Echoes from a distant battlefield by Mark Bowden in Vanity Fair.

Suicide Bombers Strike Kabul Hotel Associated Press


The Afghan Bank Heist -- A secret investigation may implicate dozens of high-ranking government officials. From the New Yorker.

Disappearing ink: Afghanistan's sham democracy from the January 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine. Click here.

Staying Power. The U.S. Mission in Afghanistan Beyond 2011 from the September 2010 issue of the prestigious Foreign Affairs. Click here.

Inside Corrupt-istan. The government of President Hamid Karzai is awash in corrpution, venality and graft. Click here.

Endless War. Andrew Bacevich denounces 60 years of American militarism in his new book, Washington Rules.

Afghan War Diary and 90,000 military war leaks. WikiLeaks

At least 753,399 people have
been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unknown News.

Taliban Says It Won't Meddle in West if Troops Are Withdrawn. Wall Street Journal.

Thomas Friedman on May It All Come True.

Is Obama's Afghanistan Strategy Ripping Off America? by Thomas Barnett in Esquire

Frank Rich on Obama's Logic is no Match for Afghanistan

The Economist on:

+ Obama, the worried warrior.

+ The perils of keeping everybody happy.

Our Timeline, and the Taliban's,by Max Hastings

Take the War to Pakistan by Seth Jones

Here are images of Afghanistan and conflict over the past month, part of an ongoing monthly series. 42 photos, with captions. From The Boston Globe.

How the US funds the Taliban by Aram Roston. Insurgents are getting paid insurgents for safe passage because there are few other ways to bring goods to the combat outposts and forward operating bases where soldiers need them.

NATO Has the Watches, We Have the Time'
Unless the U.S. shows resolve, the Taliban will simply wait us out. Wall Street Journal

Brother of Afghan Leader Is Said to Be on C.I.A. Payroll
KABUL, Afghanistan — Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president and a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal opium trade, gets regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency, and has for much of the past eight years, according to current and former American officials.

The agency pays Mr. Karzai for a variety of services, including helping to recruit an Afghan paramilitary force that operates at the C.I.A.’s direction in and around the southern city of Kandahar, Mr. Karzai’s home.

The financial ties and close working relationship between the intelligence agency and Mr. Karzai raise significant questions about America’s war strategy, which is currently under review at the White House.

The ties to Mr. Karzai have created deep divisions within the Obama administration. The critics say the ties complicate America’s increasingly tense relationship with President Hamid Karzai, who has struggled to build sustained popularity among Afghans and has long been portrayed by the Taliban as an American puppet. The C.I.A.’s practices also suggest that the United States is not doing everything in its power to stamp out the lucrative Afghan drug trade, a major source of revenue for the Taliban.

More broadly, some American officials argue that the reliance on Ahmed Wali Karzai, the most powerful figure in a large swath of southern Afghanistan where the Taliban insurgency is strongest, undermines the American push to develop an effective central government that can maintain law and order and eventually allow the United States to withdraw.
“If we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan, and we are perceived as backing thugs, then we are just undermining ourselves,” said Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the senior American military intelligence official in Afghanistan.

Obama's 'drift' on troops spurs revolt In Afghanistan they call it a shura, the tribal way of listening to elders' views before reaching a consensus. In the US, where President Barack Obama has now held five war councils, they are starting to call it dithering. -- The Australian newspaper

To beat the Taliban, Fight from Afar. ... one point seems clear: our current military forces cannot win the war.

Stanley McChrystal’s Long War. Is it just too late — politically and militarily — for the general to win in Afghanistan?

Why Joe Biden should resign. Biden has become the chief White House skeptic on escalating the war in Afghanistan, specifically arguing against Gen. McChrystal's request for 40,000 more troops to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy there.

American troops in Afghanistan losing heart, say army chaplains
American soldiers serving in Afghanistan are depressed and deeply disillusioned, according to the chaplains of two US battalions that have spent nine months on the front line in the war against the Taliban

Many feel that they are risking their lives — and that colleagues have died — for a futile mission and an Afghan population that does nothing to help them, the chaplains told The Times in their makeshift chapel on this fortress-like base in a dusty, brown valley southwest of Kabul.

What Stratfor says about the Taliban

Stop the War Coalition

Meet the Afghan Army

Protests against the War in Afghanistanfrom Wikipedia

Fending off Failure in Afghanistan. New York Times + readers' comments

Afghan agony: More troops won't help by Ralph Peters, NY Post, 9/22

Pentagon delays troop call. Wall Street Journal. 9/22. WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has told its top commander in Afghanistan to delay submitting his request for additional troops, defense officials say, amid signs that the Obama administration is rethinking its strategy for combating a resurgent Taliban.

Call for an Afghan Surge Wall Street Journal. 9/17 America's top military officer endorsed sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, a shift in Pentagon rhetoric that heralds a potential deepening of involvement in the Afghan war despite flagging support from the public and top Democrats in Congress.

Addressing a Senate panel, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered no new details about how many American reinforcements will be needed in Afghanistan. But his comments mean that both Adm. Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who spoke on the subject last week, now appear willing to order more forces to Afghanistan despite their earlier skepticism about expanding the American military presence there.

Their support makes it easier for President Barack Obama to approve the plans of Gen. Stanley McChrystal -- whom the Obama administration installed as the top American commander in Kabul -- when he submits a formal request later this month for as many as 40,000 new troops, in addition to 62,000 now there....More.

Stop The War in Afghanistan, Stop Afghanistan, General Stanley A. McChrystal



January 3, 2013

Not only have we accomplished nothing in Afghanistan, but the locals hate us with a vengeance and want us out asap. And now even the "friendlies" are killing us. We should be out instantly. And out completely. Here's today's depressing piece from the New York Times.

Insider Attacks in Afghanistan Shape the Late Stages of a War

KABUL, Afghanistan — It was only after the young Afghan soldier’s hatred of Americans had grown murderous that he reached out to the Taliban.

The soldier, named simply Mahmood, 22, said that in May he told the insurgents of his plan to shoot Americans the next time they visited the outpost where he was based in northeastern Afghanistan. He asked the Taliban to take him in if he escaped.

The Taliban veterans he contacted were skeptical. Despite their public insistence that they employ vast ranks of infiltrators within the Afghan Army and the police, they acknowledged that many of the insider attacks they take credit for start as offers by angry young men like Mahmood. They had seen many fail, or lose their nerve before even starting, and they figured that Mahmood, too, would prove more talk than action or would die in the attempt.

“Even the Taliban didn’t think I would be able to do this,” Mr. Mahmood said in an interview.

He proved them wrong days later, on the morning of May 11, when he opened fire on American trainers who had gone to the outpost in the mountains of Kunar Province. One American was killed and two others were wounded. Mahmood escaped in the ensuing confusion, and he remains free in Kunar after the Taliban welcomed him into their ranks.

It was, he said, his “proudest day.”

Such insider attacks, by Afghan security forces on their Western allies, became “the signature violence of 2012,” in the words of one former American official. The surge in attacks has provided the clearest sign yet that Afghan resentment of foreigners is becoming unmanageable, and American officials have expressed worries about its disruptive effects on the training mission that is the core of the American withdrawal plan for 2014.

“It’s a game changer on all levels,” said First Sgt. Joseph Hissong, an American who helped fight off an insider attack by Afghan soldiers that left two men in his unit dead.

Cultural clashes have contributed to some of the insider attacks, with Afghan soldiers and police officers becoming enraged by what they see as rude and abusive behavior by Americans close to them. In some cases, the abusive or corrupt behavior of Afghan officers prompts the killer to go after Americans, who are seen as backing the local commanders. On rare occasions, like the killing of an American contractor by an Afghan policewoman late last month, there seems to be no logical explanation.

But behind it all, many senior coalition and Afghan officials are now concluding that after nearly 12 years of war, the view of foreigners held by many Afghans has come to mirror that of the Taliban. Hope has turned into hatred, and some will find a reason to act on those feelings.

“A great percentage of the insider attacks have the enemy narrative — the narrative that the infidels have to be driven out — somewhere inside of them, but they aren’t directed by the enemy,” said a senior coalition officer, who asked not to be identified because of Afghan and American sensitivities about the attacks.

The result is that, although the Taliban have successfully infiltrated the security forces before, they do not always have to. Soldiers and police officers will instead go to them, as was the case with Mr. Mahmood, who offered a glimpse of the thinking behind the violence in one of the few interviews conducted with Afghans who have committed insider attacks.

“I have intimate friends in the army who have the same opinion as I do,” Mr. Mahmood said. “We used to sit and share our hearts’ tales.”

But he said he did not tell any of his compatriots of his plan to shoot Americans, fearing that it could leak out and derail his attack. The interviews with Mr. Mahmood and his Taliban contacts were conducted in recent weeks by telephone and through written responses to questions. There are also two videos that show Mr. Mahmood with the Taliban: an insurgent-produced propaganda video available on jihadi Web sites, and an interview conducted by a local journalist in Kunar.

Though Mr. Mahmood at times contradicted himself, falling into stock Taliban commentary about how it had always been his ambition to kill foreigners, much of what he said mirrored the timelines and versions of events provided by Taliban fighters who know him, as well as Afghan officials familiar with his case.

Mr. Mahmood grew up in Tajikan, a small village in the southern province of Helmand. The area around his village remains dominated by the Taliban despite advances against the insurgents made in recent years by American and British troops. Even Afghans from other parts of Helmand are hesitant to travel to Tajikan for fear of the Taliban.

Col. Khudaidad, an Afghan officer who runs the Afghan National Army’s recruitment center in Helmand, said Mr. Mahmood enlisted about four years ago. His story, up to that point, would be familiar to many Americans: He was a poor boy from a family of eight who worked sweeping up in a tailor shop and was looking for a better life. The army offered steady pay, reading and writing lessons, and a chance to see something beyond the mud hovels in which he was born and raised.

“He barely had a beard,” recalled Colonel Khudaidad, who also uses only one name, in an interview. “He looked so innocent that you wouldn’t believe what he did if you only saw him then.”

Mr. Mahmood says he was anything but an innocent. He grew up being told that Americans, Britons and Jews “are the enemies of our country and our religion,” he said.

But until May, he worked and fought alongside foreigners without incident. The change came in the Ghaziabad District of Kunar, where he ended up after the start of 2012, he said.

The area is thick with Taliban, along with Islamists from Pakistan. Many residents sympathized with the insurgents and often complained to Afghan soldiers about the abuses committed by Americans and the failure of Afghan soldiers to control much of anything beyond the perimeter of their own outpost, Mr. Mahmood said. The Taliban, they glorified.

Listening to villagers, Mr. Mahmood became convinced that the foreigners had killed too many Afghans and insulted the Prophet Muhammad too many times. He wanted to be driving them out, not helping them stay. The villagers’ stories “strengthened my desire to kill Americans with my own fingers,” he said.

He contacted the Taliban through a local sympathizer. He did not want help — he only asked the insurgents “not to shoot me” if he managed to escape after attacking the Americans, which he told them would happen in a few days.

He was on guard duty when American soldiers arrived at the outpost on May 11. He waited for a few of them to shed their body armor and put down their weapons, and then he opened fire. (New regulations require American trainers to keep their armor on and weapons at hand when visiting Afghan bases.)

The Afghan and American soldiers initially thought the attack was coming from the outside. They “didn’t even think that someone within the Afghan Army might have opened fire on Americans,” he said. “I took advantage of this confusion and fled.”

He claimed to have hit six Americans. “I don’t know how many were killed, though I hope all were,” he said. The coalition said one soldier was killed and two were wounded.

The Taliban welcomed him as a hero. He was given the title “ghazi,” an honorific for someone who helps drive off non-Muslim invaders. “They let me keep the same rifle I used to kill Americans.”

In August, the Taliban featured Mr. Mahmood in a propaganda video, calling him “Ghazi of Ghaziabad.” The video shows Mr. Mahmood, smiling broadly, being draped with garlands and showered with praise from local elders, Taliban fighters and cheering crowds of men and boys.

The following month, the American-led military coalition announced that it had killed Mr. Mahmood in an airstrike. The coalition now says it was mistaken and that Mr. Mahmood is still with the Taliban in Kunar.

Villagers and officials in Helmand backed up that account, saying Mr. Mahmood had been in touch with relatives since the report of his death. Mr. Mahmood said he spoke only to his mother, and that “she was happy.”

Sangar Rahimi and Jawad Sukhanyar contributed reporting from Kabul, and an employee of The New York Times from Asadabad.

December 2012

I'm totallly stumped

Our re-elected President has said on a thousand times that he wants to get us out of Afghanistan asap. We first heard end-2014. Now we're hearing that he wants to stay there after the end of 2014. He doesn't tell us why. And no one can figure his "logic."

There is nothing America can gain by staying in Afghanistan.

We went there to get Al Qaeda. We did. And the remnants have long ago moved to Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and other thrilling places.

Afghanistan itself is a mess. Corruption is rampant. The government cannot govern. Warlords are running amok. The Taliban control much of the country and are coming back. We've not been able to fix any of this. Yet American soldiers are dying, being maimed, and suffering awful psychological problems. Think what happens to you when you miss a night's sleep. Many of our troops haven't had a decent night's sleep for months. Imagine how you'd feel. You can't.

Too many people have too much stake in the continuation of this war -- from the generals to the consultants, from the paid mercenaries to the contractors bringing in supplies for our troops at huge profits.

Other than writing letters to The White House and your Congresspeople, I can't think of any way of bringing this useless war to a quick end.

I'll keep publishing this blog in the hope that someone will take notice and do something about closing it down. Write me if you can think of something -- Harry at HarryNewton dot com.

