to clear the site of any artefacts before construction begins.

And how much is that museum going to cost, anyway?

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

War in Afghanistan 2008 Weeks15 and 16

The cauldron of war was boiling in Afghanistan this past two weeks.

It wasn't until we had a bird's eye view of the activity that we realized the latest Canadian rotation into Kandahar province was getting a trial by fire.

* April 10. A suicide car bomber attacked a NATO convoy passing through the centre of Kandahar city, the capital of Kandahar province, about 10 a.m. The explosion killed 8 civilians and injured 22 bystanders.

* April 13. Two British troops, both Royal Air Force servicemen, were killed when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb about 6:45 p.m. while they were on patrol outside Kandahar airfield. Two others in the lightly armoured Land Rover Wolf were wounded.

In a separate incident, Taliban militants attacked a joint patrol of Afghan and international forces on patrol near the Panjwayi district of the province. Four Taliban fighters were killed in the gun battle. There were no coalition casualties.

* April 14. Taliban fighters killed 11 policemen during a midnight raid on a police outpost 15 miles north of Kandahar City. A policeman on watch on the roof was strangled. Two policemen were found in a room, bound and shot in the head. Entering the compound, the Taliban fighters opened fire on the men sleeping on the mud floor, killing all but one who was found alive but gravely wounded.

Insurgents killed more than 925 Afghan police last year.

* April 16. Two U.S. marines were killed when they vehicle they were in hit a roadside bomb.

First Sgt. Luke J. Mercardante, 35, was the battalion sergeant major for Combat Logistics Battalion 24, the logistics element of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Cpl. Kyle W. Wilks, 24, the other Marine killed, was a military policeman serving as part of the battalion.

*April 17. Two Canadian soldiers were wounded by a roadside bomb. But by there's more to the story that's not being told if the various news accounts of the incident are any clue.

Associated Press had this report:

2 Canadians hurt, tank destroyed
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) A roadside bomb struck a Canadian military vehicle on Thursday near Spin Boldak, a town on the Pakistani border, said Lt. Cmdr Pierre Babinsky, a spokesman for NATO troops in the south. No one died in the blast, but he declined to say whether any soldiers were wounded.

Canwest News Service reported it this way:

Roadside bomb causes minor injury
Ryan Cormier , Canwest News Service
Published: Thursday, April 17, 2008

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - A Canadian soldier was slightly injured when a military vehicle hit a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan on Thursday morning.

The incident happened about 9:30 a.m. local time in the Spin Boldak district.

The soldier received medical attention and was back on duty before the end of the day, Canadian Forces officials said.

Pajhwok Afghan News said this:

Friday, April 18, 2008,
Two Canadian soldiers injured
KANDAHAR CITY (PAN): Two Canadian soldiers under command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have sustained injuries after a roadside bomb hit their vehicle in the volatile Kandahar province, an official said on Thursday. Gen. Abdul Razaq commander of border battalion told Pajhwok Afghan News the wounded soldiers were rushed to Kandahar International Airport for treatment after a roadside bomb hit their vehicle at approximately 9:00 o-clock.

And Reuters may have supplied the missing piece of the puzzle:

"Also on Thursday, at least two NATO soldiers were wounded and a tank destroyed when a remote-controlled roadside bomb exploded in Kandahar's Spin Boldak town on the Pakistani border, border police chief, Abdul Raziq Khan, told Reuters."

A loss of one of Canada's tanks would be reason to keep the story hushed.

* April 18. 68 Pakistani men were arrested by Afghan army troops in the Spin Boldak area on suspicion of being insurgent fighters.

* April 19. One Afghan policeman and two Taliban fighters were killed in a firefight in Panjwai district of Kandahar. More than two dozen suspected insurgents were seized by troops who swept the area searching for the attackers.

* April 19. A convoy of civilian security contractors working for the US. firm DynCorp was hit by a roadside bomb near the border with Pakistan. There were no injuries and no serious damage, said the ISAF spokesman Lieutenant Commander Babinsky.

While much of the war's action appeared to be concentrated in Kandahar province, there were some significant incidents in Nimroz province to the west of Kandahar.

* April 17. As men were gathering for evening prayers at the central mosque in Zaranj, the capital of Nimroz province, at least one suicide attacker blew himself up, killing 24 men and boys and wounded 30 others. A district police chief and a border reserve police commander were among the dead.

At least two other suicide attacks have hit Nimroz this month. An attack on April 1 left two policemen dead in Zaranj. Another on Saturday April 12 killed two Indian road construction engineers and their Afghan driver.

But here's the intriguing story that may portend trouble ahead...

Iranian, Afghan forces clash at southwestern border
By AMIR SHAH, Associated Press Writer Sunday, April 20, 2008
KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan police clashed with Iranian forces at the southwestern border between the two countries, leaving one civilian dead and two Iranian officers wounded, officials said Sunday.

