Afghanistan Taliban ‘using human shields’

Taliban militants are increasingly using civilians as “human shields” as they battle against a joint Afghan-Nato offensive, an Afghan general has said.
Gen Mohiudin Ghori said his soldiers had seen Taliban fighters placing women and children on the roofs of buildings and firing from behind them.
The joint offensive in southern Helmand province has entered its fifth day.
US Marines fighting to take the Taliban haven of Marjah have had to call in air support as they come under heavy fire.
They have faced sustained machine-gun fire from fighters hiding in bunkers and in buildings including homes and mosques.

Gen Ghori, the senior commander for Afghan troops in the area, accused the Taliban of taking civilians hostage in Marjah and putting them in the line of fire.
“Especially in the south of Marjah, the enemy is fighting from compounds where soldiers can very clearly see women or children on the roof or in a second-floor or third-floor window,” he is quoted by Associated Press as saying.
“They are trying to get us to fire on them and kill the civilians.”
As a result, his forces were having to make the choice either not to return fire, he said, or to advance much more slowly in order to distinguish militants from civilians.

Nato has stressed that the safety of civilians in the areas targeted in the joint Nato and Afghan Operation Moshtarak is its highest priority.
Journalist Jawad Dawari, based in Lashkar Gah, told BBC Pashto that Taliban fighters remained in many residential areas of Marjah and were defending their positions with heavy weapons.
“It is difficult for the Afghan army and Nato to storm Taliban-held areas because to do so may inflict heavy civilian casualties and there are still a lot of civilians in Marjah.
“Whenever they launch an attack, the Taliban take refuge in civilians’ homes.”
He had spoken to many local people in Marjah, he said, and they had all said the Nato offensive had made little progress since the first day.
An Afghan military official had told reporters that the backbone of the resistance came from foreign fighters – Pakistani and Arab – and that it was feared they might resort to suicide attacks, he added.

The most senior US general in the south, Brig Gen Ben Hodges, gave a more upbeat assessment of Marjah, saying locals were coming out to give information on insurgents now that they were confident the forces involved in Operation Moshtarak were not leaving.
He said Afghan units would be staying for at least 30 days and the Marine battalions “for several months”.
Speaking after visiting Marjah, the commander of British forces in southern Afghanistan, Maj Gen Nick Carter, said the situation was dangerous, but that progress was being made.
He said it could take up to 30 days to clear the insurgents out, depending on when they lost the will to fight.
Troops taking part in the offensive have been having to deal with large numbers of improvised bombs.
American forces have found a so-called “daisy chain” – a long bomb rigged up from mortar bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and a motorbike.

And British engineers have deployed a device called a “python” – a length of explosives designed to set off mines and clear a safe path through them.
Afghan army chief of staff Besmillah Khan told the AFP news agency the threat from improvised bombs meant gains were coming “slowly”.
Meanwhile, to the north, British forces have discovered an insurgent cache of stolen Afghan army and police uniforms.
The find suggests the Taliban could have been planning attacks disguised as Afghan security personnel, our correspondent says.
Nato says discussions with the local population on how to bring lasting security to the area are continuing, our correspondent adds.
Gen Hodges said several hundred police had been trained and would go into central Helmand once the situation was deemed appropriate.
British and Afghan troops are reported to be advancing more swiftly in the nearby district of Nad Ali than are their US and Afghan counterparts in Marjah.

Missiles ‘on target’
Gen Carter confirmed on Tuesday a missile that struck a house outside Marjah on Sunday killing 12 people, including six children, had hit its intended target.

Gen Carter said the rocket had not malfunctioned and the US system responsible for firing it was back in use. Officials say three Taliban, as well as civilians, were in the house but the Nato soldiers did not know the civilians were there.
Initial Nato reports said the missile had landed about 300m (984ft) off its intended target. Gen Carter blamed these “conflicting” reports on “the fog of war”.
Speaking on Tuesday, Dawud Ahmadi – a spokesman for Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal – said that 1,240 families had been displaced and evacuated from Marjah – and all had received aid in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
Operation Moshtarak, meaning “together” in the Dari language, is the biggest coalition attack since the Taliban fell in 2001.