November 27, 2012. New York Times editorial:

The Pace of Leaving Afghanistan

Seventeen months ago, President Obama said that the 30,000 American troops deployed to Afghanistan for the "surge" would be home by this September, and he made good on that promise. He also said troop reductions would continue at a "steady pace" until the remaining 66,000 were out by the end of 2014.

A "steady pace" should mean withdrawing all combat forces on a schedule dictated only by the security of the troops. That should start now and should not take more than a year. We strongly supported the war in Afghanistan following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but after more than a decade of fighting and a cost upward of $500 billion it is time for a safe and orderly departure. If there was ever a serious chance of building a stable and prosperous Afghanistan, it was lost when President George W. Bush abandoned that challenge to pursue his pointless war in Iraq.

It's unclear how Mr. Obama defines "steady pace." He said that his senior commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, would provide him with a formal recommendation on the pace of withdrawals after the November election. But the White House has still not asked General Allen for his assessment, nor has the Pentagon begun considering specific troop levels for 2013 and into 2014.

Michael R. Gordon of The Times reported this week that military commanders are pressing to keep most of the remaining 66,000 troops in Afghanistan until the end of the 2013 fighting season in the fall and then withdrawing them in the year after that. But this slow withdrawal would do nothing to ensure that the Taliban does not regain territory or that Afghanistan's politics stabilize. And any hope of ridding the government of corruption seems less and less likely. What is certain is that the longer troops remain in the battlefield, the more that deaths and injuries will be sustained.

The White House is already beginning to deal with another important decision: whether to leave a residual force after 2014 when the Afghan Army and police forces have full responsibility for the country's security. American and NATO military planners are drawing up the broad outlines of such a deployment. One option calls for about 10,000 Americans and several thousand non-American NATO troops, including a counterterrorism force of about 1,000 and other units to advise Afghan security forces.

White House officials say Mr. Obama will consider options for the residual force soon, because that will affect negotiations already under way between Washington and Kabul on specific terms of their future security relationship. So far, President Obama has failed to make a case to the American people for a residual force of any size.

The negotiations, which could take months, should not be an excuse to drag out a decision on the pace of withdrawing the remaining combat troops. More than 2,000 American military personnel have died in this war, and many thousands more have been maimed. There is no reason to delay the troops' return home by another year.

October 13, 2012

Time to get out NOW

This is an Editorial in today's New York Times. The editorial says what I have been saying for many years -- Pack up and get out NOW. Do it teh fastest possible way -- even if it inlcudes renting every large long-haul plane in the world and bring our troops and support personnel out in the next few weeks. Save our people's lives, please. Get out NOW. There's nothing left to saccomplish or save in Afghanistan. -- Harry Newton

Time to Pack Up

After more than a decade of having American blood spilled in Afghanistan, with nearly six years lost to President George W. Bush's disastrous indifference, it is time for United States forces to leave Afghanistan on a schedule dictated only by the security of the troops. It should not take more than a year. The United States will not achieve even President Obama's narrowing goals, and prolonging the war will only do more harm.

Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. said on Friday that "we are leaving Afghanistan in 2014, period. There is no ifs, ands or buts." Mr. Obama indicated earlier that this could mean the end of 2014. Either way, two more years of combat, two more years of sending the 1 percent of Americans serving in uniform to die and be wounded, is too long.

Administration officials say they will not consider a secure "logistical withdrawal," but they offer no hope of achieving broad governance and security goals. And the only final mission we know of, to provide security for a 2014 Afghan election, seems dubious at best and more likely will only lend American approval to a thoroughly corrupt political system.

This conclusion represents a change on our part. The war in Afghanistan had powerful support at the outset, including ours, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

After Mr. Bush's years of neglect, we believed that a new president, Barack Obama, was doing the right thing by at least making an effort. He set goals that made sense: first, a counterinsurgency campaign, stepped-up attacks on Al Qaeda, then an attempt to demolish the Taliban's military power, promote democratic governance in Kabul and build an Afghan Army capable of exerting control over the country.

But it is now clear that if there ever was a chance of "victory" in Afghanistan, it evaporated when American troops went off to fight the pointless war in Iraq. While some progress has been made, the idea of fully realizing broader democratic and security aims simply grows more elusive. Meanwhile, more than 2,000 American troops have died in this war, more than 50 of them recently in growing attacks by Afghan forces, and many thousands more have been maimed. The war has now cost upward of $500 billion.

Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, said at the debate on Thursday: "We don't want to lose the gains we've gotten. We want to make sure that the Taliban doesn't come back in."

More fighting will not consolidate the modest gains made by this war, and there seems little chance of guaranteeing that the Taliban do not "come back in," at least in the provinces where they have never truly been dislodged. Last month, militants struck a heavily fortified NATO base. Officials say the Pakistan-based Haqqani network is behind many of the attacks on Americans.

Americans are desperate to see the war end and the 68,000 remaining troops come home. President Obama has not tasked military commanders with recommending a pace for the withdrawal until after the election. He and the coalition partners have committed to remain engaged in Afghanistan after 2014 at reduced levels, which could involve 15,000 or more American troops to carry out specialized training and special operations. Mr. Obama, or Mitt Romney if he wins, will have a hard time convincing Americans that makes sense - let alone Afghans. The military may yet ask for tens of thousands more troops, which would be a serious mistake.

To increase the odds for a more manageable transition and avert an economic collapse, the United States and other major donors have pledged $16 billion in economic aid through 2015. That is a commitment worth keeping, but the United States and its allies have tried nation building in Afghanistan, at least for the last four years. It is not working.

The task is to pack up without leaving behind arms that terrorists want and cannot easily find elsewhere (like Stinger missiles) or high-tech equipment (like Predator drones) that can be reverse engineered by Pakistan or other potential foes. The military can blow those things up if it must.

It is hard to be exact about a timetable since the Pentagon and NATO refuse to discuss it. The secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, told us last week that decisions about the timetable would be made after the military command reported to Mr. Obama in December. He would not say much of anything beyond that - whether the withdrawal would be front-loaded, or back-loaded, or how many troops would be needed to secure the election.

Some experts say a secure withdrawal would take at least six months, and possibly a year. But one year is a huge improvement over two. It would be one less year of having soldiers die or come home with wounds that are terrifying, physically and mentally.

Suicides among veterans and those in active service reached unacceptable levels long ago. A recent article by The Associated Press quoted studies estimating that 45 percent of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are claiming disability benefits. A quarter of those veterans - 300,000 to 400,000, depending on the study - say they suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is far too high a price to go on asking of troops and their families.

Four years ago, Mr. Obama called Afghanistan a "war we have to win." His strategy relied on a newly trained Afghan Army and police force that could take over fighting the Taliban; a government competent to deliver basic services; and Pakistan's cooperation. Here is what happened:

AFGHAN SECURITY FORCES NATO and the Pentagon built an Afghan Army and police force of nearly 352,000 that is now nominally in the lead for providing security in most of the country. Attrition rates are high and morale is low; the attacks on coalition forces have eroded trust and slowed the training. Afghan leaders have to work harder with Washington to weed out corrupt troops and Taliban infiltrators, but the nation cannot hang its hopes on that happening.

There is an agreement to finance the army to 2017 with Kabul paying $500 million, Washington about $2.5 billion and other donors about $1.3 billion. If Kabul keeps its commitments, the donors should make good on theirs.

The Taliban have not retaken territory they lost to coalition forces, but Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, the Taliban base and the main focus of the 2010 surge, remain heavily contested. A Pentagon report in May said Taliban attacks in Kandahar from last October through March rose by 13 percent over the same period a year earlier.

William Byrd, an Afghan expert at the United States Institute of Peace, said, "The most that probably can be hoped" is that the army continues to hold Kabul and other major cities. It is not likely to ever become an effective counterinsurgency force.

EFFECTIVE, CREDIBLE GOVERNANCE President Hamid Karzai's weak and corrupt government, awash in billions of dollars, continues to alienate Afghans and make the Taliban an attractive alternative. Mr. Karzai recently chose Asadullah Khalid, a man accused of torture and drug trafficking, to take over the country's main intelligence agency. Dozens of Karzai family members and allies have taken government jobs, pursued business interests or worked as contractors to the United States government.

A recent report by Afghanistan's central bank said the Afghan political elite had been using Kabul Bank as a piggy bank. In 2010, word that the bank had lost $300 million caused a panic, and the number later tripled. To win pledges of continued aid at an international donors conference in July, President Karzai promised to crack down on corruption and make political reforms, but he has done little. The aid sustaining his government is at risk if he fails. We doubt that he will exercise real leadership. For now, he has proved himself to be not only unreliable, but a force undermining American goals and Afghans' interests.

In 2009 and 2010, Mr. Karzai's supporters tried to defraud the national elections. With elections scheduled for 2014, the question is whether Mr. Karzai will keep his vow to abide by the Constitution and leave when his term is up. He needs to make sure the Parliament and the government put in place an electoral system that encourages competent candidates to run and enables a broadly accepted election with international monitors. All sides are lagging. (There has been even less progress in restoring local governance, the bedrock of Afghan society, where the Taliban exert enduring influence.)

Mr. Obama wants to use American troops to provide logistical assistance and security at the elections. There were real threats to voters' lives in the first post-Taliban elections, but the real threat to democracy is from corruption, not bombs. Mr. Karzai stole the last election, and he got away with it with American forces in place. After giving him 10 years and lots of money, things keep going in the wrong direction. Why would this now change?

RELATIONS WITH PAKISTAN After some bitter disputes, Pakistan began cooperating with the United States again in June by reopening a critical supply route to Afghanistan. American officials say the Pakistanis may have decided that sowing chaos in Afghanistan by supporting Taliban proxies is not in their interest after all. This could be wishful thinking. Last week, the Pentagon blamed the Pakistani-backed Haqqani network for some of the recent "green on blue" attacks. Islamabad's collusion with the Taliban and other extremist groups is the biggest threat to Afghan stability.

The United States has a huge interest in a less destructive Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of 170 million that supports jihad in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Indian cities. But there is reason to argue that America's leverage with Pakistan on security matters is limited by its need for Pakistani bases, border crossings and intelligence on the Taliban.

If tens of thousands of American troops were removed from landlocked Afghanistan, that might actually allow the United States to hang tougher with Islamabad. Pakistan officials might not listen, but at least the United States could be more honest about what the Pakistanis were doing to worsen the threat of terrorism and insurgency.

We are not arguing that everything will work out well after the United States leaves Afghanistan. It will not. The Taliban will take over parts of the Pashtun south, where they will brutalize women and trample their rights. Warlords will go on stealing. Afghanistan will still be the world's second-poorest country. Al Qaeda may make inroads, but since 9/11 it has established itself in Yemen and many other countries.

America's global interests suffer when it is mired in unwinnable wars in distant regions. Dwight Eisenhower helped the country's position in the world by leaving Korea; Richard Nixon by leaving Vietnam; President Obama by leaving Iraq.

None of these places became Jeffersonian democracies. But the United States was better off for leaving. Post-American Afghanistan is likely to be more presentable than North Korea, less presentable than Iraq and perhaps about the same as Vietnam. But it fits the same pattern of damaging stalemate. We need to exit as soon as we safely can.

This Site and Nation Building

This web site contains the latest news from, and opinions about Afghanistan. I do not believe in the War in Afghanistan. I believe the U.S. and its partners have nothing to gain from this endless war (already much longer than the World War II.). The United States should withdraw immediately from Afghanistan -- not on the slow, painful timetable our dreamy, academic president has proposed. See Endgame below.

Since I began publishing this blog years ago, I have wrestled with the best argument as to how to close this War. There is no victoriious enemy army as in Korea or Vietnam to force us to retreat. We could stay in Afghanistan. If we spend the money and the lives of precious American children, we will never be defeated. The argument to exit now is Nation Building.

Simply, we should be nation building America, not Afghanistan.

The United States currently spends about $10 billion a month in Afghanistan. If you figure $10 million a new school or a community college, that's one thousand new schools the U.S. could build every month. Or 12,000 schools a year.

With real unemployment in the United States still running over 16%, we need to ask ourselves: Should we spend our money on bombs, bullets, troops and airport runways in Afghanistan? Or should we spend the money at home to train our unemployed workers? And to build some bridges, tunnels and roads. Or should we reduce onerous taxes on employers, like payroll taxes?

Afghanistan got a new 11,500 foot airport runway, courtesy Uncle Sam. New York City could do with one. Maybe Chicago? Atlanta? You get the idea.

"Nation Building in the U.S. Not in Afghanistan." That's our new motto. Let's see if we can make it stick. Nation building is my best idea on how to convince the U.S. government and its partners to leave Afghanistan.


I publish this web site as a public service. I personally pay for all the expenses of this web site. I don't feel Afghanistan is worth American lives and treasure. -- Harry Newton.


September 7, 2012

The book is called The War Within the War for Afghanistan. It's by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. The book was reviewed in the New York Times. Here's the review of September, 2012

Long Divisions

Rajiv Chandrasekaran has done it again. Like "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," his chronicle of Washington's hapless management of the Iraq war in its early days, "Little America" is a beautifully written and deeply reported account of how a divided United States government and its dysfunctional bureaucracy have foiled American efforts abroad, this time to suppress the Taliban insurgency and bring stability to Afghanistan. It tells a story of political foibles, overly ambitious goals and feckless Afghans and Americans. The United States seems condemned to lurch between disastrous quick fixes and unrealistic visions of remaking countries overnight in its own image, never finding a middle road. No doubt most readers of this book will come away with the conclusion that our principal enemy in all this is ourselves.