The incident in the village of Pul-e-Abreshum in Nimroz province happened Saturday after an Iranian patrol entered Afghanistan, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

Afghan police dispatched a unit to the village and a gunbattle ensued. A teacher from the village was killed during the firefight, said provincial police chief Gen. Ayub Badakhshi.

Two Iranian officers were wounded, the statement said.

Taliban Plans Revealed

Asia Times Online reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad has the latest on the Taliban's stratgegy for 2008.

Under the headline "The Taliban talk the talk" Shahzad advises "...the Taliban-led battle in Afghanistan is about to enter a new phase."

"(F)or the first time since their ouster in 2001, the Taliban will scale back their tribal guerrilla warfare and concentrate on tactics used by the legendary Vietnamese commander General Vo Nguyen Giap, an approach that has already proved successful in taming the Pakistani military in the tribal areas.

"For the first time, the Taliban will have a well-coordinated strategy under which we will seize isolated military posts for a limited time, taking enemy combatants hostage, and then leaving them," "Dr Jarrah", a Taliban media spokesman, told Asia Times Online in a telephone conversation from Kunar province in Afghanistan.

"This is the second tier of General Giap's guerrilla strategy. The third tier is a conventional face-to-face war. This aims to demoralize the enemy," Jarrah explained. "We have been delayed by rainfall, but you shall see action by mid-April."


The Taliban's new focus is the brainchild of several retired Pakistani military officers who are now part of the Taliban movement. They are complemented by men trained by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence's India cell to fuel the insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir.


During 2008, the main center of Taliban activity will be eastern Afghanistan.

"Almost 90% of the men have been launched for this spring," a Pakistani Taliban told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. He is known for his professional military skills and strategic planning.

"About 10,000 fresh men have joined hands with us. Of these, half of them have been trained and launched, along with the old lot, while the other half [5,000] are getting training and will be launched in the next phase," the man said.

NATO Red Tape wastes military resources

The Baltimore Sun reports that U.S. marines sent to southern Afghanistan have been immobilized by NATO.

Marines immobile in Afghan red tape
Multinational force has multiple leaders
By David Wood Baltimore Sun reporter
April 11, 2008

KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Disagreements and coordination problems high within the international military command are delaying combat operations for 2,500 Marines who arrived here last month to help root out Taliban forces, according to military officers here.

For weeks the Marines -- with their light armor, infantry, artillery and a squadron of transport and attack helicopters and Harrier strike fighters -- have been virtually quarantined at the international air base here, unable to operate beyond the base perimeter


Frequent changes among command leaders and unclear lines of authority have made it difficult for the Marines to win general approval for the timing, goals and extent of proposed operations.

Marine operations planning, which is routinely completed in hours or days, has gone on for weeks while they await agreement and approval from above.

"They invite us here ... and they don't know how to use us?" said Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson, commander of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. "We are trying to keep our frustration in check ... but we have to wait for the elephants to stop dancing," Henderson said, referring to the brass-heavy international command.


But living conditions at this huge base are comfortable, with a well-stocked PX, an off-duty recreation area with a Burger King and pizza shop and an Afghan bazaar. Marines sleep on cots in air-conditioned tents, and the food is considered above-par."

Global Warming cost hits Afghanistan

The worldwide food shortage, due in large part to diverting land formerly used to grow food crops to growing crops for bio-fuels, is having deadly repercussions in Afghanistan.

At the Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan, border guards from both countries got into a gun battle that left one Afghan policeman dead. Two Afghan border police were wounded and two Pakistani soldiers were wounded in the gunfight.

Pakistan, it turns out, has restricted how much wheat can be shipped into Afghanistan. Three wheat trucks had crossed into Afghanistan, and Pakistan soldiers were chasing them, sparking the shootout.

Afghan Sports Report

We almost missed this story in the Sunday Herald, because at first we didn't catch the pun of the title. Then we thought it had to be a hoax. But, apparently not...

Raging Kabul
By Nick Meo, Sunday Herald

TWICE A week in a dingy gym in the recesses of Kabul's National Stadium, a group of teenage girls gather to practise boxing. With their jaunty headscarves, determined expressions and male coaches, it looks like a scene from the Taliban's worst nightmare.


Inside the stadium, down a long dark corridor adorned with puddles and peeling paint, tiny girls are shadow boxing, practising ducking and sparring. This is quite new for Kabul and, for some of its inhabitants, deeply troubling.

The girls are dwarfed by their outsized boxing gloves. Most wear long-sleeved T-shirts donated by a Californian boxing apparel company and jaunty bandanas. Some have on demure headscarves and black training pants or jeans.

