KABUL, April 27 (Reuters) – The United Nations said on Tuesday it had temporarily shut its office in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar and withdrawn some foreign staff for their safety, as security deteriorates ahead of a major NATO offensive.
Following are answers to questions about the planned military campaign, which will unfold during the coming months:
HOW IMPORTANT IS IT?
The Kandahar operation is the central objective of U.S. and NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal’s campaign plan to turn the tide in the war this year using 30,000 reinforcements pledged by President Barack Obama in December.
It will be by far the biggest offensive of the war so far, directly involving more than 23,000 ground troops, including about 8,500 Americans, 3,000 Canadians and 12,000 Afghan soldiers and police.
The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, describes the offensive as "the cornerstone of our surge effort and the key to shifting the momentum", which Washington hopes will eventually push the Taliban to agree to peace talks. Kandahar was the spiritual home of the Taliban movement when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001, and has huge symbolic importance in the country. It forms the heartland of the Pashtuns — Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group and traditional rulers — and is also the home town of President Hamid Karzai.
In an assessment of the war last year, McChrystal described Kandahar as the Taliban’s main geographical objective.
Militants control much of the city of 500,000 people, as well as many rural regions around it, making it the part of the country where the greatest concentration of people now live outside government control.
McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy depends on securing population centres to allow the government to extend its reach, open areas to access for trade and development projects, and win over the support of the people.
WHAT IS THE MILITARY SITUATION IN KANDAHAR LIKE NOW?
A mainly Canadian force of about 3,000 troops has operated in Kandahar province for four years, taking high casualties but lacking the manpower to secure such a large city and its outskirts. Taliban influence has grown rapidly during that time, and militants are now stronger in the province than at any time since they were driven from power in 2001.
Over the past year more than 5,000 extra U.S. ground troops have arrived in the province and have begun securing rural districts that control routes leading into the city, although swathes of those agricultural areas are still in militant hands.
Inside the city itself there is very little presence of Western forces. Many of the city’s teeming residential districts are almost entirely out of bounds for Afghan police, especially at night.
WHEN WILL THE OPERATION BEGIN?
NATO commanders say initial "shaping operations" are already under way, including efforts to reach out to residents, military operations to clear areas in the rural outskirts, and special forces raids to capture and kill Taliban leaders.
The main "clearing phase" in urban areas will begin around the start of June, with the arrival of an additional U.S. Army Brigade Combat Team of about 3,500 troops that will spearhead the military campaign in urban areas alongside Afghan police.
HOW WILL IT UNFOLD?
U.S. and NATO commanders have tried to play down the military aspects of the upcoming operation, insisting the emphasis is on political reforms. Nevertheless, the operation will still be the biggest ground offensive in nearly nine years of war.
The 8,000 NATO troops already in Kandahar province will mostly remain in rural areas, guarding routes into the city, while the additional 3,500-strong U.S. army brigade pushes into urban districts in the company of 6,700 Afghan police.
Unlike the last big offensive, which began with a massive airborne assault in neighbouring Helmand province in February, NATO commanders stress that the Kandahar operation will not have an abrupt start but will unfold gradually.
They hope negotiations on the ground will allow troops to advance into urban sectors of Kandahar with minimal fighting, although they say they also expect a certain amount of combat in the city if militants choose to resist.
In the rural districts, commanders predict an increased level of combat as fighters either flee the city or attempt to reinforce it. NATO units in the rural areas will also launch operations to clear villages now under insurgent control.
NATO commanders would like to see the clearing operations finished by the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in August, and be followed by steps to improve governance and provide services to the population.
The Taliban have vowed to fight against the advancing NATO troops, and have already begun a campaign of bomb attacks, commando raids and assassinations in recent weeks.
WHAT ABOUT LOCAL GOVERNMENT?
NATO officials constantly reinforce the message that the military phase of the operation is only the first step, and the true aim is to bring credible government to areas now under Taliban control.
They say the Taliban have won support from Pashtun tribes in Kandahar who feel they have been shut out of provincial power by rival clans, including Karzai’s own family.
The main goal of the political reform plan is to make the provincial government more inclusive, so that tribes and groups who sought protection from the Taliban in the past feel more secure and cast their lot with the government.
The most powerful person in Kandahar is now the head of the provincial council, President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, a businessman who has long denied persistent reports of links to southern Afghanistan’s drugs trade.
U.S. officials say they would like to see his influence reduced as provincial government is reformed, but they do not expect him to be removed. (Additional reporting by Adam Entous; Writing by Peter Graff) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)
KABUL, April 18 (Reuters) – Three Italian aid workers jailed in Afghanistan on suspicion of plotting to kill a provincial governor were freed on Sunday, saying they had been treated well and were glad their names had been cleared.
The case had become a cause celebre in Italy, a NATO ally with 3,000 troops in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of Italians marched in support of the aid workers on Saturday in Rome.
The three Italians from the medical charity Emergency were arrested on April 10 in Lashkar Gah, capital of Afghanistan’s most violent province, Helmand, where their hospital is one of the few independent aid organisations.
The hospital is known for treating wounded from all sides, including insurgents, civilians and Afghan police, and had a high profile during a major NATO offensive in Helmand in February.
The three were accused of plotting to kill Helmand’s governor after Afghan security forces said they found weapons and ammunition inside the hospital. On Sunday, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency declared them not guilty.
"We are very happy to be released, we are very happy that our name, our own personal name and the reputation of Emergency is clear," Marco Garatti, one of the aid workers, told reporters at the Italian embassy.
