Killer surge

Print edition : April 22, 2011

U.S. ARMY CORPORAL Jeremy Morlock, who was sentenced on March 23 to 25 years in prison for killing unarmed Afghan civilians. He has agreed to testify against the other soldiers involved in the brutal killings. A file photograph. - U.S. ARMY/AFP

The U.N. said that 2010 marked the most lethal year for non-combatants in Afghanistan in a war that has been going on for nearly 10 years.

ON March 23, Corporal Jeremy Morlock, who was assigned to the United States Army's 5th Stryker Brigade in southern Afghanistan, pleaded guilty to killing Afghan civilians last year. In his statement to U.S. Army authorities, Morlock admitted that he and a dozen of his colleagues murdered three Afghan civilians and took their body parts to keep as war trophies. He also confessed that the group planted Afghan army weapons on the victims to make them look like enemy combatants. The killings happened in Kandahar province between February and May 2010. Morlock has been sentenced to 25 years in prison by a U.S. military court. He has agreed to testify against the other soldiers involved in the brutal killings. In the third week of March, the German magazine Der Spiegel published three pictures of Morlock and one of his Army colleagues posing with the head of an Afghan civilian they had killed in cold blood. The magazine uncovered 4,000 photos and videos taken by the American death squad detailing their horrific activities.

The latest revelations of blatant human rights abuses in Afghanistan by U.S. forces has brought back memories of the infamous My Lai incident of the Vietnam war and the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq following the U.S. invasion of that country. At My Lai, American soldiers gunned down at least 500 children, women and old people. The noted American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote recently that terrible things happen in a war and terrible things are happening every day in Afghanistan, as Americans continue nightly assassination raids and have escalated the number of bombing sorties. An investigation by the Inter Press Service (IPS) published in March showed that the United Nations underestimated the number of civilians killed in U.S. Special Operations Force (SOF) raids in 2010 in Afghanistan. The U.N. had estimated the death toll at around 80.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said that the figure represented the death toll from only 13 incidents involving the SOF; 60 other incidents involving night raids were not adequately investigated. The U.N. has, however, admitted that targeted killings of civilians doubled in 2010 compared with the year before. In its annual report released in early March, the U.N. said that 2010 marked the most lethal year for non-combatants in Afghanistan in a war that has been going on for nearly 10 years. The U.N. has blamed the Taliban for most of the killings involving civilians. The Taliban has been targeting government sympathisers and off-duty Afghan soldiers and policemen on a regular basis after the Obama administration ordered its military surge two years ago.

U.S.-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces, under the command of U.S. General David Petraeus, have been stonewalling demands for the release of information relating to the deaths of civilians. Most Afghans believe that the number of civilians killed by the occupation forces is in the thousands. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the security situation has worsened throughout the country. It reported that the growing civilian casualties, internal displacement and poor medical care have created a dire humanitarian situation.

A recent survey by the Asia Foundation showed that 83 per cent of the people in Afghanistan want a negotiated settlement with the Taliban though 55 per cent showed little sympathy for the insurgency. A recent ABC/ Washington Post poll also showed that 60 per cent of the American public thought that the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting. A BBC national opinion poll on Afghanistan taken in December 2010 showed that many Afghans felt that attacks on U.S./International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops were justified. They were no doubt angered by the targeting of civilians in night raids and in random attacks from the air.

The Taliban has called for the setting up of an international fact-finding commission to look into the killings of civilians. A Taliban statement made late last year said that the U.N., the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), NATO and the Taliban itself could jointly probe the allegations regarding the widespread killing of innocent civilians. According to a WikiLeaks cable of 2009, some 2,058 names were included in the target list for SOF night raids. Mathew Hoh, a senior U.S. State Department official based in Afghanistan who resigned in 2009 in protest against the U.S.' war strategy there, said that on several occasions the wrong guys got killed in SOF night raids. Sometimes, it would be innocent families, he said.