Their femininity seems weirdly out of place in the gym, which smells of old socks. Anywhere else in the world, the place would be utterly depressing. The punch bags are old and mended with bits of tape; one is homemade. But the room is full of the energy of determined teenagers. Being Kabulis, they are used to dilapidation and it doesn't trouble them.


During a break from shadow boxing, Beheshta Naiemy, who is 17 and wants to be a journalist, laughs with incredulity when I ask if she has ever worn a burkha. The Taliban days, and the terrible civil war that came before them, blighted the lives of her mother's generation. But for her, they are like a bad dream that has been forgotten.

"When the Taliban were here, ladies couldn't see TV or play sports. Now they can go out. Things are much better," she says. "There are still a lot of problems though."

One of the problems is the threat the girls face for daring to be boxers. A fortnight ago, they were back at the stadium for the first time in more than two months after a savage attack on Kabul's sole luxury hotel. Eight guests, several of them foreigners, were killed. The Taliban haven't by any means vanished from Afghanistan.

Amid fears that the attacks could herald a terrorist onslaught against civilians, training sessions were stopped for a while, just in case.

So far only seven of the most enthusiastic girl boxers have come back to the gym, with a couple of friends watching. Some are sick. Perhaps a few have been frightened off. In January there were four times as many.


The girls' boxing sessions grew out of women's football, which was pretty radical for Kabul. Just over a year ago, some of the girl footballers saw women's boxing on TV - another revolutionary development, banned under the Taliban, which their mothers may never have seen. They asked their soccer trainers if they could have a go, and soon found a boxing trainer.

Saber Sharify is a gaunt 48-year-old who has a permanent wry grin, like many Afghans who have survived the upheavals of 30 years by developing a cynical sense of humour that never quite crushed their idealism. Once, in the 1980s, he was a hero of Afghanistan for winning a silver medal at the Asian Games in Delhi. Then the wars came to Kabul and after that the Taliban and, for him, there were years of exile in Pakistan where he ran a boxing gym. But like millions of Afghans, he came back to his shattered homeland and now teaches young girls boxing in his spare time.

"Afghan women are very brave," says Sharify. "And we want our girls to do sports. Some people say it is very dangerous for girls to do boxing. Others say Afghanistan is not ready for this. These girls are proving those people wrong."

Read the rest. It's a great story.

Talking to the Taliban

And finally, every once in a while you find a story that just needs to be distributed as widely as possible. This is such a story:

It's a story that should be read by every voter in the country.

The appeasers regularly spin the argument that NATO is wrong to fight the Taliban, that NATO can never defeat the Taliban, that NATO must talk with the Taliban if there is ever to be peace.

Well, it turns out it's a story of been there, done that, forget it.

The story was titled "Even local Afghans come up short in Taliban dealings" by Mike Blanchfield, Canwest News Service, Published: Monday, March 24, 2008.

It told how elders in Zabul province, immediately east of Kandahar, tried to reason with Taliban fighters at a sit-down.

"Zabul ranks a close fourth behind Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan as the most violent of Afghanistan's southern provinces. But its proximity to the Pakistan border, where al-Qaeda and Taliban militants regroup and re-energize to launch attacks in the south on coalition troops, poses an additional security threat." wrote Blanchfield.

Tired to insecurity, fighting, abductions of school teachers and local mullahs, the local elders contacted Taliban leaders without telling the American military authorities in the region or even the government representatives in Zabul.

Blanchfield learned what happened from Haji Hashem, chairman of Zabul provincial council.

"They arranged a meeting in Sharizifat, a remote rural region,"

"We asked them, don't burn our schools, don't bother those doing construction, don't torture or kill," he recalled.

But the message that came back from the four Taliban commanders sent to talk was firm.

"We got orders from Pakistan. We got orders to burn reconstruction projects," he recalled.

The Taliban told them not to send their children to school, and to withhold support for the 39-country International Security Assistance Force. They called ISAF thieves, who "don't have a specific plan" to help their country.

"If you have a social problem, come to us," was how the Talib negotiators put it, said Hashem.

But the locals made some progress with the Taliban before the meeting broke up.

"They agreed not to kill and torture, but said they will continue to damage," Mr. Hashem said.

"The Taliban negotiators told them that if they allow reconstruction projects to take place, it would only legitimize Afghanistan's government and that could not be allowed."



Sunday, April 13, 2008

First alert: A chilling future

Never mind the blizzard of numbers. And forget the numbing laments of Budget Week.

Lost in the analyses is how the NDP have managed to transform Manitoba into an oligarchy, a government by the few for the few.

It's taken almost a decade, but the tipping point came with the tremendous equalization payments over the past couple of years -- which let the NDP cut the final cords of accountability.

