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.

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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: black_rod_usher@yahoo.com

Monday, September 01, 2008

War in Afghanistan 2008 Week 36

The war in Afghanistan has taken an interesting turn.

Two Canadians "of Arab origin" were killed in a missile strike on an Al Qaeda safehouse in Pakistan's tribal region, according to Dawn, which calls itself Pakistan's leading English newspaper.

The missile was fired Saturday afternoon from an unmanned drone aircraft into a house in South Waziristan. Four people in the house were killed, including the two unidentified Canadians. A Pakistani intelligence official said the house had recently been rented out to some "foreigners", a term used in Pakistan to describe Al-Qaeda fighters.

We can hardly wait for the Globe and Mail, the CBC, and the Toronto Star to launch full-scale investigations into who these Canadians were, what they were doing in an Al Qaeda safehouse, where they lived in Canada and what terrorist activities they were involved in in this country.

We'll hold our breaths.

The missile strike was one of two this past weekend. On Sunday, six people were killed and eight wounded in a UAV attack on a Taliban hideout in North Waziristan. The destroyed house belonged to Raees Khan, who news agency DPA called "a member of the local Taliban organization and a suspected facilitator of al-Qaeda operatives."

The cross-border attacks have turned up the heat on Taliban and Al Qaeda forces that have, until now, been able to find sanctuary in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions. And they don't like it.

Taliban commander Maulvi Nazir went crying to a Pakistani government agent a week ago "and informed him of the frequent violation of Pakistan`s airspace by the US spy planes and carrying out air strikes in the Agency, killing innocent tribesmen in the name of al-Qaeda." according to the Pakistan News Service.

A 40 member jirga of tribal elders in South Waziristan announced a unilateral ceasefire with the central government and promised to keep law and order in their area if only the air attacks will stop.

The missile strike that killed the Canadians was three miles west of Wana, headquarters of South Waziristan, Maulvi Nazir's stronghold. We guess he got his answer.

Just like last week, the main news from the war in Afghanistan is in Pakistan. Asia Times Online reports that "On Monday, Pakistan "declared war" on the Taliban. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main Taliban militant umbrella group, was banned, its bank accounts and assets frozen and it was barred from appearing in the media. It was also announced that "head" money would be placed on prominent leaders of the TTP.

The stage is now set for yet another round against militants in Pakistan, seen as key to defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan, which draws heavily on its bases in Pakistan's tribal areas to sustain its fighting capabilities."

In return the Taliban is taking its terrorist campaign to urban centres such as Karachi, the financial hub of Pakistan. Last week saw an unsuccessful bomb attack on an anti-terror official and the destruction of a container truck holding two armoured personnel carriers en route to Afghanistan.

" Asia Times Online has learned that top Taliban shura (council) commanders, including leader Mullah Omar's deputy, Mullah Bradar, Ameer Khan Muttaqi and Akhtar Mansoor recently visited Karachi, and some of them remained in the city to plan further attacks."

The central government announced a ceasefire in the tribal region for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but Taliban forces said they would continue fighting without stop. They did, however, call for a ceasefire in Bajaur Agency, which borders southeastern parts of Afghanistan, where heavy airstrikes have killed hundreds of Taliban fighters in the past month.

Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters are finding themselves persona non grata in more and more regions of Pakistan.

PAKISTAN: Border Villages Rise Up Against Taliban
IPS-Inter Press Service Aug 26 ,2008 Ashfaq Yusufzai


PESHAWAR, Aug 26 (IPS) - "We are trend-setters. Others are following us," boasts Rauf Khan, mayor of Pakistan’s Buner district, where villagers killed six militants in the Dara Shalbandi area on Aug. 14.
In some parts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), people are enlisting in anti-Taliban squads to take on the extremists who are blamed for a spate of abductions and arson attacks on girls’ schools, rural clinics and cyber cafes.

Rauf Khan is leading the village defence squads in Buner, a small valley between Peshawar and Swat. On Aug. 8, the Taliban had attacked the Pir Baba police station in Buner and killed nine policemen.

The village defence squad retaliated with indiscriminate firing that resulted in the deaths of eight militants, including Kamran Khan, the so-called chief of the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in adjacent Mardan district.

"Villagers had asked the militants to surrender before they laid siege," Khan told IPS. "But the militants requested safe passage. That was denied. Then the militants threw a hand-grenade in the direction of the villagers to break the siege," he recounts.

Pakistan’s border regions -- the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and NWFP - are infested with armed groups that espouse a radical Islam, influenced by Afghanistan’s erstwhile Taliban rulers. The Taliban had crossed the porous border into Pakistan when they were ousted by U.S. troops from Kabul in end-2001.

Violence has spiralled in recent months, particularly in Swat, the stronghold of the TTP. About 186 primary and middle schools for girls were torched in the district over the last two months, according to the NWFP Education Minister, Sardar Hussain Babak.

We fear the Taliban could replicate the same in Buner if they were given a free hand. We have held several meetings and decided that we wouldn’t let Buner go Swat’s way," says Fareedullah, a local elder, who was part of the defence squad that killed Taliban on Aug. 14.

Initially the local people -- ethnic Pakhtoon or Pashtun cousins of the Afghan Taliban - welcomed the guests from across the border.

Fear of intensifying military action in Swat and neighbouring Bajaur Agency, FATA, have triggered the current backlash against the Islamic fighters.

"We are seeing the writing on the wall. If we don’t prevent the Taliban at this stage, there is every possibility the military would launch an operation and the 11 million population would be migrating in a state of helplessness to safer areas," says Rauf Khan.

On Aug. 15, a jirga (assembly) of elected councillors in Mardan district (NWFP) decided to set up anti-Taliban squads on the Buner model.

