The official word is that Operation Moshtarak is "going well" and President Obama is "proud" and "heartened," AFP reported early Friday. -- But Taliban resistance is considerable, and commanders are urging their troops to "'take it slow' in the face of Taliban resistance and a mounting civilian death toll," the Times of London said. -- The instruction came "amid reports that more civilians had been killed in fighting with the insurgents," Jerome Starkey said. -- "Originally NATO said that the resistance was sporadic. Now it says that it is stiff, and the coalition’s advance has been slowed significantly. In northern Marjah bursts of machine-gun fire were interspersed by much larger explosions. Officials said that Marines from Kilo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, were engaged in battles with well-trained, disciplined insurgents." -- A NATO commander said "that Marjah was the most heavily mined place that the alliance’s troops had ever encountered in Afghanistan. 'Every market is mined. Every shop is mined,' said Colonel Ghullam Dastagir, whose men were battling against the insurgents less than a mile from his outpost on the edge of the desert." -- Ironically, as the American claimed to be laboring on the other side of the world to protect Americans from 9/11-like terror plots, an American citizen frustrated with the IRS, Andrew Joseph Stack III, launched one of his own by flying a plane into an IRS building in Austin, TX. -- But not to worry. -- "Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Police Chief Art Acevedo said . . . 'I can tell you categorically that there is no cause for concern from a law enforcement or a terrorism perspective.'" -- The New York Times was less reassuring, telling readers that "in place of the typical portrait of a terrorist driven by ideology, Mr. Stack was described as generally easygoing, a talented amateur musician with marital troubles and a maddening grudge against the tax authorities." ...
'AFGHAN OFFENSIVE GOING WELL'
Agence France Presse
February 19, 2010
WASHINGTON -- The new U.S. surge strategy’s first big offensive against the Taliban is “going well,” the White House said Wednesday after President Barack Obama was briefed by his top war commander.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said General Stanley McChrystal brought Obama up to date on the offensive in southern Afghanistan by video link during a meeting of the president’s war cabinet. “The response that we got from General McChrystal today was that the operation was going well . . . because of the time that had been taken to shape it with local authorities,” Gibbs said.
The spokesman added that “extra caution” was being paid to prevent civilian casualties, and Eikenberry and McChrystal lauded not just the size of the offensive but that it was the first time Afghan forces were in the lead. “The president . . . said to General McChrystal to tell all of the men and women that are under his command how proud he is of their efforts and how heartened we all are to see Afghans in the lead in this important offensive.” McChrystal has ordered that civilians be protected as part of a strategy that seeks to harness military might and development in order to crush the Taliban and establish Western-backed government control. Some 15,000 Afghan, U.S., and NATO troops waging the offensive on the drugs and Taliban nexus of Marjah have reportedly run into stiff resistance from Taliban firing behind human shields and mining roads, buildings and trees with bombs.
U.S. AND AFGHAN OFFICIALS SAY TALEBAN FIGHTERS FAR FROM DEFEATED
By Jerome Starkey
Times Online (London)
February 19, 2010
MARJA, Afghanistan -- Brigadier-General Larry Nicholson was midway through praising Afghan troops for flushing out Taleban fighters when a rocket sent his men diving for cover. “Incoming!” screamed a Marine as the missile screeched close overhead.
An Afghan colonel who had been briefing the general was abandoned for a moment as half a dozen men scrambled to safety in the dust of a large, mud-walled field on the western edge of Marjah.
The Afghan soldiers barely flinched. “It’s O.K.,” said their commander, Major-General Moheedin Ghori, as the rocket crashed into a field a few hundred meters beyond. “We’re O.K.”
U.S. and Afghan officials insist that their primary targets have been secured but the Chinese 107mm rocket was a reminder that the Taleban fighters are far from defeated.
Thousands of U.S., British, and Afghan troops are involved in a massive operation to clear the Taleban from their stronghold in central Helmand. General Nicholson, the commander of the U.S. Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and General Ghori were on the battlefield yesterday urging their troops to “take it slow” in the face of Taleban resistance and a mounting civilian death toll.
“We could roll through here very quickly, using all our fires, but that’s going to be counterproductive,” General Nicholson said. “We understand that the population is the prize and we’re going to have to work with this population, and we don’t want to do anything that’s going to hurt that.”
His remarks came amid reports that more civilians had been killed in fighting with the insurgents. U.S. and Afghan forces traded machine-gun fire with groups of Taleban militants after coming under attack from rocket-propelled grenades.
