Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 June - 4 July 2007
Issue No. 851
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Iraq in Afghanistan

NATO insists the war is "different" in Afghanistan compared to Iraq -- but the similarities are growing, writes Graham Usher in Islamabad

Earlier this month, 23-year-old Asim Abdul-Rahman exploded on a police bus at the height of the morning rush hour. Some 35 people were killed, including 22 police officers. So far, so familiar... only the suicide bombing wasn't in downtown Baghdad. It was in Kabul, and represented the deadliest attack in the Afghan capital since the Taliban was ousted from power in November 2001.

In method, target and impact the blast showed how much the Taliban have borrowed from the Iraq insurgency. It is an influence conceded by them, says Taliban spokesman, Zabiyallah Mujahed. "Yes we are repeating the tactics used in Iraq," he told the BBC in an interview on 21 June. "They have proved effective in defeating the enemy [in Iraq], and our enemy is the same."

It is not clear how the cross-fertilisation works. Some observers say there is "traffic" of Al-Qaeda fighters between Iraq and Afghanistan, via Iran. Others say the Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaderships have again managed to carve out sanctuaries in the remote mountain passes that straddle the Afghan- Pakistan border. But whatever the source, many acknowledge the spiral of violence seen in Iraq is now being replicated in Afghanistan, and driven by the same forms of counter-insurgency.

One is an over-reliance on airpower despite the historical fact that air supremacy has never yet succeeded in quelling an indigenous insurgency.

NATO commanders in Afghanistan insist air strikes are necessary to bolster their overstretched soldiers combating Taliban fighters on the ground. They say airpower has been effective in subduing the Taliban in their strongholds in the south and east of Afghanistan as well as in repelling an anticipated Taliban offensive this spring.

But Afghan and international human rights monitors say NATO air strikes have been responsible for the unprecedented levels of Afghan civilian deaths this year, and are the principle cause of rising Afghan hostility to NATO's occupation of their country.

On 20 June, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), an umbrella organisation based in Kabul representing 94 foreign and local aid agencies, said NATO and Afghan soldiers had killed 230 Afghan civilians this year, including 60 women and children. This is more than the number of civilians killed by the Taliban. ACBAR also gave examples of how Afghans are increasingly suffering Iraqi-style deaths in their post-Taliban country.

Aside from "dozens" being slain in "indiscriminate and disproportionate" NATO air raids, at least nine had died in botched assaults on their homes. And 14 had been shot dead "for driving or walking too close to international military personnel or vehicles". Even in Kabul troops manning checkpoints outside the massively fortified NATO bases tend to fire first and ask questions later, say locals.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai would seem to agree. Addressing a press conference in Kabul on 23 June, he slammed NATO forces for "careless operations" that had killed 90 Afghan civilians in 10 days. "You don't fight a terrorist by firing a field gun 37km (24 miles) away into a target. That's surely bound to cause civilian casualties," he said

From now on, NATO would have to coordinate its operations with the Afghan government in line with existing ground rules, said the Afghan leader. A NATO spokesman in Kabul acknowledged that the Afghan president "has a right to be angry and disappointed over the scale of civilian casualties in the past few days."

But few analysts believe NATO will be any more accountable to Karzai than US-Anglo forces are to the Iraqi government -- or, indeed, than the 12,000 NATO troops stationed near the Afghan-Pakistan border are to Pakistan President Pervaz Musharraf.

On 24 June, NATO admitted it had caused the deaths of Pakistani civilians living on the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan. At least nine Pakistani tribesmen had lost their lives to a barrage of rockets that, said NATO, were fired to kill 60 Taliban infiltrating the border the day before.

But sources in Pakistan's tribal areas with Afghanistan dismiss NATO's body count as well as its apology. They say 31 of the supposed slain "insurgents" were in fact Pakistan tribesmen and their families, including women and children. They also point out that NATO helicopters prior to the barrage had dropped leaflets inside Pakistan warning tribesmen that infiltration from their areas would be met with rocket attacks.

"This is now the strategy of the foreign [NATO] forces," says Mahmoud Shah, a former Pakistani army brigadier in the tribal areas. "Since Pakistan has abandoned what it was supposed to do against the militants, NATO is hitting the 'suspected places' inside Pakistan themselves".

It is clear what the fall out will be, says Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistan analyst and expert on the Taliban: Iraqi-style suicide bombings not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan.

"Collateral damage in the tribal areas is causing widespread anger not only against the US forces in Afghanistan but also against Pakistan's military government," he says. "And it will be Pakistan no less than the US that will bear the consequences."

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