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History > 2009 > USA > War > Afghanistan (II)




A wounded woman

from the Bala Baluk district in western Afghanistan

on Tuesday in a hospital in Farah Province.


Abdul Malek/Associated Press


U.S. Raids Said to Kill Afghan Civilians



















U.S. Announces

New Afghan Drug Policy


June 27, 2009
Filed at 6:48 a.m. ET
The New York Times


TRIESTE, Italy (AP) -- The U.S. has announced a new drug policy for opium-rich Afghanistan, saying it was phasing out funding for eradication efforts and using the money for drug interdiction and alternate crop programs instead.

The U.S. envoy for Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, told The Associated Press on Saturday that eradication programs weren't working and were only driving farmers into the hands of the Taliban.

''Eradication is a waste of money,'' Holbrooke said on the sidelines of a Group of Eight foreign ministers' meeting on Afghanistan, where he announced the policy shift and said it had been warmly received, particularly by the United Nations.

Afghanistan is the world's leading source of opium, cultivating 93 percent of the world's heroin-producing crop. The United Nations has estimated the Taliban and other Afghan militants made $50 million to $70 million off the opium and heroin trade last year.

In a report released earlier this week, the U.N. drug office said opium cultivation had dropped by 19 percent last year, but was still concentrated in southern provinces where the Taliban insurgency is strongest.

The head of the U.N. drug office, Antonio Maria Costa, told the G8 meeting that the dip in cultivation was welcome ''though vulnerable to relapse'' without concerted international efforts to assist farmers who have abandoned poppy cultivation to harvest new valuable crops. In addition, law enforcement operations must be increased to disrupt drug markets, production labs and convoys, he said.

Holbrooke said the U.S. planned to do just that with its new policy shift.

''We're essentially phasing out our support for crop eradication and using the money to work on interdiction, rule of law, alternate crops,'' he told the AP. At the same time, Washington is upgrading its support for agriculture programs.

''That's the big change in our policies,'' he said. ''This was widely accepted as the right thing to do.''

Holbrooke said the previous U.S. policy to combat Afghan poppy, which focused on eradication programs, hadn't reduced ''by one dollar'' the amount of money the Taliban earned off cultivation and production.

''It might destroy some acreage,'' Holbrooke said. ''But it just helped the Taliban.''

Agriculture was among the issues taken up by the delegates at the G8 meeting in their Saturday session on Afghanistan, with participants saying in their final statement that agricultural development was seen as ''key to the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other countries in the region.''

''Moreover, food insecurity and chronic poverty are root causes of civil instability and forced migration,'' it said in calling for expanded international cooperation in agriculture to boost employment and incomes and provide farmers with alternatives to poppy production.

Holbrooke said the international community wasn't trying to target Afghan farmers in its policies, just the Taliban militants who buy their crops.

''The farmers are not our enemy, they're just growing a crop to make a living,'' he said. ''It's the drug system. So the U.S. policy was driving people into the hands of the Taliban.''

The shift in U.S. policy follows a steady decrease in the number of hectares (acres) destroyed by eradication programs.

According to the U.N. report, opium poppy eradication reached a high in 2003, after the Taliban were ousted from power, with over 21,000 hectares eradicated. In 2008, only 5,480 hectares were cut down compared to 19,047 hectares in 2007.

Costa said Afghan opium would kill 100,000 people this year in the parts of world where demand for heroin is highest: Europe, Russia and West Asia.

To fight it, he said major powers had to expand their counter-drug efforts to neighboring Pakistan as well as Iran, where half the 7,000 tons of exported Afghan opium transits, ''causing the highest addiction rate in the world.''

''Facing a grave health epidemic, Iran should be given the chance to engage in common efforts to combat illicit trafficking,'' he said.

Iran had been invited to attend the G8 meeting on Afghanistan, because anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan have been identified as a key area where the United States and Iran can work together -- part of U.S. President Barack Obama's outreach effort.

But Italy withdrew the invitation after Iran failed to respond and after its bloody postelection crackdown on protesters, which has sparked international condemnation, including from the Obama administration.

    U.S. Announces New Afghan Drug Policy, NYT, 28.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/06/27/world/AP-EU-Italy-US-Afghanistan.html






U.S. Drone Strike

Said to Kill 60 in Pakistan


June 24, 2009
The New York Times


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — An airstrike believed to have been carried out by a United States drone killed at least 60 people at a funeral for a Taliban fighter in South Waziristan on Tuesday, residents of the area and local news reports said.

Details of the attack, which occurred in Makeen, remained unclear, but the reported death toll was exceptionally high. If the reports are indeed accurate and if the attack was carried out by a drone, the strike could be the deadliest since the United States began using the aircraft to fire remotely guided missiles at members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The United States carried out 22 previous drone strikes this year, as the Obama administration has intensified a policy inherited from the Bush administration.

Before the attack on Tuesday, the Pakistani Army and Air Force had begun operations in South Waziristan against the forces of the Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud. The group’s suicide bombings in major cities have terrorized Pakistanis for years.

In a serious blow to Pakistan’s effort, on Tuesday an assassin loyal to Mr. Mehsud shot and killed a rival tribal leader, Qari Zainuddin, whom the government had hoped to use as an ally in its campaign to corner the Taliban leader.

The killing called into question the government’s strategy of exploiting tribal fissures in order to defeat Mr. Mehsud and was apparently intended to serve as a reminder that there were serious consequences for crossing him, analysts said.

“It tells people, if you side with the government, this is what will happen to you,” said Talat Masood, a retired general and a military analyst. “It says the government can’t give you protection, but the other side can.”

The army, which is already involved in operations against Taliban strongholds in the Swat Valley and other areas, would now have to rely more on its own soldiers to take on the Taliban in South Waziristan as well, he said.

Mr. Zainuddin was killed in the northwestern town of Dera Ismail Khan, said Iqbal Khan, the town’s district police chief, and the tribal leader’s death revealed the tenuous hold of his splinter group in the area.

The initial investigation, the police chief said, indicated that the shooting was carried out by a guard named Gulbadin Mehsud, who may have infiltrated Mr. Zainuddin’s ranks and escaped after the attack. Another guard was wounded in the attack, he said.

In recent months, Mr. Zainuddin and his group had helped the government by denying Baitullah Mehsud and his fighters the ability to operate in the region, killing about 30 of Mr. Mehsud’s fighters.

When he was in his 30s, Mr. Zainuddin was part of Mr. Mehsud’s tribe. However, Mr. Zainuddin split with Mr. Mehsud and joined forces with Turkestan Bhaitani, an older Taliban fighter who had switched sides to ally with the government.

The two men had held a jirga, or tribal meeting, this month with as many as 100 elders of the Mehsud tribe in the town of Tank in an effort to rally opposition to Mr. Mehsud. Officially, the Pakistani military denies supporting the effort.

Mr. Zainuddin was selected as successor to Abdullah Mehsud, a top Taliban militant who died in 2007 as security forces raided a hide-out in Baluchistan Province. Mr. Zainuddin had claimed that he had the ability to take on Baitullah Mehsud with the support of 3,000 fighters.

“Baitullah Mehsud is not involved in jihad because Islam does not allow suicide attacks, which his group is perpetrating,” Mr. Zainuddin was quoted as saying in an interview.

Some reports in the local news media have also suggested that Mr. Mehsud killed Mr. Zainuddin’s father years ago.

Pakistani jets have aimed at Mr. Mehsud’s hide-outs in recent days, and the funeral in Makeen that was hit on Tuesday was being held for a Taliban commander killed that day.

While the strike on the funeral may have been conducted by the Pakistani Air Force, residents and local news reports uniformly attributed it to a United States drone.

The dead may have included top commanders for Mr. Mehsud. The Geo Television Network, quoting unnamed sources, said that the dead included a trainer of suicide bombers named Qari Hussain as well as a Taliban commander named Sangeen, though there was no way to immediately verify the report.

Another television channel, AAJ, put the death toll at 60 and said the attack was carried out by a guided missile.


Sabrina Tavernise contributed reporting from Lahore, Pakistan.

    U.S. Drone Strike Said to Kill 60 in Pakistan, NYT, 24.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/24/world/asia/24pstan.html?hp







Afghanistan’s Failing Forces


June 23, 2009
The New York Times

The news from Afghanistan is grim. In the first week of June, there were more than 400 attacks, a level not seen since late 2001. President Obama was right to send more American troops to fight. That violence will surely increase as strengthened ground forces step up the pressure on Taliban and Al Qaeda sanctuaries. But it is also true that there can be no lasting security — and no exit for American forces — until Afghanistan has a functioning army and national police that can hold back the insurgents and earn the trust of Afghan citizens. Neither comes close today.