Chandrasekaran takes his title from an earlier effort to help Afghanistan. In the 1950s the Afghan king set out to bring prosperity to the rural southern region of his country through a huge development project supported by Afghan and American money. The construction giant Morrison Knudsen built a Little America enclave for engineers, workers and their families, complete with a swimming pool and card parties. In a telling vignette, Chandrasekaran recounts a riot that erupted in Kandahar when the conservative Pashtun elders found out that Afghan girls were being taught alongside boys in schools the Americans had built. The elders violently rejected this form of progress, but ultimately it was the land itself that thwarted the program: the salinity of the soil wrought havoc with most crops.

Fifty years later, the United States has repeated many of its past errors in the very same place. Chandrasekaran, an associate editor at The Washington Post, skewers the United States Agency for International Development, which refused to back an Afghan program to revive cotton gins in the south on the grounds that it would not be a free-market endeavor - no matter that the American cotton industry depends on government protection. Another tragicomedy is a hydropower project at Kajaki Dam, in a guerrilla-infested corner of Helmand Province. If it is ever finished, it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and only slightly increase the supply of electricity.

Such fiascoes highlight U.S.A.I.D.'s lack of management skill and expertise. But the most egregious error in development policy, Chandrasekaran shows, is a simple one: gushers of cash have been pumped into one of the world's poorest economies, creating Potemkin progress and a tidal wave of corruption.

If the American model for promoting economic growth is fundamentally broken, the same might be said for its wartime policy-making process. The Pentagon favored a broad counterinsurgency program, whereas the Obama White House wanted a narrower effort directed at preventing Al Qaeda from regaining a foothold in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the legendarily energetic and egotistic Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, pursued a third strategy, trying to negotiate an end to the Taliban insurgency, that was supported by neither the White House nor the military.

Chandrasekaran adds important new details to previous accounts of the crippling infighting at the top levels of government. Douglas E. Lute, the White House's chief adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the American ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, engaged in perpetual bureaucratic warfare with Holbrooke and the Pentagon. Lute tried to get Holbrooke fired. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Holbrooke's friend and boss, protected his job, though his ceaseless forays, before his death, in quest of a Balkan-like peace deal were bearing no fruit. And while Holbrooke and Eikenberry were allied in their criticism of President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, neither had much influence with him. The only senior official to forge decent relations with Karzai was Stanley McChrystal, the four-star commander in Kabul, who resigned after his staff's scathing remarks about the White House became public. According to Chandrasekaran's sources, President Obama became increasingly skeptical of American involvement, but he did not intervene to stop the infighting that undermined whatever chance it might have had of succeeding.

On the military front, Chandrasekaran spent most of his time on the ground charting the Marines' operations in Helmand. They arrived to bolster the undermanned and faltering British effort, but Helmand, which had a booming opium crop, was not in any sense the strategic center of the war. Neighboring Kandahar, the Pashtun homeland and the Taliban heartland, had half the 20,000 troops that Helmand received. According to Chandrasekaran, both McChrystal and Lute recognized this as a misallocation of forces but did not correct it. The young Marines fought heroically, taking terrible casualties, especially from thickets of homemade mines affixed to irrigation canals, culverts and walls.

Some of the troops grumbled at the restrictions on air power that McChrystal had imposed to reduce the number of civilian casualties as being too soft on the enemy. But there was still plenty of killing in the fields of Helmand and western Kandahar. Explosives were used to blast open routes to villages on heavily mined roads, and when the 101st Airborne arrived in Arghandab District, it leveled a few villages that had been vacated except for Taliban fighters. Chandrasekaran tells the discouraging story of Harry Tunnell, the commander of the Fifth Brigade, Second Infantry Division, which took heavy casualties in Arghandab, came out swinging with rogue kill teams and never stopped. Tunnell was an unrepentant opponent of counterinsurgency who gave his brigade the moniker "Destroyer" during training, and ordered its vehicles painted with the motto "Search and Destroy." Senior leaders wondered if he should have been relieved of command, but by the time his unit's possible crimes were uncovered, he was back home. An investigation absolved him of responsibility.

"Little America" is a brilliant and courageous work of reportage. Its only weakness is a final chapter that feels more like a grab bag of complaints than a coherent critique. Chandrasekaran's contribution to our current debates over Afghanistan would have been greater had he answered more definitively the questions of whether Obama's policy was essentially unworkable, and whether there was a path not taken.

Chandrasekaran does provide some tantalizing possibilities. A diplomat advising the Marines in Helmand advocated a more modest but sustained approach, and, the author writes, "he had been right all along: . . . Obama should have gone long, not big." Chandrasekaran also recounts a pragmatic attempt by the United States commander in Kandahar, Maj. Gen. James Terry, and his deputy Ken Dahl to achieve a balance among competing factions in the south, but this became a lost cause, Chandrasekaran says, once Ahmed Wali Karzai, one of the plan's chief Afghan architects, was murdered by an aide. Clearly, Afghanistan is a Hobbesian world of palace intrigue, where life for many will go on being nasty, brutish and short.

Linda Robinson is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her most recent book is "Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq."

March 30, 2012

In Afghanistan, Businesses Plan Their Own Exits

An Afghan man exchanged currency for a client at the Money and Exchange Market in Kabul.

KABUL, Afghanistan — America may be struggling to come up with a viable exit plan for Afghanistan, but Abdul Wasay Manani is sure of his.

The broad-set Afghan butcher spent the past seven years trucking cattle in from the Pakistan border and building a thriving business for himself and his family, serving up some of the best hamburgers in Kabul for the embassies and expatriates and their barbecues.

But this month, Mr. Manani, 38, flew to India for 14 days to scout out a new business, and a new home, ready to leave Afghanistan and everything he worked to build here, just in case things fall apart when most Americans and other foreign troops leave in 2014. “If the Taliban come like last time, ordering people around with whips, I can’t stay here,” he said. “I have to leave this country to keep my family safe.”

Many Afghans share his concern. Interviews with business owners, analysts and economists paint a picture of extreme anxiety in both the domestic and international business communities here as the Afghan-United States relationship deteriorates and as the Western drawdown begins.

In this environment, troubling indicators are not hard to find. More than 30,400 Afghans applied for asylum in industrialized nations in 2011, the highest level in 10 years and four times the number seeking asylum in 2005, according to provisional figures from the United Nations. Meanwhile, the number of displaced Afghans outside the country seeking to come the other way slowed to 68,000 last year, down from 110,000 in 2010 and a big decrease from the 1.8 million Afghans who repatriated in 2002, the year after the Taliban were driven out of power.

The only Western bank operating here said on Wednesday that it would be leaving. Piles of cash equaling about a quarter of Afghanistan’s annual economic output were physically carried out of Afghanistan last year. Fewer foreign companies are seeking to do business here, and those already here are downsizing and putting off new investments. And there are businessmen like Mr. Manani who already have a foot out the door, working actively toward a Plan B for life and business outside Afghanistan.

Senior Afghan officials are acutely aware of it, and are alternately worried and angry. “Sometimes I hear that some businessmen are fleeing and moving their businesses to outside Afghanistan,” President Hamid Karzai said at a news conference this month. “Curses be upon such businessmen that made tons of money here and now that the Americans are leaving they flee. They can leave right now. We don’t need them.”

Given the importance of trying to bolster economic independence in the overall plan for Afghanistan, the skittish responses and decreasing investment and hiring strike right at hopes that this impoverished nation, still barely on the cusp of modernity, can thrive on its own.

Large companies are expressing worries about security. One of the most significant is Standard Chartered, the only big Western bank with a branch in the country, which said Wednesday that it was turning over its operations to a local Afghan bank and withdrawing mainly because of deteriorating conditions.

Mohammad Qurban Haqjo, chief executive of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, said the head of one of the country’s four big cellphone companies had told him that he planned to take his investments out of the country after 2014.

“It is still two years to go, but we are hearing from our businesses that everybody is raising this question,” Mr. Haqjo said.

Even those who are trying to stay, foreign companies in particular, have become very conservative. According to the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, capital spending by foreign companies newly registered in the past year, at $55 million, was the lowest rate in at least seven years, and about one-eighth the rate’s peak in 2006.

According to Masuda Sultan, an Afghan-American businesswoman who grew up in Queens, the caution is expressing itself in businesses that are downsizing work forces, for example, or holding off on new investments.

“Among the people I know, there is planning going on in terms of investment decisions,” she said. “They are not packing up their bags just yet, but people are looking to diversify abroad or into other business sectors within Afghanistan.”

Some of the companies that are more heavily dependent on the military and the aid economy, like construction and logistics businesses, are trying to stay put by reconfiguring toward the few areas where analysts feel Afghanistan might have growth potential, like mining or trade.

But others are nervous that Afghanistan’s nebulous private sector will not be enough to fill the gap left by the United States’ military and development spending. World Bank figures back up those fears: the bank estimates that outside aid is equivalent to more than 90 percent of the country’s total economic activity, and forecasts a slowdown in growth in the coming years to 5 or 6 percent from about 9 percent, or much lower if security worsens.

That is in part because, despite the billions in reconstruction and aid money poured into Afghanistan, there still is no major manufacturing or technology base that could be a driver of future prosperity. A new Pepsi bottling plant on the outskirts of Kabul is trumpeted as one of the few new investment triumphs.

“There is a sense that they have to change from a war economy to a postwar economy, and people definitely expect it to contract,” said Thomas Rosenstock, a lawyer, originally from New York, who helps foreign companies entering the Afghan market. “It’s uncertain how dramatic the contraction would be.”

Then there are those who are voting with their cash.

Each week tens of millions of dollars — some thought to be diverted American aid or drug money — are packed into suitcases or boxes and loaded onto planes leaving Kabul International Airport for destinations like Dubai, capital flight that is increasing steadily ahead of the 2014 deadline, officials say.

Noorullah Delawari, the central bank governor, recently imposed restrictions limiting the amount a passenger can take out of the country to $20,000 a trip.

But the mountain of departing cash that is officially declared — about $4.6 billion last year, the same size as the Afghan government’s annual budget — may be matched by money fleeing through other airports and over borders, or seeping out through the black market, an Afghan official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We really don’t know how much is being moved,” the official said.

Security officials are still struggling to ensure that people passing through the V.I.P. area of the Kabul airport put their bags through X-ray machines installed a few years ago in part to keep people from sneaking cash out, the official said.

For Mr. Manani, the butcher, and others like him who do not have huge amounts of capital as a safety blanket, the hopes that they can stay at home and still expand their businesses are being tempered by the need to ensure their families’ safety.

His plan is rooted in an effort to start a second business in New Delhi with his local Sikh business partner there, he says. That would enable him to get a long-term visa, and so a way out for his wife and five children, as well as his parents, brothers and a sister and their children, all of whom depend on him and would have to move with him, he says.

“Every businessman is just thinking about how to move from here, about how to be safe,” Mr. Manani said as he stood in front of a big cooler where sides of beef and lamb were hanging. Through the doorway into another room, four workers were busily cutting and packing.

He grew up in the north of Afghanistan and fought in the bitter civil war of the 1990s. There is no way he wants to relive that experience, he said.

“I don’t have the energy to take the gun again and start fighting,” he said. “That’s why I am looking for a way out.”

Habib Zohori contributed reporting.

March 20, 2012

Heart of Darkness
By MAUREEN DOWD, The New York Times

When the gentleman from North Carolina mentioned "Uncle Chang," it hit with an awkward clang.

"We are spending $10 billion a month that we can't even pay for," said Congressman Walter Jones, that rarest of birds, a Southern Republican dove. "The Chinese - Uncle Chang is lending us the money to pay that we are spending in Afghanistan."

On Tuesday morning, members of the House Armed Services Committee tried to grill Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, the commander in Afghanistan who succeeded David Petraeus, about the state of the mission.

The impossible has happened in the past few weeks. A war that long ago reached its breaking point has gone mad, with violent episodes that seemed emblematic of the searing, mind-bending frustration on both sides after 10 years of fighting in a place where battle has been an occupation, and preoccupation, for centuries.

Afghan security forces cold-bloodedly murdered some American troops after Korans were burned by military personnel. Then an American soldier walked out of his base early one morning and began cold-bloodedly murdering Afghan innocents, leaving seven adults and nine children in one small village dead.

There was an exhausted feel to the oversight hearing, lawmakers on both sides looking visibly sapped by our draining decade of wars. Even hawks seem beaten down by our self-defeating pattern in Afghanistan: giving billions to rebuild the country, money that ends up in the foreign bank accounts of its corrupt officials.

Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, a Republican from California, made a pro forma complaint that the administration is "heading for the exits."

But most of the politicians seemed resigned to the fact that President Obama is resigned to settling for a very small footprint and enough troops to keep terrorists from using Afghanistan as a base to attack the U.S. or our allies.

The White House seems ready to forget eliminating the poppy trade and expanding education for girls. We're not going to turn our desolate protectorate into a modern Athens and there's not going to be any victory strut on an aircraft carrier.

When you're buried alive in the Graveyard of Empires, all you can do is claw your way out.

Congressman Jones directly confronted General Allen on the most salient point: "What is the metric?" How do you know when it's time to go?

"When does the Congress have the testimony that someone will say, we have done all we can do?" he asked. "Bin Laden is dead. There are hundreds of tribes in Afghanistan and everyone has their own mission."

Jones was once so gung ho about W.'s attempts to impose democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan that, after the French opposed invading Iraq in 2003, he helped lead the effort to rename French fries "freedom fries" and French toast "freedom toast" in the House cafeteria.

But now he thinks that both wars are sucking away lives and money, reaping only futility, and that he was silly about the fries. He said he's fed up with having military commanders and Pentagon officials come to Capitol Hill year after year for a decade and say about Afghanistan: "Our gains are sustainable, but there will be setbacks" and "We are making progress, but it's fragile and reversible."

