Monday, September 1, 2008

Pentagon denies responsibility for US massacre of Afghan villagers

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By Tom Eley

As anger mounts in Afghanistan over the August 22 US bombing of a village that killed ninety civilians, the great majority women and children, the Pentagon continues to claim a much smaller death toll comprised largely of “Taliban fighters.” Anonymous US officials, who claim to have investigated the attack in Azizabad in Herat province, insist that 25 Taliban were killed, along with five civilians. The US disavowal contradicts the position of its own Afghanistan stooge regime, the United Nations, which has confirmed the much higher death toll, as well as international media accounts.

An investigation conducted by Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission counted 91 killed. Fifty-nine of these were children under the age of 15, and 19 were women. Most of the dead were part of one large extended family. The Afghanistan investigation found that there were no Taliban among those killed.

According to the Afghan official in charge of the investigation, Naimatullah Shahrani, “there was not a single armed individual from the opposition in the area.”

The Afghan investigation has been substantiated by a separate UN investigative report authored by Kai Eide, which found “convincing evidence” that about 90 civilians were killed, of whom about 60 were children. “The destruction from aerial bombardment was clearly evident with some seven to eight houses having been totally destroyed and serious damage to many others. Local residents were able to confirm the number of casualties, including names, age and gender of the victims.”

A provincial council member from Herat who visited Azizabad after the raid, Nek Mohammad Ishaq, said he counted 76 corpses of civilians at the local mosque, and more bodies were found among the ruins later. He, like Eide, said investigators were given a detailed list of the identity of each of the dead, including their names, age, and sex. “Some of them were decapitated, some did not have a hand. Each body was photographed,” Ishaq said.

According to an AP report, as Ishaq and “his delegation sat with village elders on the floor of the mosque ... a man walked in holding a handkerchief, which he wanted everyone to see. In it were body parts of children: fingers, bits of hand and feet.”

Residents of Azizabad gathered to protest the attack, and stoned Afghan soldiers who were attempting to distribute relief supplies. “Americans think that all Afghans are terrorists, and they send rockets and missiles against us,” said one resident, Gulbuddin. “I myself buried more than 50 women and children. Are all of them terrorists?”

One survivor of the bombing, Fatima, spoke to the press from her hospital bed. She lost eight family members in the attack. “We were holding a memorial service in our home,” she said as she cried. “Suddenly the infidels attacked and I lost consciousness. When I came to, I was in hospital, and they told me that all of my family were dead and already buried. Was my two-year-old child a terrorist? Then am I not also a terrorist? Why did they let me live?”

In the face of this overwhelming evidence, which evidently includes photos of the dead in the possession of the Afghan government, the US remains obstinate. A Defense Department spokesman, Bryan Whitman, claimed “I don’t have any information that would suggest that our military commanders in Afghanistan don’t believe, still, that this was a legitimate strike on a Taliban target.”

The US has requested a joint investigation with the Afghan government in order to resolve the enormously different accounts of the event; i.e., to compel the Karzai regime to substantially adopt the American conclusion, or at least to drag the investigation on until the incident fades from international scrutiny.

According to the Afghan government, the US military had been manipulated into bombing Azizabad, where a large gathering was underway to mark the eight month anniversary of the death of a clan leader, Timor Shah, was taking place. The Karzai regime has proposed that a rival clan tipped off the Afghan military with the false lead that a gathering of the Taliban was underway in the village. According to an Associated Press story, utilizing the American military to settle personal feuds and business rivalries has been common in Afghanistan since the US invasion.

There is no reason to believe either the Karzai regime or Bush administration accounts as to why the slaughter took place. Karzai is facing mounting anger and social discontent, and fears that the brutality of the American occupiers will ignite a social explosion. The latest US atrocity in Afghanistan has stirred up anger across the country. Given this context, it is convenient for Karzai to attribute the massacre to “false intelligence.” He has responded by both condemning the US attack and firing two Afghan army officers accused of passing on the false lead to the Americans.

In any case, there is a long history of the US bombing any large gathering of Afghans that its satellite-image monitors, stationed in Florida, spot. There have been numerous known instances of deadly bombardments of weddings and funerals, all of which have ended in the exoneration of the American perpetrators.

However, even if the Karzai regime’s attempt to explain the cause of the attack would be true, it would in no way lessen US guilt for the atrocity, or Kabul’s own complicity. It would only stand as horrible confirmation of the American military’s unstated policy of “shoot first, ask questions later.” Moreover, such war crimes are inevitable given the military’s central task of crushing popular resistance to the occupation.

