Archive for November 2011
The US has expressed regret and offered its “deepest condolences” after 24 Pakistani soldiers who were killed in cross-border Nato air strikes were buried on Sunday, calling the attacks a “tragic unintended incident”.
Pakistani troops fired mortars at American ground soldiers patrolling the Afghan border, triggering Nato air strikes, according to Afghan officials and western sources. The killings, which occurred in the early hours of Saturday when Nato bombs smashed into two Pakistani military checkpoints, threaten to further damage the already shaky relationship between America and Pakistan.
Pakistan has responded to the killings by ordering the closure of a CIA drone base and by cutting Nato’s supply line into Afghanistan.
Details of what happened remain murky. Pakistan said the air strikes took place in the Pakistani tribal agency of Mohmand. Pakistani officials called the bombardment a “grave infringement” of the country’s sovereignty.
But The Sunday Times has learned that the two checkpoints hit by the air strikes were in fact constructed on Afghan soil, in Kunar province’s Khas Kunar district between the villages of Shaley and Shrunkey.
When American ground forces, who were conducting a night time patrol on Saturday morning, approached the two Pakistani checkpoints, the Pakistani soldiers stationed there responded by firing mortars at the Americans, according to local intelligence and western officials.
Standard operating procedures dictate that Nato forces must withdraw when fired upon by Pakistani troops, an occurrence which takes place more often than reported, according to western analysts who monitor security developments in the east.
But, on this occasion, Nato called in air strikes to stop the mortar teams from firing at the American ground troops.
“In the early night hours of this morning, a force consisting of Afghan forces and coalition forces, in the eastern border area where the Durand Line is not always 100 per cent clear, got involved in a fire fight,” said Nato spokesman, Brigadier General Carsten Jacobsen.
Pakistani troops have made an increasing number of cross-border incursions into Afghan territory since the beginning of the year, according to western and local Afghan officials.
Part of the problem is that the exact location of the border between the two countries, known as the Durand Line, remains disputed and ambiguous.
“It is still not clear if the Americans knew that the people attacking them were Pakistani military forces or whether they thought they might be insurgents. But the firing must have been intense for them to respond like this,” said one western official.
It is possible that the Americans may have mistaken the Pakistani soldiers for Taliban insurgents, especially because the operation took place in the dark. But officials said that the Americans would have known the location of Pakistani military bases along the border.
Pakistan’s army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said map references of all of the force’s border posts had been given to NATO several times. Read the rest of this entry »
Britain is drawing up plans to pull its forces out of Afghanistan much sooner than had been intended after high-level indications from Washington that American troops may leave early.
Sources in London and Kabul suggested last week that President Barack Obama was considering accelerating the withdrawal from Afghanistan in the run-up to presidential elections in November next year.
“The Americans need to pull out early for financial and electoral reasons,” said a source. “It’s all part and parcel with the decision to pull out of Iraq by the end of the year.”
With British troops in Helmand now a small part of an American-dominated Nato force, Ministry of Defence planners have been forced to look at speeding up the withdrawal of UK troops. MoD officials insisted that any British withdrawal would be “conditions-based” and dependent on an agreement with the Afghan government.
“The Americans are now looking to pull out much faster than previously planned,” said a senior British official. “We have no choice but to dovetail our planning with theirs.”
At present Nato plans to withdraw the vast bulk of its troops by the end of 2014, leaving a small contingent of conventional troops and special forces. As part of the process, the Americans are due to withdraw 33,000 troops by September 2012.
That would leave 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan. But a Nato official in Kabul said the chances of there being anywhere near that number by the end of 2013 were “slim to none”.
Although no final decision had been taken, it was “highly likely” that American troops would be pulled out more rapidly and in far greater numbers than previously discussed, said sources in London and Kabul. Other Nato countries are as keen as the Americans to bring their troops home early. Read the rest of this entry »
Documents obtained by The Sunday Times cast new light on how one of London’s most respected accountancy firms was hoodwinked
The largest private bank in Afghanistan, hailed as a success story by the West, was deliberately designed to help its politically well connected shareholders and executives plunder about £622m.
Documents obtained by The Sunday Times cast new light on how a complex fraud set up by Afghan executives allegedly hoodwinked one of London’s most respected accountancy firms, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), which in February last year found no wrongdoing at Kabul Bank.