He said he had recently visited Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital to see wounded troops: "I had a young Marine lance corporal who lost one leg," in a room with his mother.

"My question is," the Marine asked him, "Why are we still there?"

Jones also read an e-mail from a military big shot whom he described as a former boss of General Allen's, giving the congressman this unvarnished assessment: "Attempting to find a true military and political answer to the problems in Afghanistan would take decades. Would drain our nation of precious resources, with the most precious being our sons and daughters. Simply put, the United States cannot solve the Afghan problem, no matter how brave and determined our troops are."

Jones agreed, noting mordantly: "I hope that sometime in between now and 2014, if things are not improving or they are fragile like they are now, somebody will come to the Congress and say the military has sacrificed enough. The American people have paid enough. And somebody would shoot straight with the American people and the Congress."

He concluded: "We can declare victory now. But there's one thing we cannot do, and that is change history, because Afghanistan has never changed since they've been existing."

The epitaph of our Sisyphean decade of two agonizing wars was written last year by then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates: "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to send a big American land army into Asia, or into the Middle East or Africa, should have his head examined."

November 10, 2011

Echoes from a Distant Battlefield

When First Lieutenant Jonathan Brostrom was killed by Taliban fighters in 2008, while attempting a heroic rescue in a perilously isolated outpost, his war was over. His father’s war, to hold the U.S. Army accountable for Brostrom’s death, had just begun. And Lieutenant Colonel William Ostlund’s war—to defend his own record as commander—was yet to come. With three perspectives on the most scrutinized engagement of the Afghanistan conflict, one that shook the military to its foundations, Mark Bowden learns the true tragedy of the Battle of Wanat.

THE WAR AT HOME The family of Jonathan P. Brostrom, who was killed at Wanat. From left: Brostrom’s mother, Mary Jo; his father, David, a retired colonel; and his brother, Blake, a lieutenant.

The above is from the December, 2011 issue of Vanity Fair. It deals with the sad death of Jonathan P. Brostrom in a remote part of Afghanistan. As you read the article, the question you will ask yourself is "What were our troops doing there? Even if they had succeeded, what could they have accomplished that would benefit America? Why put these poor young kids in harm's way? The story of this remote outpost is a microcosm of what this insane war has become. So terribly sad for the mother, the fatrher and the brother. Read the article, please. Click here.

October 10, 2011

36 years after the end of the Vietnam War

Hue, Vietnam; I am in Vietnam playing tourist. I ask my local political expert (my cab driver): Do people talk about the War?"


"What do they talk about?" I ask.

He answers, "Making money!"

Our hotel bill comes in U.S. dollars. Our restaurants' bills are often in U.S. dollars. Coca Cola is ubiquitous. HP is running a printer promotion at a local computer store, which sells every product Best Busy sells in the states -- at about the same price.

"How's electricity?" I ask.

"Everyone has it. It works all the time." he answers.

"What about phones?"

"Most people have a cell phone and a landline in their house if they want it. Landlines are popular with older Vietnamese, who have trouble using cell phones."

My background is telecommunications. I was in that industry for 40 years. I still write the best-selling Newton's Telecom Dictionary. I know what it takes to wire up a country of 90 millon people the size of Vietnam and do it in only a few years.

Vietnam is truly imprssive. Why is it relevant to Afghanistan?

Because America also invaded Vietnam -- not because it was worried about Al Qaeda but because it was worried about the spread of communism.The big difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam is that in Vietnam America faced a serious army equipped with serious armaments by a patron State -- Russia.

The North Vietnamese Army soundly defeated the American army and its south Vietnamese puppet. On April 30, 1975 Viet Cong tanks crashed through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon and America scrambled its helicopters to take its people out of the City. The Communist Party of Vietnam still runs the united country. But capitalism is rampant. Nightclubs. Bakers. Antique shops. Art shops. Clothing shops. Tennis clubs. Small businesses everywhere. I visited dozens of them. The place is rocking. It makes clothing for America. And Intel moved a huge semi-conductor factory there from China -- because it found the Vietnamese easier to work with. Vietnam's "communism" is a threat to no one, but a promise to its people of huge ongoing increases in the people's standards of living.

The Vietnam War had an end -- April 30, 1975.

The Afghanistan War has no end because there is simply no army strong enough to push us out. The Taliban are dangerous, but ragtag.

Hence the end to the Afghanistan War will come when we Americans decide we've had enough. When that will be who knows. There are far too many Americans who have a vested financial and career stake in continuing the war -- sacrificing our children for their financial gains. I pray our president will wake up one day soon and say "This is crazy. Close it down tomorrow."

October 7, 2011

Ten years of war in Afghanistan

On October 7th, 2001, the first NATO airstrikes hit Kabul. A correspondent reflects on how the war has changed Afghanistan and its occupiers, and whether it was worth it

AS A general rule, the longer outsiders spend in Afghanistan the more depressed they become about the place. Though there are not many foreigners who can boast of more than a few years' experience here, the West’s decade-long adventure has made the army of diplomats, aid workers and development people positively funereal.

Hardly a conversation starts without a dark-humoured joke about the ultimate failure of the NATO mission. Everyone has their own particular reason to be glum. NGO types are disinclined to see glimmers of hope as they struggle to get anything done in a country where year after year the Taliban-led insurgency has strengthened and expanded, making it progressively harder to move staff around safely. There is rarely a week when human-rights officials don’t have some cause to tear their hair out—perhaps a Taliban stoning video or the discovery that the Afghan government is viciously abusing prisoners. And the diplomatic corps must deal with the daily frustrations of doing business with a government led by Hamid Karzai. It was his behaviour during the 2009 presidential election that seemed to tip many people towards despair: a million of fake ballots cast and a messy post-polling dispute that dragged on for months. The country’s four post-2001 elections have seen increasing fraud and falling participation. Western electoral experts are usually the most despairing of the lot.

Many Afghans too are disinclined to see anything but a bleak future. The vast change that the last decade has brought to Kabul, a city that has experienced a ten-year boom and which now enjoys almost round-the-clock electricity, will not last, says the manager of a high-end shop selling office computer supplies. He points out that when the torrent of money flowing through the Afghan capital in the wake of the foreigners stops, so too will the mad construction of grandiose concrete palaces that now encroach on almost every neighbourhood. Ditto the ludicrous rents and high prices for almost everything that has to be hauled up to this mountaintop plateau, making Kabul one of most expensive cities in the poor world. “The 9/11 kids,” he says, pointing to a gaggle of male teens sporting spiky gelled hair, the hippest of threads and flaunting mobile-phone technology that would have given the Taliban regime’s vice and virtue police heart palpitations. “They will all go back to wearing shalwar kameez.”

His business, which has thrived off contracts with commercial development companies who need computers and printer toners, is already feeling the squeeze as aid budgets are cut. He is resigned to having to do something rather more humble in the future. “I will sell bolani,” he suggests, picturing himself as a roadside vendor of greasy, potato-filled bread—which is what he was doing as a refugee in Peshawar in 2001 before the war started.

Although foreign soldiers tend to be much more upbeat, in recent years there has been a noticeable fading of their zeal. These days it is not hard to find American soldiers simultaneously doing some of the most ambitious and sophisticated counter-insurgency operations ever attempted, while failing to see the point of them.

I got my first taste of this two years ago, on a rainy evening in Bala Murghab, an outpost of fierce insurgency in the otherwise relatively Taliban-light north-west, from a couple of young US Army specialists (9/11 kids too), chatting as they manned a gun emplacement in a wide valley where their expensively carved out “security bubble” was merely a few kilometres wide. They understood that the point of the whole agonising business of endless foot patrols and engagement with the local community was to win them over to the Afghan government. But they did not think it had much to do with America's national security. “The people here are no threat to me or my family,” one said, before explaining his reasons for joining up: a lack of other employment opportunities and a young man’s general enthusiasm for guns and violence.

Older soldiers are often more willing to accept the logic of a grand strategy, in this case one that is supposed to keep America safe by preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a jihadist free-for-all. But after three or four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan many say they are tired and fed-up with the strain that the 12-month stints put on their family lives.

With the mood apparently gloomier than ever, is there any reason to think the Afghan adventure may not end in failure? Sitting in his windowless office, a man who insists on being cited only as a “senior Western intelligence officer” thinks Kabul’s chattering class (not least the cohort of journalists who have realised the bleaker their copy the more prominent it is in newspapers back home) has become too depressed and is thus ignoring some areas of progress. He and his team of colleagues, including a German theoretical physicist, pore over vast quantities of data gleaned from soldiers spread across the country.

The endless charts they use to track things show fighting seasons (the summers) becoming more intensive every year over the past decade. Only this year things were slightly different. This summer is set to be slightly less deadly that the last, for the first time: the level of violence in the south has plunged downwards. Although those gains have been partly offset by increases in violence the east, where NATO has turned its attention, across the country as a whole things are at last turning for the better. It may not look much, but the after so many years of relentless strengthening by the various insurgencies racking Afghanistan, this is a remarkable achievement.

“The numbers [of attacks] are still high, but the trending is unmistakable,” he says, waving a bar chart. “Every year we have seen dramatic increases in violence—now we are seeing that trend reverse.” He does not claim victory is nigh, and is careful to state the gains are fragile, but he’s maddened by the widespread failure to recognise the change. “This is our frustration: everyone says you have to get the violence down, and we get the violence down and then apparently for the media and sometimes some people in government it doesn’t matter, it is irrelevant.”

The transformation of the American mission in Afghanistan in the past few years certainly has been remarkable. Four years ago, when your correspondent first arrived, the NATO effort was drifting along with little American leadership. The headquarters of the NATO mission felt like a particularly cosmopolitan holiday camp, with a good bar. Wandering around were precious few Americans but Europeans from every conceivable nation, including countries with trivial troop contributions.

After the remarkably quick overthrow of the Taliban government in late 2001, and then the distraction of Iraq, the Americans felt comfortable having fewer than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan. The British made the intellectual running, producing daring plans for tribal defence forces, including teams incorporating former Taliban fighters, who, the British ambassador of the day thought, could be coaxed into swapping sides. The American general in charge wasn’t convinced and publicly squashed the idea of militias, while Washington's ambassador persisted in believing the “only good Taliban is a caged Taliban”. And bold ideas were nothing without American firepower anyway. The commander of British troops in Helmand, a huge province that produces more opium than any other place in the world, admitted as much when he told me the efforts of his overstretched force were just a “holding exercise” until the Americans could re-engage themselves.

The Americans did get serious in 2009 with a new commander, Stanley McChrystal, and two troop surges. Special-forces operations, particularly night raids directed against mid-level insurgents, were greatly increased. “We have never been better at taking bad people off the battlefield,” says John Nagl, an American counter-insurgency expert. Extraordinary efforts, including restrictions on air power, were made to reduce civilian casualties—which are now overwhelmingly caused by the Taliban.

Serious effort was put into trying to train up a half-competent Afghan Army and to overhaul the country’s prisons which, General McChrystal’s people soon discovered, were often taking in criminals and putting out insurgents. And plans remarkably similar to the old British idea were put in place for local defence militias. A team was set up to try to help persuade insurgents to lay down their weapons, so far to little effect.

General McChrystal’s tiny headquarters in Kabul took on a very different feel. The notoriously ascetic generally personally lambasted European soldiers spotted idling in the garden. He also closed the bar. Privately he would point out that most insurgencies take about a decade to beat. In his view, Afghanistan was at year two of that effort, at best. He also said victories were usually impossible when the enemy enjoys the sort of sanctuaries that the Taliban have in Pakistan. Helmand has benefited the most from the full-bore counter-insurgency campaign that came with General McChrystal, as the classified charts and tables drawn up for the senior Western intelligence officer attest, marking the sharpest fall in attacks by insurgents.

The Afghan Army has also made remarkable gains. In many areas it is now logistics and resupply that worry its international mentors, not the Afghans' capacity for fighting (which they are evidently rather good at).

But these gains are not enough for the doubters. That’s partly because of a deep-seated distrust of anything said by the military commanders, who have announced too many turning points in the past. But it is also because they argue that military gains are ephemeral without improvements in governance, rule of law and the economy.

And yet there are plenty of other examples of poor countries that manage to bodge along, misgoverned by corrupt elites. They just don't have to live with a threat to their existence the size of the Taliban. In my first 24 hours in Dushanbe, the capital of Afghanistan’s northern neighbour, Tajikistan, my wallet was lightened more than four times by traffic police and border guards. I’ve never been asked to pay a bribe in Afghanistan. For all the complaints about Afghanistan being uniquely corrupt, the problem is not so much the government, which certainly is predatory at times, and more that the dirty spoils of an out-of-control war economy are snapped up by factions or tribes, to the anger of other groups.

The gloom might lift if the cynical observers of this war were to accept that the bar for success is now far lower. The rhetoric and aims of late 2001 evaporated long ago. The plan is no longer for a modern state with clean courts, a functioning bureaucracy and a commitment to human rights that would lead to the locking up of the warlords, as many observers still seem to hope. As David Petraeus said, no one is trying to create Switzerland. Ten years on, success will simply be the holding of ground in a grinding counter-insurgency that will increasingly be fought by Afghans and be paid for by Americans. What is often described as a “withdrawal” in 2014 is really a troop reduction. American troops will fall back to probably around the 30,000 level, with most of them involved in mentoring, training and supplying air support the Afghans lack. There will no doubt be quite a bit of special-forces activity. Most of the non-Americans will simply leave.