As for the American military’s own account, it cannot be given the slightest credence. In the first place, neither the UN nor the Karzai regime has any interest in exaggerating US depredations. Karzai has only acknowledged the death toll under conditions in which he feels threatened by popular discontent. This is the same perspective of the UN, which fears a debacle for US imperialism should its brutal tactics not be somewhat softened. Eide, the UN investigator, warned that such massacres undermine “the trust and confidence of the Afghan people” in the American invaders.

All the evidence suggests that US claims are utterly bogus. According to an anonymous NATO official, the US assault on Azizabad lasted for several hours, and involved ground troops, gunships, and drones. The battle destroyed or damaged 15 houses. And yet the US military wishes world opinion to believe that it was the victim of an attack that resulted in only a single American injury, and that virtually all those who died in the building were “Taliban.”

In fact, it is standard operating procedure for the US military to declare all the dead in its rampages to be “Taliban fighters” or “terrorists” or “Al Qaeda.” It never produces credible evidence to substantiate these claims, which the US media nonetheless dutifully parrots.

In this case, it appears that those killed may have been friendly to the US. Almost all the dead were members of a clan whose head controlled a company that worked as security for the US at the Shinand airport, located 120 kilometers away. Many of the men in the village also worked at the airport.

The pro-Bush Fox News has played a role in the desperate attempt to hide the true magnitude of the destruction of Azizabad. A Fox “reporter,” none other than ex-Lt. Col. Oliver North of Iran-Contra infamy, was embedded with the US unit that pulverized Azizabad. According to North, the confirmed claims of massacred children are a combination of conspiracy and petty graft. “The Taliban and their supporters are running a very effective propaganda campaign to discredit coalition efforts,” he suggested in a Fox News report, but incongruously added that “exaggerated claims of damage often result in demands for more money in compensation.”

Yet North’s account of the “battle” conflicts with that of the military. According to military spokesman Lt. Nathan Perry, “the international forces, along with commando forces from the ANA, ran into an ambush on the way to the area where Mullah Siddiq’s men [a supposed Taliban fighter] were gathering, and had to call in an air strike.” But according to North, it was the US military that launched the surprise attack: “Though the Marine Special Operations Team had employed a daring deception to achieve surprise, they were heavily engaged by AK-47 and machine gun fire almost immediately after deploying at the objective.”

The criminal and reckless US bombardment of Azizabad has been largely buried by the US media, which has been far more preoccupied with the “disproportionate” Russian response to Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia. They have not pressed the Bush administration to substantiate its claims that stand so patently at odds with reality.

However, the British establishment press has expressed heightened fears in the wake of Azizabad that the US may be on a trajectory to lose the war.

The Economist lamented that “if America fails in Afghanistan, as it might, it will be remembered there for killing children” and noting US imperialism’s ever-greater reliance on air war: “Ever since it bombed the Taliban from power in 2001, America has relied on air power in Afghanistan to make up for a shortage of troops. As the Taliban and other militants have gained strength, America has dropped more bombs, killing more civilians.”

The Financial Times pointed to the bind in which the US killing of civilians places Karzai. “The death of civilians is political poison for Mr. Karzai’s embattled government,” the paper wrote. “His apparent inability to rein in NATO and US forces undermines his credibility as he prepares for next year’s re-election campaign.”

The BBC also condemned the attack as detrimental to the interests of the occupation: “Killing innocent people by accident in a counter-insurgency campaign is not only tragic, but is hugely detrimental to the objective—to win, not lose, hearts and minds. President Karzai knows how seriously the issue of civilian casualties is taken among Afghan people, and is keen to distance himself from such incidents, which he knows will affect his popularity ahead of next year’s election.”

The Karzai administration has responded by attempting to publicly distance itself from its American master. The government issued a statement last week calling for the reregulation of the activities of foreign troops in Afghanistan, and demanding that “air strikes on civilian targets, unilateral searches of homes and illegal detentions must be stopped immediately.”

But for the US political establishment, Afghanistan remains “the good war.” Both Barack Obama and John McCain have promised an escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Obama has consistently criticized the Bush administration for failing to deploy sufficient force there.

Danger grows of NATO-Russian clash in Black Sea

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By Julie Hyland and Chris Marsden

A build-up of naval forces is underway in the Black Sea, involving both NATO and Russian ships. The provocative actions by the US-lead military coalition create the danger of a clash with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Late last week, General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the Russian military’s general staff, claimed that 10 NATO warships were in the Black Sea and that more were on the way.

“In light of the build-up of NATO naval forces in the Black Sea, the [Russian] fleet has also taken on the task of monitoring their activities,” he said.

The ships include two US warships, ostensibly in the region to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia. These have since been joined by a third.

In addition, NATO admitted that four of its vessels are on a “pre-planned deployment” in the Black Sea, “conducting port visits with Romanian and Bulgarian forces”.

The “long-planned routine” exercise Active Endeavor—which is said to involve training in anti-terrorist and anti-pirate manoeuvres—comprises one warship each from Spain, Germany and Poland. They were reportedly later joined by a US frigate for a three-week schedule of port visits and exercises.

While denying a build-up, a NATO spokesperson said that other NATO countries may have ships in the sea. “Obviously, there are other NATO-affiliated nations out doing things,” Lt. Col. Web Wright said.

These reports confirm that at least six NATO vessels are in the Black Sea, meaning that Russian warnings that warships from the western alliance now outnumber their own fleet anchored off the western coast of Georgia are not as far off the mark as is claimed.

Russia has charged the US with using aid as a cover for rearming Georgia. “Normally warships do not deliver aid and this is gunboat diplomacy, this does not make the situation more stable,” said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

Cliff Kupchan at the Eurasia Group, a US-based consultancy, was cited as stating, “It is a clever policy to have chosen military-led humanitarian relief.” He went on, “Given this administration’s consistently aggressive approach to protecting American influence, one has to ask how long it will allow Russians to dictate which Georgian port to use.”

On Thursday a US coast guard cutter docked at the Georgian port of Batumi, after the American embassy in Tbilisi had initially stated that it was heading towards the Russian-controlled port of Poti, in line with Georgian requests. According to reports, this statement was later retracted and the Dallas instead unloaded its aid supplies in Batumi.

Last Sunday the US destroyer, USS McFaul, docked at Batumi. The US military says a third ship, USS Mount Whitney, the flagship of the US Sixth Fleet, will arrive in Georgia today.

The New York Times August 28 admitted the US was “pursuing a delicate policy of delivering humanitarian aid on military transport planes and ships, apparently to illustrate to the Russians that they do not fully control Georgia’s airspace or coastline.”

The report continued that this policy “has left American and Russian naval vessels manoeuvring in close proximity off the western coast of Georgia, with the Americans concentrated near the southern port of Batumi and the Russians around the central port of Poti. It has also left the Kremlin deeply suspicious of American motives.”

In a further provocative move by the US, the Dallas is to leave Georgia and visit the Ukranian port of Sevastopol the same day. The port is leased by Russia from Ukraine and is integral to its Black Sea operations. In a display of support for the US, Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko has said that the lease will not be extended beyond 2017 and has signed a decree requiring prior notice of all movements by Russian naval vessels and aircraft from Sevastopol.

Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper cited Nogovitsyn as claiming that the US ships are carrying nuclear missiles that could hit Russian targets as far away as St. Petersburg. The RIA news agency claimed that the NATO ships were carrying more than 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles, with more than 50 onboard the USS McFaul alone that could hit ground targets.

On August 26 Reuters reported that Russia’s flagship cruiser, the Moskva, had re-entered the Black Sea for weapons tests. The assistant to the Russian Navy’s commander-in-chief told Russian news agencies the cruiser had put to sea again two days after returning to its base at the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol.

Russian warships also reportedly arrived in the separatist region of Abkhazia. Russian deputy admiral Sergei Menyailo said they would “support peace and stability”. He said, “Our tasks include the control of Abkhazia’s territorial waters and the prevention of arms shipments.” The leader of the separatist region said he will invite Russia to establish a naval base at Sukhumi, a deep-water port in the territory.

In an interview with CNN on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the extraordinary step of accusing the US of instigating the assault by Georgia on South Ossetia.

“The suspicion arises that someone in the United States especially created this conflict to make the situation more tense and create a competitive advantage for one of the candidates fighting for the post of US president,” Putin said, clearly referring to Republican candidate John McCain, whose foreign policy advisor was a lobbyist for Saakashlivi government.

Putin also said he had reason to believe US military personnel were working with Georgian forces that fought Russians, a prospect he described as “very dangerous.”

The White House dismissed Putin’s assertions as preposterous. At the same time, McCain’s wife Cindy was visiting Georgia and US Vice President Dick Cheney planned to arrive this week, where he is expected to pledge American military assistance.

For his part, Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, has joined the bellicose threats against “Russian aggression” and said, if elected, his administration would be committed to protecting Georgia.

The Los Angeles Times ran an article under the headline, “Why Was Cheney’s Guy in Georgia Just Before the War?” on August 26. The piece named Joseph R. Wood, Cheney’s deputy assistant for national security affairs. It asked, “What was a top national security aide to Vice President Dick Cheney doing in Georgia shortly before Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s troops engaged in what became a disastrous fight with South Ossetian rebels—and then Russian troops?”

Nogovitsyn has charged that a US national was amongst the Georgian commando units who invaded South Ossetia. He produced a colour photocopy of a US passport belonging to Michael Lee White from Texas, born in 1967. He told a press conference, “There is a building in Zemonekozi—a settlement to the south of Tskhinvali that was fiercely defended by a Georgian special operations squad. Upon clearing the building, Russian peacekeepers recovered, among other documents, an American passport in the name of Michael Lee White of Texas.”

There is a growing body of evidence and commentary regarding the US role in building up Georgia’s military, with the aim of provoking a conflict with Russia. Writing in the New Statesman August 14 Misha Glenny noted how the US and Israel had worked to arm Georgia, so that “Saakashvili and the hawks around him came to believe the farcical proposition that Georgia’s armed forces could take on the military might of their northern neighbour in a conventional fight and win.”

Glenny noted that the Georgian minister for reintegration of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Temur Yakobashvili, had praised Israel for its military assistance. Following the assault on South Ossetia, Glenny stated, Yakobashvili had said “Israel should be proud of its military, which trained Georgian soldiers.” Thanks to its assistance, “We killed 60 Russian soldiers yesterday alone,” he said. “The Russians have lost more than 50 tanks, and we have shot down 11 of their planes. They have sustained enormous damage in terms of manpower.”

It is known that the US and Georgia held joint war games between July 15-31, codenamed Operation Immediate Response, which involved 1,000 US servicemen. One week later, on August 7, Georgian forces attacked South Ossetia.

As to the immediate future, the Times of London reported, “US military planners are now openly considering how to rearm Georgia’s forces” and cited a Pentagon spokesman as stating, “Down the road we will be looking at what may be required to rebuild the Georgian military... right now the mission of the United States military is to provide humanitarian assistance.”

The Times quoted the former British ambassador to Georgia Donald McLaren stating that NATO might have to send troops to the region. If Moscow rejected such a proposal, he said, NATO had only two choices: “To give up and surrender and say to the Russians, ‘It’s your backyard, you’ve won’, or to put men on the ground to protect Georgia’s sovereignty and the east-west oil and gas pipeline from the Caspian and Central Asia.”

McLaren wrote earlier in the Daily Mail that “Georgia is a part of Europe. It is our gateway to Central Asia and, with Russia and Turkey as neighbours and Iraq and Iran not far to the south, its location alone makes it of strategic significance.

“It is a friend and partner in one of the most highly-pressurised parts of the world. Georgia is a vital conduit for energy supplies from the Caspian to its East and the potential of the Central Asian suppliers beyond.

“There are few issues more immediate than energy security and Georgia’s fragile oil pipeline offers us one alternative to dependence on Russia.”

The US offensive against Russia is destabilising the entire region and inexorably drawing the European powers in its wake.

Asia Times reported, “The US-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline passes through Georgian territory and letting Russia dictate events in Georgia has a definite implication in terms of energy security, given the fierce pipeline geopolitics in the Eurasian landmass, Europe’s heavy energy dependency on Russia and Moscow’s willingness to rely on the energy card for security bargaining with Europe.

“This alone may explain why the European Union, which has been divided over a response to the Georgian crisis, has largely consented to the US’s muscular reaction. The issue has now turned into a defining moment of the post-Cold War era because of its broader implications.”

Both Germany and France have signalled they have retreated from their earlier opposition to Georgian membership of the European Union. EU and Ukranian leaders are to meet in France on September 9 and sign as association on closer relations. Although this does not spell out whether Ukraine will get EU accession, a recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank argues that the EU cannot afford any more delays in defining and deepening its ties with Ukraine.

Tensions between Russia and Georgia continue to worsen. As Tbilisi announced Friday that it would sever diplomatic ties with Moscow, officials in South Ossetia stated they would seek absorption into Russia.

As well as pitting Georgia and the Ukraine against Russia, the US has embroiled Turkey in a bitter row with Moscow.

Russia argues that the NATO presence in the Black Sea violates the 1936 Montreux Convention, which limits the time non-coastal countries can sail military vessels on the sea to three weeks.

Under the treaty, Turkey—which controls the straits of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles—must be notified 15 days before military ships sail into the sea. These can not remain in the area for longer than 21 days. But Turkey only announced its approval of the US passage on August 20. Russia has warned that Turkey will be held responsible if the US ships do not leave when they are supposed to do so.