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2006-06-20

Bloodshed in Afghanistan as U.S. Launches Largest Military Offensive Since 2001

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In Afghanistan, US forces have launched their largest military offensive since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. More than ten thousand coalition troops are spreading out across southern Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. We go to Kandahar to speak with Declan Walsh of the London Guardian. [includes rush transcript]

In Afghanistan, US forces have launched their largest military offensive since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. More than ten thousand coalition troops are spreading out across southern Afghanistan to fight the Taliban in a campaign called Operation Mountain Thrust.

Over the past month more than five hundred people have died in Afghanistan in some of the heaviest fighting of the war. The head of the United Nations assistance mission in Kandahar recently told The New York Times, "The situation is really, in the last four years, the most unstable and insecure I have seen."

In the latest bloodshed, two Taliban ambushes of civilian convoys left thirty people dead on Tuesday, including twenty five members of the same family. Afghan and coalition soldiers killed eleven militants in separate clashes.

But much of that news may go unreported within the country. The BBC has obtained evidence that Afghanistan’s intelligence services are putting new restrictions on what Afghan journalists can report. The restrictions include directives not to represent the Afghan armed forces as weak or criticize the US-led coalition. The government maintains the restrictions are needed to prevent the media from what it calls glorifying terrorism.

  • Declan Walsh, correspondent with the London Guardian. He joins us on the line from Kandahar.
    - Read articles by Declan Walsh.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the latest, we go to Afghanistan to speak with journalist Declan Walsh. He’s a correspondent for the London Guardian. He joins us on the phone from Kandahar. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Declan. If you can talk about the latest casualties that we’re hearing, about the 25 members of the same family killed.

DECLAN WALSH: That’s right. This was an attack in Helmand Province yesterday — rather, on Sunday. And it appears that a local tribal leader and a small number of his family were traveling through a district called Sangin, which has been the site of some very heavy fighting between the Taliban and coalition forces in recent months. And the tribal elder and his family were killed, and he told me that approximately 11 people died in the initial ambush, which happened a couple of miles from the town. And some hours later, his relatives came to the site of the ambush to try and retrieve the dead and try to find any wounded. And it appears the same Taliban group hit again and killed about another 20 people. And so that brings the total death toll to about 32, according to a relative of this man, who’s a parliamentarian. It’s really a sign of how much — how strong the Taliban grip is on pockets of Helmand Province and indeed across the wider southern provinces, a grip that has strengthened considerably in the last three or four months.

AMY GOODMAN: Declan Walsh is speaking to us from Kandahar. Can you talk about, just overall, the situation and the level of civilians caught in crossfire?

DECLAN WALSH: The situation, as has been reported some degree, and has really deteriorated quite sharply in the last six months in particular. We’ve seen an increase in Taliban suicide bombings and roadside I.E.D. attacks, roadside attacks on American and other foreign troops and a high number of casualties from Afghan police.

And in some ways, this seems to be a result of the failure of the Afghan government, in some ways. People here are really disillusioned with the failure of the Afghan government to provide basic security and some basic services over the last four years. And that’s feeding into some degree of sympathy for the Taliban.

And on the other side, the Taliban have led a very successful campaign of infiltration from across the border in Pakistan and they’re intimidating people. I’ve been going around this morning trying to find some religious leaders, mullahs who can speak about the Taliban issue. Those who are identified as being pro-government have almost to a man told me that they’re too afraid to speak. And I think that speaks volumes about how some of the most important leaders in the society are, if you like, afraid to sort of raise their head above the parapet at the moment, for fear of assassination or intimidation.

AMY GOODMAN: Declan Walsh, this week you wrote a piece entitled "Beaten, Robbed and Exiled: Life on the Frontline of Someone Else’s War." Can you describe what you were talking about in Kalat?

DECLAN WALSH: This was a story I wrote from Zabul Province. It’s one of the four provinces that are being targeted under Operation Mountain Thrust, and it’s considered to be — or pockets of it are considered to be Taliban safe havens. And in Kalat, which is the provincial capital, I spoke with people who came from one of these areas considered to be a Taliban hideout and who explained to me how after an attack on a newly built Afghan army base in a mountainous area the Afghan soldiers went into their houses at dawn and forced them out of their houses, beat the man, searched the house, which is considered a really quite serious dishonor in this part of the world, and robbed them of some of their possessions.

As I explained in the story, it’s difficult to confirm, independently verify, some of these details, because these areas are simply out of bounds, and not only for Western journalists, but indeed for Afghan officials who are based in the provincial capital. But the story did seem to illustrate the sort of pressure that these villagers are coming on, because many of the same people admitted that they had also been driven by the Taliban, who had come to them demanding shelter, demanding food and threatening to kill them if they didn’t cooperate. So it seems that in these rural areas that really are very likely touched by the foreign forces have virtually no central government presence, and people are coming under enormous pressure from both sides, really, to cooperate.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet, Declan, you write that Taliban tactics fuel anti-Western feeling. Why?

DECLAN WALSH: Here in Kandahar, there’s been a number of — there’s been a whole [inaudible] of bombings over the last number of months. The most recent one was a bus bombing on the edge of town about four days ago, in which a number of people were killed, employees of the coalition base. And I interviewed a number of people around the town afterwards who explained to me that they were — I was surprised to hear, in fact, that they seemed to be most angry with or as angry with the coalition forces as they were with the Taliban, because they said that if the coalition forces weren’t patrolling in the city, they wouldn’t have brought the Taliban attacks with them.

