Tighter Rules Fail to Stem Deaths of Innocent Afghans at Checkpoints
By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.
KABUL, Afghanistan — American and NATO troops firing from passing convoys and military checkpoints have killed 30 Afghans and wounded 80 others since last summer, but in no instance did the victims prove to be a danger to troops, according to military officials in Kabul.
“We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat,” said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who became the senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan last year. His comments came during a recent videoconference to answer questions from troops in the field about civilian casualties.
Though fewer in number than deaths from airstrikes and Special Forces operations, such shootings have not dropped off, despite new rules from General McChrystal seeking to reduce the killing of innocents. The persistence of deadly convoy and checkpoint shootings has led to growing resentment among Afghans fearful of Western troops and angry at what they see as the impunity with which the troops operate — a friction that has turned villages firmly against the occupation.
Failure to reduce checkpoint and convoy shootings, known in the military as “escalation of force” episodes, has emerged as a major frustration for military commanders who believe that civilian casualties deeply undermine the American and NATO campaign in Afghanistan.
Many of the detainees at the military prison at Bagram Air Base joined the insurgency after the shootings of people they knew, said the senior NATO enlisted man in Afghanistan, Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Hall.
“There are stories after stories about how these people are turned into insurgents,” Sergeant Major Hall told troops during the videoconference. “Every time there is an escalation of force we are finding that innocents are being killed.”
One such case was the death of Mohammed Yonus, a 36-year-old imam and a respected religious authority, who was killed two months ago in eastern Kabul while commuting to a madrasa where he taught 150 students.
A passing military convoy raked his car with bullets, ripping open his chest as his two sons sat in the car. The shooting inflamed residents and turned his neighborhood against the occupation, elders there say.
“The people are tired of all these cruel actions by the foreigners, and we can’t suffer it anymore,” said Naqibullah Samim, a village elder from Hodkail, where Mr. Yonus lived. “The people do not have any other choice, they will rise against the government and fight them and the foreigners. There are a lot of cases of killing of innocent people.”
After assuming command last summer, General McChrystal moved to reduce the killing of civilians through directives that, according to United Nations human rights researchers, have led to a 28 percent reduction in such casualties last year by American, NATO and Afghan forces. The biggest impact was reducing deaths from aerial attacks, which fell by more than a third in 2009, the United Nations found.
More recently, General McChrystal moved to bring nearly all Special Operations forces in Afghanistan under his control. NATO officials said concern about civilian casualties caused by these forces was partly behind the decision, along with the need to better coordinate units and ensure that local commanders were aware of what was happening.
One unit could be doing counterinsurgency, while another carried out “a raid that might in fact upset progress,” General McChrystal explained during the videoconference.
He also challenged criticism that some of the new rules might hinder troops’ safety. “Nothing has changed to limit your right or responsibility to defend yourself,” he said.
Shootings from convoys and checkpoints involving American, NATO and Afghan forces accounted for 36 civilian deaths last year, down from 41 in 2008, according to the United Nations. With at least 30 Afghans killed since last June in 95 such shootings, according to military statistics, the rate shows no signs of abating.
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San Francisco police chief applauded during apology to Muslim community
Bay City News Service
San Francisco police Chief George Gascon was greeted with applause this afternoon by hundreds of members of the local Muslim community after offering a public apology for statements he made last week on terrorism.
“I am very sorry that I offended you,” Gascon told the audience — many of whom were from the local Yemeni, Afghan and Pakistani communities — following their afternoon prayer service, held in a downtown hotel conference hall in order to accommodate the crowd.
“That was never my intent,” he said.
Gascon ignited a furor among some in the community over remarks he made at a breakfast meeting last week in San Francisco, in which he reportedly singled out the Yemeni and Afghan communities in reference to the possibility of terrorist acts in San Francisco.
About a dozen groups then wrote Gascon, calling his statements “inflammatory” and “insulting.” They cited the possibility of an increase in hate crimes against local Muslims and those of Middle Eastern background.
Gascon later said he had referred to both international and domestic terrorism, but issued a statement of apology and this week met with leaders from various Muslim and Middle Eastern communities.
“The reality is, our safety is a joint effort, and it is a shared responsibility,” he told the audience today, stressing that he had “the utmost respect” for the Yemeni and Afghan communities, as well as every community in San Francisco.
I’m deeply honored, and I’m also deeply sorry for what occurred,” he said.
Gascon’s remarks today were met with enthusiastic applause, and leaders from the community said they accepted his apology and hoped for a more active relationship with the Police Department.
“The dialogue starts here,” said Adel Syed, civil rights coordinator for the Sacramento chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
“Security starts with understanding, and dialogue,” he said.
Before Gascon departed, he was presented with a Koran.
“Basically, the community wants to make sure that they’re not treated as a suspect community,” Syed said afterward.
Gascon’s appearance today “was a testament to his service, and his cooperation with the community,” Syed said.
“I think people in the Muslim community are very open-hearted,” he said. “But it’s what happens next that’s important.”
Mansoor Ismael, honorary consul of the Republic of Yemen for San Francisco, agreed that the community had accepted Gascon’s apology. He said the Yemeni community in San Francisco is estimated at between 8,000 and 11,000.