AN AFGHAN COUPLE walk through a cemetery in Kabul on March 20. Most Afghans believe that the number of civilians killed by the occupation forces is in the thousands.-SHAH MARAI/AFP

On March 9, a cousin of President Hamid Karzai, Yar Mohammed Karzai, was killed in a U.S. military night-time raid. On March 1, nine children, all aged below 14, were killed in an air strike in Afghanistan's north-eastern Kunar province. U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, apologised to the Afghan President after video footage relating to the deaths of the children emerged. Gen. Petraeus only admitted to an error in the hand-off between identifying the location of the insurgents and the attack helicopters which carried out the subsequent operations. In February, NATO helicopters bombed an Afghan village, also in Kunar province, killing 65 people, including 40 children under the age of 13. Twenty-two women were also among those killed. Karzai has on several occasions strongly criticised the night raids by the U.S. military on unsuspecting Afghan villages and homes. We don't like raids in our homes, he had told The Washington Post last year.

The raids and killing of innocent civilians have been skilfully used by the Taliban to recruit more people for its cause. The Taliban has been insisting for some years now that its one-point agenda is to evict the foreign occupation forces from the country. Once that goal is achieved, the Taliban leadership has indicated that it is willing to talk to Karzai and other Afghan individuals and parties opposed to it to find a negotiated settlement to end the long-running conflict.

In a statement released earlier this year, the Taliban stressed that the struggle of the Afghan people was against colonialism and requested the international community to render assistance to their liberation struggle. The Taliban also sent out a strong signal to neighbouring countries. We assure all regional countries that we will maintain good relations with them following our obtaining independence, the statement said. The Taliban statement came after senior U.S. politicians demanded that the U.S. retain its military bases in Afghanistan even after the scheduled military withdrawal from the country.

The Obama administration has escalated the fight against the resilient Taliban as more American soldiers die in action. After Obama took over, more American soldiers have died in action in Afghanistan than during the entire presidency of his predecessor, George W. Bush. In 2010 alone, 701 foreign troops were killed, among them 492 Americans.

Gen. Petraeus has warned of a tough year ahead. In early March, he told the media that fighting this summer would be considerably worse. Many intelligence estimates say that it will be as violent or perhaps even more violent than 2010. He predicted that the Taliban will come back in force. He said that the extra forces ordered in by Obama had secured gains in Afghanistan but described them as fragile and reversible. Obama authorised a surge of 30,000 troops for the Afghan war in October 2009.

PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI holding a girl who had to have a leg amputated following an alleged NATO strike in Kunar province in March.-AFP

Under the command of Petraeus, the U.S. Army has given up on its counter-insurgency strategy and has opted for air assaults and night raids. Winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans no longer seems to be a priority for the Obama administration. In February, the U.S. Army announced that its withdrawal from the north-eastern Pech valley. Washington had previously insisted that controlling the area was strategically vital. More than a hundred American soldiers have been killed in the Pech valley since they were first deployed there in 2003. The U.S. withdrew from the neighbouring Korengal valley in April last year after losing 42 soldiers. The mujahideen were at the gates of Kabul a few months after the Soviet army withdrew from the Pech valley in 1988.

Military analysts are of the opinion that these strategic areas are now completely under the control of insurgent groups. Senior Afghan officials are the first to admit that their security forces are in no position to fight the Taliban in these areas. Confidential U.N. maps published in The Wall Street Journal in December showed a clear deterioration of security in the country. In the two maps accessed by the newspaper, showed that the situation in the south, the Taliban's stronghold, remained very high risk and that the security situation had worsened in the north and the east.

The U.S. has handed over responsibility for security in many provinces, including parts of the volatile south-western provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, to the Afghan forces. This is being done under the banner of the Afghan Local Police. Karzai is known to be opposed to this strategy as it will once again encourage the rise of local militias and warlords.

The Obama administration is hoping that the local militias and the Afghan army, which has been mainly trained by NATO countries, will lighten the military burden and help meet the deadline for the drawback of U.S. forces. The U.S. hopes to transfer full military responsibility to the Afghan forces by 2014 as it prepares its exit strategy.

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