And I sense a great sort of sometimes confusion mixed with anger from people here who really have this sense of hopelessness that the security situation is so bad and the central government seems to be slightly powerless to improve it right now, even though, having said that, coalition forces have carried out a number of successful raids on Taliban hideouts. But people still feel intimidated and frightened, and they’re somehow blaming it on the foreign presence. So in that sense, the Taliban tactics do seem to be working. They’re sort of fragmenting support for both foreigners and central government. And people really just say that their principal priority at the moment is peace, and everything else will follow after that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Declan Walsh. He’s in Kandahar, a correspondent for the London Guardian. The Washington Post is reporting that the U.S. military has carried out 340 air strikes in Afghanistan over the last three months. That’s more than double the number of air strikes conducted in Iraq during the same period. How does it affect life there, Declan Walsh? People, I think, think of Afghanistan as very much the smaller war. More than double the number of air strikes happening in Iraq at the same time.

DECLAN WALSH: That’s right. I mean, the statistic, if you like, really illustrates what the strength is of the foreign military presence here. The American numbers are relatively small here. There’s approximately 20,000 American troops and approximately 10,000 NATO-led troops, but that’s a number that’s increasing at the moment, as NATO takes control of the southern provinces. But those troops are mostly garrisoned in central locations in the main cities, with a smaller number of small bases in the countryside.

What that means in practice is that when the coalition troops find themselves engaging with the Taliban in the rural area and what frequently happens or increasingly frequently happens is that they will locate the Taliban, locate a building where they think they’re hiding out, and then call in these pummeling air strikes which take out the entire compound effectively.

It’s really an open question at the moment about whether the net effect of these military strikes is positive or not. According to the military, they take out senior Taliban figures, even though it’s often very difficult to verify, and on the other end, in these rural areas where people, if you like, are fence-sitters. They’re wavering between support for the Taliban or the government, and they take these air strikes as really, if you like, an infringement of their rights. They see them as terrifying.

And, of course, the issue of civilian casualties is something that’s come into the fore, because there’s often quite a — difficult to know, but often in the dozens of people who are killed in these strikes, and that sort of frustration about civilian casualties is something that surfaced in the capital, Kabul, about three weeks ago, when an American military vehicle crash just north of the center of the city triggered riots that spread across all of Kabul the day and left about a dozen people dead. So that’s just a measure, if you like, of the sort of tension among the population here, who, you know — I think most people do not want the Taliban, and I don’t think they support the Taliban, but they are, if you like, angry by the relatively high level of civilian casualties from these air strikes.

AMY GOODMAN: You got a hold of a report for your newspaper, the London Guardian, from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, a 220-page report that had been shelved for over a year and a half, accusing Afghan M.P.s of torture and massacre. Can you go into that?

DECLAN WALSH: It’s a report that was commissioned as a part of the drive for what’s termed as transitional justice here. It’s a process by which Afghans will, if you like, come to terms with the many war crimes and atrocities that were committed over the 23 years of war or its serious war between 1978 and 1991. This report was commissioned really to establish a baseline of facts, sort of a baseline record of what happened during that period.

The controversial part of it, of course, is that many of the figures who are named — the mujahideen and Taliban, other militia commanders, particularly the mujahideen commanders who are named — in this report are still in positions of great influence in the society today, and many — some of them are members of the parliament that was elected last October, and other ones — there’s a small number who are officials in the president’s cabinet. And one most controversial figures, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, is a commander from an area just outside Kabul who now leads a pro-Karzai group within the new parliament. And of course this parliament really has been vaunted as a sign of the great success of Afghanistan rejuvenation since 2001.

And so, this report was finished approximately 18 months ago, was due to be released at that point in January 2005 and, if you like, has effectively been buried ever since, and the U.N. has continually postponed releasing it. And some of the people who have been involved in the production of the report have suggested to me that they feel that the U.N., along with the Afghan government, has been avoiding publication of the report because of the sensitivities about naming these people who have given no reckoning for their actions during the various conflicts over the years.

AMY GOODMAN: Is Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan?

DECLAN WALSH: Well, that’s a very difficult question to answer. There seems to be a consensus that Osama bin Laden is somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghan border. Both countries regularly trade sort of accusations that Osama is on the other side. But at this point, Western officials mostly seem to believe that, in fact, Osama is probably sheltering on the Pakistan side. And there’s a tribal belt that runs all along the Afghan border, and that is, in some ways, much more lawless than on the Afghan side. There’s a large Western troop presence on the Afghan side, whereas on the Pakistan side it’s mostly run by tribal law. The Pakistan army and government have a very tenuous grip on these places. So there seems to be a consensus that the greater probability, if you like, is that Osama bin Laden is hiding on the Pakistan side of the border. But having said that, really it’s all speculation, and nobody has any good idea, and anybody who does know essentially isn’t saying at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Declan Walsh, I want to thank you very much for being with us, correspondent with the London Guardian, joining us on the line from Kandahar. We’ll link at our website, democracynow.org, to your series of pieces that you’ve been doing while in Afghanistan.

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