Afghanistan and Pakistan Update

NATO Prepares to Test President Obama's 'Surge' Strategy in Afghanistan - Ravi Khanna, Voice of America.

Thousands of U.S. troops are heading into southern Afghanistan in June to launch an offensive in Kandahar province that President Obama has ordered to help end the Taliban insurgency. U.S. and coalition troops are already advancing in and around the city of Kandahar, where the Taliban are terrorizing the population with car bombings and other attacks. A car bomb explodes (Wednesday) outside a small NATO military base in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar city, wounding two Afghans and destroying several cars.

The Taliban have launched their spring offensive in response to the U.S. push into Kandahar to flush out the militants and provide civilian aid to the population. "Kandahar is the main effort. This is not only the main effort for ISAF, but also for the Afghan government and also for the entire international community," NATO's Brigadier General Josef Blotz said...

More at Voice of America.

Training of Afghan Military, Police has Improved, NATO Report Says - Greg Jaffe, Washington Post.

A U.S. military review in Afghanistan has concluded that the addition of more than 1,000 new U.S. military and NATO troops focused on training has helped stabilize what had been a failing effort to build Afghanistan's security forces, but that persistent attrition problems could still hinder long-term success.

"We are finally getting the resources, the people and money," said Army Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, who heads the NATO training effort in Afghanistan and oversaw the review of his command's past 180 days. "We are moving in the right direction."

U.S. war plans depend on Afghan forces maintaining security in areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the U.S. military is adding 30,000 troops this summer. More broadly, the Obama administration's counterinsurgency strategy places a heavy emphasis on an expansion of the Afghan security forces before the United States begins to withdraw troops in July 2011...

More at The Washington Post.

David Cameron Rounds Up Security Experts for Secret Afghanistan Summit - Isabel Oakeshott, The Times.

David Cameron is to convene a secret summit of military experts, ministers and Tory MPs on the war in Afghanistan. The meeting at Chequers this week will also be attended by members of the new National Security Council, including Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, William Hague, the foreign secretary, and George Osborne, the chancellor. Government officials insist it is not a precursor to a radical change of strategy. However, insiders say it will be an opportunity for delegates with reservations about Britain's mission to voice their concerns, which could pave the way for an earlier exit than previously foreseen. The prime minister is said to be anxious not to prolong Britain's commitment in the region any longer than necessary and there is mounting concern over the weekly fatalities.

Among those attending are the Conservative MP Adam Holloway, a former soldier who served in Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan. He has publicly suggested that the mission is on the brink of failure, and warned that the heavy presence of coalition troops is "aggravating the problem" in the area...

More at The Times.

Taliban Fighters Seize District in Eastern Afghanistan - Voice of America.

Afghan officials say Taliban militants have overtaken a remote district in eastern Afghanistan after days of heavy fighting with police. Provincial officials say the insurgents took control of Barg-e-Matal district on Saturday after forcing police to retreat from the district's administrative compound. The district is located in the mountainous Nuristan province, which borders Pakistan.

In a separate development Saturday, the U.S. military acknowledged that operators of a remote-controlled drone aircraft are to blame for the deaths of 23 civilians in an attack in Afghanistan earlier this year. U.S. troops fired missiles and rockets at the civilians' vehicles in Uruzgan province after mistaking them for a convoy of Taliban insurgents...

More at Voice of America.

In Camouflage or Afghan Veil, a Fragile Bond - Elisabeth Bumiller, New York Times.

... Three months ago, Corporal Amaya was one of 40 female Marines training at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in an edgy experiment: sending full-time "female engagement teams" to accompany all-male foot patrols in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan to win over the Afghan women who are culturally off limits to American men. Enthusiasm reigned. "We know we can make a difference," Capt. Emily Naslund, 27, the team's executive officer, said then in an interview.

Now, just weeks into a seven-month deployment that has sent them in twos and threes to 16 outposts across Helmand, including Marja and other spots where fighting continues, the women have met with inevitable hurdles - not only posed by Afghan women but also by some male Marines and American commanders skeptical about the teams' purpose. The women are taking it in stride. "If it were easy, it wouldn't be interesting," Captain Naslund said...

More at The New York Times.

Drone Operators Blamed in Airstrike that Killed Afghan Civilians in February - Karin Brulliard, Washington Post.

A biting U.S. military report released Saturday criticized "inaccurate and unprofessional" reporting by operators of unmanned drones for contributing to a mistaken February airstrike that killed and injured dozens of civilians in southern Afghanistan. As many as 23 people were killed in the attack in Uruzgan province, where a strike intended for what military officials believed was an insurgent force hit a civilian convoy. The incident was condemned by the Afghan cabinet as "unacceptable," and it prompted Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, to apologize to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The U.S. military said in a statement that four senior officers were reprimanded and two junior officers were admonished in connection with the strike -- disciplinary actions that could damage their careers. In a memo accompanying the military report, McChrystal announced bolstered training to prevent similar incidents in the future, and he asked the U.S. Air Force to investigate the Predator team...

More at the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times.

Taliban Push Afghan Police Out of Valley - Dexter Filkens, New York Times.