Washington has already spent 7 ½ years and more than $15 billion on failed training programs. President George W. Bush’s Pentagon never sent enough trainers (most of those available were assigned to Iraq) to systematically embed American advisers in Afghan Army units, an approach now paying dividends in Iraq.

It failed to pay Afghan soldiers a living wage, making it easy for Taliban and drug lords to outbid them for the country’s unemployed young men. The Pentagon also neglected to keep track of weapons it gave out, like mortars, grenade launchers and automatic rifles. Tens of thousands disappeared, sold to the highest bidder and, in some cases, used against American soldiers.

Perhaps most fundamentally, American war planners never seemed to understand that a more effective Afghan Army and a more honest and competent police force could help persuade civilians that the war against the Taliban was more their own fight and not just an American war being fought on their territory.

With the Obama team giving Afghanistan the attention it requires, there is a chance to correct these mistakes. Four thousand more trainers are on the way, a dramatic increase over last year. A revived training effort will require the full engagement of the new American commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

In an overdue but welcome effort to protect Afghan civilians from errant airstrikes, one of General McChrystal’s first acts in command was to impose strict new limits on air attacks except when needed to protect American and allied troops.

The Bush administration planned to increase the Afghan Army from 90,000 troops to 134,000. That still won’t be big enough to secure a vast, rugged country with a larger population than Iraq’s. American planners propose expanding it to as many as 260,000 troops — roughly the size of Iraq’s Army. No decision has yet been made.

The Pentagon estimates that it would cost $10 billion to $20 billion over a seven-year period to create and train a force that size. Paying it would cost billions more, especially if the current $100-a-month salary is to become more competitive with the $300 the Taliban pays.

The total bill would still be a lot smaller than the cost of sustaining a huge American fighting force there. By the end of this year, there will 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan, costing American taxpayers more than $60 billion a year.

Afghanistan’s national police force will have to be rebuilt almost from scratch. Kabul’s central government is notoriously corrupt, but the tales from the field are even more distressing. Journalists for The Times have reported seeing police officers burglarizing a home and growing opium poppies inside police compounds. American soldiers complain of police supervisors shaking down villagers, skimming subordinates’ wages and selling promotions and equipment. Muhammad Hanif Atmar, the interior minister, has pushed for greater accountability by senior police officials. He has a lot of work ahead of him.

Several thousand more police trainers with experience in civilian law enforcement are needed. European NATO members can and should be providing more help.

There are high expectations for General McChrystal, based on his aggressive attitudes and past special operations success. The Taliban must be confronted head-on. To turn around the war, ordinary Afghans must begin to trust their own government more than they either fear or trust the extremists. Building an effective Afghan Army and police is critical to that effort. There is no more time to waste.

    Afghanistan’s Failing Forces, NYT, 23.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/23/opinion/23tue1.html?hpw






U.S. Toughens

Airstrike Policy in Afghanistan


June 22, 2009
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — The new American commander in Afghanistan said he would sharply restrict the use of airstrikes here, in an effort to reduce the civilian deaths that he said were undermining the American-led mission.

In interviews over the past few days, the commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, said the use of airstrikes during firefights would in most cases be allowed only to prevent American and other coalition troops from being overrun.

Even in the cases of active firefights with Taliban forces, he said, airstrikes will be limited if the combat is taking place in populated areas — the very circumstances in which most Afghan civilian deaths have occurred. The restrictions will be especially tight in attacking houses and compounds where insurgents are believed to have taken cover.

“Air power contains the seeds of our own destruction if we do not use it responsibly,” General McChrystal told a group of his senior officers during a video conference last week. “We can lose this fight.”

“When we shoot into a compound, that should only be for the protection of our forces,” he said. “I want everyone to understand that.”

The statements by General McChrystal signaled the latest tightening of the rules for using airstrikes, which, while considered indispensable for protecting troops, have killed hundreds of civilians.

They have also angered the Afghan government, which has repeatedly criticized American and NATO forces for not taking enough care with civilian lives.

In December, the American commander at the time, Gen. David D. McKiernan, issued guidelines ordering his soldiers to use force that was proportional to the provocation and that minimized the risk of civilian casualties.

General McChrystal’s new guidelines follow a deadly episode last month in the Afghan village of Granai, where American airstrikes killed dozens of civilians.

The episode highlighted the difficulties facing American officers under fire, as they are forced to balance using lethal force to protect their troops with rules restricting the use of firepower to prevent civilian deaths.

The episode, on May 4, began when a large group of Taliban fighters attacked a group of about 200 Afghan soldiers and police officers and American advisers. During the firefight, which began just after noon and carried on into the night, the Americans on the ground called for air support.

American fighter jets, and then bombers, came to the scene, dropping a number of 500- and 2,000-pound bombs. The bombs succeeded in ending the attack, but they did much more damage as well.

A Pentagon report estimated that at least 26 civilians had been killed in the airstrikes. It concluded that American personnel had made significant errors, including violating procedures, that led to those deaths. Among those errors, the report said, was a failure by the American personnel to discern whether Afghan civilians were in the compound before they attacked.

Other credible estimates of civilian deaths in Granai ranged much higher. An investigation by a Kabul-based group, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said that at least 86 women and children had been killed, and as many as 97 civilians altogether. The Afghan government said 140 civilians had been killed.

The Pentagon report did not dispute the conclusions reached by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and referred to its “balanced, thorough investigation.”

The deaths in Granai make up part of the huge rise in civilian casualties that are characterizing the war in Afghanistan.

A United Nations report found that the number of Afghan civilians killed in 2008 was 40 percent higher than in 2007. The Taliban and other insurgents caused the majority of the civilian deaths, primarily through suicide bombers and roadside bombs.

The changes highlighted by General McChrystal go to the heart of what went wrong in Granai. In that case, there were at least four airstrikes: the first by F-18 fighters and the other three by a B-1B bomber. The report found that it was the last two airstrikes that probably caused the civilian deaths.

In those cases, the report found, the bomber’s crew tracked suspected Taliban fighters as they entered a building, and then attacked without determining whether civilians were inside. The report said there were probably civilians inside those buildings when they were destroyed.

Under the rules that General McChrystal outlined, those strikes would almost certainly be prohibited. They would be prohibited, the general said, even if it meant letting some Taliban get away.

Referring to airstrikes, General McChrystal said, “If it is just to defeat the enemy, then we are not going to do it, even if it means we are going to step away from that firefight and fight another time.”

According to the Pentagon report, the B-1B dropped five 500-pound bombs and two 2,000-pound bombs. The initial airstrikes, carried out by four F-18 fighters-bombers, the report said, killed insurgents but no civilians.

Ahmad Nader Nadery, the director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said Sunday that the American response in Granai was “disproportionate.” And he said he was pleased by the changes outlined by General McChrystal.

“We are looking forward to seeing the new guidelines, and actually seeing how they would be translated into practice,” he said.

Last September, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered new rules specifically to defuse tensions over Afghan civilian deaths.

During a recent visit to Kabul, Mr. Gates said the American military would quickly apologize and offer compensation to survivors in cases of civilian deaths, even in advance of formal investigations to determine exactly what had happened.

“I think the key for us is, on those rare occasions when we do make a mistake, when there is an error, to apologize quickly, to compensate the victims quickly, and then carry out the investigation,” Mr. Gates said after a meeting with President Hamid Karzai.


Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington.

    U.S. Toughens Airstrike Policy in Afghanistan, NYT, 21.6.2009? http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/22/world/asia/22airstrikes.html






U.S. General Takes Helm in Afghanistan


June 16, 2009
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — On the heels of the most violent week in Afghanistan since 2001, General Stanley A. McChrystal assumed command of NATO and American forces in Afghanistan at a ceremony in Kabul Monday.

In replacing General David D. McKiernan, Gen. McChrystal will try to turn around the situation in Afghanistan as Gen. David Petraeus did in Iraq by attempting to stem an increasingly violent insurgency.

The four-star general arrives with extensive experience in Special Operations, which have been harshly criticized by Afghan leaders for increasing civilian casualties caused by airstrikes.

“The measure of effectiveness,” Gen. McChrystal said, will not be the number of enemy killed, but “the number of Afghans shielded from violence.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates replaced Gen. McKiernan a month ago, saying “fresh eyes were needed” in the worsening seven-year war. NATO currently has about 65,000 troops from 42 countries in Afghanistan, including about 56,000 U.S. troops.

    U.S. General Takes Helm in Afghanistan, NYT, 16.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/16/world/asia/16afghan.html?hp






After U.S. Strike,

Dispute Over Afghan Deaths


June 13, 2009
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — Sharply conflicting reports on an American airstrike this week continued to trickle out Friday from American military and Afghan officials as to whether the attack killed civilians.

