Saturday, January 30, 2010

NATO troops clash with Afghan allies

Asif Andalib SALAR, Afghanistan Sat Jan 30, 2010 10:39
Defense News ~ SALAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - NATO troops clashed with their Afghan allies in a so-called "friendly fire" incident on Saturday, calling in air strikes that killed four Afghan soldiers and stoked anger among villagers.
The clashes took place hours after an apparently disgruntled interpreter shot dead two U.S. soldiers at a nearby base. The incidents, although not apparently linked, highlighted the fraught relationship between Western forces and their Afghan hosts.
NATO and Afghan officials tried to head off tension by announcing a joint investigation into how their troops ended up battling each other in Wardak province, southwest of Kabul.
"Four army soldiers were killed and six wounded when a foreign forces air strike hit their post," said Shahedullah Shahed, spokesman for Wardak's governor. "We don't know why it happened, but it is deeply regrettable."
He said the strike had targeted an Afghan Army outpost that had been newly established. Foreign forces and Afghan troops were both separately conducting overnight operations when they started shooting at each other, he said.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said its troops had come under fire and called in air strikes, without realizing they were engaging Afghan security forces.
"Initial post-operational reports indicate the small arms fire originated from an Afghan National Army (ANA) combat outpost and the subsequent air support called in by the joint force likely killed at least four ANA soldiers," a statement said.
"We work extremely hard to coordinate and synchronize our operations," said Canadian Brigadier-General Eric Tremblay, the force's main spokesman. "This is a regrettable incident and our thoughts go out to the families of those killed and wounded."
Hours earlier, an interpreter opened fire at a base in the same province, shooting dead two U.S. soldiers before he was killed, two U.S. military officials said, under condition they not be named because details had yet to be officially released.
"Initial indications are this was a case of a disgruntled employee" rather than an insurgent attack, one of the U.S. officials said. An Afghan provincial official confirmed the account, saying the interpreter had argued with troops over pay.
In a separate incident in nearby Ghazni province, ISAF said on Saturday its troops had shot dead two Afghan civilians and wounded a third when they failed to heed warnings to stop the vehicle in which they were traveling. Similar shootings have led to demonstrations against Western troops in recent weeks.
"Friendly fire" incidents between Afghan and foreign forces and killing of Afghan civilians are among the biggest sources of tension between the Afghan government and the Western troops fighting to protect it.
"As you can see, they dropped bombs on the outpost. It was the Americans of course. Who else can bomb us?" an angry village elder told Reuters television in the town of Salar, gesturing toward the sky above the site of the "friendly fire" incident.
The NATO-led force, which is about two-thirds American, did not identify the nationality of the troops involved.
The Afghan Defense Ministry called for a court martial for any troops found responsible for the clash.
"The soldiers involved in the horrific incident must be dealt with according to martial law, without any hesitation, so that they receive punishment for their action," the ministry said.
Western forces are also concerned about increasing numbers of attacks from the Afghans they work with.
In November, an Afghan policeman killed five British soldiers at a checkpoint in southern Afghanistan. In December, an Afghan soldier killed a U.S. service member and wounded two Italian soldiers when he opened fire at an army base in the west.
Later that month, a Jordanian double agent wearing a suicide vest killed five CIA staff, two CIA contractors and a Jordanian intelligence officer, the deadliest attack on the CIA in decades.
The United Nations says ISAF has managed to reduce the number of civilians killed since its commander, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, issued guidelines last year to curb such deaths.
(Additional reporting by Sher Ahmad in GHAZNI and Hamid Shalizi and Peter Graff in KABUL; writing by Peter Graff; editing by Janet Lawrence)
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see:

FACTBOX-Five political risks to watch in Japan

By Linda Sieg
Defense News ~ TOKYO, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Japan's ballooning public debt is stoking market concern as the government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama struggles to give the economy the stimulus it needs without compromising the need for fiscal prudence.
Standard and Poor's cut its outlook for Japan's sovereign credit rating to negative this week, and with some foreign hedge funds betting that the country's debt burden will cause more problems in years to come, spreads on sovereign credit default swaps JPGV5YUSAC=R widened to 90 basis points -- the most in 10 months -- before falling back a bit. Following is a summary of key political risks to watch:
The government is trapped between the need to prevent the economy from slipping back into recession and Japan's huge public debt, already nearing 200 percent of GDP. [ID:nTOE60P0BH] Sliding tax revenues mean government income now covers less than half of spending. Efforts to cut budget waste to find funds for new programmes have so far fallen short of target despite the Democrats' pledge to boost growth without issuing much more debt.
The appointment of Naoto Kan as finance minister this month raised doubts about government resolve to hold down spending given his concern about deflation and the recovery, but Kan has also said fiscal discipline is needed. [ID:nTKF6818]
Standard Poor's on Tuesday cut its outlook on Japan's AA long-term sovereign debt rating to negative, saying the policy bind could lead to a downgrade unless measures were taken to stem fiscal and deflationary pressure. [ID:nTOE60P09M]
The sovereign credit default swap spread widened on the news, but the impact on JGBs <0#jpbmk=> was limited because the vast majority are held by domestic investors. By making JGBs less attractive to foreigners, the downgrade will be a long-term drag on JGB prices, however, analysts said.
What to watch:
-- The government aims to release a mid-term fiscal reform plan by May or June and to unveil a growth strategy in June.
-- Data showing a risk of persistent deflation could prompt calls for extra stimulus ahead of the upper house poll, although the government would be sensitive to any rises in bond yields.
-- A political funding scandal embroiling Democratic Party Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa could also tempt the government to spend more to woo voters turned off by the affair.
The Bank of Japan said this week deflation would be milder than previously forecast but left the door open to further easing to support a fragile economic recovery. December data showed the biggest drop in consumer prices on record. [ID:nTOE60S02A]
Kan, a vocal BOJ critic, said this week the BOJ could do more to fight deflation. The central bank could face extra pressure if the economy falters ahead of the mid-year upper house poll.
The government criticised the BOJ for being too rosy on the economy when the bank upgraded its assessment in November. The BOJ later caved in to pressure and last month adopted a new fund supply operation at which it offers 10 trillion yen ($111 billion) in three-months loans to banks at 0.1 percent. It then declared that it wouldn't tolerate deflation. [ID:nTOE60K02X]
The BOJ is independent by law but is required to work closely with the government to align policy. Tension over strategy raise the risks for markets, making policy harder to forecast.
What to watch:
-- Persistent deflation could pressure the BOJ to buy more government bonds or expand the new fund supply operation. Increased JGB purchases would push up bond prices and so bring down long-term interest rates.
-- Government rhetoric on the role of the central bank will give clues on how much influence the Democrats will seek to have.
Finance Minister Kan's early comments have led some analysts to argue the government will be less tolerant of a rising yen, although others say intervention is highly unlikely for now.
Kan jolted markets in his first news briefing as finance chief, saying he hoped the yen would weaken further and that many Japanese firms were in favour of dollar/yen around 95 yen JPY=. He later toned down those comments, saying currency levels should be determined by markets, but many market participants still see Kan as favouring a weaker yen in contrast with his predecessor. [ID:nN08122177]
What to watch:
-- Attention will be on comments by government officials regarding possible currency intervention. Picking a level that would trigger intervention is tricky. Intervening could also be difficult at a time when the Group of Seven is encouraging flexibility in foreign exchange rates, particularly in China.
-- Another way of countering a surge in yen strength could be for the Bank of Japan to take more easing steps as it did in December after the yen hit a 14-year high on the dollar. Possible steps could be increasing the amount of a new fixed-rate funding operation or extending its maturity; or increasing JGB issuance.
The funding scandal ensnaring Ozawa is threatening the Democratic Party's chances of a mid-year election win that would clear the way for smoother policymaking. [ID:nTOE60L015]
Ozawa is credited by many with engineering the Democrats' big election win last August and his skills are thought vital to winning the mid-year poll, passing laws and deciding policies.
The Democrats need to win an outright majority in the upper house election to reduce the clout of two small parties whose cooperation is currently needed to enact legislation smoothly. A ruling bloc loss would create a parliamentary deadlock.
Hatoyama is beset by criticism over his own funding scandal, though fewer voters think he should resign, in contrast to the majority who want Ozawa to step down. [ID:nTOE60J03B]
What to watch:
-- Further falls in voter support for the Democrats could pressure Ozawa to resign; Hatoyama could also face calls to quit.
-- The scandal could delay passage of a $1 trillion budget for the year from April 1, though opposition parties risk a public backlash if they stall amid the weak economy.
Hatoyama is in an increasingly tight spot over a dispute with Washington over a plan to relocate a U.S. Marine base to a less crowded part of Okinawa after an anti-base candidate's win in a local mayoral election on Jan. 24. [ID:nTOE60F00X]
The dispute, which Hatoyama has vowed to settle by the end of May, has frayed ties with ally Washington and fanned doubts among voters about Hatoyama's leadership skills. [ID:nN10128368] Some analysts say he may have to quit if he fails to resolve the row.
What to watch:
-- U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell is expected to raise the issue when he visits next week.
-- Attention will be on comments by Hatoyama and other cabinet ministers in the run-up to May, when the prime minister may travel to Washington to meet U.S. President Barack Obama. (Additional reporting by Charlotte Cooper; Editing by Andrew Marshall)