Afghanistan conflict an ‘information war’

It’s called shaping the battlefield. It’s not the traditional air onslaught or artillery barrage designed to weaken an intended enemy before the offensive goes in.

Instead it’s now about shaping the information battlefield, because in Afghanistan – and in modern warfare in general – information has become the new front line.
At the very heart of Nato and the Pentagon, the disciples of the new art of “strategic communications” know that perceptions matter.
Nato’s top commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, made this point explicitly in a recent interview.
“This is all a war of perceptions. This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants.”
Any information you send out carries with it a variety of messages.

Take the current operation in Helmand. It has been broadcast widely in advance. It even has a not-so-catchy title: Operation Moshtarak, which in Dari translates as “together”. So there you have it, already three messages, if not more.
The operation’s title is in a local language and it stresses the idea of partnership – doubly signifying that this is a joint operation between Nato and Afghan government forces doing the job “together”.
The advance warning too sends a crucial signal – it is part of a deliberate and explicit strategy to encourage civilians to take precautions; to calm and inform tribal leaders; and perhaps to encourage some Taliban fighters to make themselves scarce.
“This operation has certainly been telegraphed in advance far more than previous operations,” one Nato insider said, “but the alliance has been doing this kind of thing for some time.
“The message is clear. We are determined to take the area, but in such a way as to minimise violence”, the official said. “But if we have to fight for it, we will win.”

That sounds just a bit more like the traditional kind of message you would expect at such a time, but the reality is that on the information battlefield, just as in operations on the ground, things have changed dramatically.

What began as inducement or encouragement for troops to lay down their arms, or basic instructions to civilians not to get in the way of military operations – think leaflets dropped by aircraft in World War II – has blossomed into almost a social science of cause and effect.
Psychological operations or “psy-ops” of the 1950s have morphed into information warfare.
There have been uneasy debates about where the boundary line between this and the traditional press officer’s role should be, because, let’s face it, the media is an involuntary actor in this drama too.
However the new discipline of strategic communications seeks to go beyond information operations, press briefings and leaflet drops. It is, in the words of one alliance official, “an over-arching concept that seeks to put information at the very centre of policy planning.”
When you are fighting wars within communities in an effort to secure popular support for one side or another – the traditional struggle for hearts and minds – you can see how central the concerns of the new strategic information warriors have become.
In some ways, this is at the very core of modern counter-insurgency strategy.

‘No hiding’
However there are limitations, not least those related to the ubiquity of the modern mass media.
As Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute in London, said: “Strategic communications can only ever give out one message. They’ve tried in the past to put out split messages and it doesn’t work.”
So much of what people hear in Helmand province, they also hear in Britain and in other troop-contributing countries.
“There’s a positive side to this,” says Mr Clarke, “It’s a consistent message, but the danger is that if things on the ground get messy, there will be no hiding from it.” The information frontline is in effect everywhere.
This growing centrality of information and the need to shape perceptions inevitably prompts critics to suggest that this is all not so new after all – isn’t it just one huge propaganda exercise writ large?
Not surprisingly, one of the new Nato information warriors disagrees.
“In strategic communications, the messages you are sending must fit the facts on the ground,” he says. “The discipline is about bringing perceptions and reality together to achieve an effect.”

‘Untidy end’
Many critics may remain unconvinced seeing the whole thing as a giant spin-machine intended to accentuate the positive and present one particular carefully-controlled narrative of events.
Because that, in a sense, is what is at stake – it is a battle for the narrative.
Whose interpretation of what is happening is going to prevail? This new focus raises uncomfortable questions for anyone involved in the information business. Perceptions matter in another way too.
There is unlikely to be a tidy end to the Afghan conflict. Nobody really can define what “victory” or “defeat” in the traditional sense might mean.
So if it is to be an untidy conclusion then what people think about it – how they judge the outcome – really does matter.
It used to be said that: “Britain won its wars on the playing fields of Eton.”
But now a new kind of warfare means that the information battle has to be fought on multiple fronts by multiple actors.
From the fields of Helmand to the small towns of Kansas; from the tribal areas of Pakistan to British cities where voters are girding themselves for a coming election, the news from the Afghan battle-front will shape perceptions – and these perceptions will inevitably shape future policy.

