Saturday, May 12, 2007

UK's Brown - Afghanistan, Not Iraq, Is Central Front

By Cernig

The Sunday Times reports that British diplomats and soldiers are getting increasingly frustrated by U.S. airstrikes and clumsy tactics which they say are undermining "hearts and minds" efforts in Afghanistan.
BRITAIN will step up its presence in Afghanistan this week with the deployment of a high-profile new ambassador as concern mounts that the toll of civilians killed in the war is setting back the coalition’s efforts to win Afghan “hearts and minds”.

There is growing alarm over a wave of US bombing raids in which 110 civilians have died in the past two weeks. Twenty-one people were killed last week after US special forces called in airstrikes on the town of Sangin in Helmand province. “Sometimes you wonder whose side the Americans are on,” said a British official.

US officials claimed that Taliban militants had sheltered in villagers’ homes, using women and children as shields. But local anger was so strong that the Afghan Senate passed a draft law calling for a halt to military offensives by international forces unless they were under attack or had consulted with the Afghan government.

“One mishandled bombing raid wipes out the benefits of months of development work,” said Matt Waldman, head of Afghanistan policy for Oxfam.

When Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, one of the Foreign Office’s top diplomats and former ambassador to Tel Aviv and Riyadh, flies into Kabul this week to become the new ambassador, one of his first tasks will be to defuse the outcry. He will also need to examine how Britain’s aid contributions have become bogged down in controversy.

In a sign that there is a great deal of catching up to do, the Foreign Office is sending 33 extra diplomats to Afghanistan. A senior official yesterday described the shake-up as an “upgrading” and denied that it was an admission of failure. “Things have moved in a way people didn’t expect in Afghanistan,” he said. “There’s a sense that we need to do more and to do that we need more people.”

Expectations in London remain high that Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, is a “winnable” war. “The Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office have . . . written off Iraq and all attention is now on Afghanistan,” said a senior diplomat, pointing out that within months Afghanistan will be Britain’s biggest overseas deployment. Gordon Brown emphasised the point yesterday when he said: “Afghanistan is the front line of the war on terrorism.”
How refreshing it is to hear a senior political leader who gets that last point.

The Times also notes that Brown is reviewing British strategy on Iraq and is likely to accelerate Britain's withdrawal from that quagmire.

And the New York Times reports on the same Afghan situation but with a different emphasis.
Scores of civilian deaths over the past months from heavy American and allied reliance on airstrikes to battle Taliban insurgents are threatening popular support for the Afghan government and creating severe strains within the NATO alliance.

Afghan, American and other foreign officials say they worry about the political toll the civilian deaths are exacting on President Hamid Karzai, who last week issued another harsh condemnation of the American and NATO tactics, and even of the entire international effort here.

What angers Afghans are not just the bombings, but also the raids of homes, the shootings of civilians in the streets and at checkpoints, and the failure to address those issues over the five years of war. Afghan patience is wearing dangerously thin, officials warn.

...The anger is visible here in this farming village in the largely peaceful western province of Herat, where American airstrikes left 57 villagers dead, nearly half of them women and children, on April 27 and 29. Even the accounts of villagers bore little resemblance to those of NATO and American officials — and suggested just how badly things could go astray in an unfamiliar land where cultural misunderstandings quickly turn violent.

The United States military says it came under heavy fire from insurgents as it searched for a local tribal commander and weapons caches and called in airstrikes, killing 136 Taliban fighters.

But the villagers denied that any Taliban were in the area. Instead, they said, they rose up and fought the Americans themselves, after the soldiers raided several houses, arrested two men and shot dead two old men on a village road.

After burying the dead, the tribe’s elders met with their chief, Hajji Arbab Daulat Khan, and resolved to fight American forces if they returned. “If they come again, we will stand against them, and we will raise the whole area against them,” he warned. Or in the words of one foreign official in Afghanistan, the Americans went after one guerrilla commander and created a hundred more.
The entire article plays down disagreements between the US and its NATO allies over events in Afghanistan. When the great and good of the American press, such as David Sanger who co-wrote the NYT piece, can't even tell their readers about the deep levels of anger and mistrust that allies like the Brits are feeling over US tactics and motives, then you have a Fourth Estate that isn't doing its job anymore.

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