They're now a runaway government unfettered by any of the checks and balances that have restricted even the strongest of majority governments that came before them.

Here's how they accomplished it:

* An emasculated Opposition
* A toothless Auditor General
* A powerless Ombudsman
* A manipulated Legislature
* A complacent press
* A bottomless slush fund in Manitoba Hydro
* and the wealth of Alberta, Saskatchewan, B.C. and Ontario

The NDP couldn't have wished for a better Opposition leader than Hugh McFadyen, Manitoba's own Stephane Dion. The titular head of the Progressive Conservative Party, McFadyen announced early on that his plan to recover power turned on winning over federal Liberal Party voters who support the NDP provincially. In the last election that brilliant scheme resulted in the loss of one Tory seat.

McFadyen's style involves a lot of "Me too, only more." Whatever the NDP announces, McFadyen criticizes by saying they should do more, spend more, and regulate more.

This Friday, coincidentally, the first three items on Global News defined the major issues in Manitoba--

1) Health: a story about an elderly woman's night in a hospital hallway nine years after the NDP pledged to eliminate hallway medicine;
2) An Agriculture crisis: a story about hog farmers who may have to kill hundreds of thousands of weanling pigs because they can't sell them in the U.S.; and
3) Crime: a story about a house in North Winnipeg shot up in a drive-by shooting, the third such incident in a week.

Hugh McFadyen was missing from all three stories.

He showed up in story number four, the NDP's plan for "greening" Manitoba. He made some Dion-like obscure reference to The Simpsons which, as best we can tell, was meant to say he would do more, spend more and regulate more.

In conjunction with the Oppositon, or in lieu, the public has depended on the Auditor General to keep the government honest.

But the NDP learned from the spanking it got from former AG Jon Singleton over the Crocus scandal, which followed on the heels of his excoriation of the NDP for outing a whistleblower, after she was fired for coming forward with serious conflict of interest allegations about Worker Compensation Board's financial dealings with, among others, Crocus.

Never again.

The NDP appointed Carol Bellringer to the post after Singleton retired.

She declared she's a bean counter and all she cares about is that column A matches Column B. It isn't her job, she sniffed, to say if the receipts are phony, the numbers are bogus and if the officials who provided them are lying through their teeth. That's the job of the Opposition, she said.

Bellringer is quick to shuffle all of her audits to the Public Accounts Committee where, theoretically, the Opposition can go over them line by line with government officials.

Except that the committee meets infrequently, has none of the investigative powers (subpoenas for documents, calling witnesses, etc) of the AG, and has a backlog of audits years long.

Oh, and the press doesn't cover the meetings, so the ministers can stall endlessly.

The NDP has neutered the Freedom of Information Act, stalling on requests without concern of any sanctions because there are none. All they risk is a bad word from the Ombudsman in his next annual report.

The government has demonstrated its contempt for the Legislature in a variety of ways. It reduced the sittings of the House as low as 35 days in 2003. After the press finally caught on, they let the House sit almost a quarter of the year.

The NDP controls the release of damaging reports, often holding them from the public for months until the Legislature is not in session or releasing them in the days leading up to major holidays so they get little coverage in the news.

They sat on a report into security concerns in public housing for two months until after the last election, but used the information to promise, in their election campaign, on-site security patrols and closed-circuit television monitors for Manitoba Housing facilities.

They have bought off the Winnipeg Free Press to minimize bad press. They put FP co-owner Bob Silver as co-chair of the Advisory Committee that recommended the disastrous Spirited Energy campaign. While the rest of the news media tore the campaign to pieces, the FP coverage was muted.

When Gary Doer bailed out the Friends of Upper Fort Garry campaign to stop the construction of an apartment building next to the Manitoba Club, the FP, which promoted the campaign, never mentioned Bob Silver was one of the Friends.

The FP now defends the Crocus Fund and mocks the Opposition for raising the scandal, although Free Press reporters and columnists wrote mea culpas for missing the "red flags" of the scandal following Singleton's scathing report.

The NDP have raided Manitoba Hydro whenever they've run short of money. Worse, they are using the utility to promote their political agenda.

They are forcing Hydro to sell off future Hydro dams to "partners". These so-called partners are Indian reserves which will be given money from Hydro to "buy" a portion of each new dam so that the millions of dollars of Hydro profits can be distributed to them without going through the Legislature.

The government is forcing Hydro to build a power line to the west of Lake Winnipeg at an additonal cost of $400 million (and counting) over the objections of Hydro engineers, ostensibly to preserve boreal forest. The benefit is to Gary Doer's legacy. He wants to go down in history as the Kyoto Premier.

To that end he is representing the environment lobby in the United States against the benefits of Manitoba citizens.

Hydro was forced to build a brand new headquarters building in downtown Winnipeg using the latest "green" technology which raised the cost by millions of dollars.