A much expanded Afghan army and police, numbering around 350,000, will have to do most of the fighting against an insurgency that fluctuates between around 25,000 to 30,000 strong. Their mission for the army and police will be to hold on to the bits of Afghanistan that matter the most: the cities, where increasing numbers of Afghans now live, the north, and as much as the rural south as possible.

Ten years on, the best Afghanistan can hope for is quite depressing. There will not be the happy ending that most people hoped for in 2001, but nor will there be the total defeat that many now expect.

September 9, 2011

Invading Afghanistan, Then and Now
What Washington Should Learn From Wars Past
By Jonah Blank in the September/October 2011, Foreign Affairs

"As the result of two successful campaigns, of the employment of an enormous force, and of the expenditures of large sums of money," the secretary of state observed, "all that has yet been accomplished has been the disintegration of the State . . . and a condition of anarchy throughout the remainder of the country." A highly decorated general, recently returned from service in Kandahar, concluded, "I feel sure that I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us the less they will dislike us." The politician was Spencer Cavendish, Marquis of Hartington, the British secretary of state for India. The general was Sir Frederick Roberts, who eventually became a field marshal and the subject of three ballads by Rudyard Kipling. The year was 1880. As U.S. President Barack Obama tries to wind down the longest war in U.S. history, while leaving behind some measure of stability, he would be wise to keep in mind this bitter truth: most of Afghanistan's would-be conquerors make the same mistakes, and most eventually meet the same disastrous fate.

All serving consuls and prospective invaders interested in avoiding such an end would do well to read Peter Tomsen's magisterial new book, The Wars of Afghanistan. A career U.S. diplomat, Tomsen served as Washington's special envoy to the Afghan resistance in 1989-92, an experience that gave him almost unrivaled personal insight into Afghanistan's slide from anti-Soviet jihad into civil war. His account of the country's political dynamics before, during, and after this period is exhaustively researched, levelheaded, and persuasive. Throughout the book, he highlights two lessons that most of Afghanistan's invaders learn too late: no political system or ideology imposed by an outside power is likely to survive there, and any attempt to coax political change from within must be grounded in a deep knowledge of local culture and customs.

In Afghanistan, legitimate authority has traditionally been highly localized, a product of consensus rather than brute force, and firmly anchored in tribal, clannish, and kinship structures. Afghanistan only developed the barest bones of a centralized state in the twentieth century, and even today, Kabul's control over the country's periphery remains tenuous at best. These attributes make Afghanistan a difficult country for foreign military planners to occupy. Then again, as former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, under whose tenure the United States began its operations in Afghanistan, might have put it, you go to war in the country you have, not the country you want.

Tomsen compellingly argues that these salient features of Afghan political life will not disappear anytime soon. His conclusions about how Washington might stabilize Afghanistan, given the country's decentralization and independent culture, range from the uncontestable (better understand local practices) to the slightly contestable (do not hope to centralize power) to the problematic (reinvent the U.S. relationship with Pakistan). Whether one agrees with Tomsen, however, there is no denying that his descriptions of Afghanistan's society and politics are a valuable foundation for any discussion of how the country should be governed.


Although the British and Soviet wars in Afghanistan may be the closest analogues to the United States' experience today, Tomsen starts his tale from the beginning. He usefully summarizes 3,000 years of Afghan history, during which the Greeks, the Romans, the White and the Black Huns, the Mongols, the Moguls, the Persians, and the Turkmens all tried to dominate the land. Every campaign eventually came to naught, either because the invader paid insufficient attention to local culture or because he sought to impose centralized control on ferociously independent tribes and clans. The pattern was basically the same each time: a brutally competent conqueror sweeps through Afghanistan, wreaking enough carnage to terrify all his enemies into submission, but he soon finds himself mired in a swamp of tribal customs and feuds that he does not begin to comprehend. When he loses enough in men and gold, he retreats -- not infrequently with fewer limbs than he had when he arrived.

Unlike previous invaders, the British troops that marched into Afghanistan in 1839 did not come to conquer; such a goal would have been far too expensive for the frugal bureaucrats back home. Instead, they aimed to place a puppet on the Afghan throne, or at least to establish a buffer between British India and the expanding tsarist Russia. The newly installed monarch would govern far more justly than his ousted rival: his British patronage was proof of his enlightenment. The British, much like the Soviets and the Americans decades later, were amazed to discover that Afghans did not believe in their benevolence. Suspicion quickly flared into insurgency, and when the British pulled out of Kabul in 1842 with a convoy of 16,000 troops and camp followers, only a single survivor (the assistant surgeon William Brydon) reached the border town of Jalalabad alive. Still, the lesson did not sink in. The British intervened in Afghanistan again in 1878 to compel the Afghan emir to at least accept a British diplomatic mission, and within just two years, they were left with some 3,000 dead or wounded. The Third Anglo-Afghan War, waged just after World War I to repel an ill-advised Afghan raid into British-held territory, lasted barely three months but killed 236 Britons in action. In each case, the colonial power arrived with increasingly modest goals -- and left with those goals only barely met.

At first, some Afghan city dwellers may have welcomed the Soviet invasion of 1979 as a respite from half a decade of coups and near coups, and those in the countryside may barely have known that it was happening. But any warm or neutral feelings were quickly swept away by the Soviets' attempts to impose their communist ideology and their conducting of a counterinsurgency campaign through carpet-bombing. By conservative estimates, more than one million Afghans were killed during the decadelong Soviet presence in the country -- many times the number of Afghans who have died as a result of the NATO-led war since 2001.

Tomsen, a Russian speaker who served as a political counselor in the U.S. embassy in Moscow immediately prior to the Soviet invasion, makes clear that there is no moral equivalence between the Soviets' occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and the ongoing U.S.-led campaign there. He points out, however, that the Soviets made the same core mistakes that have haunted invaders before and since them: they attempted to impose a centralized order on a highly decentralized nation, and they displayed complete ignorance about the realities of Afghan society. There were few nations in the 1970s less ripe for a Marxist-Leninist revolution than Afghanistan. The country had no proletariat; indeed, it had little capitalist structure of any kind.

Yet even as communism failed to catch on, Moscow refused to jettison its ideological framework and instead tried to shore up its puppet government by patching together the two rival factions of the ruling national communist party. The Khalq faction was overwhelmingly made up of members of the Ghilzai Pashtun tribes, and the other, the Parcham faction, was mostly made up of Tajiks and Durrani Pashtuns, the Ghilzais' traditional foes. The feud between the two groups was coated with a thin veneer of socialist rhetoric, but it was really only a continuation of centuries-old tribal struggles. The result was a government in Kabul wholly uninterested in governance, utterly removed from the day-to-day concerns of the Afghan people, and consumed with petty struggles over the spoils of rule. Meanwhile, the government simultaneously parroted and plotted against its foreign patron. If this doesn't sound familiar, it should.


To a specialized reader, the most valuable parts of Tomsen's book are those in which he recounts what he actually witnessed. His recitation of the political maneuvering of the Soviet era in Afghanistan may strike some as overly detailed: the Ghilzai warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar betrays the Tajik warlord Burhanuddin Rabbani, Rabbani betrays the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, Dostum betrays everyone, and so on. But it is precisely with such detail that Tomsen breaks the most new ground. For this reason alone, The Wars of Afghanistan should have a place among the indispensable books on the topic.

The general reader will also find much to ponder in Tomsen's firsthand accounts. It is here that Tomsen most fully articulates his criticisms of the United States' own Afghanistan strategy, which he sees as having been remarkably static over the last few decades. Of the Clinton administration, he writes that the White House seemed not to have had any policy at all, "only a strategy that [was] marginally adjusted in reaction to events." (The critique also applies, in varying degrees, to every modern U.S. administration before and since.) As the United States' war in Afghanistan went from cold to hot, Washington made the same mistakes again and again.

According to Tomsen, another recurrent problem has been the United States' incoherent implementation of its policy, with every White House failing to enforce unified action across all branches of the government. Tomsen describes the CIA, in particular, as having conducted a foreign policy of its own, sabotaging U.S. attempts to build a unified moderate Afghan front and instead channeling support to Pakistan-based extremists. Meanwhile, U.S. presidents have been unwilling to devote sufficient time, attention, and political capital to formulating an effective Afghanistan policy. Most damaging of all, Tomsen argues, the United States has essentially outsourced its strategy to Pakistan's intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), funneling billions of dollars and military equipment to rabidly anti-American military officers and their jihadist proxies. The result, he argues, is that the United States has been continuously hoodwinked as Pakistan has taken the money for nothing in return.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan, for example, praised the anti-Soviet mujahideen as "the moral equivalent" of George Washington and looked the other way as the ISI funneled most of the American money and arms to Hekmatyar and other incompetent, anti-American figures while sidelining more capable and more broadly representative ones, such as the resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Tomsen is kinder to George H. W. Bush, who appointed him as special envoy to the region, than to other U.S. presidents, but he writes that he himself lacked the bureaucratic support to rein in the CIA when it undermined agreed-on policies, such as supporting the development of a moderate and broad-based government. During Bush's tenure, Tomsen writes, the agency continued to call all the shots, and money kept flowing to the ISI. Clinton made a few diplomatic feints, such as limited outreach to the ISI-backed Taliban, and lobbed a few cruise missiles when the Taliban continued to shelter al Qaeda, but he otherwise largely ignored Afghanistan. And even after 9/11, George W. Bush failed to wrest power from the CIA, the Pentagon, and the ISI. Tomsen sees traces of promise in Obama's 2009 decision to renew top-level emphasis on Afghanistan, but he is skeptical that such a commitment will work without a wholesale reexamination of U.S. policy. In sum, Tomsen sees most outside potentates, whether politiburo chairmen or presidents, as making the same set of errors.


Trying to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors, today's war planners have settled on a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy that is supposed to create enough security to help a civilian government establish legitimacy among the local populace. Observers with longer memories will recall, of course, that the principles of counterinsurgency have been discovered many times before: by the British in Malaya, the French in Algeria, the United States in Vietnam and the Philippines, and even the Soviets in Afghanistan. And discovering (or rediscovering) a principle is easier than implementing it. Ten years into the current counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, the military piece of the mission seems to have progressed far more rapidly than the civilian portion. Troops have pacified the major cities enough to allow for the formation of a central government. But the government of President Hamid Karzai seems to have little more popular support than did that of the Soviet puppet (and eventual light-post adornment) Muhammad Najibullah. As General Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, candidly noted in his 2009 assessment of U.S. progress in Afghanistan, the military piece of counterinsurgency can do little more than provide the time and space for a civilian government to take root. It remains to be seen whether in 2014, by which time U.S. troops will have withdrawn from their combat role in Afghanistan, the Afghan government will resemble a stable oak or a flimsy reed.

Tomsen's policy recommendations are the flip side of his critique. He calls on the Obama administration to ensure a coherent policy by relegating the U.S. military and intelligence agencies to "policy-implementing, not policymaking." He also urges the administration to stay engaged in Afghanistan for the long haul but to "de-Americanize the Afghan war across the board as rapidly as possible" by disentangling the United States from Afghan governance and development, finding Afghan moderates worth backing, and helping the Afghan regime build its governance capacity so long as its practices are "honest and effective." If some of Tomsen's recommendations are common sense (who could object to greater policy coherence?), others are somewhat contradictory (how should one stay engaged enough to back moderates and build the regime's capacity, all while shifting responsibility for security to Afghan forces?). The government in Kabul may not inspire much confidence today, but Tomsen avoids the question of what the United States should do if Afghan politics are as corrupt and dysfunctional in 2014 as they are in 2011.

Tomsen also urges a get-tough approach with Pakistan: "The most valuable contribution that America can make to Afghan peace," he writes, "lies not in Afghanistan but in Pakistan." In addition to enforcing existing conditions on military aid more strictly, Tomsen argues, Obama should threaten to designate the country a state sponsor of terrorism if the ISI does not cut its ties to militants. Some readers will wholeheartedly endorse Tomsen's call, even if following it might lead to a severing of relations between the United States and Pakistan. Others will question the wisdom of trading a potential disaster in Afghanistan (a country of 40 million people and of dubious strategic interest to the United States) for a potential disaster in Pakistan (a nation of 185 million and with the world's fifth-largest nuclear arsenal). Even those who share Tomsen's intense frustration may scratch their heads trying to figure out what leverage the United States could possibly hold over the Pakistani military as long as the Pentagon remains so logistically dependent on it: half the supplies for U.S. troops in Afghanistan (and almost all the lethal equipment, from ammunition to the weapons that fire it) are transported daily by the convoys that come through the Khyber Pass and Spin Boldak, a town right on the border with Pakistan.

And even those who agree with the basic elements of Tomsen's approach will remain hungry for a fallback option if his approach fails. "Afghanistan is an unpredictable place," Tomsen writes. "Things almost never turn out as planned, especially when the planning is done by foreigners." How should U.S. policy deal with this problem? If the Afghan National Security Forces are unable to provide security by 2014, should the United States delay the withdrawal of its troops indefinitely? If the Karzai regime fails to address corruption and poor governance, should the United States continue to give it money? And if Pakistan continues to be "fireman and arsonist," which Tomsen says it has been consistently over the past three decades, should the United States disengage from it completely and accept the consequences? As bad as things are now, they could easily get much worse.

Inevitably, any book with the breadth of The Wars of Afghanistan will have a few nits for the picking, but there are two reasons to read Tomsen's book carefully. First, it is extremely well written; an entire career spent drafting State Department cables miraculously failed to grind down the author's narrative spirit. Second, and more important, Tomsen has often been right in the past -- even, or especially, when many others were wrong.

