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Mar. 16 2010 — 7:53 am | 295 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Special Forces Kill Pregnant Women, NATO Covers It Up

The excellent Jerome Starkey broke this story last week, about a night raid conducted on Feb. 12 by NATO and Afghan forces near the town of Gardez.

The raid was on the home of a Commander Dawood (who like many Afghans uses only one name,) a well-loved man who had worked closely with US and coalition forces in the area. That night, Dawood was hosting a baby-naming party for his grandson.

At around 3 a.m., one of the musicians at the party went outside to use the toilet, saw a group of armed men near the house and ran back inside to warn the others. Dawood went outside and was immediately shot by a man on the roof.

Dawood’s brother, a government prosecutor in  the district was next to die, as he stood in the doorway shouting that he worked for the government, according to an eyewitness I spoke with today.

“He said, ‘We work for the government, we are with you.’ That was when the bullets tore into him,” Mohammad Sabhir, a relative of Dawood and the prosecutor told me. “Three women were standing behind him. When he was killed, they were too.”

One of those women was Sabhir’s wife, Bibi Shirin, who was pregnant and the mother of four children under the age of five. The other was Bibi Saleha, also pregnant. She had 11 children. The third was an 18-year-old bride to be. Her wedding was planned for this summer.

Until today, it was unclear exactly which coalition forces were involved in the raid, though the victim’s families are convinced that Americans were involved.

A senior NATO commander told me this afternoon that it was a joint operation between coalition Special Forces and Afghan Special Forces. He did not know what country the NATO unit came from, but said that 18 NATO contributors have Special Forces operators in Afghanistan.

Apparently the soldiers thought they were targeting a Taliban stronghold. They were wrong.

As if this situation could get any worse, NATO denied killing the women. A press release from their HQ, released after the raid,  made it sound as if the women were dead when the soldiers got there, and had been bound and gagged before being murdered execution style. The release also stated that the soldiers had been fired upon as they approached the house.

When Starkey questioned NATO spokesman Rear Admiral Greg Smith, he gave quite possibly the dumbest quote of this war:

“If you have got an individual stepping out of a compound, and if your assault force is there, that is often the trigger to neutralise the individual. You don’t have to be fired upon to fire back.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but in order to “fire back” don’t you first have to be “fired upon?”

But this is semantics.

Five innocent people are dead (not counting the unborn babies) and  the entire province is in a rage. The victim’s families have turned down a compensation payment from the government, calling it “blood money.”

“Life means nothing to me now,” Sabhir told me. “If the government does not bring the people who did this to justice my family and I will get revenge on American convoys.”

Feb. 27 2010 — 8:25 am | 412 views | 4 recommendations | 3 comments

Why Kabul Was Attacked Yesterday

Since the shooting ended yesterday morning, I’ve done a series of radio reports for the BBC and others, explaining the situation on the ground here.

The question that presenters keep asking me is “Was this attack a response to Operation Mushtarak, currently underway in Helmand?”

My answer is (and was) no. In my view there are a few reasons why insurgents attacked the capital yesterday and none of them have to do with Helmand.

The Taliban want to show that they can get inside the capital and strike at will. They want Afghans to know that the government can’t keep them safe and even one of the most heavily guarded areas of the country–Kabul’s City Center–is vulnerable. The fact that this area is a short drive from the Presidential Palace was also intended as a message to President Karzai. Namely, that insurgents can get as close to him as they like and his security apparatus can do little about it.

Then there is Pakistan.

Nine Indians were killed in yesterday’s attack, more than any other type of foreign national. A guest house used by Indian doctors was one of the main targets of the assault. Two days ago talks between India’s foreign ministers began, though they ended in acrimony. India is one of the largest donors to Afghan reconstruction and has lately offered to help train Afghan military forces, an offer that has infuriated Pakistan.

I do not believe in coincidences.

Pakistan has used the Afghan insurgency to target Indians here before, most recently last October when the Indian embassy in Kabul was hit by a massive bomb, the second attack on that embassy since July 2008.

Afghan and US officials have told me that they suspected Pakistan’s intelligence service had a hand in both of those attacks and I would bet a steak dinner* that they had something to do with yesterday’s violence.

Pakistan desperately wants a role in whatever reconciliation process takes place in Afghanistan. Their interests include hundreds of miles of disputed border territory (known as the Durand Line,) a desire to have an Islamabad-friendly government in Kabul and basic regional security concerns. If Pakistan can get India out of Afghanistan, there is less chance that India will play a role in those aforementioned reconciliation talks and thus a greater chance that Pakistan will get an outcome that it wants.

Launching attacks on Indians might convince the Indian government to take a step back from this conflict, but I seriously doubt it. India also has vital interests here, not the least of which is counter-balancing Pakistani regional influence. They may also view Afghanistan as a path to resource-loaded central Asia, specifically oil deposits north of here.

If two attacks on their embassy wasn’t enough to drive Indians out of Afghanistan, I’m not sure how yesterday’s attack will make much an impact either.

*Steak dinner offer valid through NATO withdrawal date, only redeemable at Red Hot Sizzlin’, Kabul, Afghanistan. Beverages not included.

