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Vol. 74/No. 18      May 10, 2010

Deaths and commandos
double in Afghanistan
(front page)
April 24—The tempo of Washington’s war in Afghanistan has accelerated in recent months. The number of U.S. special forces has more than doubled, as has the number of civilian deaths at the hands of U.S.-led troops.

A Los Angeles Times article said that the United States Special Operations Command (USSOC) now has 5,800 elite soldiers training and carrying out joint missions with Afghan troops. But the real size of the Joint Special Operations Command, a component of USSOC, “is a highly classified secret,” the Times noted.

The recent expansion is part of a shift in the U.S. military that goes back to the conduct of the Iraq and Afghan wars under the George W. Bush administration, placing greater emphasis and reliance on special forces.

Special forces, which operate clandestinely, account for at least half of all missions being carried out in Afghanistan, the Times reported. In preparation for a major summer offensive in Afghanistan’s southeastern Kandahar Province, these elite forces and CIA operatives have reportedly been capturing and assassinating suspected Taliban leaders throughout the area.

Gen. Stanley McChystal, top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has issued stricter guidelines on night raids, air strikes, and other rules of engagement. Commanders say the directives are aimed at reducing civilian casualties as part of an effort to “win hearts and minds” of Afghanis.

However, stepped-up offensive operations have killed more civilians. According to their own figures, U.S.-led NATO forces killed 72 civilians in the first three months of this year. The figure for the same period last year was 29.

A NATO troop convoy opened fire on a vehicle on its way home from a volleyball game April 19, killing four—a 12-year-old boy, a police officer, and two shopkeepers. NATO officials initially identified the dead as two “known insurgents” and their “associates,” based on “biometric data.” But several days later, officials conceded that this was not true and issued a formal apology.

In a similar incident a week earlier, U.S. troops unleashed a barrage of gunfire on an approaching passenger bus, killing four and wounding at least 18 near Kandahar City. Hundreds of residents took to the streets in an hour-long protest, burning tires and shouting slogans against the U.S. and Afghan governments.

An aspect of Washington’s counterinsurgency strategy involves limited development projects and economic incentives in key areas designed to win local support. Under current discussion is a project to spend $200 million over the next few months for power generators and diesel fuel in Kandahar City.

U.S. commanders are promoting the project in order to temporarily boost electricity output from 16 megawatts to 50 megawatts during a “narrow window of opportunity,” as U.S.-led forces move to displace Taliban forces in Kandahar, a U.S. military official told the Washington Post. The plan would be short-term, adding nothing to the city’s long-term power generation capacity. “This is not about development—it’s about counterinsurgency,” the official said.

Karl Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, has argued that the “expensive, unsustainable” project would not be an effective counterinsurgency tactic.

Meanwhile, with Washington’s blessing Islamabad has initiated a new offensive of its own in the tribal areas of Pakistan that border Afghanistan. The Pakistani military has relied heavily on air and artillery strikes in what officers said is a several-month-long “clearing operation” that will be followed by ground assaults.

While majority sentiment has turned sharply against the Taliban in Pakistan over the last couple of years, Islamabad faces its own challenge in “winning hearts and minds.” The recent assault has displaced hundreds of thousands. Pakistani operations throughout the tribal areas and an intense campaign of U.S. drone strikes in North Waziristan Agency—30 so far this year—have killed untold numbers of civilians.

Air strikes April 10 in Pakistan’s Khyber Agency killed 71 people—all civilians—a senior Pakistani official told the Washington Post. Tribal leaders from the area reported the same figure to Dawn.

The plane dropped a bomb in a village inhabited by the Kookikhel tribe, an area considered hostile to the Taliban and from where the government has recruited to its paramilitary Frontier Corps. As residents rushed to assist the wounded, the jet dropped a second bomb on the crowd.

A military intelligence official told the Post that those killed were “mostly militants.” Several days later, however, the Pakistani military conceded that it killed at least 45 civilians.
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