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AT WAR: US-Led Forces In Afghanistan Are Committing Atrocities, Reporter Says

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We are blogging the latest news about America's war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Email us at AfPak [at] Follow Nico on Twitter; follow Nicholas on Twitter. See archives of 'At War' here.

With reporting by Faiz Lalani.

The story behind the story about the NATO massacre in Paktia. On March 15, Jerome Starkey reported in The London Times that he found evidence contradicting NATO's official story about what happened to a family in Afghanistan's Paktia province during a night raid. Contrary to NATO's assertions that a pro-government family was killed by Taliban militants, Starkey found that members of the family--including two pregnant women--died during NATO's night raid, and not at the hands of the Taliban, as NATO claimed.

The NATO cover-up was revealed only because he was able to travel to the location and interview witnesses, says Starkey in a piece on the website of Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism entitled "U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan are committing atrocities, lying, and getting away with it." Otherwise, journalists are usually not permitted to travel around Afghanistan and are embedded with NATO troops. The "embed culture" results in self-censorship and military censorship: journalists rely on NATO's version of events, they cannot directly challenge those with whom they are embedded, and NATO troops require that journalists clear footage with them before it is reported. For example, "British troops will only accept journalists who let military censors approve their stories before they are filed," writes Starkey.

6:05 PM ET -- Pakistan disrupted Taliban peace talks, allege Afghan officers. "Sources consulted by TIME in Peshawar, Kabul and Kandahar all characterize those Taliban commanders picked up by Pakistani intelligence agencies as being more malleable to peace talks with Karzai than a core of hard-liners within the Taliban's ruling shura," according to Tim McGirk of Time. The arrests have disrupted secret talks between Afghanistan's government and the Taliban, asserted Afghan officials. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullh had previously brokered secret talks between Kabul and the Taliban, and Karzai had used his tribal connections to bring Mullah Baradar--of the same tribe--into the fold for peace talks. But Pakistan's arrest of several high-ranking Taliban leaders was purposefully timed, allege Afghan officials, who say "that Pakistan will nudge the Taliban into future peace talks with Karzai only when the Afghan President starts curtailing the growing influence of India, Pakistan's regional rival, in Afghanistan." The Pakistanis, in other words, arrested Baradar to curb India's influence in Afghanistan and to push for a role for its allies--the Hezb-e-Islami, the Afghan Taliban, and the Haqqani network--in a future Afghan government.

5:45 PM ET -- Backpacking in Afghanistan. If you think backpacking across Europe is too cliché, then you should consider backpacking across war-torn Afghanistan, writes Nick Horne in Foreign Policy. Development agencies are promoting Afghanistan to expert backpackers, hoping to lure them and their foreign dollars to the country in an effort to stimulate the local economy. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and the German government's development agency have mapped out backpacking routes and published a glossy guide to the country. The AKDN also trains guides to help backpackers navigate the treacherous terrain. Horne recounts the his scenic travels, and the "many fond, as well as frustrating, memories" of backpacking across Wakhan, Afghanistan.

5:30 PM ET -- Clinton challenges UN envoy remarks; says Taliban must respect women's rights and renounce violence. In an interview with Pakistan's Express TV, which aired today on Pakistan's National Day, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about the newly begun strategic dialogue between the U.S. and Pakistan. Clinton discussed expanding cooperation with Pakistan on a whole host of issues, including development, trade, and terrorism. She contradicted remarks by Kai Eide, the outgoing U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, who said that Pakistan's arrest of Mullah Baradar had derailed peace talks between Karzai and the Taliban. According to Clinton, the arrest was "an example of cooperation between Pakistan and the United States," and that U.S. perspective on the issue differs with the Mr. Eide's. Secretary Clinton, who has in the past criticized reconciliation talks with the Taliban, clarified that for the U.S. to support talks with the Taliban, "they [the Taliban] must renounce violence, they must lay down their arms, they must respect the Afghan constitution and the laws of Afghanistan which now protect women's rights and roles."