Months later it emerged that executives and shareholders had spent years looting the bank’s coffers. The scandal forced the Afghan government to raid its reserves for £528m to bail out the stricken bank.
As a result, Britain and other countries suspended millions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world. President Hamid Karzai blamed western advisers for failing to spot the looming disaster.
Referring to PWC’s February audit, the American government said at the time: “This ‘clean audit’ opinion from a professional accounting and auditing firm with worldwide operations demonstrates the difficulty of identifying fraud at Kabul Bank.”
However, the documents show that the bank’s structure was created for the prime purpose of committing fraud on a massive scale. Investigators have identified 114 fictitious companies set up by the bank, according to the minutes of a recent meeting between Afghan officials, leading donor countries and employees of Kroll, an investigations agency that began a £6.2m audit of the bank earlier this year.
Loans were then made to these fake businesses with the cash dished out among the main shareholders and the bank’s senior executives. The bank also paid off 10 accounting firms (but not PWC) to create a mass of documents that supported the existence of these fake companies.
Between them the bank’s executives and shareholders spent about £93m on luxury villas in Kabul and Dubai and a doomed property venture in the United Arab Emirates.
Among those under investigation in the scandal are Mahmoud Karzai, the president’s brother, and Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a warlord and brother of the country’s first vice-president.
Relatives of Fahim also bought shares and obtained loans worth millions from the bank. Mahmoud Karzai, who had a 7% shareholding in the bank, and the Fahim family deny any wrongdoing.
The shareholders and executives spent a further £37m of the bank’s money on travel and luxurious hotel rooms as they jetted around the world spending depositors’ money.
“Shareholders and management were motivated by loans they could receive rather than by the performance of the bank,” the minutes quote a Kroll official as saying. “Layers of governance in regard to compliance, internal audits and the audit committee were non-existent.”
There are also allegations that bank officials bribed Afghan cabinet ministers to ignore the bank’s fraudulent dealings and gave millions of dollars to President Karzai’s 2009 election campaign, which was itself tainted by accusations of widespread voter fraud.
Questions remain over how PWC failed to spot the massive fraud. The company declined to comment.
“The independent audit that was carried out on Kabul Bank by PWC will be scrutinised, as their audit cleared the bank of all illicit dealing when actually this was not the case at all,” the minutes state.
A Kroll official present at the meeting said the agency would be “looking into this very closely”.
So far just £46m — 8% of the missing funds — has been recovered. Shareholders have apparently signed agreements to repay a total of £203m. A further £249m is still in dispute, raising the possibility that the Afghan government will never get the bulk of its money back. Read the rest of this entry »
I thought I’d flag up a story in The Times newspaper yesterday that highlights how far the rights of Afghan women have slipped down the agenda in Afghanistan. One of the justifications for going to war in 2001 was to “free the Afghan women” from the “barbaric” Taliban. Despite this pledge, little has changed for women in the 10 years since the US-led invasion.
The Times’ story is about how the European Union banned a film it commissioned on the rights of Afghan women. The censored film documents the cases of a number of Afghan women jailed for “moral crimes”. These “crimes” are usually committed by women who try to run away from their homes because they’ve suffered horrific torture and abuse at the hands of their husbands or male relatives.
One of the women featured in the film, Gulnaz, was raped and impregnated by a relative. She reported her rape to the police, who promptly locked her in jail for committing adultery. One and a half years later Gulnaz is still in jail, although she will soon be released because she has agreed to marry the rapist (a condition set by the judge).
Instead of publicising the suffering of women locked up for moral crimes the EU decided to prevent the film from seeing the light of day. Read the Times’s story here.
The Times followed this story with another today. The paper quoted Gulnaz’s rapist, who said that the EU had “done a good thing” by banning the film. The rights of women have slipped so far down the agenda in Afghanistan that we now have convicted rapists thanking the EU for concealing the suffering of women here.
As one senior rights activist told me: “It’s all about withdrawing the troops now. That’s the main focus for the foreigners here. Everything else, especially the rights of women, has pretty much been forgotten”.
There’s now a petition calling for the immediate release of Gulnaz. It has already attracted more than 5,000 signatures and will be sent to President Hamid Karzai. Sign here http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/freegulnaz/