The airstrike in Ghor Province in western Afghanistan Tuesday had targeted a local Taliban militant, Mullah Mustafa, but instead killed 10 civilians and 12 insurgents, according to Sayed Iqbal Munib, the governor of Ghor Province.

But American officials Friday said the strike killed up to 16 militants and no civilians. Spokesperson Elizabeth Mathias said the strike targeted a vehicle “in the middle of nowhere, away from civilians and homes.” She said the military has a video showing the strike hitting the militants away from populated areas, but the military will not release it because its source cannot be revealed.

Mr. Munib said an investigation was continuing.

Civilian deaths have become a political flash point in Afghanistan, undermining public support for the war and inflaming tensions with President Hamid Karzai, who has condemned the American-led coalition for the rising toll.

According to the United Nations, the number civilian casualties caused last year by the Taliban and other insurgents was several thousand, compared with 828 civilian deaths attributed to American, NATO and Afghan forces, mostly from airstrikes and village raids.

Tuesday’s incident came as General David H. Petraeus, the senior American commander for Iraq and Afghanistan, said this week that violence here had reached a new high and warned of increasing difficulties.

Last week, there were about 400 insurgents attacks compared with about 50 per week in 2004. Tensions have been especially acute recently after an American military investigation concluded that its personnel made significant errors in carrying out airstrikes in western Afghanistan in early May that killed dozens of Afghan civilians in Farah Province.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission said that l operation killed up to 97 civilians, most of them children, while the Afghan government’s figure was 140. The Americans said the number was 20 to 30.


Abdul Waheed Wafa contributed reporting.

    After U.S. Strike, Dispute Over Afghan Deaths, NYT, 13.6.2009http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/13/world/asia/13afghan.html?hp






U.S. Report

Finds Airstrike Errors

in Afghan Deaths


June 3, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — A military investigation has concluded that American personnel made significant errors in carrying out some of the airstrikes in western Afghanistan on May 4 that killed dozens of Afghan civilians, according to a senior American military official.

The official said the civilian death toll would probably have been reduced if American air crews and forces on the ground had followed strict rules devised to prevent civilian casualties. Had the rules been followed, at least some of the strikes by American warplanes against half a dozen targets over seven hours would have been aborted.

The report represents the clearest American acknowledgment of fault in connection with the attacks. It will give new ammunition to critics, including many Afghans, who complain that American forces too often act indiscriminately in calling in airstrikes, jeopardizing the United States mission by turning the civilian population against American forces and their ally, the Afghan government.

Since the raid, American military commanders have promised to address the problem. On Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, nominated to be the American commander in Afghanistan, vowed that reducing civilian casualties was “essential to our credibility.”

Any American victory would be “hollow and unsustainable” if it led to popular resentment among Afghanistan’s citizens, General McChrystal told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a confirmation hearing.

According to the senior military official, the report on the May 4 raids found that one plane was cleared to attack Taliban fighters, but then had to circle back and did not reconfirm the target before dropping bombs, leaving open the possibility that the militants had fled the site or that civilians had entered the target area in the intervening few minutes.

In another case, a compound of buildings where militants were massing for a possible counterattack against American and Afghan troops was struck in violation of rules that required a more imminent threat to justify putting high-density village dwellings at risk, the official said.

“In several instances where there was a legitimate threat, the choice of how to deal with that threat did not comply with the standing rules of engagement,” said the military official, who provided a broad summary of the report’s initial findings on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry was not yet complete.

Before being chosen as the new commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal spent five years as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, overseeing commandos in Iraq and Afghanistan. Special Operations forces have been sharply criticized by Afghans for aggressive tactics that have contributed to civilian casualties.

During his testimony, General McChrystal said that strikes by warplanes and Special Operations ground units would remain an essential part of combat in Afghanistan. But he promised to make sure that these attacks were based on solid intelligence and that they were as precise as possible. American success in Afghanistan should be measured by “the number of Afghans shielded from violence,” not the number of enemy fighters killed, he said.

The inquiry into the May 4 strikes in the western province of Farah illustrated the difficult, split-second decisions facing young officers in the heat of combat as they balance using lethal force to protect their troops under fire with detailed rules restricting the use of firepower to prevent civilian deaths.

In the report, the investigating officer, Brig. Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, analyzed each of the airstrikes carried out by three aircraft-carrier-based Navy F/A-18 strike aircraft and an Air Force B-1 bomber against targets in the village of Granai, in a battle that lasted more than seven hours.

In each case, the senior military official said, General Thomas determined that the targets that had been struck posed legitimate threats to Afghan or American forces, which included one group of Marines assigned to train the Afghans and another assigned to a Special Operations task force.

But in “several cases,” the official said, General Thomas determined either that the airstrikes had not been the appropriate response to the threat because of the potential risk to civilians, or that American forces had failed to follow their own tactical rules in conducting the bombing runs.

The Afghan government concluded that about 140 civilians had been killed in the attacks. An earlier American military inquiry said last month that 20 to 30 civilians had been killed. That inquiry also concluded that 60 to 65 Taliban militants had been killed in the fight. American military officials say their two investigations show that Taliban fighters had deliberately fired on American forces and aircraft from compounds and other places where they knew Afghan civilians had sought shelter, in order to draw an American response that would kill civilians, including women and children.

The firefight began, the military said, when Afghan soldiers and police officers went to several villages in response to reports that three Afghan government officials had been killed by the Taliban. The police were quickly overwhelmed and asked for backup from American forces.

American officials have said that a review of videos from aircraft weapon sights and exchanges between air crew members and a ground commander established that Taliban fighters had taken refuge in “buildings which were then targeted in the final strikes of the fight,” which went well into the night.

American troop levels in Afghanistan are expected to double, to about 68,000, under President Obama’s new Afghan strategy.

In his previous job as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, General McChrystal oversaw units assigned to capture or kill senior militants. In his appearance before Congress on Tuesday, he was questioned on reports of abuses of detainees held by his commandos.

Under questioning by Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is the committee chairman, General McChrystal said he was uncomfortable with some of the harsh techniques that were officially approved for interrogation. At the time, such approved techniques included stress positions, sleep depravation and the use of attack dogs for intimidation.

He said that all reports of abuse during his command were investigated, and that all substantiated cases of abuse resulted in disciplinary action. And he pledged to “strictly enforce” American and international standards for the treatment of battlefield detainees if confirmed to the post in Afghanistan.

Under questioning, General McChrystal also acknowledged that the Army had “failed the family” in its mishandling of the friendly-fire death of Cpl. Pat Tillman, the professional football star who enlisted in the Army after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

A final review by a four-star Army general cleared General McChrystal of any wrongdoing, but punished a number of senior officers who were responsible for administrative mistakes in the days after Corporal Tillman’s death. Initially, Army officials said the corporal had been killed by an insurgent ambush, when in fact he had been shot by members of his own Ranger team.

    U.S. Report Finds Airstrike Errors in Afghan Deaths, NYT, 3.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/03/world/asia/03military.html






Nominee for Afghan Post

Stresses Civilian Safety


June 3, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The Special Operations general nominated to be commander of American and allied troops in Afghanistan testified on Tuesday that coalition forces must reduce civilian casualties, a step that is “essential to our credibility.”

The commander, Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, said that “how we conduct operations is vital to success,” and warned that any victory would be “hollow and unsustainable” if allied operations created popular resentment among Afghanistan’s citizens.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General McChrystal said the measure of American and allied effectiveness would be “the number of Afghans shielded from violence,” not the number of enemies killed.

Even so, strikes by warplanes and Special Operations ground units would remain an essential part of combat in Afghanistan, General McChrystal said. He pledged to make sure these attacks would be ordered only based on solid intelligence, and would be as “precise” as possible.

General McChrystal formerly served as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, whose hunter-killer units scored significant successes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he was questioned about reports of abuse of detainees held by his commandos.

When he took command of these units in 2003, the general said, the Special Operations detention facilities in Afghanistan were limited and disorganized, and the forces involved in the detention mission lacked experience.

Under questioning by Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is the committee chairman, General McChrystal said that he “was uncomfortable” with some of the harsh techniques that were officially approved for interrogations. At the time, the approved techniques included placing detainees in stress positions, sleep deprivation and use of attack dogs.

He said that while he was in command, all reports of abuse were investigated, and all substantiated cases resulted in disciplinary action. He pledged to “strictly enforce” American and international standards for treatment of battlefield detainees if he is confirmed to the post in Afghanistan.

“I do not and never have condoned mistreatment of detainees, and never will,” General McChrystal said.

“Unfortunately, criminal acts take place on the battlefield, just like they do in normal society,” General McChrystal said in separate, prepared answers to questions submitted by the committee. “Fortunately, through improved training and education, substantiated allegations of abuse have decreased over time.”

If confirmed, General McChrystal said, he would take a number of steps to improve detention operations.

Among them, he said, would be efforts to “separate and segregate the extremists,” and to “impart basic education and vocational skills” to detainees. Troops would be ordered to “develop a moderate understanding of Islam,” the general said, and he would continue the use of extended family members and tribal groups “to aid in a released detainee’s abstention from violence.”

Under questioning from Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the committee’s ranking Republican, General McChrystal discussed his actions following the friendly-fire death of Cpl. Pat Tillman, the professional football star who enlisted in the Army after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

General McChrystal expressed his “deepest condolences” to the Tillman family and to Corporal Tillman’s fellow Rangers, and acknowledged that he would do things differently if presented again with such a tragedy.

A four-star Army review cleared General McChrystal of any wrongdoing, but it punished a number of senior officers who were responsible for administrative mistakes in the days following the death of Corporal Tillman.

General McChrystal explained that he signed a Silver Star recommendation, even though he already suspected death by friendly fire, because Corporal Tillman’s valor in the field earned him the honor regardless of the manner of his death. However, the general acknowledged that the recommendation produced confusion.

At the time, Army policy was to rush those medals of valor so they could be received by the family at the time of the honored soldier’s funeral; that policy has been changed to allow more thorough evaluations.

General McChrystal said that within a week of Corporal Tillman’s death, he sent an urgent message to his three senior commanders specifically to inform them of mounting evidence of death by friendly fire, and to push the Army to quickly halt any misinformation regarding Corporal Tillman’s death.

Senator Levin called for strong cooperation between General McChrystal and Adm. James G. Stavridis, who also testified Tuesday; the admiral has been nominated to become NATO’s supreme allied commander and commander of American forces in Europe. If confirmed, Admiral Stavridis would be the first Navy officer to hold that position.

NATO supplies the majority of the nearly 35,000 non-American troops in Afghanistan, but Senator Levin said that “only a portion are in the fight where the fight mainly is — in the south and east of Afghanistan.”

The NATO contribution to the Afghan mission “remains inadequate,” Senator Levin said. He urged Admiral Stavridis to do all he could to press “NATO and other allies in Europe to do their share for the Afghanistan mission.”

Under President Obama’s new Afghan strategy, the number of American troops in the country will double to about 68,000 this year.

    Nominee for Afghan Post Stresses Civilian Safety, NYT, 3.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/03/world/asia/03military.html?hp







War in Afghanistan Is 'Winnable'


June 2, 2009
Filed at 12:00 p.m. ET
The New York Times


WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Army general chosen to take over as top commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan told senators Tuesday he believes the war can be won if a proper counterinsurgency campaign is undertaken.

''I believe it is winnable, but I don't think it will be easily winnable,'' Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

He predicted that U.S. and allied casualties will increase as more American troops take on the insurgents in southern Afghanistan this summer. It will be important to make measurable progress within 18 to 24 months, he added.

''A classic counterinsurgency strategy, well resourced, is going to be required,'' McChrystal said.

If confirmed, McChrystal would replace Gen. David McKiernan, who was fired May 11 in an unusual wartime shake up. McChrystal's background is in the secretive world of special operations, including a lengthy stint in Iraq leading the military's hunt for high-value terrorist targets. He currently is director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon.

McKiernan has described the war effort in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is most active, as stalemated at best. He requested tens of thousands more U.S. troops, most of which have been approved by the White House.

Under questioning from senators, McChrystal stressed the importance of minimizing Afghan civilian casualties as allied forces apply counterinsurgency tactics designed to gain the confidence and support of the local population.

''How we conduct operations is vital to success. This is a critical point. It may be THE critical point,'' McChrystal stressed. ''This is a struggle for the support of the Afghan people. Our willingness to operate in ways that minimize casualties or damage -- even when doing so makes our task more difficult -- is essential to our credibility. I cannot overstate my commitment to the importance of this concept.''

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., asked McChrystal how he could hold down civilian casualties while ramping up offensive military operations.

The general said that, if confirmed, he would thoroughly review U.S. and allied operating procedures with an eye to minimizing civilian deaths. He also said that if he could obtain more intelligence and surveillance aircraft, it would sharpen the precision of allied attacks, thereby avoiding unwanted casualties.

''I believe the perception caused by civilian casualties is one of the most dangerous things we face in Afghanistan, particularly with the Afghan people,'' he said. ''We've got to recognize that that is a way to lose their faith and lose their support, and that would be strategically decisive against us.''

McChrystal also said he was encouraged by recent progress by the Pakistani army against Taliban insurgents. The revamped U.S. war strategy that President Barack Obama announced in March treats the Pakistani and Afghan insurgencies as a common threat, although U.S. ground forces are not fighting inside Pakistan.

McChrystal testified alongside Navy Adm. James Stavridis, the nominee to become the top NATO commander in Europe. NATO provides a substantial share of the total allied forces in Afghanistan. Both Stavridis and McChrystal said they would look for ways to gain more NATO contributions, including training and nonmilitary efforts; both also agreed that Afghan security forces need to grow beyond the current target of 134,000.

In an exchange with Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the committee chairman, McChrystal said mistakes were made in the military's handling of the accidental shooting death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman -- a former NFL star -- in Afghanistan in April 2004. At the time, McChrystal commanded U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan, including Rangers.

An investigation at the time found that McChrystal was ''accountable for the inaccurate and misleading assertions'' contained in internal military papers recommending that Tillman receive a Silver Star award for valor.

McChrystal told Levin that the award paperwork was ''not well written.'' He added that this ''produced confusion at a tragic time. I'm very sorry for that.'' He added that in retrospect, he would have done things differently, including taking more time to ensure that the award citation was fully accurate.

    General: War in Afghanistan Is 'Winnable', NYT, 2.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/06/02/us/politics/AP-US-US-Afghanistan.html







Questions for General McChrystal


June 1, 2009
The New York Times


The Senate owes the American people more than a pro forma confirmation of Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, President Obama’s choice to be the next United States military commander in Afghanistan.

General McChrystal, who goes before the Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, built an impressive reputation as commander of the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations teams in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2003 to 2008. Highly trained and motivated task forces under his command captured Saddam Hussein and called in the air strikes that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Successes like these could help turn the tide in Afghanistan.

But there are other, more disturbing aspects of that record that the Senate also must consider. Special Operations task forces operated in secret, outside the normal military chain of command and with minimal legal accountability, especially during the years Donald Rumsfeld ran the Pentagon. General McChrystal’s command substantially overlaps this troubled period.

In 2004, for example, a Special Operations unit converted one of Saddam Hussein’s former torture centers near Baghdad into its own secret interrogation cell, where detainees were subjected to a range of physical and psychological abuses.

This was not an isolated incident. In 2006, The Times reported on field outposts set up by Special Operations units in Baghdad, Falluja, Balad, Ramadi and Kirkuk where detainees were stripped naked and subjected to simulated drowning.

At least 34 Special Operations soldiers were eventually disciplined by the Pentagon for these abusive interrogations. Many more cases had to be dropped because the specific interrogator could not be conclusively identified or because crucial computer records were lost.

While there is no suggestion that General McChrystal was personally involved in any misconduct, he has a clear responsibility to illuminate what went wrong, what if anything was done to stop these horrors, and what he intends to do to ensure that they are not repeated under his command in Afghanistan.

The overall performance of the Special Operations Command under General McChrystal’s leadership — both acts of heroism and acts of abuse — is an essential part of measuring General McChrystal’s fitness for his new assignment. He needs to be rigorously questioned.

    Questions for General McChrystal, NYT, 1.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/01/opinion/01mon2.html






29 Militants Killed in Afghanistan


May 29, 2009
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — American and Afghan forces backed by airstrikes engaged in a “fierce firefight” with Taliban insurgents in a remote and mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, killing at least 29 militants in an effort to capture one of their leaders, according to a joint military statement.

American military officials said the leader in question, known as Mullah Sangeen, is a “fairly significant” commander of the Haqqani network, a radical group headed by Taliban commander Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani that is believed to be behind some of the largest attacks in recent years. Unconfirmed reports surfaced in 2007 and in 2008 that Mullah Sangeen was killed, but both proved untrue.

The battle was part of a widening effort by the Obama administration to crush Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The intensifying conflict has led to Afghan claims that civilian casualties caused by American airstrikes are undermining public support for the war.

The joint statement on Thursday insisted that “no noncombatants were injured during this operation” and said that the 29 dead were all militants. They included six insurgents who blew themselves up with suicide vests without causing coalition fatalities, the statement said.

In the battle, coalition forces advanced under a hail of fire from militants on higher ground, the statement said.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, gave a vastly different account of the battle, saying that its militants had killed 15 coalition forces and captured four Afghan police officers. The spokesman said no Taliban fighters had been killed.