Before 9/11, for example, he was in favor of cooperating with the two moderate mujahideen leaders Massoud and Abdul Haq when the U.S. government was against doing so. He was against working with the decidedly nonmoderate Hekmatyar and Hamid Gul, the ISI head who helped create several of the worst terrorist groups still operating in the region today, when Washington was for it. He was also right to sound the alarm about an obscure figure named Osama bin Laden at a time when the U.S. government was turning a blind eye to the ISI's support for him. Tomsen writes of the al Qaeda chief's sanctuary in Pakistan, "[Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf and the ISI practiced plausible deniability concerning bin Laden's whereabouts. They knew exactly where he was." This is a bold claim, and much more so for having been written long before the May 2 U.S. raid in Abbottabad that killed bin Laden.

It is also worth quoting at length a prediction Tomsen made while testifying to Congress in 2003:

The stunning American-led military victory in Afghanistan which ousted the Taliban-al Qaeda regime has not been followed up by an effective, adequately funded reconstruction strategy to help Afghans rebuild their country and restore their self-governing institutions. The initial enthusiasm genuinely felt by the Afghan people that peace was returning has clearly faded. . . . If present trends continue, five years from now Afghanistan is likely to look very much like it does today: reconstruction stagnation, a weak central government starved of resources, unable to extend its influence to the regions where oppressive warlords reign, opium production soars, and guerrilla warfare in Afghan-Pakistani border areas generated by Pakistan-backed Muslim extremists continues to inflict casualties on coalition and Afghan forces.

Today, he writes, even this take is overly optimistic.

Given Tomsen's track record, Americans should give a respectful hearing to his call for a thorough policy reformulation -- something beyond tweaks to troop numbers and counterinsurgency tactics. And given the merits of his book, they should heed his warning not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

September 6, 2011

Afghan Army Attracts Few Where Fear Reigns
By RAY RIVERA of the New York Times

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Every morning, jobless young men gather by the hundreds at the busy central square here in this southern city, desperate for whatever work they can find. In other places, this would be an army recruiter’s dream. Not so in Kandahar.

Many of the men here have brothers and cousins in the insurgency, or are former fighters themselves. Others fear what would happen to them or their families if they joined the Afghan Army. “I don’t want to be killed by the Taliban,” Janan, 30, who like many Afghans goes by one name, said on a recent day as he jostled with the crowd under a scorching sun.

Afghan and NATO officials have long struggled to entice young men in the heavily Pashtun south — the Taliban heartland — to join the Afghan Army. Despite years of efforts to increase the enlistment of southern Pashtuns, an analysis of recruitment patterns by The New York Times shows that the number of them joining the army remains relatively minuscule, reflecting a deep and lingering fear of the insurgents, or sympathy for them, as well as doubts about the stability and integrity of the central government in Kabul, the capital.

The influx of tens of thousands of American troops, who have pushed the Taliban back in much of the south, has done little to ease those concerns or to lift recruitment. In some places, the numbers of southern Pashtun recruits are actually shrinking, causing an overall decline of nearly 30 percent in the past five months, compared with the same period a year ago.

With the deadline for the withdrawal of most foreign forces in 2014, the need to enlist more southern Pashtuns is pressing if Afghanistan is to have a national army that resembles the ethnic and geographic makeup of the country. It is no small concern. The absence of southern Pashtuns reinforces the impression here that the army is largely a northern institution — to be used against them — and what Afghan and Western officials worry is a dangerous division of the country.

“If you go and talk to ordinary Afghans in Kandahar, they believe the government will collapse in a week or two,” said Dr. Mahmood Khan, a member of Parliament from Kandahar. “People are still kind of under the spell of the Taliban. They believe it is not only stronger than the government, but that their intelligence is stronger. They can find out very soon if your son or brother is serving in the army.”

The predominantly Pashtun southern and southeastern provinces — Kandahar, Helmand, Oruzgan, Zabul, Paktika and Ghazni — make up about 17 percent of Afghanistan’s total population, yet they contributed just 1.5 percent of the soldiers recruited since 2009.

Some progress has been made, but merely in percentage terms; Kandahar and Helmand more than doubled their number of recruits last year from the previous year. The raw numbers, however, are discouraging, and Afghan officials worry that the recent erosion of security in Kandahar City could reverse the few gains they have made.

The two provinces are home to nearly two million people. Yet since 2009 they have contributed fewer than 1,200 soldiers to the army, less than 1 percent of the nearly 173,000 enlistees in that period. By comparison, Kunduz, a northern province of about 900,000 people, enlisted more than 16,500 recruits.

Oruzgan, a province of more than 300,000 residents, had 14 recruits all of last year.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of recruits come from provinces in the north and northeast, where the insurgency is weaker. While the overall representation of Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, in the army is equitable — they make up about 42 percent of the population and roughly the same percentage of the army — the vast majority come from a few northeastern provinces. More than a third come from Nangarhar Province alone.

Trying to lure more southern Pashtuns, Ministry of Defense officials have made it easier for them to qualify for officer candidate school and have assigned two southern Pashtun generals to the region to focus on recruiting.

“Their job is to reach out to their communities and explain why it’s not only honorable, but it’s the right thing to do to join the army and to send your sons to join the army,” said Maj. Gen. D. Michael Day, the Canadian Army officer in charge of military training for NATO. “Because unless the elders, unless some recognized authority figure says this is what we should be doing, it doesn’t get done.”

An assassination campaign in the south has hampered those efforts. In the past two years, suicide bombers and armed men on motorcycles have struck down dozens of tribal elders sympathetic to the government, high-level officials and even civil servants.

“People are afraid,” said Abdul Ghani, deputy director of the Kandahar army recruiting center. “When we have assassinations and bombings every day like we have now, it really affects recruiting.”

The center, operating out of a lonely cinder-block compound guarded by a machine-gun tower, sends teams of recruiters into the city and outlying districts every day armed with leaflets and posters. The increase in American troops has made it easier for the teams to expand into more villages. Still, about half of the province’s 16 districts remain cut off, Mr. Ghani said.

The recruiters themselves live under constant threat. Last year a group of men beat a recruiter after he spoke to a group of young people in a city bazaar. So far, though, most have been lucky. They have not had the kind of attack like the suicide bombing in March that killed 36 people at recruiting center in Kunduz.

Recruiters must also compete with drug lords: Kandahar and Helmand Provinces are the country’s largest producers of opium, and recruiting, desertion and even violence fluctuate with the poppy harvest.

Where the recruiters have had the most difficulty is in persuading local mullahs, Muslim religious leaders, to join in the effort.

“One word from a mullah is worth a thousand words from me,” Mr. Ghani said. But, he added, the mullahs “are not helping us right now, because they are afraid.”

“They know if they preach for two or three days advocating for us, their heads will be cut off.”

In interviews with several mullahs in and around Kandahar, fear was evident in their voices. Many simply refused to discuss recruiting.

“If I start telling people to send your sons to the Afghan Army, I am sure I’ll be asking for death,” said Mullah Ramazan, who is from Loya Wala north of Kandahar city. “If someone seeks my suggestion whether he should join the army or abandon it, I will not encourage him or discourage him. I will simply say, ‘Do what your heart tells you.’ ”

In Oruzgan, where recruiting has sharply fallen, to 14 last year from 60 enlistments two years ago, plenty of young men have promised to enlist, if only they could do so without anyone in their village knowing about it, said Col. Karimullah Qurbani, director of the army recruiting center there. Unfortunately, he said, recruitment screening rules make that impossible, requiring two village elders to vouch for each recruit.

Until recently, more than 60 percent of the army’s southern Pashtuns came from Nimruz and Farah, two of the most stable provinces in the south. But since March, recruiting in both areas has sharply fallen — by more than 50 percent in Nimruz alone — a symptom, local recruiters say, of the westward movement of insurgents who have been pushed out of Helmand and begun intimidation campaigns against potential recruits in the two provinces.

Last month, insurgents beheaded three villagers in Farah whom they accused of joining the army, said Col. Sayed Mohammed, director of the army recruitment center there. “In fact they had no link with the army,” he said. “They weren’t even with the army. They were ordinary villagers.”

As the numbers have fallen, some top Ministry of Defense officials have begun playing down the importance of strong southern Pashtun representation in the army, while at the same time maintaining that it is a priority.

For now, NATO and Afghan officials have set the goal for the army’s southern Pashtun representation at a modest 4 percent, a reflection of the challenges that lie ahead. Even without them, the army is on pace to meet its goal of 195,000 soldiers by October 2012, NATO officials said.

Still, General Day is hopeful that the security improvements gained in the past eight months will gradually begin paying more dividends in the months ahead as the southern population becomes more tolerant of NATO and Afghan forces.

“One thing our analysis has shown us is no matter how good our recruiting is, the southern Pashtun nation will wait and see,” he said. “They are survivalists.”

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, and Sangar Rahimi and Abdul Waheed Wafa from Kabul, Afghanistan.

July 7, 2011

Robert Douglass, my friend, reports from Vietnam

Here is a photo perfectly to illustrate my thesis that the Vietnam War was stupid and that maybe the US won after all:

Meanwhile, writes Douglass, I'm deep into Robert McNamara's 1995 book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. McNamara was the former whizz kid President of Ford Motor Company, who was Kennedy's and LBJ's Secretary of Defence for over seven years of the Vietnam War. His fundamental thesis was that that the Americans were asking themselves the wrong questions over their Vietnam involvement - and not surprisingly getting the wrong answers.

The US Administrations thought the North Vietnamese were Communists first and Nationalist second. There is some basis for this in the North Vietnamese utterances and indeed in their later misguided attempts at ruling after 1975, but of course they were Nationalists first and foremost, fighting the outmoded colonialism of Europe and the neo-colonialism of the US-led West.

The US has this peculiar optimistic messianic mission to save the world. The Americans also seem to think that because someone speaks English, then what they say must be true - especially if they are also Christian. Naively they don't ask themselves if there is perhaps some hidden agenda -- and there nearly always is. Americans believe they have the technology to do anything.

Right at the outset McNamara and Dean Rusk had submitted a memo to Kennedy pointing out the dilemma:

If there is a strong South Vietnamese effort, [U.S. combat troops] may not be needed; if there were not such an effort, U.S. forces could not accomplish their mission in the midst of an apathetic or hostile population.

July 4, 2011

by Dexter Filkins, The New Yorker Magazine

In the ten years since American soldiers first landed in Afghanistan, their official purpose has oscillated between building and destroying. The Americans initially went in to defeat Al Qaeda, whose soldiers had attacked the United States, and to disperse the Taliban clerics who had given the terrorist group a home. Over time, the Pentagon’s focus shifted toward Afghanistan itself—toward helping its people rebuild their society, which has been battered by war and upheaval since the late nineteen-seventies. In strategic terms, the U.S. has swung between counter-insurgency and counterterrorism. Or, put another way, between enlightened self-interest and a more naked kind.

President Barack Obama, in his June 22nd speech announcing the beginning of the end of the American war in Afghanistan, couched the conflict in the most constricted terms. This is no great surprise. Obama’s discomfort with the Afghan war is visible whenever he talks about it. Last week, he spoke with a palpable lack of passion, and indicated no long-term commitment to the country. His message was clinical: Osama bin Laden is dead, Al Qaeda is disabled, and American troops can begin coming home. “We are meeting our goals,’’ the President said, in his most expansive description of American progress. Certainly, the large majority of Americans who believe that the war isn’t worth fighting will have little inclination to doubt him.

The President’s terseness had a purpose: it allowed him to skirt a more exhaustive, and dispiriting, discussion of Afghan realities. Two years ago, Obama signed off on the surge, which deployed an additional thirty-three thousand marines and soldiers to Afghanistan. Though the surge is now at its peak, almost every aspect of the American campaign is either deeply troubled or too fragile to justify substantial reductions in military support. It’s true that, with the help of extra forces, the Americans have cleared large areas of Taliban insurgents, many of whom had been operating without opposition. This success has opened the parts of the country that are dominated by Pashtuns—its main ethnic group—to Afghan government control, but it hardly constitutes victory. According to American officers, the level of violence in Afghanistan this year is fifteen per cent higher than it was at this time last year. The insurgents, far from being degraded, appear to be as resilient as ever. And their sanctuaries in Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership resides mostly unmolested, remain more or less intact.

Nor is there any sign that Afghanistan’s Army will be able to maintain control as the Americans leave. Although Afghan forces are growing in number, they are virtually incapable of planning and executing operations on their own. Exactly one Afghan battalion—about six hundred soldiers—is currently classified as “independent.” Ethnic divisions have made the situation even worse: some units, packed with ethnic Tajiks from the north, are said to need translators to operate in the Pashto-speaking areas of southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban predominate. The number of Afghan soldiers who quit or go AWOL remains alarmingly high. Most recruits are illiterate. It is these men, along with members of Afghanistan’s hapless police force, whom Obama expects to take the lead from the Americans three years from now.

Most important, Afghanistan’s leaders are still known more for their criminality and incompetence than for their ability to govern. After spending years pushing President Hamid Karzai to crack down on corruption in his government, the Americans and their NATO partners have largely given up. Last year, Afghan prosecutors were prepared to indict as many as two dozen officials on corruption charges. But the arrest of a single Presidential aide last July was a fiasco—after Karzai publicly objected, the aide was released and the charges against him dropped. Since then, not one senior Afghan official has been brought to justice. Many of the best public-corruption prosecutors have been harassed or reassigned. The Taliban insurgents are supported to no small degree by the venality of Afghanistan’s leaders.

And then there is President Karzai himself, who appears to be increasingly estranged not only from his NATO allies but also from reality. For years, American officials put up with Karzai’s excesses and even apologized for them; in so doing, they encouraged him to become more and more delusional. In a speech earlier this month, Karzai suggested to an audience of his countrymen that NATO forces were using nuclear weapons in Afghanistan, and accused them of killing innocent civilians and damaging the environment. He said of the Americans, “They have come to our country for their own goals and interests, and they are using our country.”

It will not be difficult to say goodbye to a man like this. But what of the thirty million other Afghans? The premise that anchored counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan—and in Iraq—was never explicitly humanitarian. The idea was that America could succeed only by helping these countries find a way to stand on their own. Otherwise, the places would collapse, and we’d have to go back. In Iraq, after many years of bloodshed, the Americans seem to have found a formula for maintaining rudimentary stability. In Afghanistan, after years of mismanagement and neglect, we manifestly have not. The country remains riddled with violence, and negotiations with the Taliban—a last-resort option—have led nowhere. It is not hard to imagine a repeat of the Afghan civil war, which engulfed the country after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, and which ultimately gave rise to the Taliban. Bloodied but unbroken, the Taliban hardly seem like an army preparing to beg for peace. Their leaders greeted Obama’s words with a swift promise: “Our armed struggle will increase.”

For the moment, the prospect of all-out civil war in Afghanistan rests safely on a distant horizon. Even after the thirty-three thousand troops have departed, by the end of 2012, the Americans and their NATO partners will have nearly a hundred thousand soldiers there. The effects of the drawdown might not be visible for years. But the moment of maximum American influence is passing without very much to show for it. “These long wars will come to a responsible end,” the President said toward the end of his speech. That’s an appropriately tortured construction for two badly managed occupations. As a prediction for Afghanistan, though, it seems more like a prayer. ?

June 29, 2011

Attack at Kabul Hotel Deflates Security Hopes in Afghanistan
By ALISSA J. RUBIN, New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Nazir Amini, an Afghan visiting from his home in Germany, had just returned from the buffet with a bowl of ice cream when two men with an AK-47 rifle and a machine gun started shooting guests around the pool at the Intercontinental Hotel, one of the capital’s most fortified buildings.

Women and children screamed. Chairs tipped backward. Food slid onto the lawn as people started to run. Mr. Amini said he saw police officers running, too, tightly gripping their own AK-47s as they raced away from the gunmen.

“I said, ‘Why don’t you shoot? Shoot!’ ” he recalled. “But they just said, ‘Get away from them.’ And we all ran together.”

Six hours later, at least 21 people were dead, including the nine suicide bombers who managed to penetrate several rings of security on Tuesday night to carry out the attack. The assault has shaken public confidence in the ability of Afghan forces, especially the police, to assume responsibility for security, even here in the capital.

The scene painted by Mr. Amini and several other guests at the hotel vividly demonstrated the challenges facing the Afghan government as it prepares to defend its country without NATO troops after 2014. Last week, President Obama announced that the American military had inflicted enough damage on the insurgency to allow him to begin withdrawing some troops. This week is supposed to be the beginning of the transition to Afghan control, with Kabul, one of the country’s safest cities, scheduled to be among the first places to carry out the transfer.

“We talk about the transition to Afghan security, but the Afghan forces are not ready to take over their security and their country,” said Maulavi Mohammadullah Rusgi, chairman of the Takhar provincial council in northern Afghanistan, who was having dinner at the hotel with friends when the attack commenced. Three of his friends were killed.

“The security forces cannot even protect a few people inside the hotel,” he said. “How can they protect the whole country?”

The assault ended only after NATO helicopters joined the battle, killing three of the insurgents on the hotel’s roof. Still, NATO officials took a more sanguine view of the performance of the Afghan police, saying that they had fought well, once they had their forces arrayed at the scene. “They acquitted themselves pretty well — it could have been a whole lot worse,” said a Western official.

But for the hotel guests, many of whom jumped over the perimeter walls, plunged into irrigation ditches or cowered in closets to escape the attackers, the police response was not only slow, but also cowardly. Several witnesses said police officers ran away or refused to shoot.

Guests milling outside the hotel on Wednesday morning said that without the assistance of the NATO forces, the mayhem would have gone on much longer.

“The main question in Kabul, and on the cusp of transition, is, Are they ready?” said another Western official here, referring to the police. “The Intercontinental attack introduces doubt, and if the transition is supposed to be based on the security conditions, then the conditions haven’t been met.”

Sowing doubt was clearly the intent of the Taliban, who claimed responsibility for the attack. The difficulty the Afghan security forces faced in fending off the assault and in putting out the fire that destroyed half the roof of the building — the blaze took more than an hour to tame — gave the insurgents a propaganda victory, even if the death toll was relatively low compared with other spectacular attacks of recent years. The dead included a Spanish pilot and at least two Afghan police officers.

Mr. Rusgi, the provincial council official from Takhar, said that even after the shooting stopped at 5 a.m., the police were reluctant to enter the hotel, defying the orders of their commander, the police chief, Mohammed Ayoub Salangi.

“The police chief, Salangi, kept telling his people to march — to go, to go ahead into the hotel — but they didn’t go,” he said.

Mr. Rusgi and 11 friends were at dinner when the attack erupted.

“When the gunmen started shooting,” he recounted, “me and my friend Judge Abdul Hanan jumped into a ditch, and I silenced my cellphone to make sure the phone did not make noise so that the gunmen would not shoot us.

“Then Judge Abdul Hanan got out of the ditch and bullets were coming from every direction, and we heard his cellphone ringing, and I told another guy who was with me inside the ditch, ‘See, Judge Hanan is going to make problems for us, and the gunmen will find out we’re here if the cellphones keep ringing.’ ”

Ten minutes later, when the shooting abated, Mr. Rusgi climbed out of the ditch to ask Judge Hanan to turn off his phone. “Then I saw he was bowing toward the ground, and when I moved his head I saw blood all on his body, and he was shot in his chest and belly, and at the same time his cellphone was ringing and I think his family was trying to call him.”

Moments later Mr. Rusgi found two other friends, who had been shot in the head as they tried to hide behind a tree.

A spokesman for the Afghan National Directorate of Security, Lutfullah Mashal, said that there were “loopholes” and “negligence” in the hotel security. He suggested that the attackers might have been able to penetrate the well-fortified hotel, which sits atop a hill overlooking the capital, with help from guards at the compound or by disguising themselves as laborers, because part of the hotel is under renovation. Since the attack, the hotel has been closed, indefinitely.

The security lapses further weaken the public’s confidence that Afghan forces are ready to defend the country. Mr. Amini, who is a car dealer in Germany, was deeply pessimistic.

“Forty-five countries have troops here, but security is still fragile — you cannot serve dinner in one of the largest and most secure restaurants in Kabul,” he said.

“Now we are hearing about a security transition to Afghan forces,” he added. “If they give the security responsibility to the current government at 10:00 a.m., the government will collapse around 12 noon. They cannot live without foreigners.”

June 20, 2011

Don't Call Us Occupiers When We're Dying for Your Country, U.S. Tells Karzai
U.S. Ambassador rebukes Karzai for `hurtful, inappropriate' rhetoric
By Patrick Goodenough,

The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan warned Sunday that the American people are growing weary of being viewed as "occupiers" by the leaders of a country where so much American blood has been spilled.

Karl Eikenberry's candid and impassioned remarks came a day after President Hamid Karzai in a televised speech accused U.S.-led foreign troops of being in the country "for their own national interests."

On Sunday, Karzai met with Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi - on the first ever official visit by Iran's top defense official - and the two discussed problems arising from "the presence of foreign forces" in Afghanistan, according to reports in Iranian state media. Last week Karzai held talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of a Eurasian summit in Kazakhstan, and similar sentiments were expressed.

More than 1,500 U.S. troops have lost their lives in Afghanistan - some 177 this year alone - since U.S.-led forces invaded to topple the Taliban regime following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. More than 900 military personnel from other nations have been killed over that period.

There are around 100,000 American troops deployed in Afghanistan, and the first in a series of phased withdrawals is due to take place in the coming weeks.

Without mentioning Karzai by name, Eikenberry took aim Sunday at the increasingly harsh anti-coalition rhetoric emanating from the president, calling it "hurtful and inappropriate." The ambassador, who will leave his post over the summer, made the remarks at the end of a speech on the future of U.S.-Afghan relations, delivered to several hundred students at Herat University.

"When Americans, who are serving in your country at great cost in terms of lives and treasure, when they hear themselves compared with occupiers, told that they're only here to advance their own interest, and likened to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people, my people in turn are filled with confusion and they grow weary of our effort here," Eikenberry said.

"Mothers and fathers of fallen soldiers, spouses of soldiers who have lost arms and legs, children of those who've lost their lives in this country - they ask themselves about the meaning of their loved one's sacrifice," he continued. "I have to tell you, when I hear some of your leaders call us occupiers, I cannot look at these mourning parents, these mourning spouses, these mourning children, and give them any kind of comforting reply."

Eikenberry conceded that that the "learning curve has been steep" in what is a "complex" situation. "But - in spite of our mistakes - we are a good people whose aim is to help improve our mutual security by strengthening your government, army and police, and economy."

He went on to list some of the accomplishments, including the building of schools, clinics, roads, power stations, investment in educational training and in the agricultural field, promoting trade and reviving culture, music and sport.

"Yet, when we hear ourselves being called occupiers and worse, our pride is offended and we begin to lose our inspiration to carry on," he told the Herat University students.

"At the point your leaders believe that we are doing more harm than good, when we reach a point that we feel our soldiers and civilians are being asked to sacrifice without a just cause, and our generous aid programs dismissed as totally ineffective and the source of all corruption . especially at a time our economy is suffering and our needs are not being met, the American people will ask for our forces to come home."

Relations between Kabul and the coalition have been strained over a number of issues, particularly civilian casualties. The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported 368 conflict-related Afghan civilian deaths in May, attributing 82 percent of them to "anti-government elements" and 12 percent to "pro-government forces."

Rules have been tightened to reduce the risk of civilian deaths, but Karzai late last month lashed out again at the U.S. and NATO over civilian casualties, especially those arising out of nighttime raids targeting insurgents.

"If they continue their attacks on our houses, then their presence will change from a force that is fighting against terrorism to a force that is fighting against the people of Afghanistan," he told a May 31 press conference in Kabul. "And in that case, history shows what Afghans do with trespassers and with occupiers."

Afghanistan’s Last Locavores

MANY urban Americans idealize “green living” and “slow food.” But few realize that one of the most promising models for sustainable living is not to be found on organic farms in the United States, but in Afghanistan. A majority of its 30 million citizens still grow and process most of the food they consume. They are the ultimate locavores.

During the 12 months I spent as a State Department political adviser in northern Afghanistan, I was dismayed to see that instead of building on Afghanistan’s traditional, labor-intensive agricultural and construction practices, the United States is using many of its aid dollars to transform this fragile agrarian society into a consumer-oriented, mechanized, fossil-fuel-based economy.

In 2004, the Department of Energy carried out a study of Afghanistan. It revealed abundant renewable energy resources that could be used to build small-scale wind- and solar-powered systems to generate electricity and solar thermal devices for cooking and heating water.

Rather than focus on those resources, the United States government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build large diesel generators and exploit the country’s oil, gas and coal reserves. The drilling of new oil wells may provide unskilled, poorly paid jobs for some locals, but the bulk of the profits will likely flow overseas or into the pockets of a few warlords and government officials.

American taxpayers’ dollars are also being used for energy-inefficient construction projects. During my year in Afghanistan, I sat for hours in meetings with local officials in remote mountain and desert locations, sweating or freezing — depending upon the season — inside concrete and cinder-block schools and police stations built with American aid. These projects are required to adhere to international building codes, which do not permit the construction of traditional earthen structures.

These structures are typically built with cob — a mixture of mud, sand, clay and chopped straw molded to form durable, elegant, super-insulated, earthquake-resistant structures. With their thick walls, small windows and natural ventilation, traditional Afghan homes may not comply with international building codes, but they are cooler in summer and warmer in winter than cinder-block buildings. They also last a long time. Some of Afghanistan’s oldest structures, including sections of the defensive wall that once surrounded the 2,000-year-old Silk Road city of Balkh, are made of cob and rammed earth. In England, people are still living in cob houses built before Shakespeare was born.

Renewable energy and sustainability aren’t just development issues. They are security issues, too. Seventy percent of the Defense Department’s energy budget in Afghanistan is spent on transporting diesel fuel in armored convoys. In a welcome attempt to reduce this dangerous and expensive dependence on fossil fuel, the Marine Corps recently established two patrol bases in Afghanistan operating entirely on renewable energy.

Unfortunately, it is too little, too late. Had a renewable energy program been initiated a decade ago, when the United States entered Afghanistan to help overthrow the Taliban, Washington could have saved billions of dollars in fuel costs and, more important, hundreds of lives lost in transporting and guarding diesel fuel convoys.

Along with advocating the construction of a pipeline to carry natural gas from Central Asia, across Afghanistan and into Pakistan, the United States is also helping to fund a 20th-century-style power grid that will compel Afghanistan to purchase the bulk of its electricity from neighboring former Soviet republics for decades to come. Even if this grid survives future sabotage and political unrest in Central Asia, its power lines and transmission towers will be carrying this imported electricity right over the heads of rural Afghans and into Afghanistan’s major cities — despite the fact that the United States Central Command has identified the lack of access to electricity in rural areas as a major obstacle to sustaining the gains achieved by our counterinsurgency strategy.

Sustainable development in Afghanistan has taken a back seat to “quick wins” that can be reported to Congress as indicators of success: tractors that farmers can’t repair and that require diesel fuel they can’t afford; cheaply built schools; and smooth but wafer-thin asphalt, which will never stand up to Afghanistan’s punishing climate without costly annual maintenance.