Originally NATO said that the resistance was sporadic. Now it says that it is stiff, and the coalition’s advance has been slowed significantly. In northern Marjah bursts of machine-gun fire were interspersed by much larger explosions. Officials said that Marines from Kilo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, were engaged in battles with well-trained, disciplined insurgents.
“We’re seeing more fortified positions. They’re standing their ground, essentially,” Lieutenant Josh Diddams said. “You don’t know where you’re going to get a little pop-up of insurgents who are going to stay and fight.”
An Afghan human rights group said that 19 civilians were killed in the first three days of Operation Moshtarak -- Togetherness -- but officials have warned that that number is likely to rise as pockets of insurgents continue to resist. Gulab Mangal, the Governor of Helmand, said that there were reports of more civilians killed on Wednesday.
“Steady, smooth, and protect the people,” General Nicholson told soldiers as a convoy of three Black Hawk air ambulances headed towards the front line.
The troops face a daunting task of clearing the densely populated farmland, one compound at a time, with the constant threat of improvised explosive devices hidden in doorways, ditches, trees, and walls.
The local population often find themselves in the crossfire. “When the Taleban came to my home I couldn’t do anything,” said Sayed Wakhan, a farmer, as he tended an opium crop only 50m (165ft) from the new U.S. and Afghan outpost. “They were firing from my home. They were firing from my neighbor’s home. No one could stop them.”
Major-General Nick Carter, the commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, said that Marjah was the most heavily mined place that the alliance’s troops had ever encountered in Afghanistan. “Every market is mined. Every shop is mined,” said Colonel Ghullam Dastagir, whose men were battling against the insurgents less than a mile from his outpost on the edge of the desert.
“The enemy resisted for a while,” he said of a recent battle to capture a Taleban field hospital. “But we killed one and wounded a few and took the area. It used to be a civilian clinic but we found defenses and blood trails.”
NATO will not say how many of the Taleban have been killed but Afghan officials, speaking anonymously, said that it was more than 100. “Every day we’re moving the enemy out,” General Nicholson said. “Either by killing him, capturing him or just forcing him out.”
PLANE HITS NORTHWEST AUSTIN OFFICE BUILDING
By Tony Plohetski
American-Statesman (Austin, TX)
February 18, 2010 (updated Feb. 19)
In what authorities describe as an apparent intentional act, a pilot flew a single-engine plane Thursday into a Northwest Austin office building that houses Internal Revenue Service offices, igniting a huge explosion, jolting terrified employees to the floor and triggering a massive federal investigation.
The plane was registered to a software engineer identified as Andrew Joseph Stack III, 53. He posted a rambling Internet message before the crash in which he railed against the U.S. tax system.
The incident happened less than an hour after Austin firefighters were called to a large blaze at a North Austin house that public records show was owned by Stack. There were no injuries at the house, but it was destroyed.
Authorities did not conclusively link the incidents Thursday and stopped short of saying Stack was responsible for the office building destruction, which injured two people and left at least two dead.
The Austin Fire Department said two bodies were recovered from the building by Thursday night. FBI spokesman Eric Vasys said one is believed to be that of Stack. He said the body was sent to forensic evidence specialists.
Officials said earlier that a federal employee was missing and that person's family had been notified, but they did not identify the worker.
IRS employee Vernon Hunter, 67, is missing, and his family fears that he is the missing person, according to a woman who answered the phone Thursday night at the Hunter residence in Cedar Park. She said she was a close family friend but declined to identify herself.
Emergency workers initially had prepared for a stream of casualties, but they said employees who had seen the low-flying plane warned co-workers, likely reducing the number of injuries or deaths. An IRS employee also said that typically, most of the workers conduct business out of the office. And much of the first floor of the building fronting Research Boulevard (U.S. 183) was vacant and available for lease, according to a listing by the building managers.
The crash sent huge balls of fire racing through the building, and billowing plumes of smoke could be seen for miles.
Inside the structure, which accommodates about 200 workers, dozens of frantic employees, some led by flashlight-toting colleagues, fled down stairways.
Stunned rush-hour motorists slammed on brakes and then watched debris rain down onto the road, striking and damaging cars. Some caught the aftermath with cell phone cameras.
Federal officials said the 9:56 a.m. crash at the Echelon I building in the 9400 block of Research Boulevard was "apparently a criminal act" and that agents from the FBI were leading an investigation that also included state and local authorities.
Witnesses recalled the plane taking what appeared to be an intentional high-speed plunge into the building, described as an IRS field office where audits are conducted but not where tax returns are processed.
