McChrystal apologises for Afghan civilian casualties

General McChrystal offers public apology for Afghans killed by NATO airstrike. Turkish top military officials arrested over alleged coup plot. US army has contingency plans for delaying Iraq withdrawal. Afghan immigrant admits plans to bomb New York subway. All this and much more, in today’s security briefing.
Dries Belet
23 February 2010

General Stanley McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, has recorded an official apology for the Afghan people, NATO officials said on Tuesday. Two days ago, at least 27 civilians – including four women and a child – were killed when three vehicles were bombed in a NATO airstrike in southern Afghanistan.

McChrystal had already apologized personally to Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, but has now recorded a video that will be broadcast to the Afghan people, with an apology dubbed in the local languages Dari and Pashto. McChrystal expresses “extreme sadness” for the “tragic loss of innocent lives”, and emphasizes that foreign troops are in Afghnistan “to protect the Afghan people”.

The Afghan central government condemned the attack on Monday, calling it “unacceptable” and demanding that NATO troops “coordinate with the Afghan security forces” before operations. The airstrike came hours after Karzai had urged NATO to do more to protect Afghan civilians

An Afghan police official said the bombed vehicles were completely wrecked, and that many of the bodies were so disfigured it was hard to identify them. All of the victims were Hazaras, an ethnic group from central Afghanistan traditionally unsympathetic to the Taliban.

The openSecurity verdict: Yesterday NATO confirmed it had ordered an immediate investigation partnered with the Afghan government to look into the incident. A key question is whether the forces that called in the airstrike followed the correct rules of engagement. Since general McChrystal took over as ranking commander of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, he has introduced more stringent rules of engagement, which aim to limit civilian casualties through reduced use of artillery attacks and airstrikes. McChrystal recognised that large losses of innocent Afghan lives make it very difficult to win the local population’s support against the Taliban. McChrystal already issued an apology for a similar incident about a week ago, when a NATO rocket strike killed twelve Afghan civilians.

The calamitous airstrike raises questions about the increased use of Special Operations Forces (SOF) against the Afghan insurgents. The SOF primarily function as a spearhead in hunting down the Taliban, and by their very nature they tend to avail themselves of violent force to fulfil their objectives. Commentators have suggested that conventional forces might be better suited in the fight to protect ordinary people and win ‘hearts and minds’.

Incidents like this one are a catastrophe for NATO’s public image in Afghanistan, and have significant political consequences. Large losses of civilian life hand the Taliban a free public-relations victory and hinder McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy. Military officials have said that the airstrike was not part of operation Moshtarak, the coalition offensive against the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. However, the civilian casualties threatened to overshadow NATO’s attempt to showcase its gains in Marjah, with a first visit to the town by the newly appointed civilian chief of a novel civilian government for the area.

Afghans will recall the plethora of civilian killings by foreign soldiers: an airstrike on fuel tankers in September killed up to 142 people, a 2000-pound bomb from a B-1 strategic bomber left dozens dead in May, and in November 2008 the bombing of a wedding in Kandahar cost the lives of 37 people. While McChrystal’s rules of engagement are stricter than those before, incidents and innocent victims are inevitable as long as the war in Afghanistan continues. NATO forces are bound to make deadly mistakes sometimes, especially since they still are under tremendous pressure to fight a minimal casualty war, with this year’s January and February troop fatalities double those of last year and total US deaths having reached the mark of 1,000.

Turkish top military officials arrested over alleged coup plot

On Tuesday, Turkish prosecutors interrogated some fifty military commanders, including a former air force chief and navy chief, and an ex-deputy chief of army, in connection with a suspected plot to overthrow the government. The officers are suspected of plans to blow up mosques and provoke the Greek air force into shooting down a fighter jet, in an attempt to provide a pretext for a military coup.

The sweep to detain important military figures throughout eight Turkish cities is the biggest challenge ever to the formerly supreme authority of the military. The army, which sees itself as the guardian of the secular Kemalist state, has ousted four governments since 1960 – the last in 1997. The arrests appear to be connected to allegations of a coup plot published by the Turkish newspaper Taraf last month. According to the supposed secret army documents published, a plot called ‘Sledgehammer’ planned to provoke unrest and undermine the government, after which the military hoped to step in and restore order. The army and secular nationalist establishment view the governing AK party with suspicion, since it is rooted in political Islam and is accused by some of aiming to turn the country in an Islamist state.

The army has denied all allegations, and said that the plans in question were only part of a planning exercise at a military seminar, and not a coup plot. On hearing of the arrests, the current army chief postponed his travel plans to Egypt.

US army has contingency plans for delaying Iraq withdrawal

American combat forces could remain in Iraq after this summer’s scheduled pullout, the top US commander in Baghdad has said. Army general Ray Odierno stated that the withdrawal could be slowed if political instability and violence increase after Iraqi national elections on 7 March.

President Obama has set a deadline for the withdrawal of all combat forces by the end of August, in accordance with a security pact between Washington and Baghdad. In any case, US supporting troops will remain to take care of training Iraqi forces until the end of 2011, when all foreign soldiers are supposed to leave.

Speaking at the Pentagon, general Odierno said that the withdrawal was on schedule and that he was optimistic it would not be delayed, but that Iraq’s uncertain political future meant that contingency plans had to be prepared. On Monday, at least 23 were killed in an upsurge of sectarian violence, raising fears ahead of the upcoming elections.

Afghan immigrant admits plan to bomb New York subway 

On Monday, an Afghan man pleaded guilty to plotting a bomb attack on the New York subway in protest against American involvement in Afghanistan. Najibullah Zazi, a 25 year-old Afghan immigrant to the US, said he received weapons and bomb-making training from Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and called the plot a “martyrdom operation”. Zazi told the court that he planned to sacrifice himself “to bring attention to what the US military was doing to civilians in Afghanistan”.

Eric Holder, the US attorney-general, said the planned attack was one of the most serious security threats to the US since 9/11, and could have been “devastating”. Zazi, who pleaded guilty to conspiracies to use WMD, to commit murder in a foreign country, and to provide material support to a terrorist organization, faces a possible life sentence. Four co-conspirators have also been charged in the plot.

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