Nato begins major Afghanistan offensive

Thousands of American and Afghan troops have launched the biggest offensive in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, the US military says.

Nato distributed leaflets in Marjah warning of the planned offensive

Helicopter-borne US marines and Afghan troops are attacking the Taliban-held town of Marjah in Nad Ali district in a bid to re-establish government control.
Nato says Marjah is home to the biggest community under insurgent control in the south and 400 to 1,000 militants.
Many residents fled ahead of Operation Moshtarak – meaning “together” in Dari.
Nato had distributed leaflets in the Marjah area warning of the planned offensive in a bid to limit civilian casualties. Villagers said they warned Taliban fighters to leave the area or be killed.

Despite the warnings, reports from Helmand suggest many civilians remain, while the Taliban has claimed its fighters are ready to resist the assault.
It is thought the Taliban will have prepared defences, and planted many improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Earlier this week British forces began a “softening up” process, taking part in a Nato ground and air offensive on insurgent positions.
On Thursday a British soldier involved in Operation Moshtarak was killed by an IED, and UK Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has warned that there will be more casualties in the coming days.

‘First wave’
Operation Moshtarak will be led by the US Marine Corps, but some 4,000 British troops will also be involved, supported by Danes and Estonians. Some reports say more than 15,000 troops in total will be sent to the area.

The initial offensive in Marjah began early on Saturday. More than 4,000 US marines, 1,500 Afghan soldiers and 300 US soldiers moved in by helicopter under cover of night.
The assault was preceded by illumination flares, which were fired over the town at about 0200 local time (2130 GMT on Friday ), the Associated Press reported.
“The first wave of choppers has landed inside Marjah. The operation has begun,” said Capt Joshua Winfrey, commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, which was at the forefront of the attack.
For the first time Afghan forces have been at the forefront of planning and will share the burden of the fighting. More than 1,900 Afghan police will provide support after the initial military operations end, and a large team of Afghan administrators have been assembled.
“We are in this together. We planned it together; we will fight it together; we will see it through together. Afghans with allies; soldiers with civilians; government with its people,” the commander of British forces in Helmand, Brig James Cowan, told his troops on Thursday.
“Soon we will clear the Taliban from its safe havens in central Helmand. Where we go, we will stay. Where we stay, we will build.”

‘Tipping point’
A senior Nato official told the BBC that Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, had approved the start of the offensive on Thursday.
The official said it was “probably the definitive operation” of the counter-insurgency strategy outlined last year by the commander of both Nato and US forces in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal.

Residents of Marjah fear being trapped between troops and militants

“If it goes well, this operation could potentially define the tipping point, the crucial momentum aspect in the counter-insurgency,” the official said. “We are going to take this place and take it very hard.”
The decision to go into Marjah is part of an effort to secure a 320km (200-mile) horseshoe-shaped string of cities that runs along the Helmand River, through Kandahar and on to the Pakistani border, the official added.
The area holds 85% of the population of Kandahar and Helmand.
The BBC’s Adam Brookes says the offensive has political importance in Washington because it is by far the largest single operation since President Barack Obama announced a “surge” in December, increasing the number of US troops in the country by 30,000 to nearly 100,000.
Marjah, which lies in Helmand’s “green zone” – an irrigated area of lush vegetation and farmland – is a hive of Taliban activity and is a centre for cultivation of opium poppies.
Once the area is secured, Nato hopes to provide aid and to restore public services in the area. The aim, the alliance says, is to win support among the estimated 125,000 people who live there and prevent the Taliban from regaining control.

