A few weeks have passed since the discovery on extremist forums of the image of alleged martyr "Musa, the British." While Britain's intelligence service MI5 confirms that they believe that at least 4,000 young Britons have been drawn to fight and train at militant camps in Waziristan and Afghanistan prior to 2009, they have thus far been remarkably coy in their appearances in propaganda videos produced by jihadi media outlets. This stands in stark contrast with the German jihadist contingent, which seem to revel in their celebrity and repeatedly feature in jihadist media outlets, as well as self-publishing tracts describing their experiences. Parsing this difference between these two groups (and the related question of why only Adam Gadahn appears amongst the estimated hundred or so Americans Bob Woodward was told have ventured to Waziristan) might offer some deeper insights into the machinations of the networks drawing young western Muslims to Pakistani training camps and help analysts better understand trends of growth or shrinkage of such networks.
Bekkay Harrach, the German spokesman for Al Qaeda Central (AQC), was confirmed dead in an attack on the U.S. air base at Bagram in a statement released last week by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The German-Moroccan was usually referred to by the jihadi nom de guerre Abu Talha al-Almani (The German). Rumors of his death surfaced last autumn but were never confirmed by either NATO or AQC.
Born to a Moroccan family that immigrated to Germany when he was a child, Harrach starred in several German-language AQC propaganda films and audio tapes. Harrach is believed to have traveled to Afghanistan or Pakistan in 2007 where he eventually joined AQC, and it is suspected (but has not been confirmed) that his travel was facilitated by recruitment networks active in Germany. A relatively large number of Germans, including many of Turkish descent, have traveled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions, and joined in significant numbers two militant Uzbek groups operating in the region, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and an offshoot, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU).
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In March 2010, heavy fighting broke out in the northern Baghlan province between Hezb-e Islami fighters and the Taliban. On Oct. 7, 2010, a German soldier was killed by a suicide bomber in the same area. The connection between both events is another example how the establishment of 'militias' (even though they are not called so) can go wrong.
When the Taliban vs. Hezb-e Islami clashes broke out in the north of Baghlan province on 7 March this year, the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) was given three different explanations of why this happened. First of all, 'the conflict was said to have been caused by disputes between both groups over the taxation of farmers,' i.e. over access to resources. Additionally, the Hezb fighters, led by a commander Sher, were said to have been involved in some kidnapping cases which angered the local population who, as a result, became more inclined towards the Taliban. At this point, the Taliban in the area were still mainly local.
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The German army plans to stage an offensive in October alongside Afghan forces to clear Taliban from villages in northern Afghanistan (WSJ). Germany has come under criticism for being too passive in fighting the Taliban in their zone of responsibility, and army leaders want in part to dispel the notion that Germans are unwilling to fight the Taliban. The New York Times today has a must-read on the difficulty of engaging in counterinsurgency around the city of Kunduz while U.S. forces try to learn to trust their erstwhile Afghan partners (NYT).
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By Erica Gaston
In the two months since Gen. Stanley McChrystal assumed ISAF command, we have seen a serious shift in thinking about civilian casualties and Afghan community concerns. This is most clearly embodied in the July Tactical Directive's much stricter guidelines on airstrikes and other uses of force that could risk civilian losses. The latest NATO airstrike in Kunduz -- now believed to have killed as many as 125 people, at least two dozen of them civilians -- raises questions of whether that thinking has gone far enough.
The first concern is whether enough was done to ensure that the new restrictions would be meaningfully implemented. The Tactical Directive, and accompanying guidance and statements by McChrystal, makes clear that all precautions should be taken to ensure an absolute minimum risk to nearby civilians before an airstrike can be ordered. Yet, the Washington Post reports that a single local intelligence source gave the OK that there were no civilians present at the site of the recent airstrike -- information that now appears to be off the mark.
One would hope that the new seriousness about civilian casualties would lead commanders to double-check sources regarding potential civilian harm. In this case, though, the only other evidence the ISAF commander relied on was aerial footage showing thermal images of those at the scene: "numerous black dots... but without enough detail to confirm whether they were carrying weapons."
Despite this minimal scrutiny of whether civilians were at the scene or not, the Post notes that this latest strike may not have technically violated the Tactical Directive because it only requires more than one source civilians for airstrikes in residential areas and this strike happened in an open area.
Black dots on a screen and one source claiming those dots are Taliban could describe many of the worst bombing mistakes that have happened in the last eight years. Afghan officials and investigators have repeatedly argued that many civilian casualty incidents have been based on poor information or faulty tips. Given this history, not setting a higher bar for due diligence before commanders can call in an airstrike seems a gaping hole in implementing the new tactical strategy.
The second concern is not so much about how to implement what's in the Tactical Directive, but how to deal with the concerns left out of it. While the July Tactical Directive made leaps forward in addressing Afghan complaints about limiting airstrikes and offensive night raids (notwithstanding implementation concerns), it was curiously silent on equally loud cries for greater accountability.
For most of the last 8 years, incidents of civilian loss have been met with denials. Afghan families have been unable to get basic questions answered about what happened to their loved ones and why. To my knowledge, no serious disciplinary action has been taken with regard to any of the major incidents of civilian casualties; for example, not after 47 civilians were killed in a July 2008 strike on a wedding party in Nangarhar, nor following the death of approximately 80 civilians in Azizabad, Herat, in August 2008. U.N. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston noted that ISAF has no means of tracking the results of disparate national investigation and disciplinary procedures, much less for communicating any results to the affected communities.
This lack of transparency or accountability to those directly harmed by ISAF actions has created a commonly held Afghan perception that international forces kill Afghans with impunity, a view that only exacerbates local anger and resentment at international forces. In a particularly striking exchange, one tribal leader told me "We Afghans are like clay pigeons to U.S. forces. They shoot us for fun and then congratulate themselves. Nothing happens to them."
Afghan community leaders and aid workers repeatedly ask me why ISAF didn't check with local sources if they wanted to find out if a target was a Talib or not. They also ask why those who are misleading ISAF with false information are allowed to continue doing so without any seeming punishment or dismissal.
Following this week's incident, General McChrystal has apologized publicly (including through translated statements via Afghan media), and made notable efforts to treat the reports of civilian deaths seriously and investigate them personally. The mood has clearly changed within ISAF regarding civilian casualties, but for that to have an impact on the ground more will clearly have to be done to implement the letter and the spirit of the Tactical Directive.
The investigation on the latest incident is still ongoing. The findings may indeed show that this latest strike did not violate international humanitarian law, nor even the latest Tactical Directive. But for the many Afghans who have seen the deaths of their loved ones and the destruction of their communities swept under the rug over the last eight years, much more has to be done to demonstrate accountability to Afghan concerns.
Erica Gaston is a human rights lawyer based in Kabul, Afghanistan, consulting on civilian casualties issues for the Open Society Institute.
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