The fire fight took place about 100 miles southwest of the eastern city of Khost along the border with Pakistan. Afghan and American forces had been directed by intelligence reports to a remote militant encampment used as a staging area for attacks in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province. When the arrived, they came under fire, the statement said.

The military accused the commander identified as Sangeen of helping senior leaders of Al Qaeda and “hundreds of foreign fighters” infiltrate Afghanistan from Pakistan.

Hamidullah Zhuak, a spokesman for the provincial governor of Paktika, said that officials had counted the bodies of 34 insurgents, most of them from Arab countries and Pakistan. The battle took place far from populated areas, reducing the risk of civilian casualties, he said. The Taliban spokesman denied any non-Afghan fighters had been involved in the battle.

The issue of civilian casualties caused by the United States in Afghanistan has been heightened in the wake of the bombing of Farah, a town in western Afghanistan. Afghan officials said 140 civilians were killed in American airstrikes during a battle with the Taliban there on May 4. The American military has said 20 or 30 civilians may have died, along with 60 to 65 Taliban fighters.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which carried out its own investigation, said this week that American forces had used “disproportionate” force in the attack, which it said might have killed up to 97 civilians, most of them children.


Abdul Waheed Wafa reported from Kabul, Afghanistan and Alan Cowell from Paris. Adam B. Ellick contributed reporting from Kabul and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar.

    29 Militants Killed in Afghanistan, NYT, 29.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/29/world/asia/29afghan.html






Nomination of U.S. Afghan Commander

Revives Questions in Tillman Case


May 26, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — One was a football hero who roused the nation when he quit a high-paying job as star safety for the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army and become a Ranger after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The other is a three-star Special Operations general who has spent most of his career in the shadows, commanding secret counterterrorism missions carried out by the military’s most elite capture-or-kill units.

But the lives of Cpl. Pat Tillman and Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal became entwined in a most public way after Corporal Tillman died in Afghanistan in 2004. General McChrystal, commander of a Special Operations task force in Afghanistan at the time, was among 10 officers singled out for scrutiny after details belatedly emerged that Corporal Tillman was killed not by an insurgent ambush, as the Army originally asserted, but by fire from his own team of Rangers.

The four-star general who was the final judge of the case ordered punitive action against seven officers, including four generals. General McChrystal was among the three cleared of wrongdoing.

But questions have surfaced again after General McChrystal’s nomination to be the top American commander in Afghanistan, the latest step in an urgent effort by the Obama administration to put together a new strategy and salvage the faltering mission.

The death of Corporal Tillman, the handling of his Silver Star commendation and the initial, false information released to the family and the public were the subjects of multiple investigations. Among them were inquiries by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, the Defense Department’s inspector general and a Congressional committee, as well as the final four-star review by Gen. William S. Wallace, then in charge of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.

Initially, the Pentagon inspector general’s inquiry criticized General McChrystal for signing a Silver Star commendation that “erroneously implied that Corporal Tillman died by enemy fire.”

But the final judgment by General Wallace concluded that General McChrystal “had no reasonable basis to call into question the recommendation that came up endorsed by the commanders in the field who were there and had firsthand knowledge of the circumstances of his death and his heroic actions.”

General Wallace also said that General McChrystal responded “reasonably and quickly” — being the first to alert the three generals who were his superior officers at Central Command, Special Operations Command and Army Special Operations Command that there was emerging evidence that Corporal Tillman had been killed by fellow Rangers.

General McChrystal’s memorandum, sent a week after the episode, warned that “it is highly possible that Corporal Tillman was killed by friendly fire,” according to the Pentagon inspector general’s report.

In his message from the field, General McChrystal also asked his three superiors to warn President George W. Bush and the acting Army secretary “about comments they might make in speeches to preclude embarrassment if the public found out friendly fire was involved.”

General McChrystal’s message was sent not through standard reporting channels, but through a “Personal For” message system. Investigators ruled that while it was an unusual choice for communications, the general could reasonably have assumed that this specialized report would be acted upon urgently.

“General McChrystal did exactly the right thing: he sent a timely message in a timely fashion through the most secure channels,” said Gen. John P. Abizaid, then the top officer of Central Command, overseeing forces in the Middle East. He spoke during 2007 testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Even so, Corporal Tillman’s family was not informed of the true cause of death until 35 days after he was killed, and some family members voiced doubts that the full truth had emerged about who in the Pentagon knew what, and when.

The puzzle was compounded by the fact that it took three years and three months for the Army and the Defense Department to finish the array of investigations and mete out punishment for the events, which took place outside Manah, Afghanistan, on April 22, 2004.

Even the Army’s top civilian conceded at the conclusion of the investigations in July 2007 that damage had been done to the service’s reputation. Pete Geren, the Army secretary, voiced regret for the “errors and failures of leadership that confused and misinformed the American people and compounded the grief suffered by the Tillman family.”

A review of the voluminous documents, transcripts and findings made public after the inquiries showed that General McChrystal was cleared in part because he was not serving in the chain of command for personnel issues or administration, the part of the Army responsible for investigating Corporal Tillman’s death and notifying the family and the public of details.

Officers in administrative headquarters of the Army were most severely criticized and punished for the confusion and incorrect information released to the family and the public.

In contrast, General McChrystal was part of the separate, war-fighting Army in the field, with responsibilities for commanding Corporal Tillman’s Ranger unit and other Special Operations forces in combat — but not for the administrative actions faulted by investigators.

A detailed forensics inquiry by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command found that Corporal Tillman’s death came after a day of heavy combat in eastern Afghanistan. Hobbled by a broken-down vehicle and faulty radios, the Rangers had split into two groups, and in the chaos of combat one team of Rangers fired on the other, killing Corporal Tillman and an Afghan soldier.

Unless new information on General McChrystal’s role in the episode emerges between now and his confirmation hearing, set for June 2, the question is not expected to figure heavily in the Senate debate, Congressional officials said.

The Senate last year confirmed General McChrystal to a three-star job in a vote taken long after the inquiries were complete. In explaining why the Tillman case was not expected to affect the general’s new confirmation, Congressional officials said senators would have to explain why they confirmed him then but were challenging his qualifications now to receive a fourth star and take over the Afghan mission absent new disclosures.

    Nomination of U.S. Afghan Commander Revives Questions in Tillman Case, NYT, 26.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/26/world/asia/26command.html?hpw






Autopsies of War Dead

Reveal Ways to Save Others


May 26, 2009
The New York Times


Within an hour after the bodies arrive in their flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base, they go through a process that has never been used on the dead from any other war.

Since 2004, every service man and woman killed in Iraq or Afghanistan has been given a CT scan, and since 2001, when the fighting began in Afghanistan, all have had autopsies, performed by pathologists in the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. In previous wars, autopsies on people killed in combat were uncommon, and scans were never done.

The combined procedures have yielded a wealth of details about injuries from bullets, blasts, shrapnel and burns — information that has revealed deficiencies in body armor and vehicle shielding and led to improvements in helmets and medical equipment used on the battlefield.

The military world initially doubted the usefulness of scanning corpses but now eagerly seeks data from the scans, medical examiners say, noting that on a single day in April, they received six requests for information from the Defense Department and its contractors.

“We’ve created a huge database that’s never existed before,” said Capt. Craig T. Mallak, 48, a Navy pathologist and lawyer who is chief of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, a division of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

The medical examiners have scanned about 3,000 corpses, more than any other institution in the world, creating a minutely detailed and permanent three-dimensional record of combat injuries. Although the scans are sometimes called “virtual autopsies,” they do not replace old-fashioned autopsies. Rather, they add information and can help guide autopsies and speed them by showing pathologists where to look for bullets or shrapnel, and by revealing fractures and tissue damage so clearly that the need for lengthy dissection is sometimes eliminated. The examiners try to remove as many metal fragments as possible, because the pieces can yield information about enemy weapons.

One discovery led to an important change in the medical gear used to stabilize injured troops on the battlefield.

Col. Howard T. Harcke, a 71-year-old Marine Corps radiologist who delayed retirement to read CT scans at Dover, noticed something peculiar in late 2005. The emergency treatment for a collapsed lung involves inserting a needle and tube into the chest cavity to relieve pressure and allow the lung to reinflate. But in one case, Colonel Harcke could see from a scan that the tube was too short to reach the chest cavity. Then he saw another case, and another, and half a dozen more.

In an interview, Colonel Harcke said it was impossible to tell whether anyone had died because the tubes were too short; all had other severe injuries. But a collapsed lung can be life-threatening, so proper treatment is essential.

Colonel Harcke pulled 100 scans from the archives and used them to calculate the average thickness of the chest wall in American troops; he found that the standard tubing, five centimeters long, was too short for 50 percent of the troops. If the tubing was lengthened to eight centimeters, it would be long enough for 99 percent.

“Soldiers are bigger and stronger now,” Colonel Harcke said.

The findings were presented to the Army Surgeon General, who in August 2006 ordered that the kits given to combat medics be changed to include only the longer tubing.

“I was thrilled,” Colonel Harcke said.

The medical examiners also discovered that troops were dying from wounds to the upper body that could have been prevented by body armor that covered more of the torso and shoulders. The information, which became public in 2006, led the military to scramble to ship more armor plates to Iraq.

It was Captain Mallak who decided that autopsies should be performed on all troops killed in Afghanistan or Iraq. Federal law gives him that authority.

“Families want a full accounting,” he said. During World War II and the Vietnam War, he explained, families were told simply that their loved one had died in service of their country.

“Personally, I felt that families would no longer just accept that,” Captain Mallak said.

The examiner’s office has not publicized the autopsy policy and has not often discussed it. Families are informed that autopsies are being performed and that they can request a copy of the report. Occasionally, families object, but the autopsy is done anyway. About 85 percent to 90 percent of families request the reports, and 10 percent also ask for photographs from the autopsy, said Paul Stone, a spokesman for the medical examiner system. Relatives are also told they can call or e-mail the medical examiners with questions.

“Every day, families come back for more information,” Captain Mallak said. “The No. 1 question they want to know is, ‘Did my loved one suffer?’ If we can say, ‘No, it was instantaneous, he or she never knew what happened,’ they do get a great sense of relief out of that. But we don’t lie.”

Indeed, the reports are sent with cover letters urging the families not to read them alone.

The possibility that a relative burned to death is a particular source of anguish for families, and one area in which CT can outperform an autopsy. In a body damaged by flames, CT can help pathologists figure out whether the burns occurred before or after death. The scans can also tell whether a person found in water died from drowning. Families who request the autopsy reports often put off reading them, said Ami Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit group for people who have lost relatives in war.

“I think people feel, ‘We should request it; we may not want to read it today, but we may want to read it 10 years from now,’ ” Ms. Neiberger-Miller said. Her brother was killed in Baghdad in 2007, she said, and her family has never opened his autopsy report.

Liz Sweet, whose 23-year-old son, T. J., committed suicide in Iraq in 2003, requested his autopsy report and read it.

“For our family, we needed it,” Mrs. Sweet said. “I just felt better knowing I had that report.” T. J. Sweet’s coffin was closed, so Mrs. Sweet asked Captain Mallak for a photograph taken before the autopsy, to prove to herself that it really was her son who had died.

“He was one of the most compassionate people throughout this whole process that I dealt with from the Department of Defense,” Mrs. Sweet said of Captain Mallak.

The scans and autopsies are done in a 70,000-square-foot facility at the Dover base that is both a pathology laboratory and a mortuary. Journalists are not allowed inside. The CT scanning began in 2004, when it was suggested and paid for by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, part of the Defense Department. Darpa got the idea of using CT scanners to perform virtual autopsies from Switzerland, where it started about 10 years ago.

Now the idea of virtual autopsies has begun to catch on with medical examiners in this country, who are eager to use it in murder cases but also to learn the cause of death in people from religious groups that forbid traditional autopsies. Scans can also help pathologists plan limited autopsies if a family finds a complete one too invasive.

John Getz, the program manager for the Armed Forces medical examiners, said mobile CT scanners could also be used to screen mass casualties during disasters like Hurricane Katrina, to help with identification and also to determine if any of the dead were the victims of crimes rather than accidents.

The Armed Forces CT scanner, specially designed to scan entire corpses one after another, is the envy of medical examiners and crime laboratories around the country, and several states have asked Captain Mallak and his colleagues for advice on setting up scanners.

Colonel Harcke said he hoped the technology would help to increase the autopsy rates at civilian hospitals, which now perform them only 5 percent to 10 percent of the time.

“We hope to return to a time where we were 50 years ago,” he said, “when autopsies were an important part of the medical model, and we continued to learn after death.”

    Autopsies of War Dead Reveal Ways to Save Others, NYT, 25.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/26/health/26autopsy.html






Pentagon Provides More Detail

of May 4 Afghan Air Strikes


May 19, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Nearly two weeks after an undetermined number of Afghan civilians were killed in American air strikes in Farah Province, a senior spokesman for the American military provided its most detailed accounting yet of the strikes.

By midafternoon on May 4, after a battle between Afghan police and army forces and Taliban fighters had raged for hours, Marines Special Operations forces called in air strikes.

Three F-18 fighter-bombers, flying in succession over several hours, dropped a total of five laser-guided and satellite guided bombs against Taliban fighters who were firing at the American and Afghan forces, said the official, Col. Gregory Julian, in an email message late Sunday.

Villagers, however, have reported that an even heavier bombardment came after 8 p.m. when they said the fighting appeared to be over and the Taliban had left the village.

The military has disputed this version of events, saying the Taliban fighters continued to fire at American and Afghan troops, requiring additional air strikes. These came from a B-1 bomber, which dropped three 500-pound satellite-guided bombs on a tree grove, four 500-pound and 2,000-pound satellite-guided bombs on one building, and one 2,000-pound satellite-guided bomb on a second building, Colonel Julian said.

The civilian casualties from the Farah air strikes caused an uproar in Afghanistan and have intensified criticism of the American military just as the Obama administration is ramping up there to fight the Taliban insurgency, now more than seven years old. Villagers have said they sought safety from the initial air strikes in a compound of buildings, but it was not clear whether these were the same buildings the American aircraft later bombed. Villagers said the bombings were so powerful that people were ripped to shreds. Survivors said they collected only pieces of bodies.

In all, Colonel Julian said, eight targets were attacked over a seven-hour period, but he denied reports from villagers that a mosque had been damaged in the strikes. Colonel Julian and other American military officials have said that the Taliban deliberately fired at American and Afghan forces from the rooftops of buildings where civilians, including women and children, had sought shelter, to provoke a heavy American military response.

Colonel Julian said at the peak of the fighting that day, some 150 Afghan soldiers and 60 Afghan police, along with their American trainers, as well as two Marine Special Operations teams that made up a quick-reaction force, were battling about 300 militants, including a large number of foreign fighters.

Afghan government officials have accepted handwritten lists compiled by the villagers of 147 dead civilians. An independent Afghan human rights group said it had accounts from interviews of 117 dead. American officials say that even 100 is an exaggeration but have yet to issue their own count.

Last week, a senior military investigator, Brig. Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III of the United States Army, went to Afghanistan to conduct an in-depth inquiry for the region’s overall military commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus. American military officials said his review will likely incorporate another military inquiry that was ordered immediately after the incident, and led by Brig. Gen. Edward M. Reeder, who oversees allied a task force of allied Special Operations forces in Afghanistan.

    Pentagon Provides More Detail of May 4 Afghan Air Strikes, NYT, 19.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/19/world/asia/19farah.html

















A 12-year-old recovered at a hospital in Herat, Afghanistan,

from burns suffered during an American airstrike on her village.


Joao Silva for The New York Times


Afghan Villagers Describe Chaos of U.S. Strikes        NYT


















Afghan Villagers

Describe Chaos of U.S. Strikes


May 15, 2009
The New York Times


FARAH, Afghanistan — The number of civilians killed by the American airstrikes in Farah Province last week may never be fully known. But villagers, including two girls recovering from burn wounds, described devastation that officials and human rights workers are calling the worst episode of civilian casualties in eight years of war in Afghanistan.

“We were very nervous and afraid and my mother said, ‘Come quickly, we will go somewhere and we will be safe,’ ” said Tillah, 12, recounting from a hospital bed how women and children fled the bombing by taking refuge in a large compound, which was then hit.

The bombs were so powerful that people were ripped to shreds. Survivors said they collected only pieces of bodies. Several villagers said that they could not distinguish all of the dead and that they never found some of their relatives.

Government officials have accepted handwritten lists compiled by the villagers of 147 dead civilians. An independent Afghan human rights group said it had accounts from interviews of 117 dead. American officials say that even 100 is an exaggeration but have yet to issue their own count.

The calamity in the village of Granai, some 18 miles from here, illustrates in the grimmest terms the test for the Obama administration as it deploys more than 20,000 additional troops here and appoints a new commander, Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, in search of a fresh approach to combat the tenacious Taliban insurgency.

It is bombings like this one that have turned many Afghans against the American-backed government and the foreign military presence. The events in Granai have raised sharp questions once again about the appropriateness and effectiveness of aerial bombardment in a guerrilla war in which the insurgents deliberately blend into the civilian population to fight and flee.

Taliban insurgents are well aware of the weakness and are making the most of it, American and Afghan officials say. Farah, a vast province in the west, contains only a smattering of foreign special forces and trainers who work among Afghan police and army units. Exploiting the thin spread of forces, the insurgents sought to seize control of Granai and provoke a fierce battle over the heads of the civilian population, Afghan and American officials say.