Taliban fighters took control of a remote district near the Pakistani border on Saturday, scattering the forces of the Afghan government, who said they had run out of ammunition. A force of Taliban attackers entered the district of Barg-e-Matal around 8 a.m. Saturday, after the local police retreated, Colonel Sherzad, the deputy police chief, said in an interview.

"Our forces retreated because they did not have enough ammunition," he said, echoing other officials in the area. Only 24 hours before, Afghan officials had claimed that they had driven the Taliban from the district into neighboring Pakistan. The fall of Barg-e-Matal, while embarrassing to the Afghan government, is not necessarily strategically significant. The district sits on an isolated valley in Nuristan Province, one of the most inaccessible places in the country...

More at The New York Times.

Inside the Mind of a Taliban Bomb Master - Miles Amoore, The Times.

Squatting on a concrete floor with nails, wires and a plug socket scattered around his feet, Naimatullah goes carefully about his business. "This is the detonator for the bomb," he says in a soft voice, a small object in his hand. Then he scoops up some white powder, packing it into a plastic drinks bottle. "These are very tasty explosives, very strong," he says.

The camera tracks Naimatullah's hands as he crams nails, fertiliser, petrol and lime into a yellow bucket. The bomb he is making is designed to explode with a lethal burst of shrapnel, slicing through the flesh of British and American soldiers in Afghanistan. The petrol will set fire to their "infidel tanks", he adds. The 25-year-old Pashtun, with a neatly trimmed beard, is one of the Taliban's bombmaking masterminds. Last week, in an interview with The Sunday Times, he displayed the video, filmed on a mobile phone, showing himself at work. It will soon be used to help train other bomb makers...

More at The Times.

Can Obama's Team of Rivals Bring Afghan Success? - David Ignatius, Washington Post opinion.

For many months, rumors have circulated that a shakeup is coming in the administration's Afghanistan team because of internal tensions. But to the contrary, President Obama appears comfortable with the group he has assembled - in part because he doesn't mind dissent, so long as it stays focused on policy issues. The gossip mill has centered on two areas of apparent friction. Both appear to have been defused over the past several months, partly because of signals from the White House that one official characterizes this way: "Stop the sniping and get on with it."

The first area of tension involved Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. A famously talented but sometimes abrasive diplomat, Holbrooke assembled an aggressive staff that included representatives from 10 agencies. Part of his mission was to rock the boat by integrating policies for Afghanistan and Pakistan that previously had been in different bureaucratic stovepipes. But Holbrooke was weakened last year by reports of hostility between him and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which led some to question whether he could continue to be effective. When Holbrooke didn't accompany Obama on his trip to Afghanistan in late March, observers wondered if he was being eased out...

More at The Washington Post.

76 Dead in Attacks on Pakistan Mosques - Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times.

Militants armed with grenades, guns and suicide vests Friday stormed two mosques in Lahore belonging to a minority sect, killing at least 76 people in coordinated attacks that illustrate the vulnerability of groups considered outside the mainstream of Pakistani society.

The Ahmadi sect is one of the country's most beleaguered minority groups. Numbering about 4 million, they consider themselves Muslims but believe their late-19th century founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a prophet of God. That is heresy for most Muslims, who believe Muhammad was the last prophet. Ahmadis suffer severe discrimination in Pakistan and are legally barred from calling themselves Muslims. The attacks occurred during Friday prayers as Ahmadis filled two of the sect's mosques in the neighborhoods of Model Town and Garhi Shahu...

More at the Los Angeles Times and New York Times Times of London, Christian Science Monitor and Washington Times.

Report: U.S. Preparing for Retaliatory Strike if Terror Attack Traced to Pakistan - Voice of America.

... a major U.S. newspaper said Saturday that the U.S. military is reviewing the possibility of staging a unilateral strike in Pakistan if a successful attack on U.S. soil is ever traced to the South Asian country. The Washington Post says the U.S. would only consider launching an attack in Pakistan in extreme circumstances. The CIA has been using drones (unmanned aircraft) to bomb al-Qaida and Taliban hideouts in Pakistan.

The newspaper quoted top military officials as saying the United States has been considering new options for military action against militants in Pakistan since the bombing attempt in New York's Times Square, which could have caused a large number of casualties. According to the Post, U.S. military forces currently have been given the authority to launch unilateral strikes in Pakistan only if they involve three top targets: al-Qaida leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, or Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar...

More at Voice of America.

Canada's Top Commander in Afghanistan Sacked - Agence France-Presse.

Canada's senior commander in Afghanistan has been sacked amid allegations of "inappropriate conduct," the country's defence ministry said Sunday. Brigadier General Daniel Menard had lost the confidence of his bosses, a short statement on the ministry's website said. The decision to dismiss him as commander of Joint-Task Force Afghanistan (JTF-Afg) followed allegations concerning his "inappropriate conduct related to the Canadian Forces Personal Relationships and Fraternization directives," it said.

His behaviour, which was not detailed, had "caused Commander CEFCOM to lose confidence in Brigadier General Menard?s capacity to command," it said. Canadian media reported last week that Menard had pleaded guilty at a court martial to charges that he negligently fired his weapon at the Kandahar Airfield, where Canadian troops are based in southern Afghanistan, in March...

More at Agence France-Presse.

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