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Weekly News Roundup: Talking in Kabul, Air Assaults, Civilian Deaths, and Iran's Influence

written by Matt Elliott
on October 15, 2010

The latest developments in Afghanistan center around talks of reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The United States are not directly involved in the discussions, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates says, "there is access into the process and opportunities to make U.S. concerns and suggestions known." In order for the talks to take place, NATO has facilitated the safe passage of Taliban leaders to Kabul, according to Gen. David Petraeus. This short editorial in The Washington Times argues that the advantage lies with the Taliban, since they need only to wait until U.S. troops withdraw next year before expanding their presence in the country, while President Karzai and his government are motivated to reach an agreement now, while they have the backing of NATO.

No one expects the talks to be easy or reconciliation to be reached quickly, and, indeed, violence in Afghanistan continues. Despite granting safe passage for some of the Taliban leadership to Kabul, NATO has reportedly killed the Taliban's second in command in Pakistan. "In a major setback to Taliban, missiles fired from US drones have killed its top commander and group's deputy chief Qari Hussain Mehsud, mastermind of many suicide attacks across Pakistan."

This latest drone attack is part of an increased air assault, ushered in by Gen. Petraeus earlier this year. "Last month, NATO attack planes dropped their bombs and fired their guns on 700 separate missions, according to U.S. Air Force statistics. That's more than double the 257 attack sorties they flew in September 2009, and one of the highest single-month totals of the entire nine-year Afghan campaign."

Not surprising, giving the heightened level of military activity, civilian deaths have risen sharply. In Kandahar, the number of Afghan civilians hospitalized for serious war wounds has doubled in the past 12 months. And the effect goes beyond direct war casualties, explains Reto Stocker, the Red Cross chief in Kabul:

"Our greatest challenge consists in maintaining access to the areas hardest hit by the fighting, but the increase in the number of armed groups is making this much harder for us. The result is that children die from tetanus, measles and tuberculosis - easily prevented with vaccines - while women die in childbirth and otherwise strong men succumb to simple infections."

Elsewhere, seven NATO troops across Afghanistan were killed on Thursday, on top of six NATO troops that were killed the day before.

What is it like to be out on patrol in Afghanistan? This GlobalPost article provides a gripping narrative and an accompanying photo slide show of an American platoon that gets ambushed toward the end of a recent patrol.

Our own blogger, Rajiv Srinivasan, has a post on The New York Times At War blog about a photo he saw after his return home that brought back vivid memories of his platoon in Afghanistan taking fire from a sniper.

In Iraq this week, a Time Magazine report from Baghdad looks at Iraqis' bleak outlook of their country and compares pre-war Iraq with the current situation and economy.

Perhaps part of the pessimism of Iraqis is the continued violence and the lack of any move toward formation of a legitimate government. The above article mentions that car bombs are still a regular event in Baghdad, and this Guardian report states, " 710 Iraqis had been killed this year with silenced pistols or rifles. At least 600 more had been killed by magnet bombs placed under the cars of officials, according to Baghdad's Major Crimes Unit. Hundreds more have been injured." Sobering figures.

Iraqi officials this week claimed that the United States under reported the number of civilian deaths in the war. "On Thursday, the US military in Iraq released data showing 63,185 civilians and 13,754 members of Iraq's security forces were killed from early 2004 to August 2008, some 22,000 less than Iraq government figures."

Lastly, this piece from The Atlantic argues that Iran's influence isn't nearly as great as the United States may think, after seeing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki receive the support of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr earlier this month.

Iraqi nationalism and suspicion of Iranian intentions, nearly universal in Iraq, simply do not allow for the kind of Iranian power one hears about in the U.S. While Maliki and Sadr's ascent in Baghdad are in line with the Iranian desire for Shiite Islamist supremacy, their rise is a reflection of Iraq's demography and politics. Of course a Shiite-majority, Islamist-leaning country will elect a Shiite-majority, Islamist-leaning government. Unfortunately, this is how democracy works in a war-scarred country where ethno-sectarian identity remains stubbornly vital to political affiliation. Sadr's political participation, though it may make Iraq less likely to follow every American interest, is simply a reflection of the realities of Iraq's nascent, flawed democracy.

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