NATO’s plans for winning over the population in southern Afghanistan suffered a major setback yesterday when US soldiers opened fire on a bus full of civilians. The killing of four passengers, including a woman and a child, and the wounding of more than a dozen others ignited anti-American demonstrations on the streets of Kandahar. Furious Afghan men assembled on a highway to protest, burning tyres and chanting “Death to America” and “Death to Karzai, death to this government”.
The bus had come up at high speed behind a slow-moving convoy that was on a bomb-clearing patrol outside of Kandahar, NATO said in a statement. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) stated its troops used a flashlight, three flares, and hand signals in an attempt to “warn off” the driver of the vehicle, which he ignored. They then opened fire on the bus, perceiving it as a threat due to the velocity of its approach. The incident occurred before dawn, making it difficult for the soldiers to identify the vehicle as a passenger bus. “Once engaged, the vehicle then stopped”, NATO added. The coalition has said it “deeply regrets the tragic loss of life”.
Contrary to what NATO says, some witnesses claim the firing erupted without any warning or signals, when the bus was still 80 to 100 metres behind the convoy in the Zhari district. The governor of Kandahar province, Tooryalai Wesa, excoriated American forces and demanded that the troops’ commander be prosecuted under military law. President Karzai called the shooting “unjustifiable”, and said that “firing on a passenger bus is against the NATO commitment to save civilian lives.” Since last summer, over 30 innocent civilians have been killed and more than 80 wounded in convoy and checkpoint shootings by ISAF forces.
The openSecurity verdict: The deadly incident could hardly have come at a worse time for the NATO mission, which is preparing a grand offensive to secure Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban. Operation ‘Omid’ (‘hope’) is widely considered a key test of Obama’s troop surge; however, NATO’s strategy to root out the Taliban by winning over the local population has now been dealt a grave blow. The Times reported that elders in Kandahar believe people have lost all confidence in the foreign troops. “The operation hasn’t even started yet, but every day they kill civilians”, Haji Wali Jan said. “If they are afraid of a bus, how can they continue with an operation in Kandahar?”
General Stanley McChrystal, who assumed the ISAF command in June 2009, has already overhauled NATO’s strategy in order to focus more on protecting the population and winning their ‘hearts and minds’. To limit so called "collateral damage", the killing of civilians during operations against the Taliban, he limited recall to air strikes and home raids. However, risks remain and high-profile incidents have continued to attract negative attention to NATO forces. On 22 February, an airstrike in Uruzgan killed over twenty people mistaken for insurgents; ten days earlier, a night raid by US special forces near Gardez, in the southeast, killed five people including two pregnant women. After the fatal airstrike some ISAF soldiers in Kandahar reported that local residents became markedly more antagonistic towards them, throwing rocks and spitting at the troops.
The incident is another weight on scales set against a NATO victory in Kandahar and the rest of southern Afghanistan. National polls over the last year have indicated that support for NATO has been decreasing and now hangs in the balance, with the Kandahar population outwardly supportive of the Taliban estimated at a quarter or more. Recent civilian casualties are likely to gain the insurgency critical local backing and freedom of movement throughout a city that is only nominally under government control. Only hours after yesterday’s incident, Taliban suicide bombers stormed the Afghan intelligence agency’s office in Kandahar..
Looking at the accidental killings of civilians also sheds some light on President Karzai’s recent scathing attacks on western ISAF forces, their governments, and the UN. It is conceivable that Hamid Karzai is truly enraged and distressed by the civilian killings, as evidenced by his reaction to an Afghan boy who lost his legs in the airstrike in February. Still, emotional outbursts by Karzai notwithstanding, there are likely additional motivations behind his scolding of the western governments.
By distancing himself from the US and NATO, Karzai gains vital support from domestic groups in Afghanistan, enabling him to strengthen his central government. While NATO should be glad at any shift away in power from the insurgents to the government in Kabul, Karzai’s scolding of the ISAF forces is not free from risk: it could further magnify Afghan resentment against foreign troops.
Moreover, US analysts worry about Karzai moving closer to powers like Iran and China, and the expansion of geopolitical rivalry over influence in Afghanistan, where Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia, China, the EU and the US have all made significant investments. Such a development could see the intensification of a multiparty conflict in Afghanistan, such as occured in the prelude to the Taliban's assent to power, and the spread of the conflict beyond the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The deteriorating relations between Karzai and his increasingly reluctant international backers will prove crucial, and mass civilian casualties will be centre-stage in this ongoing row.
Obama presses Hu to collaborate on Iran sanctions
On Tuesday China edged slightly closer to endorsing sanctions on Iran, pledging to work with the US on a UN resolution, after talks between President Obama and Chinese president Hu Jintao. In a ninety-minute meeting yesterday, before the opening of a nuclear summit in Washington, Obama brought up both the topic of Iran and concerns about China’s undervalued currency.
American officials said the Chinese president basically agreed to assist in crafting a new UN Security Council resolution on Iran’s nuclear programme. Today the Chinese foreign ministry nuanced these remarks, saying it wanted any Security Council action to work towards a diplomatic way out of the dilemma. A spokesperson mentioned the need “to promote a fitting solution to the Iranian nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiations,” and added that “sanctions and pressure cannot fundamentally resolve the issues.” It is quite likely that Chinese negotiators will seek to water down any UN resolutions proposed by America or Europe, as they have done with the three previous resolutions on Iran, negotiated under president George W. Bush.
Hu Jintao’s attendence at the nuclear summit is in itself viewed as a positive sign for US-China relations, which were frayed after disputes over US arms sales to Taiwan, a visit to Washington by the Dalai Lama, trade imbalances, and suspected Chinese cyber-attacks on US firms including Google. At the nuclear summit Obama is expected to try and isolate Iran on its nuclear programme, which experts fear is designed to produce nuclear weapons.
Kyrgyzstan’s defiant president ordered to yield
Kyrgyzstan’s interim leaders gave the deposed president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, an ultimatum on Tuesday: return to the capital of Bishkek, or face arrest. The provisional government stripped the president of his immunity and threatened he would be detained by special forces if he failed to surrender before the end of the day.
The ousted president has continued to resist, leading a rally of several thousand people in Jalalabad today, after having fled from the capital for his power base in the south of the country. “Let them try to come and take me,” Bakiyev challenged Kyrgyzstan’s new rulers on Monday after another rally. “Let them try to destroy me. There will be blood,” he warned.
Bakiyev claims the decisions made by the interim government are “not legitimate”. Bloody riots in Bishkek led to him losing control over the government and the capital last week.
Israeli forces kill Palestinian militant near Gaza border
Israeli troops killed one Palestinian gunman and wounded three others during a clash in the Gaza strip, according to the Israeli military and Palestinian medics. The Israelis opened fire as militants of the group Islamic Jihad tried to plant explosives near the Israel-Gaza boundary, an Israeli army spokesman and Palestinians said. The Islamic Jihad group, a radical rival of the ruling Hamas party, confirmed it had sent the attackers to strike at Israeli forces along Gaza’s eastern border, and that the militants came under fire from Israeli tanks and a helicopter.
The Isreali army reported that its troops advanced 200 metres into Palestinian territory near the Al-Bureij refugee camp in the central Gaza strip. It said that the attempted terrorist attack was foiled, but that troops were still investigating the area for more bombs that could possibly have been planted.
Hamas has generally tried to stick to the cease-fire it reached with Israel after the three-week Gaza war in January 2009. However, smaller militant groups continue to carry out attacks. On Sunday, Hamas briefly detained several Jihadists for attempting to launch rockets into Israel.