The US-led coalition is obsessed with establishing a corridor sanitaire along the Afghanistan border with Pakistan, creating other security holes inside Afghanistan. Most notably, suspected Taliban insurgents are now operating in districts well inside the border and are blatantly attacking foreign aid workers and their Afghan colleagues. At the same time, these insurgents are also attacking local government offices and election workers in a deliberate effort to disrupt the upcoming September elections. In the single most lethal attack against Western aid workers since the US-led coalition overthrew the Taliban regime in December 2001, a Dutch man, a Belgian woman and a Norwegian man were killed on June 2 in the Qadis district of northwestern Badghis province. The three were working for Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which has operated in Afghanistan since 1979 and has been active in Badghis province since 1999. A driver and a translator – both Afghans – were also killed when the vehicle in which they were traveling was ambushed (PakTribune.com, Kabul, June 5).
Taliban spokesman Haji Latif Hakimi, speaking by satellite phone from an unknown location, told local news agencies on June 3 that Taliban guerrillas carried out the attack because aid groups, such as MSF, “worked for the US military under the guise of humanitarian work.” On the night of June 6, a grenade was thrown at the office of Italian aid agency Alisei in Qalai Nau, the capital of Badghis province, but there were no casualties. (Reuters, Kabul, June 7). However, following the incident, five foreign aid groups have suspended operations in the province. Also, the United Nations on June 3 said that it had halted voter registration in Badghis pending a security review.
On May 27, the European Union’s executive branch had accused US-led troops in Afghanistan of endangering the lives of foreign aid workers. While announcing a donation of 35 million euros (US$43 million) for Afghanistan, European Commission spokesman Jean-Charles Ellermann-Kingombe said that US-led coalition soldiers in southern Afghanistan dressed in civilian clothes and used the same types of vehicles as driven by aid workers. As a result, “the distinction between humanitarian and military personnel is becoming blurred,” Ellermann-Kingombe said (Arab News, Brussels, May 28).
In Kabul, US military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Tucker Mansager said leaders of the coalition of 20,000 troops are assessing the implications of the killings in Badghis. He said the coalition is considering the possibility of increasing its presence in northern Afghanistan – considered so far to have been a relatively safe area compared to the south. Mansager also acknowledged that the recent spurt in fighting in interior Afghanistan appeared to confirm that insurgents were now operating from bases within Afghanistan, rather than mounting raids from Pakistan (PakTribune.com, Kabul, June 7).
However, according to a May 31 column by Robert Novak in the Washington Post, US forces in Afghanistan are divided in their assessment of the situation. There are deep divisions between the regular infantry and Special Operations Forces (SOF). The SOF soldiers and junior officers have a low opinion of US military commander Lieutenant General David Barno. Barno and other officers from the regular army are at a loss on how to fight the guerrilla war in Afghanistan. Above all, SOF soldiers “are appalled by the immense but fruitless effort” to find Osama bin Laden for US political purposes. According to SOF troops, bin Laden is hiding in Pakistan and, therefore, impossible to find in Afghanistan. From Novak’s account, it is clear that the majority of US troops in Afghanistan could be better utilized in providing security for ordinary Afghans eager to register for the crucial September elections. Instead, many Afghans feel hounded and harassed by US troops who are fruitlessly searching for bin Laden and al-Qaida fighters in the provinces bordering Pakistan.
The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission has gathered reports on how US soldiers forcibly entered tribal homes. In some cases, male soldiers have searched females – something repugnant to Afghan culture. Men have been led away as suspects and never reunited with their families. There also have been reports of physical torture. However, the human rights group has been denied access to US detention centers and has yet to receive satisfactory answers to investigations into mistaken US aerial raids in December that claimed the lives of Afghan civilians – including 15 children – in Ghazni and Paktia provinces (Dawn, Kabul, May 28). To win the hearts and minds of Afghans — especially the formerly dominant Pashtuns in the southern and eastern provinces — the US-led coalition must do its bit for nation-building and prepare for the long haul in Afghanistan.