“I’m sure that from now on we’ll work together,” he said.
Police spokeswoman Lt. Lyn Tomioka said she too was pleased by today’s response from the Muslim community, adding that a future town hall meeting between Gascon and the community was “a possibility.”
“We hoped for the best, but that was better than we expected,” Tomioka said. “They were so gracious and warm with him.”
Hat tip to Roger.
Obama Set to Reject U.S. ‘Nuclear Posture’
Times of London
President Obama will rewrite America’s policy on nuclear weapons next week, heralding further reductions in the U.S. stockpile and giving a pledge not to develop new systems.
After a review of the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal that has involved, among others, the Pentagon, the Department of Energy and the intelligence services, as well as the White House, Obama is expected to reject the doctrine on nuclear weapons — the “nuclear posture” — adopted by George W. Bush, which included the possibility of the United States launching an attack on a non-nuclear state.
The Obama Administration has come under pressure from arms control analysts to redefine the circumstances in which the U.S. might consider using nuclear weapons, and to state beyond doubt that the justification for keeping them is purely as a deterrent.
After the president’s speech in Prague last April, when he laid out his personal vision of a world without nuclear weapons, the U.S. has been carrying out a review of its nuclear posture and the conclusions are due to be published in a declassified version early next week — before Obama flies back to Prague to sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with President Medvedev of Russia on April 8.
President Bush tried but failed to persuade Congress to finance a new program to develop more advanced “bunker-busting” nuclear bombs, as well as to design new atomic warheads. Now Obama is expected to rule out the development of new weapons systems — despite reservations from the military, which is mindful that Russia and China are modernising and expanding their nuclear forces respectively. He will also drop the notion, espoused by his predecessor, that nuclear warheads can be deployed in certain circumstances; for example, if another country resorts to attacking U.S. forces with chemical or biological weapons.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said that if Obama redefined nuclear arms as purely weapons of deterrence, it would “eliminate the number of potential targets the U.S. military think they need to hit”. It would also reduce the number of nuclear weapons the U.S. believes it needs, he said, which could bring the total well below the 1,550 strategic warheads agreed under the new Start treaty announced last week.
Muslims arrested for trying to pray in Córdoba’s former Great Mosque
Two Muslim tourists were arrested when they tried to pray inside Córdoba’s famous former mosque, breaking a ban imposed by the Roman Catholic Church.
Half a dozen Austrian Muslims knelt to pray at the same time in the vast marble building, which was converted to a cathedral in the 13th century after Muslims were driven from Spain.
Security guards stepped in and “invited them to continue with their tour or leave the building”, according to cathedral authorities.
When two refused a scuffle broke out and police were called. Two security guards were seriously injured. Spanish media, citing police sources, said that one of the Muslims arrested had been carrying a knife.
The two men who were detained were part of a group of 118 Austrian Muslims on an organised tour for young European Muslims. All bought tourist tickets for a tour of the cathedral on Wednesday.
The six who started to pray faced charges of disturbing public order when they appeared before a judge in Córdoba.
The clash happened as the building was filled with tourists visiting the cathedral during Holy Week when thousands flock to the town for the parades of penitents in coned hats and long robes carrying huge images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
In a statement Catholic authorities condemned the incident: “They provoked in an organised fashion a deplorable episode of violence.”
After being asked to stop praying, it added, “they replied by attacking security guards, two of whom suffered serious injuries”.
The Great Mosque of Córdoba was converted into a Christian church in 1236 after King Ferdinand III of Castile recaptured the city from the Moors. The building later became the modern-day Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption.
Muslim organisations have long campaigned for the right to pray inside the building, which was once one of the biggest mosques in the world.
However, Demetrio Fernández González, the recently appointed Bishop of Córdoba, reinforced a ban on Muslims praying in any part of the 24,000 sq m (260,000 sq ft) building, saying that canon law did not permit it.
A statement from the bishop’s office said: “The shared use of the cathedral by Catholics and Muslims would not contribute to the peaceful coexistence of the two beliefs.”
The Roman Catholic Church cited archaeological reports that said before the Mosque was built in the 8th century remains of an earlier Christian temple had stood on the same spot.
Despite the prayer ban, the rules have been bent for a number of high-profile Muslim dignitaries, as well as some notorious members of the faith.
Saddam Hussein and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi both stopped off at Córdoba to prey at the former mosque, which comprises 300 yellow and red arches and 1,300 columns.
Mansur Escudero, of the Junta Islamica group, which has been pressing for Muslims to be allowed to worship at the mosque, condemned the incident. He said: “Our organisation has made reiterated petitions in a peaceful way and from a strict respect for law so they would permit the shared ecumenical use of the temple. We would have avoided what happened yesterday.
“They publicise the building as a mosque because that brings in tourists but they do not allow the Muslims who pay money to go inside to pray.” He added that if a space were provided for Muslim prayers it would not convenience visitors or disturb the cathedral and could promote understanding between the two religions.
Alexander Osman, spokesman for the the Association of Young Austrian Muslims, said: “We would like to sincerely apologise to the Christian authorities for what happened.”
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