"We were treated very nicely by the staff in the jail and we don’t have anything to complain about the way we were treated."
The other two, Matteo Dell’Aira, and Matteo Pagani, were also present at the embassy and appeared in good health.
In a statement, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security said weapons had been found at the hospital, but its investigation showed the three Italians were not to blame.
Six Afghans had also been detained. Five had been released and one was still being held, the statement said.
"Someone from inside the hospital was involved with the enemies and had an active role. The plan was hatched by an insider inside the hospital, but the investigation showed that the three Italians and five of the Afghan hospital employees … were not guilty," it said.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini announced their release in Rome and expressed his gratitude for the swift resolution of the case, after Italy had pressed Afghanistan to either present charges against the workers or release them.
RELIEF FOR ALL OF US
"We obtained our primary objective which was the freedom of our compatriots without undermining our firm solidarity with Afghan institutions and the international coalition," Frattini said in a statement.
Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano said in a statement: "The release of the three Emergency workers is a relief for all of us and especially, as is natural, for their families."
Italian troops are taking part in the NATO-led mission in support of President Hamid Karzai’s government against the Taliban insurgency. Karzai met Italian envoy Attilio Iannucci on Saturday to discuss the case.
Garatti said the three would return to Italy for a rest and then decide whether they could come back to Afghanistan to continue their work. The hospital has been shut, and he hoped it could reopen as soon as possible.
"We are here to serve the wounded people and in Lashkar Gah there are a lot. The fact that the hospital is closed is a tremendous blow to the care that we can give the Afghan people."
He said he could not speculate what was behind the accusations or whether any Afghans who worked at the hospital might have been involved in wrongdoing, but he had been told by the head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security that the investigation had absolved the international staff.
Emergency — which has operated hospitals and health clinics across some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan even under Taliban rule before 2001 — has a high profile in Italy and the case shocked public opinion there.
As in many other NATO countries, Italy’s role in the war is a polarising domestic political issue, and the popularity of the mission has been strained in recent months by doubts over whether Karzai’s government is a reliable ally. (Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch in KABUL and Daniel Flynn and Valentina Consiglio in ROME; Editing by Giles Elgood) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s newly appointed election chief promised on Sunday to remove officials responsible for fraud in last year’s presidential vote in time to hold a cleaner parliamentary election this year.
Fazl Ahmad Manawi, a former judge tapped by President Hamid Karzai to run the Independent Election Commission as part of a reform package agreed with the United Nations, said security was still the biggest risk to holding a free and fair vote.
One of my Kabul press corps colleagues once described covering President Hamid Karzai’s government and the Western diplomats who are supposed to be supporting it as a lot like being friends with a couple while they go through a savage divorce. We reporters hop back and forth, from cocktail party to quiet lunch to private briefing, listening to charming Afghans and Westerners -– many of whom we personally like very much — say outrageously nasty things about each other. Usually, the invective is whispered “off the record” by both sides, so you, dear reader, miss out on the opportunity to learn just how dysfunctional one of the world’s most important diplomatic relationships has become.
Over the past few weeks, the secret got out. Karzai — in a speech that was described as an outburst but which palace insiders say was carefully planned — said in public what his allies have been muttering in private for months: that Western diplomats orchestrated the notorious election debacle last year that saw a third of his votes thrown out for fraud. The White House and State Department were apoplectic: “disturbing”, “untrue”, “preposterous” they called it. Peter Galbraith, the U.S. diplomat who was the number two U.N. official in Kabul during last year’s election, went on TV and said he thought Karzai might be crazy or on drugs. Karzai’s camp’s response: Who’s being preposterous now?
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai named officials on Saturday to oversee a parliamentary election, sealing a compromise with the United Nations and effectively ending a damaging stand-off with the West.
Karzai’s quarrel with Western donors over rules for September’s vote led to a diplomatic shouting match with Washington this month that brought relations between the war-time allies to a new low.
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai promised on Saturday to hold a transparent investigation into allegations three Italian hospital workers were involved in an assassination plot, charges that have caused an outcry in Italy.
The three Italians from the medical charity Emergency were arrested a week ago in Lashkar Gah, capital of Afghanistan’s most violent province, Helmand, where their hospital is one of the few independent aid organizations.
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai took small but public steps on Saturday to signal he was still friends with the United States after a war of words that tested their alliance.
In what appeared to be a choreographed effort to portray the relationship in the best light, Karzai visited the headquarters of General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander, down the road from Karzai’s own palace in central Kabul.
KABUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A war of words between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the White House escalated on Monday, with Washington expressing frustration that an attempt to smooth over the feud had so far failed.
Karzai said he stood by remarks from last week accusing the West of carrying out election fraud in Afghanistan, and appeared to sharpen the criticism still further by singling out the United States specifically for blame.
WASHINGTON/KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai tried to smooth over his fraying relationship with Washington on Friday after the White House said it was troubled by a strident anti-Western speech he delivered in Kabul.
In his unprecedentedly bitter speech to election officials on Thursday, the Afghan leader accused embassies of perpetrating election fraud in Afghanistan, bribing and threatening election officials and seeking to weaken him and his government.
KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. and NATO commanders released details this week of plans for the biggest offensive of the nearly 9-year-old Afghan war, to seize control of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city and birthplace of the Taliban.
Following are answers to questions about the battle plan, which will unfold during the coming months: