Afghan hospital ‘mistakenly struck’


The deadly air strike that hit a hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz was a mistake made within the U.S. chain of command, the American commander of international forces in Afghanistan said on Tuesday.

The strike on Saturday on an Afghan hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, or Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), killed 22 people and deeply angered the medical charity. MSF officials have blamed the United States, demanding an independent investigation into the incident and calling it a war crime.

U.S. Army General John Campbell said U.S. forces had responded to requests from Afghan forces and provided close air support as they engaged in a fight with Taliban militants in the provincial capital of Kunduz.

“To be clear, the decision to provide aerial fires was a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command,” Campbell said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. “A hospital was mistakenly struck. We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility.”

Campbell's comments on Tuesday were the most direct acknowledgement yet by the U.S. government that the strike on the hospital was carried out by U.S. forces. In a statement on Monday, Campbell said only that U.S. forces had responded to requests for support from Afghan forces.

Campbell said on Tuesday he had directed forces under his command to undergo in-depth training to review operational authorities and rules of engagement to prevent further incidents like Kunduz.

The incident, along with the Taliban's capture of Kunduz late last month, has cast renewed attention on the 14-year-long U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

Many members of Congress are deeply concerned about President Barack Obama's plans for a final withdrawal of U.S. forces. Obama is reassessing the timetable for a drawdown which currently envisages removing all but a few U.S. soldiers by the end of 2016.

“The world walked away from Afghanistan once before and it descended into chaos that contributed to the worst terrorist attack ever against our homeland,” said Senator John McCain, the Republican chairman of the committee, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that were planned by al Qaeda militants sheltered by the then-ruling Taliban in Afghanistan.

“We cannot afford to repeat that mistake,” McCain said.

Campbell declined to provide specifics about the recommendations he had made to the White House about force levels, but said they included an option for more troops than just a small embassy-based force.

He told the committee that options he had provided were “above and beyond a normal embassy presence based on changes that have happened within the last two years.”

Taliban condemns ‘barbarity’ of Islamic State execution video


The Taliban condemned a video released this week showing what appeared to be a group of fighters belonging to the radical Islamic State movement killing a group of Afghan prisoners by blowing them up with explosives.

The video, apparently shot in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar in June, gave a glimpse into the struggle the Taliban is waging against Islamic State – both considered ultra-hardline groups – for supremacy of the Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan.

“A horrific video was released yesterday showing kidnappers who associate themselves with Daesh (Islamic State) brutally martyring several white-bearded tribal elders and villagers with explosives,” said a statement posted on the Taliban's website.

The Taliban, which itself if frequently accused of brutality against Afghan government soldiers that it captures, said prisoners should never be treated in such a manner.

“This offence and other such brutal actions by a few irresponsible ignorant individuals under the guise of Islam and Muslims are intolerable,” it said.

Groups associated with Islamic State have made growing inroads in Afghanistan in recent years, attracting fighters and support away from the Taliban by preaching a more extreme form of Islamist militancy.

The video contained a message in Arabic and a Pashto language commentary which said that a group of what it called “apostates” had been captured following a battle between ISIS fighters, Taliban and Afghan government forces.

The bound captives appear to have been local men who had fought with or helped the Taliban.

After showing the explosion which killed the men, the video ends with a message in Arabic urging local people to heed the lesson. “Do you have a taste for digging your own graves? Do you want to be beheaded?” a man's voice asks.

Three American contractors killed in ‘insider attack’ in Afghan capital


Three American contractors were killed and a fourth was wounded by an Afghan solider at the military airport in the capital Kabul, an Afghan air force official told Reuters on Thursday.

“It is unclear yet why he shot these advisers and no one else was there to tell us the reason,” the official said, asking not to be named because he was not authorised to give statements to the media. “An investigation has been opened.”

The international force in Afghanistan confirmed the shooting took place on Thursday evening.

Yom Kippur in Afghanistan


Every other morning, Army Capt. Nathan Brooks wakes up between 4 and 4:30 a.m. to go for a three-mile run before the intense heat of the Afghan desert sets in. 

Following his daily exercise at Bagram Airfield, Brooks does two things that he said have most helped him feel connected to God since he deployed for Afghanistan in April — he wraps tefillin and davens Shacharit, the morning prayer service.

“That’s my thing that I hold onto,” said Brooks, a 33-year-old, single Orthodox Jew from Los Angeles. 

Serving abroad, Brooks hasn’t been able to maintain the same level of religious observance that he did back home, where he regularly attended two Orthodox synagogues, B’nai David-Judea Congregation and Beth Jacob.

On Shabbat, because the military cannot take a day of rest in a war zone, Brooks still must complete his daily tasks for the Army. And for Yom Kippur this year, Brooks does not anticipate that he will be able to entirely fast.

“This is a war going on,” he said. “You do what you can.”

Sitting in his quarters in Afghanistan on a recent evening — morning in Los Angeles — Brooks spoke with the Journal via videoconference about his experience as an officer and an observant Jew serving the United States military for 16 years. (He joined when he was 17.)

In his role in charge of the 1106th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group (TASMG) unit, Brooks has numerous responsibilities. He flies a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter during maintenance test flights and manages “depot level maintenance” activities, which refers to the issue and repair of Army cargo and helicopters.

In terms of fasting, Brooks said that although he would be unable to perform his duties if he did not eat or drink on fast days such as Yom Kippur or Tisha b’Av, he makes sure to restrict himself to water and bland foods. 

“As a pilot, particularly in the heat of Kandahar [where he was previously stationed] for Tisha b’Av, it was maybe 114 degrees, and I still had to perform and function as a soldier,” he said. “When you are an officer in charge, sometimes the needs of your unit and your troops have to come before your own personal needs.”

Despite the impossibility of remaining strictly observant in Afghanistan, while Brooks was in Kandahar he and two other Orthodox Jews met regularly on Friday evenings without the benefit of a Jewish chaplain to pray, study Torah and make the best Shabbat dinner that kosher ready-to-eat meals (MREs) can provide. 

MREs, even the kosher ones, are not exactly traditional Shabbat fare. The modest meals include dried cranberries, cereal, sunflower seeds and either a vegetarian dish, a beef stew or chicken with noodles. Not much variety — on Shabbat or any other day of the week. 

“You eat those over and over again; it gets kind of old,” Brooks said.

Although the Army usually only provides Brooks and his fellow Jewish soldiers with matzah for religious meals, organizations like Project MOT often send challah in care packages for Jewish soldiers. In fact, sometimes there are so many packages from Jewish organizations — as many as five or six per week — that non-Jewish soldiers have asked incredulously if he knows the people sending him so many packages.

Since Brooks moved to Bagram Airfield a couple of weeks ago, he has spent Friday nights in the company of Rabbi David Goldstrom, an Orthodox chaplain who will be serving in Bagram for a few more weeks, returning to his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., shortly after the end of the High Holy Days.

A 47-year-old New Jersey native, Goldstrom leads Friday night services every week. He organized services for Rosh Hashanah, and will do the same on Yom Kippur, for which he hopes to have a minyan

Goldstrom’s description of Shabbat and holidays at Bagram has little in common with how they are celebrated in America. For one, even though Goldstrom is able to observe Shabbat in Afghanistan, his attire remains a standard Army uniform. And attacks from the Taliban remain an almost daily disturbance.

“I may have to go to a bunker because of indirect fire, mortar attacks or rocket attacks,” Goldstrom said. “They do attack us almost daily.” 

Goldstrom said that when an alarm on the base rings, he and other soldiers have to scramble quickly. It can happen during weekly drills, and it can happen during Shabbat services.

“An alarm goes off, and you hit the ground or head for a bunker as quickly as possible and wait for the all clear,” he said.

While serving as a chaplain in Afghanistan — away from his wife and two sons — is certainly a challenge, Goldstrom said that one of his favorite recurring moments is when he first meets a Jewish soldier.

“When they do see a Jewish chaplain, when they see the tablet and Star of David on my helmet, on my uniform, their faces light up.”

Come January, when Brooks likely will be back in Los Angeles, he plans to either continue flying Black Hawk helicopters as part of the California Army National Guard or return to school to further pursue a graduate degree in either geographic information science or in emergency planning.

Despite all the challenges involved with being an observant Jew in the military — especially when serving abroad — Brooks believes it’s all worth it.

“I think it’s really important that we have ourselves represented in the military,” he said. “As soldiers, we have a lot to give.”

Sgt. Robert Bales pleads guilty to murdering 16 Afghan civilians


A U.S. Army sergeant who killed 16 Afghan civilians in cold blood last year pleaded guilty on Wednesday to premeditated murder and other charges under a deal with military prosecutors to avoid the death penalty.

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, admitted to roaming off his Army post in the Afghan province of Kandahar last March to gun down and set fire to unarmed villagers, mostly women and children, in attacks on their family compounds.

“As far as why, I've asked that question a million times since then,” Bales said, in a calm, steady voice, when asked by the judge for an explanation. “There is not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things that I did.”

The slayings marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on a rogue U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and further strained U.S.-Afghan relations after more than a decade of conflict in that country.

Assuming that the judge, Army Colonel Jeffery Nance, accepts his plea, a court-martial jury will decide in August whether Bales, 39, is sentenced to life in prison with or without the possibility of parole.

Bales, wearing a military dress uniform, stood beside his lawyer, Emma Scanlan, as she entered guilty pleas on his behalf to 16 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of attempted murder and seven counts of assault, as well as to alcohol and drug charges.

Reading through the list of charges himself, one at a time, later in the hearing, Bales acknowledged that he committed 10 of the slayings by shooting and burning his victims and that he killed six others by gunshot only.

“I then did kill her by shooting her with a firearm and burning her. This act was without legal justification,” he said during a matter-of-fact recitation of his crimes, delivered with no visible sign of emotion.

INTENT TO KILL

Asked by Nance if he had acted out of self-defense, or under orders, or whether he had any other legal justification to kill the 16 villagers, Bales replied, “No, sir.”

“Could you have avoided killing them if you wanted to?” the judge asked.

“Yes, sir,” he answered, adding that he “formed the intent (to kill) as I raised my weapon.” Bales said that setting fire to his victims was also done with the intent to kill, and that he was aware it was “against their cultural norms.”

Bales has claimed his memories of the killings are spotty, but he acknowledged seeing a lantern at one point during the rampage and that matches were later found in his possession. He said he learned from previous testimony that kerosene was used in the burnings.

Army prosecutors have said Bales acted alone and with chilling premeditation when, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher, he left his post twice during the night to attack civilians. He is alleged to have returned to base in the middle of the rampage to tell a fellow soldier: “I just shot up some people.”

Defense attorneys have argued that Bales, the father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury even before his deployment to Afghanistan.

During a nine-day pre-trial hearing in November, witnesses testified that Bales had been angered by a bomb blast near his outpost that severed a fellow soldier's leg days before the shootings.

Under questioning from Nance, Bales said that his use of illegal steroids, which he admitted taking to improve muscle tone and recovery time from missions, also “increased my irritability and anger.”

Bales' wife was seated behind him in the courtroom benches at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Washington.

Scanlan told Reuters last week that Bales had agreed to plead guilty to the murder charges against him in return for military prosecutors agreeing not to seek the death penalty.

The plea agreement is subject to final approval by Nance, the presiding judge, who must first determine whether Bales has provided a complete account of the events, understands his plea and accepts the consequences of his acts.

Bales requested in court that one third of the jury panel for the sentencing phase of the proceedings consist of enlisted military personnel, as opposed to officers.

The plea deal outlined by Bales' lawyers was similar to an agreement struck at Lewis-McChord in April, when Army Sergeant John Russell pleaded guilty to killing two fellow U.S. servicemen at a military counseling center in Iraq, near Baghdad's airport, in a 2009 shooting spree.

Russell was sentenced to life in prison without parole following an abbreviated court-martial stemming from one of the worst cases of violence by an American soldier against other U.S. troops.

Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Scott Malone, Bernard Orr

Pakistani girl shot by Taliban defied threats for years


A 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl campaigner shot by the Taliban had defied threats for years, believing the good work she was doing for her community was her best protection, her father said on Wednesday.

Malala Yousufzai was shot and seriously wounded on Tuesday as she was leaving her school in her hometown in the Swat valley, northwest of the capital, Islamabad.

The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying her promotion of education for girls was pro-Western and she had opposed them.

The shooting has outraged people in a country seemingly inured to extreme violence since a surge in Islamist militancy began after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

[Commentary from Pakistan: Pakistan’s Anne Frank?]

“She is candle of peace that they have tried to blow out,” said one Pakistani man, Abdul Majid Mehsud, 45, from the violence plagued South Waziristan region.

In the Swat valley, a one-time tourist spot infiltrated by militants from Afghan border bases more than five years ago, her family and community are praying for her survival.

Her father, Ziauddin Yousufzai, who ran a girls' school, said his daughter had wanted to go into politics.

He said that of all the things he loved about her, it was her fairness – her democratic ideals – that he loved the most.

Malala, then a dimpled 11-year-old with dark eyes, shot to fame when she wrote a blog under a pen name for the BBC about living under the rule of the Pakistani Taliban.

The militants, led by a firebrand young preacher, took over her valley through a mixture of violence, intimidation and the failure of the authorities to stand up to them.

Even after the military finally went into action with an offensive in 2009 that swept most of the militants from the valley, it remained a dangerous place.

Malala didn't keep quiet. She campaigned for education for girls and later received Pakistan's highest civilian prize.

Her prominence came at a cost.

“We were being threatened. A couple of times, letters were thrown in our house, that Malala should stop doing what she is doing or the outcome will be very bad,” her father, sounding drained and despondent, said by telephone.

But despite the threats, he said he had turned down offers of protection from the security forces.

“We stayed away from that because she is a young female. The tradition here does not allow a female to have men close by,” he said.

“NEVER FEARFUL”

Malala had spent many sleepless nights kept awake by gunfire, had been forced to flee her home with her two younger brothers and walked past the headless bodies of those who defied the Taliban.

Her parents also wanted her to have some chance of a normal childhood, her father said.

“We did not want her to be carrying her school books surrounded by bodyguards. She would not have been able to receive education freely,” he said.

Her parents thought she would be safe among their neighbors in the town of Mingora, nestled among the snow-capped mountains that earned Swat the nickname of the Switzerland of Pakistan.

“I never imagined that this could happen because Malala is a young innocent girl,” her father said. “Whenever there were threats, relatives and friends would tell Malala to take care but Malala was never fearful.”

“She would frequently say 'I am satisfied. I am doing good work for my people so nobody can do anything to me'.”

Recently, Malala had started to organize a fund to make sure poor girls could go to school, said Ahmed Shah, a family friend and chairman of the Swat Private Schools Association.

“She had planned on making the Malala Education Foundation in Swat,” Shah said, adding that the Taliban used to print threats against her in the newspaper.

Classmate Brekhna Rahim said Malala “wished to have enough money and build schools in every village for girls in Swat”.

The entire Swat Valley was in shock over the shooting, she said, glued to their televisions and crying as they watched the endlessly repeated scenes of her being stretchered to hospital.

“Women and girls are sad as if they had lost a very close member of the family,” Rahim said.

“She was the life of the class,” said fellow student, Dure Nayab.

GUNMEN

On Tuesday, a gunman arrived at her school, asking for her by name. He opened fire on her and two classmates on a bus.

Now her father is waiting for her to regain consciousness as she lies swathed in white bandages in a military hospital.

“Doctors are hopeful,” he said. “I appeal to the country to pray for her survival.”

Ziauddin Yousufzai said the shooting would stop neither him nor his daughter from their work.

He echoed the view of many people who said that the shooting was against Islamic law and against the culture of the ethnic Pashtun region, which forbids the targeting of women.

“We will focus even more on our work with more strength,” he said. “If all of us die fighting, we will still not leave this work.”

Her classmate Rahim put it another way.

“If the Taliban kill one Malala, they are thousands and thousands more brave girls like Malala in Swat.”

Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar and Katharine Houreld in Islamabad; Editing by Robert Birsel and Louise Ireland

Afghan militants say deadly blast was revenge for film


Afghan militants claimed responsibility on Tuesday for a suicide bomb attack on a minivan carrying foreign workers that killed 12 people saying it was retaliation for a film mocking the Prophet Mohammad.