"The Taliban had already bombed about a dozen girls’ schools besides bombing 50 CD shops and attacking police stations," says Shakoor Khan of Bakhshali locality who participated in the jirga. "Before the Taliban resorts to torching more schools, we have decided to resist them," he told IPS.

In Upper Dir, NWFP, the jirga met with the local Taliban on Aug. 15, and asked them to leave the district immediately.

Upper Dir has been flooded with some 100,000 internally displaced by the military operations in adjacent Bajaur Agency. "We are not going to let the Taliban play with the future of our people. We don’t want schools to be burnt and our coming generations uneducated," asserts Gulzar Khan, a local leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami Party.

In Swabi district of NWFP, similar jirgas have established anti-Taliban squads which patrol the villages at night. "The good news is that all the political parties are supporting the move, because it has paid off in the context of Buner," observes Rehman Shah, a local leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) whose leader, Benazir Bhutto’s murder last December is blamed on the Pakistan Taliban. The PPP is in power in Islamabad.

"All the criminals in these areas are carrying out anti-social activities in the garb of the Taliban. The Taliban, used to be students of religious schools, who guided the people on the right path. But now the situation is quite the opposite. They are leading anti-social activities," comments Himayatullah Mayar, the mayor of Mardan.

A local jirga in Buner district has advised the police to stop night patrols. "We will kill any person seen after midnight. We have advised the local population not to come out of their houses," warns mayor Rauf Khan.

The Awami National Party-led provincial government has emerged a strong supporter of the anti-Taliban squads. On Aug 12, the provincial government had dispatched two helicopters to Buner to bombard Taliban hideouts within one hour of a request from the district administration.

Elsewhere in Lakki Marwat and Hangu districts, villagers have purged their areas of the Taliban. They have warned that all suspected Taliban fighters would be shot at sight. The NWFP government issued a quarter-page advertisement in all national Urdu dailies after the incident in Buner on Aug. 14, congratulating the village defence squads and urging other districts to put a stop to the spread of the Taliban.

It stated: "Militants bring destruction wherever they go. For a bright future, prosperity and development, follow the wise decisions of formation of anti-Taliban squads in Buner, Hangu, Dir, Swabi, Mardan, Lakki Marwat where the people have decided to cleans their areas of militants at their own." (END/2008)

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Back in Afghanistan, coalition forces were on the offensive.

In Kandahar province, Canadian and Afghan troops completed a major operation to take back control of the Pashmul district in advance of the next rotation of Canadian soldiers. The Globe and Mail said Operation Timis Preem involved "the Afghan army, Afghan police, their Canadian Forces mentors as well as the infantry, tank and engineering corps, psychological operations team and coalition warplanes." Its aim was to destroy the Taliban's bomb-making capability.

"The three-pronged mechanized assault had Afghan forces and their Canadian mentors setting up blocks along the eastern and western fronts, while a large convoy of Leopard 2 tanks and light armoured vehicles drove up the middle toward the objectives." wrote the Globe reporter.

"On the first day, an underground bunker believed to be a main insurgent command-and-control node was destroyed in an air strike.

Insurgents believed to be of Pakistani and Chechen origin were taken out by the tank and armoured vehicle gunners, often at dusk as the insurgents were spotted waving flags to draw the attention of their cohorts."

More than 40 enemy fighters were killed.

Led by what were essentially armoured plows that smashed through the hard-packed mud grapefield embankments and bulldozed over lush marijuana fields with stalks taller than the vehicles, the armoured teams secured the perimeter of each target village, engaging insurgents along the way.

The Afghan army cleared the villages so combat engineers could sweep through to search for weapons caches, bomb-making materials and other evidence of insurgent activity.

On the first day, an underground bunker believed to be a main insurgent command-and-control node was destroyed in an air strike.

Insurgents believed to be of Pakistani and Chechen origin were taken out by the tank and armoured vehicle gunners, often at dusk as the insurgents were spotted waving flags to draw the attention of their cohorts.

More than 40 enemy fighters were killed.

Once the allied forces had control of a village, the psy-ops teams went to work, blasting Limp Bizkit, Blur and Rage Against the Machine tunes through loudspeakers all night to irritate Taliban insurgents, interspersing the music with insulting taunts in Pashtu.

"The result of this operation thus far has been a huge blow to the enemy's ability to plant major IEDs and more to plant them along Highway 1 in southern Kandahar," said Lt.-Col. Dave Corbould, the battlegroup commander.

The intent is to leave the region safer for the next contingent of troops expected in October.

Next door in Helmand province, a week-long offensive in the Sangin district killed more than 220 Taliban fighters, the U.S.-led coalition said in a statement.

But the coalition paid a heavy price in August. Nato and U.S. forces suffered 41 combat deaths, equal to the toll in June.

What has been gained by this bloodshed? The United Nations provided part of the answer this week.

Afghanistan's opium poppy cultivation fell 19 percent in 2008.

"Last year opium farmers cultivated 193,000 hectares, compared with 157,023 hectares in 2008. Helmand province - the country's most violent region - accounted for 66 per cent of the overall crop, with cultivation up slightly from 2007." wrote AP reporter Jason Straziuso.

"But the number of opium-free provinces rose from 13 to 18 after extensive anti-drug efforts in the north and east. Anti-drug officials were particularly proud that Nangarhar - last year's second highest-producing opium province - was free of the drug this year."

"This is a remarkable accomplishment, the first time it happens in the country's modern history," the drug report said."

"The price of fresh opium at harvest dropped 20 per cent, from $86 a kilogram to $70, reducing the overall value of this year's Afghan harvest to $732 million from $1 billion last year."

Just to put that into perspective, CBC News reported in June, 2008, that "The economic value of B.C.'s illegal marijuana industry is difficult to determine, but over the years experts have estimated it exceeds a billion dollars a year."

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