Afghan villages abandoned before Nato-led operation

Hundreds of villagers living in a Taliban-controlled area of southern Afghanistan are leaving before a major Nato-led offensive gets under way.
It is expected to be one of the largest counter-insurgency operations since the Afghan conflict began in 2001.
The operation to clear insurgents from the southern town of Marja, in Helmand province, is expected to begin soon.
The UK defence secretary has warned of likely casualties within coalition troops during the offensive.
“Of course casualties are something that we have to expect when we are involved in these operations,” Bob Ainsworth said late on Sunday.
“This is not in any way a safe environment and it doesn’t matter how much kit and equipment we provide for people. We can never entirely make these operations risk-free,” he added.

Working together
Operation Mushtarak – which means “Together” in the Pashtun language of southern Afghanistan – is expected to be launched within the next few days.
The British general in overall command of the operation, Maj Gen Nick Carter, said this offensive would be different from previous operations.
In the past coalition forces have driven out the Taliban but then had too few troops to maintain security for the local population.
For the first time, Gen Carter said, Afghan forces would be at the forefront of planning the operation, before being followed up by the introduction of large numbers of newly trained police supported by the coalition.

UK forces ‘soften up’ Taliban targets
At the regional headquarters in Kandahar, commanders are aware of the Afghan police’s sometimes dubious reputation and are preparing to monitor their performance during the operation.
The town of Marja is home to the biggest community under insurgent control in southern Afghanistan
The overall Nato commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, said the operation would “send a strong signal that the Afghan government is expanding its security control”.
The forthcoming offensive will be the first major military action since US President Barack Obama announced the deployment of 30,000 extra US troops.
Planning has been under way for weeks, with Nato helicopters dropping leaflets on the area warning residents to leave the area.
Provincial officials said about 35,000 residents of Marja were taking the advice and heading to other parts of Helmand.
One resident, Gul Muhammed, told AFP news agency why he had left town.
“There are Taliban all over the place and foreign troops around Marja,” he said. “So I was scared that we might get hurt.”

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Thousands of children are without food and water.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that while the relief effort in Haiti is beginning to gain its footing, providing food for more than two million people a day represents the most complex task it has ever faced.
Relief agencies have tried to buy goods locally and regionally, but such efforts have been hampered because local markets affected by the earthquake have been slow to reopen, and Haiti’s subsistence farms have been unable to ramp up production. This has forced the WFP to use nearly all of its stores of high-energy biscuits and nutrient-rich meals which do not require water.

Aid agencies will begin to distribute staple foods such as rice, beans, vegetable oil and salt – instead of just emergency ration packs – once cooking equipment has been distributed widely and safe water supplies have been established.

There is an acute shortage of drinking water in areas affected by the earthquake. The water supply system, which before the disaster only provided 40% of the population of Port-au-Prince with clean water, has effectively collapsed.

Aid agencies are shipping in massive quantities of bottled water and distributing water purification tablets. Many people, however, have complained that they have received little, if any, of either.
The rapid response phase is expected to last two months and will need to be followed by longer-term activities, such as providing reliable water supplies for rebuilt homes and new settlements.

Pakistan advises Taliban role in Afghan government

The foreign minister of Pakistan has told the BBC that the Afghan government would benefit from involving moderate elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Shah Mahmood Qureshi said the militant group represented some of Afghanistan’s large Pashtun community and had to be taken into consideration.
A “wedge” could be driven between moderates and hardliners, he said.
Mr Qureshi argued that most Pakistanis had turned against the extremism of the country’s home-grown Taliban.

Pakistan was one of the few countries to recognise the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government between the mid-1990s and 2001, when they were ousted by the US-led invasion.
In recent years, Pakistan has been fighting a military campaign against the country’s own version of the Taliban, which have their strongholds near the Afghan border.
Speaking in London as the city hosted an international conference on Afghanistan’s future, Mr Qureshi said the Pashtuns were Afghanistan’s largest ethnic community and could not be ignored.
“Get them into the mainstream, give them a respectable share in power, it will add to stability,” he told the BBC World Service.

He rejected the suggestion that giving the Taliban a role in Kabul might encourage the Pakistani Taliban’s militant campaign.
“I think it will create a wedge between the hard core and the moderates,” he said.
“We in Pakistan have carried out our own national effort. Today in Pakistan people are convinced that this element which wants to Taliban-ise Pakistan is not in line with the overwhelming majority of people in Pakistan.”

Does banning terror groups work?

It has been a long time coming – but one of the most hardline Islamist groups ever to have organised in the UK is being banned.
For years al-Muhajiroun in various forms has set out to provoke a reaction from other Muslim groups, politicians and the media.
After months of testing the Home Office with increasingly provocative pronouncements on its website and on the streets, the ban has come. The question is what practical effect will it have?
A ban might look symbolic – but it does have some weight to it. Under the law, anyone who is found to be a member of al-Muhajiroun, which is also known as Islam4UK, will face up to 10 years in jail.
Anyone who supports the organisation, such as in a street rally, could also face the same charge. The law also covers the wearing of a uniform, because it was originally devised to cover Northern Ireland’s paramilitaries.
If the police identify any financial assets, they will be seized – and its website will be shut down.
But the difficult question to answer is whether the law has any effect in stopping people from organising.

If the police and security services are monitoring meetings involving former members of al-Muhajiroun, any charge will need to prove in court the individuals had all knowingly met as members of the group.
Of the 60 organisations proscribed under terrorism legislation in the UK, 14 of them are from Northern Ireland.
The most important and largest of these is the IRA. When membership became an offence, an organisation like the IRA was never going to simply break up because Parliament had banned it.
Instead, its members stopped organising in ways that would leave them open to a charge.
During the Troubles, this led to the legally curious situation where Republicans would organise honour guards of “volunteers” to carry coffins of their dead. They wore military fatigues, black berets and dark glasses.
There was nothing to officially say this was an IRA funeral – but everybody knew it was.
So what a ban comes down to is a situation where the government is trying to make it harder for a group to organise openly; proscription is just one weapon in the security armoury.

Ban challenged
The only group to have challenged a ban and won is a small Iranian nationalist group, the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran.
Its supporters in the UK fought a long campaign to be taken off the terror list. What was clear at the time was the group’s supporters did not stop meeting just because the organisation was banned.
In fact, many of the members used the ban as a means of promoting their cause more widely. Eventually, they had a group of parliamentarians behind them willing to question the Home Office’s decision.
Omar Bakri Mohammad, founder of al-Muhajiroun, has already sought to capitalise on the ban: “[The ban] will increase the popularity of al-Muhajiroun and increase the membership, and I think it is a grave mistake because it will force them underground and [Home Secretary Alan Johnson] is playing with fire.
“I think that it’s really a grave mistake because they will realise this war is against Islam in general and Muslim youths in particular.”
Inayat Bunglawala, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said:
“There’s a risk [that young Muslims will be radicalised]. We have already seen Anjem Choudary [the leader of al-Muhajiroun] saying, ‘look, that the government has had to resort to banning our group shows that democracy is just a charade’.
“What we should have been doing as a confident democracy is actually upholding those values of pluralism, that we can tolerate people whose views are so outlandish, so repulsive that providing they do not step over the line and break the laws, we will tolerate them.”
Breaking the law, rather than repulsive views, is at the heart of the ban, say officials.
The government is at pains to say the ban was not prompted by al-Muhajiroun’s planned protest in Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire, to honour Muslims killed in the Afghanistan conflict – although officials concede the timing does not look great.