After hours of fighting and taking a number of casualties, the American forces called in their heaviest weapon, airstrikes, on at least three targets in the village.

The rapid mass burial of the victims and the continuing presence of insurgents in the area have hampered investigations. Journalists were advised against visiting Granai. Villagers were interviewed here in Farah, the provincial capital, where they came to collect compensation payments, and in the neighboring province of Herat, where some were taken for treatment.

Much of the villagers’ descriptions matched accounts given by the United States military spokesman, Col. Greg Julian, and the provincial police chief, Col. Abdul Ghafar Watandar. But they differed on one important point: whether the Taliban had already left Granai before the bombing began.

There was particular anger among the villagers that the bombing came after, they say, the Taliban had already left at dusk, and the fighting had subsided, so much so that men had gone to evening prayers at 7 p.m. and returned and were sitting down with their families for dinner.

The police chief said that sporadic fighting continued into the night and that the Taliban were probably in the village until 1 a.m.

Whatever the case, American planes bombed after 8 p.m. in several waves when most of the villagers thought the fighting was over; and whatever the actual number of casualties, it is clear from the villagers’ accounts that dozens of women and children were killed after taking cover.

One group went to a spacious compound owned by a man named Said Naeem, on the north side of the village, where the two girls were wounded. Only one woman and six children in the compound survived, one of their fathers said.

Another group gathered in the house of the village imam, or religious leader, Mullah Manan. That, too, was bombed, causing an equally large number of casualties, villagers said. Colonel Julian, the American military spokesman, said that the airstrikes hit houses from which the Taliban were firing. The enormous explosions left such devastation that villagers struggled to describe it. “There was someone’s legs, someone’s shoulders, someone’s hands,” said Said Jamal, an old white-bearded man with rheumy eyes, who lost two sons and a daughter. “The dead were so many.”

A joint government and United States military delegation visited Granai last week but came back sharply divided in their conclusions. The Afghan government said that 140 civilians were killed and 25 wounded, and that 12 houses were destroyed.

The United States military said the Afghan numbers were far too high. This week, a senior military investigator, Brig. Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III of the United States Army, arrived to conduct an in-depth inquiry for the region’s overall military commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus.

An independent Afghan organization, Afghanistan Rights Monitor, said Wednesday that at least 117 civilians were killed — including 26 women and 61 children — drawing on interviews with 21 villagers and relatives of the dead. The group criticized both the Taliban for fighting among civilians, and the United States military for using excessive force.

The police chief, Colonel Watandar, confirmed much of the villagers’ accounts of the fighting. A large group of Taliban fighters, numbering about 400, they estimated, entered the village and took up positions at dawn on May 4. By midmorning, the Taliban began attacks on police posts on the main road, just yards from the village, they said.

The fighting raged all day. The police called in more police officers, Afghan Army units and an American quick reaction force from the town of Farah as reinforcements.

By midafternoon, the exchanges escalated sharply and moved deeper into the village. Taliban fighters were firing from the houses, and at one point a Marine unit called in airstrikes to allow Marines to go forward and rescue a wounded Afghan soldier, said Colonel Julian, the United States military spokesman. After that, Taliban fire dropped significantly, he said.

A villager named Multan said that one house along the southern edge of the village was hit by a bomb and that one Taliban fighter was killed there. But villagers did not report any civilian casualties until the American planes bombed that night.

Tillah, the 12-year-old girl, whose face bears the scars of a scorching blast, still twisted in pain from the burning in her leg at the provincial hospital in Herat, where she and other survivors were taken to a special burn unit. Her two sisters, Freshta, 5, and Nuria, 7, were barely visible under the bandages swathing their heads and limbs.

The three girls were visiting their aunt’s house with their mother when a plane bombed the nearby mosque, around 8 p.m., Tillah said. That is when they fled to Said Naeem’s seven-room home.

“When we reached there we felt safe and I fell asleep,” Tillah said. She said she heard the buzzing noise of a plane, but then only remembers coming to when someone pulled her from the rubble the next morning.

A second girl, Nazo, 9, beside her in another hospital bed, said she saw two red flashes in the courtyard that kicked up dust seconds before the explosion.

“I heard a loud explosion and the compound was burning and the roof fell in,” she said. Seven members of the family with her died, and four were wounded, her father, Said Malham, said.

“Why do they target the Taliban inside the village?” he asked wearily. “Why don’t they bomb them when they are outside the village?”

“The foreigners are guilty,” he continued. “Why don’t they bomb their targets, but instead they come and bomb our houses?”


Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

    Afghan Villagers Describe Chaos of U.S. Strikes, NYT, 15.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/15/world/asia/15farah.html






Bomb Kills 7 Afghan Civilians at U.S. Base


May 14, 2009
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — A suicide attacker exploded a bomb Wednesday near the main gate of an American base outside the eastern city of Khost, killing seven civilian laborers and wounding 21, a day after a coordinated Taliban attack inside the town left at least nine dead, provincial officials said.

Wednesday’s attack happened as Afghan laborers working at the base were lining up for security checks to enter the base, said Kochai Nasiri, spokesman for the governor of Khost Province.

All the victims were civilians and daily workers at Camp Salerno, one of the largest American bases in Afghanistan. The entrance to the camp has been the target of repeated suicide bombings, killing dozens of laborers over the past several years. A spokesman for the American military confirmed the attack and said there were no casualties among American soldiers.

Wednesday’s bombing followed a Taliban strike by waves of suicide bombers against government buildings in the neighboring city of Khost. At least nine died after a daylong hostage siege and a gun battle with American forces, Afghan officials said.

The assault Tuesday, which included a bombing outside the provincial governor’s office, was one of a number of increasingly audacious attacks that seemed intended to underscore the vulnerability of the government by hitting its buildings directly.

It was also part of an intensified campaign by the Taliban before the arrival of more than 20,000 new American forces, and it came a day after President Obama replaced the commander of forces in Afghanistan, hoping to place more emphasis on counterinsurgency operations.

On Tuesday, the insurgents employed a method that has by now become a Taliban signature: waves of attackers using suicide vests, car bombs and other weapons to storm buildings and take hostages, fighting until they blow themselves up or are killed.

The attacks in Khost city, the provincial capital, came so quickly and sowed such chaos that even late in the day Afghan and American officials gave contradictory accounts of the sequence of events and the numbers of people killed.

The Interior Ministry said the assaults began about 10 a.m., when a suicide car bomb exploded at the gate of the governor’s office, killing two policemen and two other guards. The militants apparently tried to enter the building and were fought back.

Shortly afterward, the ministry said, a group of nine suicide attackers stormed a nearby municipal building. Four blew themselves up in a battle with security guards, while 5 others made their way into the building and took about 20 people hostage. The attackers were eventually killed at the end of a long standoff, it said.

Wazir Padshah, a spokesman for the provincial police chief, said 20 hostages had been freed. But he gave a slightly different version of events, saying the militants had first attacked the municipal building, followed by the governor’s office 10 minutes later. The Taliban also attacked a police station but were rebuffed, he said.

Mr. Padshah said 11 attackers had been involved in the assaults in all, each armed with a suicide vest and an AK-47 assault rifle. At least one was disguised in a burqa, the head-to-toe women’s garment, while most of the others wore Afghan Army uniforms, he said.

Such elaborate attacks have become increasingly common in recent months. Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen killed 20 people after storming government buildings at three sites, including the Justice Ministry in Kabul, the national capital, in February.

In March, militants stormed a municipal building housing a police headquarters and a court in the southern city of Kandahar, killing at least eight people.

At the time of Tuesday’s attack, American troops based at Camp Salerno were meeting with Afghan Army and Afghan national police officials a few blocks away, said Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo, a spokesman for American forces in Afghanistan.

Hearing an explosion, they rushed to the scene, coming under fire by the militants. They killed two suicide bombers before they could detonate themselves, Chief Naranjo said.

Gun battles with the militants in and around the municipal building lasted for at least seven hours, Afghan officials said. Initial death tolls varied, with local health officials saying at least eight had been killed — four civilians and four security officers.

Mr. Padshah, the provincial police official, put the death toll at 9, and some news reports put the tally as high as 20.

Dr. Hamid Padshah, the public health director of Khost Province, said in a telephone interview that the local hospital had received nine bodies, including four policemen, four civilians and one suicide attacker.

There were also 20 wounded, including 18 civilians and 2 policemen, he said.

Chief Naranjo said 6 civilians and 6 militants had been killed, and 24 people wounded, including 3 American soldiers.

The governor, Hamidullah Qalanderzay, was in his office at the time of the attack but was not injured, said a member of his security detail.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said that the attack included 30 fighters in all and that 8 had died in the operation. The Taliban had intended to attack the meeting between the American military and the Afghan officials, which they believed was being held in the governor’s office, he said.