Money, for the NDP is no object, as they prove year after year. The gusher of money Manitoba gets from equilization payments is a windfall the NDP cannot resist. They have been spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars every year above and beyond their own budgets, money which is not authorized by the Legislature, but which is spent regardless, because they can.

They just wrote the nurses union a blank cheque to be cashed in October.

The latest budget shows that the NDP even plans to raid the "rainy day" fund, money intended to cover the cost of unexpected provincial emergencies - Agriculture, anyone? - to the tune of $13 million for "climate change plans".

Oligarchy is a funny word.
Hard to pronounce.
And hardly anyone knows what it means.

But it's an ugly word.

It means a concentration of power in the hands of an unaccountable few.

Power to be used for the benefit of those few, and their friends.

The few who can manipulate information and money with no checks and balances to bother them, on behalf of the few who don't have to follow the rules or jump through hoops like everyone else.

There's a chill in the air, a chill that can't be cured with a sweater or the spring sun.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Keith McCaskill's Spring Surprise

Winnipeg's new police chief Keith McCaskill made probably the worst mistake of his career when he addressed a meeting of residents of the William Whyte neighbourhood this week.

He gave them hope.

The decent folk of this poor North End community have been pleading for years with city officials for help in cleaning up their streets.

They watched as Mayor Sam Katz and former police chief Jack Ewatski elbowed each other out of the way for facetime at a news conference to announce Operation Clean Sweep, a major crackdown in the West End after the son of a well-to-do physician was killed in the crossfire of a gang shootout. Then in the wake of four murders in their own neighbourhood, Katz assigned a quarter of the police resources of Operation Clean Sweep.

They listened as police regurgitated their usual excuse for doing nothing--a lack of resources. Then they watched as Ewatski sent more police than patrol the North End in a single day to the University of Winnipeg, and stationed them there round the clock for almost a week, because somebody found a naughty message on a bathroom wall.

Gang grafitti covers the fences and garages of William Whyte and city hall shrugs.

No wonder the residents of William Whyte felt abandoned. But that all changed Wednesday.

McCaskill introduced six "resource officers." Scrape the thick bureaucratese off and you find BEAT COPS. And there's a lot more where they come from, said the Chief. All told there will be 40 police (presumably a combination of foot patrol and cruisers cops) in two shifts patrolling these North End streets.

The Street Crimes Unit just finished a three month sweep of the community and has passed the torch to the beat police, McCaskill said. They're coming with a new arsenal of tactics, and new coordination of community support resources, including a revitalized unit targeting problem houses.

The news left the large crowd excited. If anything, the beat cops appeared to be even more excited than the audience. They were obviously champing at the bit to demonstrate what they can do.

McCaskill kept repeating that the police service wants to "partner" with the community and its residents. He asked them to set the priorities for the police---and they told him in short order.

Get rid of the prostitutes, they said.That's priority #1, and priority #2 and priority #3 and priority #4 and priority #5.

McCaskill said he had heard the same message from the Spence Street community when he spoke to a similar meeting there the day before. Obviously that's the measure of a neighbourhood. Street prostitutes signal a neighbourhood in decline. It means an influx of crack houses and gang members, and endless traffic by a parade of "johns" and the resulting harassment of women and little girls going about their daily business.

The police were told where the William Whyte community wants them to start. They're eager, and they have the spring and summer to prove what they can do. The community is behind them 100 per cent. After all, they're all the hope the residents have.

Noticeably missing from the community meeting with McCaskill were politicians.

The City councillor for the area, Harry Lazarenko, couldn't be bothered to show up.

Neither could NDP MLA George Hickes, who parachutes into the area during election time from his home in south Winnipeg but is otherwise invisible and uncaring about living conditions there.

But wait...let's not forget who else was not there. The poverty industry shills.

There was nobody from Organization This and Organization That demanding that the city fight the "root causes" of crime and end poverty.

There were no university professors to explain how fear of crime is just in your heads, crime is falling, gang members are just looking for surrogate daddies and mommies, and prostitutes, er, make that sex trade workers, are misunderstood women who deserve our emotional support.

In fact, the audience was made up of the poor.

And nobody raised "poverty" as an excuse for crime. Just the opposite.

They want the police, and the powers that be, to concentrate on attacking crime first. That will make the biggest change to the quality of their lives.

Not an increase in the minimum wage, or a soccer league, or a transit corridor.

But safety for themselves, for their children and for their neighbourhood.

As if to underscore that very message, Global News the same night carried a story about the jaw-dropping success of the Point Douglas neighbourhood in fighting crime and disorder.

The story focused on residents' buying their own security cameras and what an impact this had had on driving crime down. The item ended with a casual comment that crime in Point Douglas has dropped 70 PER CENT since the community got serious about fighting back.