Feb. 25 2010 — 10:33 pm | 157 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Multiple Explosions Rock Kabul

The Safi Landmark Hotel

The Safi Landmark Hotel

A complex attack is being  mounted on the capital this morning, starting two hours ago at around 6 am local.

The initial explosion appears to have been set off in the City Center part of town, about three blocks from Afghan Desk HQ. People in the area say that the attack was on the Safi Landmark Hotel and judging by the location of the smoke, this seems about right.

The first explosion rattled windows in the neighborhood and sent a huge column of black smoke into the sky. It was followed by two smaller explosions. Sporadic gunfire is popping off in the streets around my home as I write this, though appears to be tapering off now.

Today is the prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) birthday, a national holiday in Afghanistan. The area would normally be packed with people, but at 6 am on a holiday the streets are empty.

The Safi is a modern hotel of glass and concrete construction with a roof-top restaurant and shopping mall on the first floor.

UPDATE: Just heard another loud explosion, this one sounded farther off. I’ll post more as I learn it.

UPDATE 2: From private security firm bulletin: “Sources on the ground report IED…in vicinity of Safi Landmark Hotel…initial reports indicate five injured.

UPDATE 3: All clear and quiet here, 8:45 am local.

Feb. 22 2010 — 10:11 am | 596 views | 2 recommendations | 0 comments

Capt. Roger Hill and NATO’s 96-Hour Rule

Last week, CNN ran this story about US Army Capt. Roger Hill, who, along with other members of his unit were charged with detainee abuse, including a mock execution, war crimes, dereliction of duty and other serious charges.

I initially broke the story in The Washington Post back in Dec. 2008.

The circumstances surrounding Capt. Hill’s case are extraordinary, but too complex to explain here in great detail. The short version is that Capt. Hill and his men illegally interrogated a group of Afghans working on his base in Wardak province. The Afghans–Capt. Hill’s personal translator among them–were spies for the Taliban, according to classified documents.  Because the evidence against the detainees was classified, Capt. Hill could not turn it over to the Afghan police and the spies would therefore  have to be released.  His only choice was to extract confessions from the Afghans, which he did through illegal means.

The CNN piece focuses on the 96-hour rule, a NATO regulation which stipulates that detainees must be either charged or released after 96 hours of detention. Had the 96-hour rule not been in effect, none of this would have happened to Capt. Hill and his men.

While my story in The Post was sympathetic to Capt. Hill–or at least empathized with the impossible situation he and his men faced–I still believe that  the 96-hour rule is a good thing.

No government should be allowed to detain people indefinitely without charge. That is a form of oppression and I find it abhorrent in any context.

In this case, the problem isn’t the 96-hour rule, but rather a failure of Capt. Hill’s superiors to intervene and have the detainees brought to Bagram for questioning. This happens all the time in Afghanistan and it has never been made clear to me why these particular Afghans had to be turned over to the police.

Capt. Hill and his executive officer repeatedly asked their colonel for permission to transfer these prisoners into a higher level of US/NATO custody and these requests were denied. The men in Capt. Hill’s unit insisted that there was a personal conflict between the colonel and Capt. Hill and that’s why the colonel left them all high-and-dry. When I interviewed the colonel he denied this.

I’m not calling anybody a liar, but I can’t believe that something couldn’t have been done to prevent this chain of events from unfolding.

Either way, the 96-hour rule, or one like it, should be in place for all coalition forces in Afghanistan.

On a personal note, Capt. Hill and those of his men that I had a chance to interview are some of the most sincere people I have ever interviewed. They did what they did out of love for each other as well as rage for their dead comrades, men who died gruesome deaths because of information gleaned by spies in their midst.

I have never been an apologist for Capt. Hill and his men. What they did was wrong and I said so in The Post. But they are not and were not monsters. Rather, they were pushed into a corner by forces beyond their control in a war that has far more shades of grey than black or white.

Read The Post piece and tell me what you would have done in the same circumstance.

Feb. 19 2010 — 8:20 am | 113 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Taliban Poison Kabul Juice Supply

This morning I received the following threat warning from an ISAF friend who gets these kinds of things daily:

…the ANP [Afghan National Police] have begun removing all types and brands of juices from local markets. Allegedly, the Taliban has poisoned a number of juice containers and placed them in the distribution circuit within Kabul city. It is our recommendation that the purchase of any consumable liquid items from the local economy immediately desist. Any of these items which have been purchased within the past three days should be promptly disposed of at this time.

These kind of threat warnings come in all the time, usually having to do with possible suicide bombings or insurgents posing as police. Nothing generally comes of them, but all the same, I think I’ll stick with whiskey for the next few days.

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    About Me

    I’m a writer and reporter living in Kabul, Afghanistan. For the past four years I’ve been an investigative reporter at various Village Voice Media weeklies, and before that I worked on documentary films in New York City.

    I am currently a journalism mentor and news editor for The Killid Group, a not-for-profit radio and print organization based in Kabul, with five radio stations and many bureaus throughout Afghanistan.

    My writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Christian Science Monitor, Village Voice, Modern Drunkard and other fine publications.

    Originally from Philadelphia, I’ve also worked in south Florida and Nashville, Tennessee.

    See my profile »
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    Contributor Since: June 2009
    Location:Kabul, Afghanistan