3:00 PM ET -- Afghan police training overhaul A lack of leadership, corruption, and illiteracy are plaguing Afghanistan's police forces. By putting in place leadership development programs, doubling pay for officers, and reaching out to more Afghans, the Afghan National Police hopes to overcome these challenges, reports Voice of America. Since November 2009, a new NATO command in Afghanistan has been coordinating police training efforts.

2:45 PM ET -- Taliban reiterates opposition to peace talks with Karzai. As the Hezb-e-Islami, one of the three largest insurgent groups, begins talks with the Karzai administration today, the Afghan Taliban reiterated their position "that no talks could be held until [all foreign] troops withdraw," reports Reuters. Taliban fighters and Hezb-e-Islami militants clashed two weeks ago, marking a rift between the two insurgencies. The Afghan government is now seeking to bring the Hezb-e-Islami to its side, a move that could "markedly" shift the balance of power in the battle against the Taliban.

2:30 PM ET -- NATO permits opium cultivation in Marjah. Joshua Foust of writes approvingly of NATO's opium policy in Marjah. Initially, Foust worried that Marines would destroy opium crops in an effort to stamp out the drug trade. Destruction of the crops would undermine any victory in Marjah, feared Foust, because the locals would turn against NATO for destroying their livelihood--poppies. But, as The New York Times reports, Marines will not interfere with crop production and will instead focus on working with the locals to build support. Foust argues that opium cultivation is not the disease, but the symptom of institutional problems like "poor governance, zero economic security or prospects, and the presence of armed conflict." Increasing stability will naturally reduce opium cultivation, he says.

U.S. and NATO officials are conflicted about the strategy, however, which they liken to 'don't ask, don' tell.' A U.S. commander stated the dilemma: "How do you support the rule of law while providing a proper penalty and disincentive so they switch crops next year?" Destroying the crops would lessen local support, but letting the crops flourish would provide funds to the Taliban and undermine the rule of law.

11:30 AM ET -- Mullah Omar announces Baradar's successors. According to the BBC, Mullah Omar has named two new deputies to replace Mullah Baradar, who was arrested in Pakistan in February. By naming new leaders to the Taliban movement, Mullah Omar hoped to communicate that "that one arrest will not affect our movement." The new deputies, Abdul Qayuum Zakir and Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, reportedly oppose peace talks and "were committed to carrying on the armed struggle." Zakir is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee while Mansoor was a member of the original pre-9/11 Taliban leadership. Both are seen as instrumental to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

11:15 AM ET -- Pakistan-U.S. strategic dialogue begins. A Pakistani delegation, led by the country's Chief of the Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, is in the U.S. this week to begin a strategic dialogue between the two countries over Afghanistan and the future of U.S.-Pakistani relations, reports Dawn. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the dialogue would strengthen "democratic institutions, foster economic development, expand opportunity, and defeat the extremist groups who threaten Pakistan, the region, and even [the U.S.]." Nuclear energy is also expected to be on the table at the talks. Pakistan is facing a severe energy crisis and may ask for civilian nuclear assistance from the U.S. Two days before the talks began, the Pakistani government filed a petition in the High Court against alleged nuclear smuggler, Dr. A.Q. Khan.

10:45 AM ET -- Karzai meets with insurgent group Hezb-e-Islami. A delegation from the Hezb-e-Islami, an insurgent group linked to the Taliban, met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday to begin preliminary discussions toward a peace agreement. According to The New York Times Karzai plans to hold reconciliation peace talks later in the spring with insurgent groups, civil society, and parliamentarians. The insurgent groups hope to secure political power in exchange for laying down their arms, a move that some senior officials in the Karzai administration are still reluctant to embrace. The first vice president, Muhammad Fahim, who fought against the Hezb-e-Islami in the post-Soviet years, was cautious in expressing support for the talks. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-e-Islami "is widely viewed as one of the most brutal of the former resistance leaders," and continues to sponsor insurgents in northern and eastern Afghanistan.

10:30 AM ET -- Pakistan foils terrorists attacks on hotels and diplomats. The Associated Press reports that two 'highly experienced' Taliban militants were arrested in a hotel in Rawalpindi, a city next to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. The men were planning to attack top hotels and diplomats, according to the Pakistani police. The police also recovered suicide vests and weapons in a related raid.