Secret analysis
But behind the scenes, the wheels of the security system have been turning. The BBC understands the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JATC) has been leading the review of al-Muhajiroun ever since it declared it was “re-forming” earlier in 2009.
This team within MI5 collates information and intelligence on threats, with the involvement of 16 government departments.
JTAC’s report was handed to the home secretary last week – and its secret contents led him to conclude a ban was necessary.
A group can be banned for planning acts of terrorism – but also for glorifying it. Al-Muhajiroun fall into the latter category because of its track record of celebrating acts of violence, including once describing the 9/11 hijackers as the “Magnificent 19”.
We do not know what the group will do next – but it does have the right to challenge the ban. It is perhaps worth looking at what al-Muhajiroun has done in the past. It officially disbanded in 2004 – only to reappear under different names a year later.
Omar Bakri Mohammad remains banned from the UK – but his regular internet broadcasts from Lebanon are easy to find and watch.
And Inayat Bunglawala warned: “This ban has been tried before. Al Ghurabaa and the Saved Sect [two of al-Muhajiroun’s related organisations] were also banned. All that happened was that the same faces reappeared under different names.”

Islam4UK Islamist group banned under terror laws

A radical Islamist group that planned a march through Wootton Bassett will be banned under counter-terrorism laws, Home Secretary Alan Johnson has said.

Anjem Choudary is the group's spokesman in the UK

Islam4UK had planned the protest at the Wiltshire town to honour Muslims killed in the Afghanistan conflict.
The government had been considering outlawing the group under its original name, al-Muhajiroun.
A spokesman for Islam4UK said it was an “ideological and political organisation”, and not a violent one.
Mr Johnson said: “I have today laid an order which will proscribe al-Muhajiroun, Islam4UK, and a number of the other names the organisation goes by.
“It is already proscribed under two other names – al-Ghurabaa and The Saved Sect.
“Proscription is a tough but necessary power to tackle terrorism and is not a course we take lightly.
“We are clear that an organisation should not be able to circumvent proscription by simply changing its name.”
Under the Terrorism Act 2000, a group can be banned if it “commits or participates in acts of terrorism, prepares for, promotes or encourages terrorism or is otherwise concerned in terrorism”.
Groups can also be outlawed if they “unlawfully glorify the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism”.
Islam4UK spokesman Anjem Choudary told BBC Radio 4: “What the people will see is if you don’t agree with the government and you want to expose their foreign policy, then freedom quickly dissipates and turns into dictatorship.”
He denied Islam4UK members were involved in violence: “I challenge anyone to authentically prove that any of our members have been involved in any violent activities or promoting violent activities or asking anyone to carry out any sort of military operations.
“We won’t be using those names and those platforms which have been proscribed, but I can’t stop being a Muslim, I can’t stop propagating Islam, I can’t stop praying, I can’t stop calling for the Sharia.
“That’s something I must do, and ultimately I will pay whatever price I need to for my belief.”
Speaking from Lebanon, Omar Bakri Muhammad, founder of al-Muhajiroun, said the decision to ban the group would “increase the popularity of al-Muhajiroun” and “force them underground”.
On Sunday Islam4UK cancelled the march, saying it had “successfully highlighted the plight of Muslims in Afghanistan”.
The banning order will come into effect on Thursday and make it a criminal offence to be a member, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Ordinary Muslim organisations have long regarded al-Muhajiroun as harming community relations – but they were split on whether or not a ban would be beneficial.
Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain, said that he would shed no tears – but he feared a ban would play into al-Muhajiroun’s hands who would present themselves as the victims.
But Muslim campaign group Minhaj-ul-Quran UK said the government had done the right thing.
“We support the ban on the extremist groups but suggest banning extremist individuals too as they will appear again with a different name,” said spokesman Shahid Mursaleen.
“The Government must promote a voice of moderation in order to get rid of the extremist tendencies in our society.”
Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling welcomed the decision to ban Islam4UK, saying Conservatives had been calling for the government to act.
He said: “We cannot permit any group which propagates the views of banned international preachers of hate and organises hate-filled public protests to operate in Britain.
“Now ministers need to look at how they are going to ban other groups in the UK which are part of broader international networks of extremism.