Gerry Cullen, a flight instructor who has spent an estimated 400 hours in the same kind of plane -- a Piper Cherokee four-seater -- said the engine sounded as though it was at full power seconds before impact.
"It scared the hell out of me," said Cullen, who was walking into a restaurant across the highway from the crash site. "There goes a plane I know well, fast like a rocket that was in full dive mode."
The incident gave rise to immediate concern that it was the work of a terrorist.
Federal officials said two F-16 fighters were scrambled from Houston as a precaution.
"We continue to gather more information, and are aware there is additional information about the pilot's history," the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said in a statement.
The White House said it would await the results of an investigation before deciding whether to call the crash an act of terrorism.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama is getting updates from local and federal officials. Obama was briefed on the incident at the White House before departing for political events in Colorado and Nevada.
Gibbs had said earlier that the incident did not appear to be terrorism. When asked if domestic terrorism was a possibility, Gibbs said he does not suspect "somebody like an al Qaeda."
Gov. Rick Perry in a statement urged people "to refrain from speculation and let the law enforcement experts determine what exactly unfolded."
During a briefing at the scene, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Police Chief Art Acevedo said the city is not under a continued threat.
"I can tell you categorically that there is no cause for concern from a law enforcement or a terrorism perspective," Acevedo said.
He declined to discuss Stack's online message, saying the document was part of the investigation.
"If you're reading this, you're no doubt asking yourself, `Why did this have to happen?'" Stack wrote in his message. "I know I'm not the only one to decide I have had all I can stand."
Stack also wrote in the letter that he has for years been distraught by economic downturns, which caused him to "cannibalize" his life savings and retirement.
"I am finally ready to stop this insanity," Stack said. "Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let's try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well."
Austin also has a major IRS processing office in South Austin, which Charles Ray Polk of Tyler plotted to blow up in 1995. The former car salesman, then 46, angered by two IRS liens that sought more than $9,000 in back taxes, was sentenced the following year to 20 years and nine months in prison.
Authorities said the day's events began at 9:18 a.m. when Austin firefighters were called to a house in the 1800 block of Dapplegrey Lane in North Austin, near the intersection of Parmer Lane and Metric Boulevard.
Neighbors said they heard a loud noise that sounded like a car crash and soon saw flames coming from the house. It was gutted.
At 9:56 a.m., firefighters were summoned to the office building after receiving a report that a plane had crashed into it.
Authorities said the plane had taken off from an airport in Georgetown.
At the crash site, paramedics set up a triage center where they said they encountered numerous people they considered "walking wounded" with minor injuries.
A spokeswoman for University Medical Center Brackenridge said one man was admitted in good condition with minor injuries and smoke inhalation. The man was later discharged.
Officials with the state comptroller's office identified the second injured victim as Shane Hill, 38, who was at the building for work.
They said he was taken to Brackenridge, where he was alert and conscious. He was then taken to the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for further treatment.
Mark Menn, a 59-year-old field revenue agent who has worked for the IRS for 29 years, said he was sitting at his computer on the fourth floor of the building when he heard another person yell, "Oh!"
"At first I thought a tanker truck had hit the building," Menn said.
Outside, Sunny Zunker was driving south on Research Boulevard when the plane suddenly appeared.
"I was shaking, just shaking," Zunker said. "I just remember the shock on people's faces. People pulled over with their mouths open.
"It was awful to watch," she said.
These breaking news reports also contain information reported by the following American-Statesman staffers: Tim Eaton, Patrick George, Claudia Grisales, Norman Harman, Ralph K.M. Haurwitz, Miguel Liscano, Corrie MacLaggan, Christian McDonald, Claire Osborn, Asher Price, Robert Quigley, Christina Rosales, Joshunda Sanders, W. Gardner Selby, Veronica Serrano, Marty Toohey, Isadora Vail, Mike Ward and Ben Wear.
MAN CRASHES PLANE INTO TEXAS IRS OFFICE
By Michael Brick
New York Times
February 18, 2010
AUSTIN, Texas -- Leaving behind a rant against the government, big business, and particularly the tax system, a computer engineer smashed a small aircraft into an office building where nearly 200 employees of the Internal Revenue Service were starting their workday Thursday morning, the authorities said.
The pilot, identified as Andrew Joseph Stack III, 53, of north Austin, apparently died in the crash, and one other person was unaccounted for. Late Thursday, two bodies were pulled from the site, though the authorities would not discuss the identities of those found, the Associated Press reported. Two serious injuries were also reported in the crash and subsequent fire, which initially inspired fears of a terrorist attack and drew nationwide attention.
