Sunday, January 25, 2009

Obama's first kills...

The Guardian, Saturday 24 January 2009 President orders air strikes on villages in tribal area

Barack Obama gave the go-ahead for his first military action yesterday, missile strikes against suspected militants in Pakistan which killed at least 18 people.

Four days after assuming the presidency, he was consulted by US commanders before they launched the two attacks. Although Obama has abandoned many of the "war on terror" policies of George Bush while he was president, he is not retreating from the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.

The US believes they are hiding in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, and made 30 strikes last year in which more than 200 people were killed. In the election, Obama hinted at increased operations in Pakistan, saying he thought Bush had made a mistake in switching to Iraq before completing the job against al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The US marine corp commander said yesterday that his 22,000 troops should be redeployed from Iraq to Afghanistan. Gen James Conway said "the time is right" to leave Iraq now the war had become largely nation-building rather than the pitched fighting in which the corps excelled; he wanted the marines in Afghanistan, especially in the south where insurgents, and the Taliban and al-Qaida, benefit from both a nearby safe haven in Pakistan and a booming trade in narcotics.

Obama has warned that he is prepared to bomb inside Pakistan if he gets relevant intelligence about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. He had also said he would act against militants along the border if the Pakistan government failed to.

The US missiles were fired by unmanned Predator drones, which hang in the sky gathering intelligence through surveillance and, when commanded and directed by remote control, to launch attacks.

The strikes will help Obama portray himself as a leader who, though ready to shift the balance of American power towards diplomacy, is not afraid of military action.

The first attack yesterday was on the village of Zharki, in Waziristan; three missiles destroyed two houses and killed 10 people. One villager told Reuters of phonethat of nine bodies pulled from the rubble of one house, six were its owner and his relatives; Reuters added that intelligence officials said some foreign militants were also killed. A second attack hours later also in Warizistan killed eight people.

The Pakistan government publicly expressed hope that the arrival of Obama would see a halt to such strikes, which stir up hostility from Pakistanis towards the government; in private, the government may be more relaxed about such attacks.

There is a lot of nervousness in the new administration about the fragility of Pakistan, particularly as it has nuclear weapons, but it also sees Afghanistan and Pakistan as being linked. In the face of a Taliban resurgence, there is despair in Washington over the leadership of the Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, and there will not be much disappointment if he is replaced in elections later this year.

But Washington insists on seeing as one of its biggest problems the ability of the Taliban and al-Qaida to maintain havens in Pakistan. Obama on Thursday announced he was making veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke a special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, spoke by phone to the Pakistan president, Asif Ali Zardari.

Afghan villagers shout slogans against the U.S. and Afghan government during a demonstration following
Afghan president: US forces killed 16 civilians

KABUL, Afghanistan – President Hamid Karzai condemned a U.S. operation he said killed 16 Afghan civilians, while hundreds of villagers denounced the American military during an angry demonstration Sunday.

Karzai said the killing of innocent Afghans during U.S. military operations "is strengthening the terrorists."

He also announced that his Ministry of Defense sent Washington a draft technical agreement that seeks to give Afghanistan more oversight over U.S. military operations. The same letter has also been sent to NATO headquarters.

Karzai in recent weeks has increasingly lashed out at his Western backers over the issue of civilian casualties, even as U.S. politicians and a top NATO official have publicly criticized Karzai for the slow pace of progress here.

The back-and-forth comes as the new administration of President Barack Obama must decide whether to support Karzai as he seeks re-election later this year as part of the United States' overall Afghan strategy.

Karzai's latest criticism follows a Saturday raid in Laghman province that the U.S. says killed 15 armed militants, including a woman with an RPG, but that Afghan officials say killed civilians.

Two women and three children were among the 16 dead civilians, Karzai said in a statement.

In Laghman's capital, hundreds of angry demonstrators denounced the U.S. military Sunday and demanded an end to overnight raids. U.S. military leaders, victims' relatives and Afghan officials — including two top Karzai advisers — met at the governor's compound to discuss the issue, Gov. Latifullah Mashal said.

"The U.S. military said 'We are sorry for this incident and after this we are going to coordinate our operations with Afghan forces,'" Mashal said.

Civilian deaths during U.S. operations have been a huge point of friction between the Afghan government and U.S. and NATO militaries. Many of the deaths happen on overnight raids by U.S. Special Forces who launch operations against specific insurgent leaders.

A U.S. investigative team that had planned to travel to the village — 40 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Kabul — was canceled Sunday because of bad weather. U.S. military spokesman Col. Greg Julian said American officials hoped to visit the site on Tuesday, weather permitting.

"We do want to find out what the bottom line is, and we're kind of in a hands-tied position until we can get out there," Julian said. "And even when we get out there, it's based on what people say rather than being able to do a full forensic-type investigation."

Julian said that the U.S. military has photos showing militants fighting the U.S. coalition forces, but that the photos cannot be released to the public. He said the photos would be shown to Afghan officials.

Karzai last week told parliament that the U.S. and NATO have not heeded his calls to stop airstrikes in civilian areas. Karzai has recently sought to have more control over what kinds of activities U.S. and NATO forces can carry out. According to a copy obtained by The Associated Press last week, the draft technical agreement Karzai's government sent to Washington and NATO headquarters calls for:

• The deployment of additional U.S. or NATO troops and their location carried out only with Afghan government approval.

• Full coordination between Afghan and NATO defense authorities "at the highest possible level for all phases of military and ground operations."

• House searches and detention operations to be carried out only by Afghan security forces.

Civilian deaths are an extremely complicated issue in Afghanistan. Afghan villagers have been known to exaggerate civilian death claims in order to receive more compensation from the U.S. military, and officials have said that insurgents sometimes force villagers to make false death claims.

But the U.S. military has also been known to not fully acknowledge when it killed civilians.

After a battle in August in the village of Azizabad, the U.S. military at first said no civilians were killed. A day later it said about five died, and eventually a more thorough U.S. investigation found 33 civilians were killed. The Afghan government and the U.N. said 90 civilians were killed.

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