A short film made with private funds in the United States and posted on the Internet has ignited days of demonstrations in the Arab world, Africa, Asia and in some Western countries.

In a torrent of violence blamed on the film last week, the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in an attack in Benghazi and U.S. and other foreign embassies were stormed in cities in Asia, Africa and the Middle East by furious Muslims. At least nine other people were killed.

On Tuesday, a suicide bomber blew up a minivan near the airport in the Afghan capital and a spokesman for the Hezb-e-Islami insurgent group claimed responsibility.

“A woman wearing a suicide vest blew herself up in response to the anti-Islam video,” said militant spokesman Zubair Sediqqi. Police said the woman may have been driving a Toyota Corolla car rigged with explosives, which she triggered.

But the claim will raise fears that anger over the film will feed into deteriorating security as the United States and other Western countries try to protect their forces from a rash of so-called insider attacks by Afghan colleagues.

Thousands of protesters clashed with police in Kabul the previous day, burning cars and hurling rocks at security forces in the worst outbreak of violence since February rioting over the inadvertent burning of Korans by U.S. soldiers.

The protesters in Kabul and several other Asian cities have vented their fury over the film at the United States, blaming it for what they see as an attack on Islam.

The outcry saddles U.S. President Barack Obama with an unexpected foreign policy headache as he campaigns for re-election in November, even though his administration has condemned the film as reprehensible and disgusting.

In response to the violence in Benghazi and elsewhere last week, the United States has sent ships, extra troops and special forces to protect U.S. interests and citizens in the Middle East, while a number of its embassies have evacuated staff and are on high alert for trouble.

Despite Obama's efforts early in his tenure to improve relations with the Arab and Muslim world, the violence adds to a host of problems including the continued U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear program, the Syrian civil war and the fall-out from the Arab Spring revolts.

PROTESTS, BANS

The renewed protests on Monday dashed any hopes that the furor over the film might fade despite an appeal over the weekend from the senior cleric in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest shrines, for calm.

Afghan police said among the 12 dead in the Kabul bomb attack were eight Russians and South Africans, mostly working for a foreign air charter company named ACS Ltd.

It followed a bloody weekend during which six members of Afghanistan's NATO-led alliance, including four Americans, were killed in suspected insider attacks carried out by Afghans turning on their allies.

Protesters also took to the streets in Pakistan and Indonesia on Monday and thousands also marched in Beirut, where a Hezbollah leader accused U.S. spy agencies of being behind events that have unleashed a wave of anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim and Arab world.

Authorities in Bangladesh have blocked the YouTube website indefinitely to stop people seeing the video. Pakistan and Afghanistan have also blocked the site.

Iran has condemned the film as offensive and vowed to pursue those responsible for making it. Iranian officials have demanded the United States apologize to Muslims, saying the film is only the latest in a series of Western insults aimed at Islam's holy figures.

The identity of those directly responsible for the film remains unclear. Clips posted online since July have been attributed to a man named Sam Bacile, which two people connected with the film have said was probably an alias.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, a Coptic Christian widely linked to the film in media reports, was questioned in California on Saturday by U.S. authorities investigating possible violations of his probation for a bank fraud conviction.

Reporting by various bureaus; Writing by Robert Birsel

U.S. asks Afghan leaders to help keep peace after video


The United States embassy in Kabul appealed to Afghan leaders on Wednesday for help “maintaining calm” over the anti-Muslim video, a statement said.

President Hamid Karzai strongly condemned the video amid simmering tensions in the Afghan capital on Wednesday over the video, with many fearing it could trigger protests like those seen in Libya and Egypt.

Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Alison Williams

Obama, Karzai sign U.S.-Afghan strategic pact


President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday signed a strategic partnership accord that charts the future of U.S.-Afghan relations beyond the end of the NATO combat mission in the country.

Obama, on an unannounced visit to Kabul, acknowledged that there will be difficult days ahead for Afghanistan, but said the Afghan people were taking control of their own future.

“The wages of war have been great for both our nations,” Obama said, adding that he looked forward to a future of peace.

The two leaders shook hands after the signing, which took place in Karzai’s palace in the Afghan capital.

Reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing By Warren Strobel and Sandra Maler