But in place of the typical portrait of a terrorist driven by ideology, Mr. Stack was described as generally easygoing, a talented amateur musician with marital troubles and a maddening grudge against the tax authorities.
“I knew Joe had a hang-up with the I.R.S. on account of them breaking him, taking his savings away,” said Jack Cook, the stepfather of Mr. Stack’s wife, in a telephone interview from his home in Oklahoma. “And that’s undoubtedly the reason he flew the airplane against that building. Not to kill people, but just to damage the I.R.S.”
Within hours of the crash, before the death or even the identity of the pilot had been confirmed, officials ruled out any connection to terrorist groups or causes.
“The main thing I want to put out there is that this is an isolated incident here; there is no cause for alarm,” said the Austin police chief, Art Acevedo, in a televised news conference at midday. Asked how he could be sure, Mr. Acevedo said, “You have to take my word at it, don’t you?”
As the Department of Homeland Security opened an investigation and President Obama received a briefing from his counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, federal officials emphasized the same message, describing the case as a criminal inquiry.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the notion of terrorists using small airplanes to crash into buildings has raised a special sort of public anxiety. That was the initial reaction in 2006, when a New York Yankees pitcher and his flight instructor died in a crash in Manhattan. On Thursday the North American Aerospace Defense Command sent two F-16 aircraft to patrol the area before it was determined that the crash was the work of one man.
Mr. Stack’s aircraft, a single-engine fixed-wing Piper PA-28-236 registered in California, took off from Georgetown Municipal Airport, about 25 miles north of Austin, at 9:40 a.m., the Federal Aviation Administration said.
At 9:56, the plane tore through a seven-story office building at 9430 Research Boulevard, about seven miles northwest of the State Capitol, local authorities said. Flames and smoke engulfed the building, sending big black burned panels to the ground. Emergency medical officials said two men were injured, both in the fire. One was transported to a burn unit in San Antonio. A third office worker was described only as unaccounted for.
Aside from the I.R.S., private organizations including an education center affiliated with St. Edward’s University maintain offices in the building, according to address records. The local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is in a separate part of the complex.
“We can confirm that the building that the plane hit this morning includes I.R.S. offices,” said Terry L. Lemons, a spokesman for the agency. “We have about 190 employees that work at those offices. We’re still in the process of accounting for everyone.”
In a six-page statement signed “Joe Stack (1956-2010)” and posted on a Web site connected to Mr. Stack’s wife, the author singled out the tax agency as a source of suicidal rage, concluding, “Well, Mr. Big Brother I.R.S. man, let’s try something different, take my pound of flesh and sleep well.”
Though profane at points, the statement articulated grievances with specific sections of the tax code, corporations, politicians, and a local accountant. It appeared to have been written with some deliberation. At one point, the verbs “left” and “abandoned” appear side by side, seemingly an editing choice never settled.
From relatives, friends and neighbors, a portrait emerged of Mr. Stack as a man pushed over the brink by retirement dreams deferred by a long series of financial setbacks.
By the account of Mr. Cook, Mr. Stack was raised in an orphanage in Hershey, Pa., with a brother and sister, leaving the orphanage after high school to attend college. He worked as a software engineer in California, learned to fly and played guitar and piano for recreation. He moved to Austin, playing with a band and at informal gatherings.
Mr. Stack met Mr. Cook’s stepdaughter, the former Sheryl Housh, through musician friends in Austin. After eight months of friendship, they dated and married about three years ago. Both had been previously married.
Mrs. Stack, 50, listed in records at the University of Texas as a graduate student in music performance, brought her own back story to the marriage, having spent several years in the sway of a religious cult before her parents orchestrated a rescue.
On visits to Oklahoma, Mr. Stack took his new in-laws up in his plane. He never spoke of his troubles with the I.R.S., though his wife related them. The family assembled in Austin at Christmas, and Mr. Stack seemed fine, Mr. Cook said.
But in recent weeks Mrs. Stack complained to her parents of an increasingly frightening anger in her husband, straining the marriage, Mr. Cook said. On Wednesday night, Mrs. Stack took her 12-year-old daughter, Margaux, to a hotel to get away from her husband.
They returned on Thursday morning to find their house ablaze, their belongings destroyed. Officials said the house fire was deliberately set, casting Mr. Stack as the primary suspect. But by that point he was gone, airborne.
“This is a shock to me that he would do something like this,” Mr. Cook said. “But you get your anger up, you do it.”
--Sewell Chan contributed reporting from Washington.