That's not a misprint. SEVENTY PER CENT. DOWN.

We've never heard this figure before. But if it's true, it's phenomenal. It's a success story that should be celebrated by the whole of the city. They should hold a parade down Euclid Avenue to Norquay Park on Canada Day to celebrate with bands, balloons and all the ballyhoo they can muster.

And, sadly for the poverty industry shills, this victory was achieved despite the poverty apologists who oppose every policing initiative as useless if not counter-productive.

Crimestat is one tool the police are using to target resources. You can go on the internet and see how many reported incidents there have been of homicide, sexual assault, auto theft, break-and-enters, and robbery compared to last year.

As of April 6, 2008, the number of these five categories has fallen 40 per cent. Yes, again, that's not a misprint. FORTY PER CENT. DOWN.

In December 2006 we wrote how Sam Katz intended to emulate New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani's crime fighting record in the Nineties. We wrote then:
"If he manages to get the same results as New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani, they'll be erecting statues of Sam at City Hall."

The year is still young, but somebody better be dusting off a Sam-sized slab of marble.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

War in Afghanistan 2008: First quarter review

You can tell it's spring by the annual outbreak of handwringing and lamentation in the mainstream press over the mission in Afghanistan.

Boo hoo hoo, they write. We're losing. We can't win. The Russians had a bigger army and they failed. The Taliban are resurgent and invincible. They have an endless supply of volunteers. They never give up. Time is on their side. We have to bug out as fast as possible. Any day now the Taliban will launch their Feared Spring Offensive (tm). Whimper.

What's amazing is that, if you listen carefully to the enemy, you hear the exact opposite.

And, you'd think, they ought to know.

We're taking a detour from the usual weekly look at the war in Afghanistan. Call it the first quarterly report on the big picture.


Regular readers of The Black Rod will remember the concessions this past winter by Taliban leaders of defeat on the battlefield.

Where, in the two years past, the Taliban boasted of "years of decision" in which they would drive foreign troops out of Afghanistan by their fierce attacks, this year they've pulled in their horns. This year they're promising only to teach NATO and U.S. forces a stern lesson.

Mullah Baradar Muhammad has issued the official announcement on behalf of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan of a new operation dubbed "Ibrat" (translated as "Lesson" by some, and "Admonition or Warning", by others) being launched throughout the country.

Barader signed his proclamation Deputy Leader, Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which puts him just behind Mullah Omar, aka Fearless Leader. Baradar is one of the three top commanders who led Taliban forces when the United States invaded Afghanistan following September 11, 2001. The other two--- Mullah Akhtar Usman and Mullah Dadullah-- were killed in the past year, leaving Baradar to lead the Taliban's military operations. He'd better have his insurance paid up, if history is any guide.

The Nation reported the offensive was launched March 21, 2008 "with the help of 5,000 militants." That's a relief. Last year Mullah Dadullah launched his spring offensive with the claim he had 10,000 fighters at the ready, plus suicide bombers. Already we've halved the enemy forces. It looks like killing 4000-plus insurgent fighters last year has had some effect.

Ibrat, according to The Nation, will involve "maximum emphasis on targeted killing, kidnapping and targeting gatherings through suicide bombers." A Taliban contact told them the purpose behind Ibrat is to "harass and terrorise not only the foreigners but also those Afghans who occupy important offices in the government."

Barader, in his own (translated) words put it this way:

The Taliban's spring offensive is "aimed at giving the enemy a lesson through directing powerful strikes at it, which it can never expect, until it is forced to end the occupation of Afghanistan and withdraw all the occupier soldiers". We will add to the tactics and experiences of the past years new types of operations. The operations will also be expanded to cover all locations of the country, in order for the enemy to be weighed down everywhere" (Sawt al-Jihad, March 28).

In a nutshell, this "resurgent" army of religious fanatics is going to rely on kidnapping, killing public officials, and mass murders. That ought to win the support of the local population.

"...we are without resources, but we have the support of God," admits Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani in a video message currently being circulated.


One reason the Taliban is downsizing their plans is the abysmal lack of success in standard military operations. And for that they blame spies. Spies, everywhere. The Taliban leadership is obsessed with spies. Especially when the leaders keep getting killed by missiles fired from UAV's.

Last year in areas under their control they killed anyone they suspected to spying for the government. This year they've destroyed or damaged 10 cell phone towers to force phone companies to shut down their service overnight. The Taliban is convinced NATO can track their commanders by tracing cell phone calls. Boy, have they ever underestimated U.S. SIGINT capabilities.

Can you spell 'backlash'? When up to 300,000 rural customers wound themselves without phone service, they told Taliban fighters in no uncertain terms that this was unacceptable. In Ghazni province villagers told the telecommunications minister that if the cell tower was reopened, they would guarantee its security themselves. The Taliban have acknowledged they made a big, big mistake and are trying to mend fences. But memories are long.

Golden Oldies

The Taliban have long memories, as well, which is why they're bragging at the return of "legendary" Afghan mujahideen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani. Once upon a time, he was somebody. That was 20 years ago when he fought the Russians. Nowadays he dyes his hair red with henna. Most recently he, or rather his son Sirajuddin, has been flirting with Al Qaeda supporters in Pakistan's tribal territories. Which is why the Taliban is trumpeting Haqqani's return to an alliance with them.

The Haqqani network of terrorist resources is a particular thorn in the side of American forces in eastern Afghanistan. While Haqqani will undoubtedly do his fighting in his Pakistani redoubt, its his name the Taliban wants. They're a little short on big-time commanders following the harvest of top leaders in 2007 by resurgent American airpower.

Propaganda Power Down

The Taliban are even crying that their most powerful weapon--propaganda--is failing them.

"They think they can enslave poor Afghans - bomb us with their planes and gunship helicopters - they think they have everything and we are voiceless - the media are with them and they belittle our resistance. We kill 80 and they report two or one. I promise the Afghan nation that soon we will be victorious," laments Haqqani in his video.

Even Asia Times Online, which is usually sympathetic to the Taliban spin on the war, had to temper its enthusiasm as Taliban claims grow more grandiose, reporting recently:

"Last week, NATO announced the opening of an intelligence center near the Torkham border post, at the crossroad of Khyber Agency and Nangarhar province. But it was not able to thwart the biggest-ever guerrilla operation against a US base in the province a few days later. More than 200 Taliban participated in an overnight hit-and-run operation. Taliban sources claimed the killing of 70 US soldiers, but there was no confirmation of that figure from NATO or any other independent source."

The Taliban are even having their noses rubbed into it. Last year they captured two French aid workers and released them only after, they claimed, French president Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to pull French troops out of Afghanistan. This week Sarkozy committed another 700 troops to the fight, and the Taliban are crying foul at, in their eyes, being played for suckers.

Hearts and Minds

You read that term all the time from MSM reporters and columnists trying to subliminally link the war in Afghanistan with the war in Vietnam. But by all accounts it's the Taliban that have to worry about winning hearts and minds. They've never been more marginalized.

Take the wedding industry. It's thriving despite the "resurgent" Taliban.

"But since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, the Afghan wedding industry has rebounded and is now bigger than ever. The growth is reflected in the proliferation of wedding halls, palaces of mirrored blue glass and blinking neon lights that glow incongruously among the country's dusty streets and mud-and-cinder-block homes. The number in Kabul alone has risen to more than 80 today from 4 in 2001.
(Big Afghan weddings, banned under Taliban, are back, International Herald Tribune, Jan. 14, 2008).

But, you say, that can't be true in the southern provinces where the Taliban are strongest and most "resurgent."

The Globe and Mail recently carried a series of articles based on interviews with Taliban fighters in the field. Reporter Graeme Smith discussed his stories on-line with readers, including this comment:

Graeme Smith:
I'm not entirely sure what you mean, especially about substitutions, but you're right that the Taliban appear to be shifting their cultural stance. A friend who lives southwest of Kandahar city tells a very amusing tale about a family wedding party, with singing and dancing, that stopped dead when a few Taliban walked into the compound.

Everybody froze, thinking the Taliban might have been upset by the merrymaking. But the Taliban quickly reassured them that they're no longer punishing such activities - one of many indications that the list of Taliban laws that existed during their regime no longer applies to the zones now heavily influenced by the insurgents. Whether this indicates a stronger "Pakistani flavour," as you suggest, isn't clear to me. It does seem to show a bit of political adaptation by the Taliban, as the adjust to the shifting cultural reality in the country.

The Taliban might be able to terrorize the populace into providing food and shelter, but they're obviously not welcome. "

Foreigners Go Home

Taliban propaganda, including the aforesaid Globe and Mail series, is long on table-thumping declarations that they're only fighting to repel foreign invaders.

But increasingly, "foreign invaders" applies to Taliban fighters.

"A relatively new string in the Taliban's bow is the reliance on thousands of Pakistani and other jihadis put out of "work" since the struggle in Kashmir de-escalated. They are well trained, and as they did in Indian-administered Kashmir and other parts of India, they can be expected to target key infrastructure and high-profile targets, such as government buildings." (Asia Times Online.)

"It is some consolation that the Taliban are also ever more unpopular. And Western intelligence officials claim the militants' co-ordination is breaking down under the relentless killing of Taliban leaders (200 have been killed and 100 arrested in the past year) by Western special forces. Taliban commanders in Helmand bear out this claim. Chains of command have become disjointed, they admit, with larger numbers of junior commanders filling the space left by senior figures such as Mullah Dadullah, their overall commander in Helmand, who was killed by British special forces last May. Internal discipline is harder to enforce. New recruits tend to be younger, more radical and from outside.

Two out of five Taliban fighters in Helmand are now outsiders, according to one Taliban leader. This causes friction with local people. One older Taliban commander admitted that some of his colleagues have been treating people "too harshly". Local people have become more vocal in demanding that reconstruction be allowed and schools reopened. Militants differ over how to respond."
(Putting the Hell in Helmand, Apr 3rd 2008, The Economist)

"Under the Taliban, the town's former agricultural college was used as a madrassa. Allah Dad, a village elder, fled when the Taliban moved in because they demanded that his five sons become fighters. Now back, he said he is afraid to speak to a reporter lest the Taliban notice and "punish" him." (In Helmand province, a tug of war, Washington Post, March 31, 2008)


What, then, with this in mind, can we expect in the rest of the year?

The battle lines are being drawn.

The Americans have moved 2000 Marines into the south for seven months.

"It's all part of counterinsurgency, but at this point [the Marine mission] is more kinetic than not," Col. Peter Petronzio, commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, told the Baltimore Sun.

"The unit, a combined air and ground strike force, will branch out across southern Afghanistan to strike at Taliban fighters and clear as many areas of them as possible." (Short-term strategies threaten success, David Wood Baltimore Sun April 1, 2008)

"The 24th is heavily armed, with its 1,200-man infantry battalion and an air squadron with attack and transport helicopters and Harrier strike fighters. Its arsenal holds some 4,000 weapons, from pistols to long-range 155-mm howitzers."

Expect to see the Marines co-ordinating with the Brits in Helmand province who will be concentrating on building a road and installing a new generator at the Kajaki Dam. The Taliban will throw everything they've got into stopping the project, as they did in 2007.

The French have pledged to send 700 troops to eastern Afghanistan, which would free up American troops to move to Kandahar province to help the Canadians in the field. Since the Yanks are much more aggressive, expect lots of action in Kandahar. The corollory may be a sharp drop in the number of roadside bombs which are responsible for almost all the Canadian deaths.

On a related note, last week NATO released a report on IEDs in Afghanistan. They said 2,615 roadside bombs were either detonated or discovered in 2007. That works out to an average of about 7 a day. But half of the IEDs reported last year were discovered before they did any damage, thanks to route clearance efforts or information from Afghanis. There were 1931 roadside bombs discovered in 2006 and 844in 2005.

The Taliban, for their part, have announced they will be concentrating their efforts in the east, in provinces closest to the Pakistan border. They're particularly focussing on the Khyber Pass through which 80 percent of NATO's supplies is funneled. It's no wonder the U.S. struck a deal this week with the Russians to allow supply operations through Russian terriority.

The Pakistan-based insurgents have already made a fatal mistake, though. The U.S. and Pakistani governments have wooed the elders of two tribes of the Kyber Agency to win their allegiance.

"But since the Taliban want to chop off NATO supplies from Pakistan into Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban have warned these tribal elders to stay away from the conflict. However, the elders have received huge bribes from NATO, and so they are obsessed with providing protection to the supply convoys. Therefore, the Taliban will increase their activities in Khyber Agency, which means a war with the elders of the Shinwari and Afirdi tribes," a contact affiliated with al-Qaeda told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. (Revolt in Pakistan's Tribal Areas, Part 1, Asia Times, Feb. 9, 2008.)

The last time Al Qaeda took on tribal elders it was in Iraq, and they sent Al Qaeda packing. If a mistake is worth making once, it's obvious to Al Qaeda it's worth making twice.

Did You Know?

Afghanistan is sending at least three athletes to the Beijing Olympic Games and hopes to win its first ever medal.

"Since our taekwondo player Nesar Ahmad Bahawi got the first ever silver medal in an international taekwondo event in Beijing in 2007, we have enough reason to expect the first ever Olympic medal especially on taekwondo for cheering up people in this war-torn country,"
Sayed Mahamood Zia Dashti, vice president of Afghanistan National Olympic Committee told Xinhua news agency.

Bahawi will be joined by Afghan male sprinter Masood Azizi and 19-year-old 1,500 metre runner Mahboba Ahdyar, the only woman. Two other Afghans may win wild card positions. Azizi and Ahdyar were to go to Malaysia in March for five-months of training before going to China.

There is not a single proper running track in all of Afghanistan. The pair of runners were training on a concrete track circling a dusty soccer pitch inside the main sports stadium in Kabul where the Taliban held public executions until they were ousted from power by the U.S. in 2001.