"An irritant to the people"
NATO forces have pulled out of the remote Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, as part of top U.S. and NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy to focus on population centers in the country (Reuters, Wash Post, WSJ, AP, ISAF, Pajhwok). Gen. McChrystal observed that rather than bringing stability to the area, troops had been "an irritant to the people;" more than 40 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Korengal, and far more Afghans — U.S. and Afghan officials say the narrow valley is some of the bloodiest ground in Afghanistan.
Yesterday, survivors of a German-ordered airstrike north of Kunduz’s main city last September gathered outside the human rights commission there to demand compensation for those dead and wounded (Reuters). As many as 99 civilians were killed in the airstrike, which targeted fuel trucks north of Kunduz city that NATO troops believed had been hijacked by Taliban fighters. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called civilian casualties in Afghanistan a strategic challenge to the war effort there (WSJ).
Some residents of Kandahar, the southern Afghan province expected to be the site of the next major coalition offensive, are fearful that the operations in the province’s outer districts will force Taliban militants into the capital city (LAT). The Taliban in Kandahar have been targeting women across the provincial capital in a campaign of intimidation (AP).
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to appoint replacements for those top election officials who resigned last week within a few days, ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for this September (Pajhwok). And the Telegraph spoke with the chief negotiator for the insurgent group Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, which last month presented a 15-point peace plan to the Afghan government (Tel). Dr. Ghairat Baheer emphasized the necessity of involving militant leadership in any reconciliation talks, commenting, "Hezb-i-Islami minus Hekmatyar means nothing. The Taliban without Mullah Omar means nothing."
The many-front war
After several weeks of pitched battles between Pakistani security forces and militants in the northwestern tribal agency of Orakzai, a Pakistani Army spokesman said some 7,000 troops had taken control of parts of the region and killed around 350 militants (Bloomberg). Many of the fighters fleeing last fall’s offensive in South Waziristan left for Orakzai.
Karen DeYoung and Griff Witte have today’s must-read describing the differences between the U.S. and Pakistan regarding North Waziristan: U.S. officials want the Pakistani Army to turn its attention to that tribal area, which serves as a launching pad for insurgent attacks against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, while the Pakistani Army has largely been focusing on those militants who target Pakistan (Wash Post). Officials from both countries are reportedly trying to reconcile these two positions. A NATO commander in eastern Afghanistan said the Pakistani operations in the country’s northwest have "stemmed the flow of fighters" crossing the border, while some Afghan officials also want more Pakistani action in the tribal regions (AFP).
The Pakistani Army admitted earlier today that at least 45 civilians were killed in last weekend’s airstrikes in the Tirah Valley in Khyber agency (WSJ). However, local residents and a Pakistani official claimed as many as 75 civilians were killed, which if true would be the worst civilian casualty incident since 2003 (NYT, McClatchy). Many of those killed were among the Afridi Kokikhel subtribe, which has vehemently resisted the militants.
The human cost
Some 1.3 million people have been displaced by years of conflict in Pakistan, and the U.N. in Islamabad has received barely 20 percent of the total humanitarian aid it requested from international donors in February (AFP). Most of the displaced are living in "host communities," though around 126,000 are still housed in refugee camps.
As a package of constitutional reforms makes its way through the upper house of Pakistan’s parliament, protests against the proposed name change for the North-West Frontier Province to Khyber-Puktunkhwa continued in Abbottabad, a Hazara-dominated area (Geo, Express Tribune, AJE, BBC, Express Tribune). At least eight people have been killed in recent days.
Two more stories round out the news today: the Post takes a close look at the journeys of the five young Muslim men from the Washington, DC area who traveled to Pakistan late last year allegedly to become involved in militancy (Wash Post); and John Brennan, the Obama administration’s top counterterrorism adviser, said yesterday that dozens of terrorist groups have sought weapons of mass destruction, though al-Qaeda hasn’t "made much progress" (CNN).
Twitter boot camp
Afghanistan’s first ‘media festival’ has been launched, and over the next four months young Afghans will have the opportunities to be trained in audio and video tools, blogging, photography, and even text messaging (Pajhwok). The projects will culminate in a showcase called "Youth Media Week" in early August.