Abdul Waheed Wafa reported from Kabul, and Sharon Otterman from New York. Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kabul.

    Bomb Kills 7 Afghan Civilians at U.S. Base, NYT, 14.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/14/world/asia/14afghan.html






Man in the News

A General Steps From the Shadows


May 13, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the ascetic who is set to become the new top American commander in Afghanistan, usually eats just one meal a day, in the evening, to avoid sluggishness.

He is known for operating on a few hours’ sleep and for running to and from work while listening to audio books on an iPod. In Iraq, where he oversaw secret commando operations for five years, former intelligence officials say that he had an encyclopedic, even obsessive, knowledge about the lives of terrorists, and that he pushed his ranks aggressively to kill as many of them as possible.

But General McChrystal has also moved easily from the dark world to the light. Fellow officers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he is director, and former colleagues at the Council on Foreign Relations describe him as a warrior-scholar, comfortable with diplomats, politicians and the military man who would help promote him to his new job.

“He’s lanky, smart, tough, a sneaky stealth soldier,” said Maj. Gen. William Nash, a retired officer. “He’s got all the Special Ops attributes, plus an intellect.”

If General McChrystal is confirmed by the Senate, as expected, he will take over the post held by Gen. David D. McKiernan, who was forced out on Monday. Obama administration officials have described the shakeup as a way to bring a bolder and more creative approach to the faltering war in Afghanistan.

Most of what General McChrystal has done over a 33-year career remains classified, including service between 2003 and 2008 as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, an elite unit so clandestine that the Pentagon for years refused to acknowledge its existence. But former C.I.A. officials say that General McChrystal was among those who, with the C.I.A., pushed hard for a secret joint operation in the tribal region of Pakistan in 2005 aimed at capturing or killing Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld canceled the operation at the last minute, saying it was too risky and was based on what he considered questionable intelligence, a move that former intelligence officials say General McChrystal found maddening.

When General McChrystal took over the Joint Special Operations Command in 2003, he inherited an insular, shadowy commando force with a reputation for spurning partnerships with other military and intelligence organizations. But over the next five years he worked hard, his colleagues say, to build close relationships with the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. He won praise from C.I.A. officers, many of whom had stormy relationships with commanders running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“He knows intelligence, he knows covert action and he knows the value of partnerships,” said Henry Crumpton, who ran the C.I.A.’s covert war in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.

As head of the command, which oversees the elite Delta Force and units of the Navy Seals, General McChrystal was based at Fort Bragg, N.C. But he spent much of his time in Iraq commanding secret missions. Most of his operations were conducted at night, but General McChrystal, described nearly universally as a driven workaholic, was up for most of the day as well. His wife and grown son remained back in the United States.

General McChrystal was born Aug. 14, 1954, into a military family. His father, Maj. Gen. Herbert J. McChrystal Jr., served in Germany during the American occupation after World War II and later at the Pentagon. General Stanley McChrystal was the fourth child in a family of five boys and one girl; all of them grew up to serve in the military or marry into it.

“They’re all pretty intense,” said Judy McChrystal, one of General McChrystal’s sisters-in-law, who is married to the eldest child, Herbert J. McChrystal III, a former chaplain at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

General McChrystal graduated from West Point in 1976 and spent the next three decades ascending through conventional and Special Operations command positions as well as taking postings at Harvard and the Council on Foreign Relations. He was a commander of a Green Beret team in 1979 and 1980, and he did several tours in the Army Rangers as a staff officer and a battalion commander, including service in the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

One blot on his otherwise impressive military record occurred in 2007, when a Pentagon investigation into the accidental shooting death in 2004 of Cpl. Pat Tillman by fellow Army Rangers in Afghanistan held General McChrystal accountable for inaccurate information provided by Corporal Tillman’s unit in recommending him for a Silver Star. The information wrongly suggested that Corporal Tillman had been killed by enemy fire.

At the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, where General McChrystal directs the 1,200-member group, he has instituted a daily 6:30 a.m. classified meeting among 25 top officers and, by video, military commanders around the world. In half an hour, the group races through military developments and problems over the past 24 hours.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brought General McChrystal back to Washington to be his director last August, and the physical proximity served General McChrystal well, Defense officials said. In recent weeks, Admiral Mullen recommended General McChrystal to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates as a replacement for General McKiernan.

One other thing to know about General McChrystal: when he was a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2000, he ran a dozen miles each morning to the council’s offices from his quarters at Fort Hamilton on the southwestern tip of Brooklyn.

“If you asked me the first thing that comes to mind about General McChrystal,” said Leslie H. Gelb, the president emeritus of the council, “I think of no body fat.”

    A General Steps From the Shadows, NYT, 13.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/13/world/asia/13commander.html






U.S. Raids

Said to Kill Afghan Civilians


May 7, 2009
The New York Times


KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Dozens of civilians, including women and children, have been killed during bombing raids by United States forces in western Afghanistan as Afghan troops battled Taliban fighters in heavy fighting, the Red Cross said Wednesday, confirming earlier accounts by Afghan officials.

Enraged villagers brought an estimated 30 bodies from their district to the capital of Farah Province to show officials, news agencies reported on Tuesday, quoting local officials. Villagers’ accounts put the death toll at 70 to 100, they said.

Jessica Barry, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is based in Geneva, said the organization had sent a team to the area on Tuesday to investigate the incident. The team members saw houses destroyed and dozens of dead bodies. Some had died while trying to shelter in a house. “What our team saw was dozens of bodies, graves and people preparing burials,” she said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

The dead included women and children. “It’s not the first time,” she said, but “really this is one of the very serious and biggest incidents for a very long time.”

The fatalities offered a grim back-drop to talks scheduled Wednesday in Washington between President Obama and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, whose office called the civilian deaths “unjustifiable and unacceptable,” Reuters said.

The bombardment could be the largest case of civilian casualties since an attack on the village of Azizabad in western Afghanistan last year, in which United Nations officials said there was convincing evidence that 90 civilians were killed. The United States military only ever acknowledged that 30 civilians had died. The case led to stricter rules for calling in bombing raids on Afghan houses.

The provincial governor for Farah Province, Rohul Amin, confirmed there had been heavy fighting and aerial bombardment in Bala Baluk, a district to the north of the province where Taliban and drug smugglers are active. He said that 25 to 30 Taliban had been killed and that there had also been civilian casualties. He said he was sending a government delegation to the area to investigate.

The top United States spokesman in Afghanistan, Col. Greg Julian, confirmed that coalition forces had participated in the battle, The Associated Press reported. Colonel Julian said that several wounded Afghans had sought medical treatment at a military base in Farah, but that officials were still investigating the reports of civilian deaths.

The Taliban had gathered in several villages named Shewan Kalai, Ganjabad, and Durani Kalai, in the Bala Baluk district, the governor said when contacted by phone. They attacked police checkpoints in the villages around midnight on Monday and the fighting steadily escalated. Three policemen were killed and three others wounded. Two police cars were set on fire and one was stolen.

An Afghan Army unit was sent to the area, but found a heavy contingent of Taliban and later called in airstrikes. The Afghan Army has American trainers embedded with them who are able to call in air support. The fighting lasted about 12 hours through the night, the governor said.

“We don’t know the exact numbers of the civilians’ casualties; it is a densely populated area where the fighting broke out,” the governor said. “The Taliban are using civilians’ houses for their own protection and as a shield,” he said.

He said he would ask tribal elders to go to the region to investigate the villagers’ claims, because the area was too full of the Taliban for government officials to go there.

Villagers told Afghan officials that they had put children, women, and elderly men in several housing compounds away from the fighting to keep them safe. But the villagers said fighter aircraft later attacked those compounds in the village of Gerani, killing a majority of those inside, The A.P. reported.

Abdul Basir Khan, a member of Farah’s provincial council, said villagers had brought bodies, including women and children, to Farah city to show the province’s governor, The A.P. report said. Mr. Khan said it was difficult to count the bodies because they had been badly mutilated, but he estimated that the villagers brought around 30.

Mohammad Nieem Qadderdan, the former top official in the district of Bala Baluk, said he had seen dozens of bodies when he visited the village of Gerani.

“These houses that were full of children and women and elders were bombed by planes. It is very difficult to say how many were killed because nobody can count the number, it is too early,” Mr. Qadderdan, who no longer holds a government position, told The A.P. by telephone. “People are digging through rubble with shovels and hands.”

Taimoor Shah reported from Kandahar,

and Carlotta Gall from Islamabad, Pakistan.

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from Paris.

U.S. Raids Said to Kill Afghan Civilians, NYT, 7.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/07/world/asia/07afghan.html