If donor nations dismiss Afghans’ centuries of experience in sustainability and continue to support the exploitation of fossil fuels over renewable energy, future generations of rural Afghans will be forced to watch in frustrated silence as the construction of pipelines, oil rigs and enormous power grids further degrades their fragile and beautiful land while doing little to improve their lives.

And long after American forces have departed, it will be these rural farmers, not Afghanistan’s small urban population, who will decide whether to support or reject future insurgencies.

Patricia McArdle, a retired foreign service officer and Navy veteran, is the author of the novel “Farishta.” She serves on the board of directors of Solar Cookers International.

June 16, 2011

A bank scandal in Afghanistan
Kabul Bank: one big hole in the ground
from The Economist

AMID the wasteland that is "Business Bay", one of Dubai's most disastrous property developments, are two enormous holes in the ground. They mark what were to have been the foundations for a pair of 20-floor towers containing luxury flats. Here, $40m belonging to depositors with accounts at Kabul Bank was sunk. The stricken Afghan bank had for years been run as a giant Ponzi scheme for the benefit of powerful shareholders.

Last year Afghanistan's central bank spent $820 million of its reserves bailing out Kabul Bank. The question now facing the government of President Hamid Karzai is how it will recover the money from these worthless holes in the ground, along with luxury Dubai villas bought at the top of the market, and much else. In total, close to $1 billion is missing, thanks to a binge of interest-free and mostly illegal insider lending to shareholders, including one of Mr Karzai's brothers.

The spiriting away of such sums is a huge blow in a land with an official GDP of just $12 billion a year. The United States, through the IMF, is taking a tough line, demanding that the foot-dragging government properly finance the bail-out and prosecute those responsible. The IMF's insistence has sharply slowed the flow of donor funds on which the Afghan government relies. If the IMF remains unsatisfied, the country will suffer a cash crisis within a month.

The Afghans protest that, after months of wrangling, they have done much of what was asked of them, including replacing the bank's management, stripping the shareholders of their rights, and hiving off all the dodgy loans. The finance minister, Omar Zakhilwal, has plans to raise taxes and pay off the bill over eight years.

Yet horrified members of parliament have already rejected a budget that called for $73 million to be spent this year on just the first instalment. MPs argue that the bill should be paid for by seizing and selling the shareholders' assets.

That will not be easy. Massoud Ghazi, the bust bank's new head, says the shareholders are deliberately concealing what they took. Loans were obscured by fake documentation and by putting them in other people's names. Most foreign experts agree that retrieving even half of the lost money would be an achievement. Just $61 million has been recovered so far.

A $10 million audit just begun by Kroll, a sleuthing agency, and underwritten by the British government, should help. But a willingness to prosecute those who took the money matters even more. Under United Arab Emirates law, none of those luxury villas in Dubai can be seized until criminal prosecutions are seen to have begun.

Yet the bank's shareholders, whether guilty or innocent, look untouchable thanks to their political connections. They include the most senior among Afghanistan's vice-presidents, Mohammed Fahim, a former warlord. Not only did members of his family take out loans worth at least $78m. Mr Fahim is also a leading light of the country's Tajiks, the largest ethnic group after Mr Karzai's Pushtuns. Kabul Bank was a bastion of the northern, Tajik establishment. Mr Fahim is reported by Western diplomats to have vowed last year that he would "never let the Pushtuns take Kabul Bank."

Compounding the difficulties are suspicions that another northerner, Sherkhan Farnood, the bank's whisky-swilling, poker-playing former chairman, has a "black book" of dirt to dish on top politicians. At a time when many Tajik leaders are spooked by fears that the government might rush a peace deal with the Taliban insurgency, it is not surprising that Mr Karzai, in a private meeting last month, begged shareholders to return the cash voluntarily.

Mr Zakhilwal insists the case is with the attorney-general. But, after letting off one of Mr Karzai's top aides who was caught red-handed soliciting a bribe, he inspires little confidence. One proposal is for a special court of hand-picked judges instead. "We have done 95% of what they [the IMF] have asked for," Mr Zakhilwal protests. No sign yet that the Fund will relent on the remaining 5%.

June 8, 2011

What else do you expect him to say?

If he says we should stay in Afghanistan, he'll be appointed Ambassador to Afghanistan. And his career will be advanced. He's going to tell us that we should leave Afghanistan asap? That's like being appointed interim-CEO and then publicly saying "The company's future is bleak. We're wasting our time and money."

Heck no. It's not going to happen. Here is our new CEO in Afghanistan.

Ryan C. Crocker, President Obama's nominee for ambassador to Afghanistan, during his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, June 8, 2011.

According to Wikipedia, Ryan Clark Crocker (born June 19, 1949) is a Career Ambassador within the United States Foreign Service. He was the United States Ambassador to Iraq until 2009; he previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan from 2004 to 2007, to Syria from 1998 to 2001, to Kuwait from 1994 to 1997, and to Lebanon from 1990 to 1993.

Big successes in all those places!

The United States currently spends about $10 billion a month in Afghanistan. If you figure $10 million a new school or a community college, that's one thousand new schools or community colleges the U.S. could build every month. Or 12,000 schools a year. With the U.S. real unemployment running over 15%, what should we spend our money on -- bombs and bullets in Afghanistan or new places to re-train our hurting unemployed workers? To me, the answer is so obvious, it's not even worth discussing. Heh, skip a few schools and build some bridges, tunnels or roads. We need them too. Think of all the new jobs.

Here's the New York Times on his Senate confirmation hearings. I bolded the interesting bits:

June 8, 2011

Pick for Afghan Envoy Says U.S. Can’t Afford to Abandon Effort

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s nominee for ambassador to Afghanistan offered an unvarnished assessment on Wednesday of the nearly decade-old war, but he told a skeptical Senate committee that the United States could not afford to walk away anytime soon.

In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ryan C. Crocker, the nominee, said that the United States had abandoned Afghanistan once before, after its war with the Soviet Union in 1989, with “disastrous consequences” — the rise of the Taliban. “We cannot afford to do so again,” Mr. Crocker said.

Mr. Crocker nonetheless acknowledged a panoply of problems facing Afghanistan, including government corruption that he said would become “a second insurgency” if left unchecked. He said the United States’s goal in Afghanistan was merely to help the Afghans create a “good-enough government,” not necessarily a model democracy. While progress has been hard, he said, the situation was not hopeless.

“We’re not out to, clearly, create a shining city on a hill,” Mr. Crocker said.

He faced sharp questions from the committee, particularly from its Democratic chairman, John Kerry of Massachusetts, who expressed a growing sentiment on Capitol Hill that the American commitment in money and troops to Afghanistan “is neither proportional to our interests or sustainable.” The United States currently spends about $10 billion a month in Afghanistan and has 100,000 troops there.

Mr. Crocker testified at a moment when Mr. Obama’s national security team is debating how many American troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan next month, the date set by the president for the beginning of force reductions after he dispatched 30,000 additional American troops there in late 2009.

In preparation for the hearing, the committee’s majority issued a comprehensive review of American nation-building efforts in Afghanistan that paints a dim picture of poor planning and inefficiency. Much of the billions of dollars spent on aid projects has been ill thought out and has fueled corruption, the review says, while the efforts have drawn the best and the brightest Afghans away from government jobs where they are badly needed.

The review calls for a new approach that will be sustainable even after a drawdown of American troops, which may mean an “ebb” in the costly American civilian presence as well.

The report was compiled by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Democratic majority staff and was released Wednesday, as the committee met to consider whether to confirm Ryan Crocker, the former ambassador to Iraq, as envoy to Afghanistan.

President Obama is preparing to announce a framework schedule for reducing American troop strength in Afghanistan, against a backdrop of steadily rising public concern over the high costs of the 10-year-old war.

Too much money spent with too little oversight has fueled corruption and waste, the report says. For example, one program authorizes the payment of up to $100,000 a month to Afghan provincial leaders for local projects, “a tidal wave of funding” that can be difficult to efficiently and fairly absorb, it says. Foreign military and development funds now account for such an overwhelming share of the Afghan economy — equivalent to 97 percent of its gross economic product, by one estimate — that there is a real possibility of a “severe economic depression when foreign troops leave,” according to the report.

Senator Kerry urged the White House and Congress to work together on a multi-year civilian assistance strategy for Afghanistan that would contribute to a “successful military drawdown and transition.”

“Assistance should meet three basic conditions before money is spent,” he said. “Our projects should be necessary, achievable and sustainable.”

It can cost upward of $500,000 a year to keep an American civilian employee or contractor on the ground in Afghanistan, which in some cases makes them too expensive to maintain, the committee report said.

The State Department and Agency for International Development, known as USAID, now have about 1,300 civilian employees and contractors in Afghanistan, up from 531 in January 2009. The government “may want to consider a smaller civilian footprint,” the review suggested.

Its authors suggested “a simple rule: Donors should not implement projects if Afghans cannot sustain them.”

Perversely, American funds are now paying some of the most talented Afghans “inflated salaries” of up to 10 times what they might make working for the Afghan government, and these high salaries encourage “a culture of aid dependency” while undermining efforts to improve the Afghan government, the review says.

The report is not uniformly negative. The authors point to positive effects of the American aid program — a sevenfold increase in the number of children being educated, for example. But they question some key assumptions behind the nation-building work, specifically the notion that poverty, joblessness and lack of education have fueled extremism and insurgency.

Indeed, World Bank figures quoted in the report seem to contradict that assumption: Some of the most insurgency-plagued Afghan provinces, like Helmand and Kandahar, have relatively low poverty rates of less than 30 percent, while more peaceful provinces in central and northern Afghanistan have poverty rates as high as 58 percent, as in Balk Province.

“It is generally not the case that a lack of schools or roads drives conflict,” the report quotes Rajiv Shah, the administrator of USAID, as saying. “Often the situation is far subtler, having to do with local power dynamics or long-held grudges.”

At the Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Mr. Crocker seemed to infuse much of what he said with caution.

Senator Robert P. Casey Jr., Democrat of Pennsylvania, recalled having met with Mr. Crocker in Iraq in 2007 and being told that he framed his mission there as seeking “sustainable stability.” Mr. Crocker said that he still supported that concept.

“I was not among those who have ever used the words ‘winning’ or ‘victory,’ ” he said. “ ‘Sustainable stability’ were words, a concept, that I stood by then and would stand by now. We can get to that.”

He added: “It’s going to be incremental, it’s going to be kind of issue-by-issue, case-by-case.” The State Department and USAID now spend about $320 million a month in Afghanistan, for a total of $18.8 billion over the course of the war so far. That makes Afghanistan the single largest recipient of American aid, ahead even of Iraq. Even so, the aid figures are dwarfed by American military spending in the country.

June 6, 2011

More dumb and costly footdragging in Afghanistan
by Harry Newton

Osama bin Laden is dead. He was the main reason we invaded Afghanistan. What now? Rid the country of the Taliban? Make more "military progress?" Dismantle Al Qaeda?

Think of the last "good" war -- the Second World War. Unconditional surrender was the goal. And we achieved it.

What's the goal now? To consolidate the power of a corrupt, hated government -- the Karzai regime? To waste more precious American lives and scarce money?

The only solution is:

1. To announce we'll be 100% out by December 31, 2011 and make preparations to be out by then.

2. To offer all Afghans who worked for us, and fear for their lives after we leave, the opportunity for them and their families to emigrate to America.

3. To offer all returning military personnel the equivalent of the GI Bill -- so they can all attend college or graduate school, or what other education they feel will assist their new civilian careers.

The problem we face is the military enjoys wars. It gets to play with new toys and it gets promotions and pay raises. Read the following article from yesterday's New York Times and ask yourself "What are these people thinking? Do more delays make sense?"

June 5, 2011

Steeper Pullout Is Raised as Option for Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s national security team is contemplating troop reductions in Afghanistan that would be steeper than those discussed even a few weeks ago, with some officials arguing that such a change is justified by the rising cost of the war and the death of Osama bin Laden, which they called new “strategic considerations.”

These new considerations, along with a desire to find new ways to press the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to get more of his forces to take the lead, are combining to create a counterweight to an approach favored by the departing secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, and top military commanders in the field. They want gradual cuts that would keep American forces at a much higher combat strength well into next year, senior administration officials said.

The cost of the war and Mr. Karzai’s uneven progress in getting his forces prepared have been latent issues since Mr. Obama took office. But in recent weeks they have gained greater political potency as Mr. Obama’s newly refashioned national security team takes up the crucial decision of the size and the pace of American troop cuts, administration and military officials said. Mr. Obama is expected to address these decisions in a speech to the nation this month, they said.

A sharp drawdown of troops is one of many options Mr. Obama is considering. The National Security Council is convening its monthly meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan on Monday, and although the debate over troop levels is operating on a separate track, the assessments from that meeting are likely to inform the decisions about the size of the force.

In a range of interviews in the past few days, several senior Pentagon, military and administration officials said that many of these pivotal questions were still in flux and would be debated intensely over the next two weeks. They would not be quoted by name about an issue that Mr. Obama had yet to decide on.

Before the new thinking, American officials were anticipating an initial drawdown of 3,000 to 5,000 troops. Those advocating steeper troop reductions did not propose a withdrawal schedule.

Mr. Gates, on his 12th and final visit to Afghanistan as defense secretary, argued repeatedly on Sunday that pulling out too fast would threaten the gains the American-led coalition had made in the 18 months since Mr. Obama agreed to a “surge” of 30,000 troops.

“I would try to maximize my combat capability as long as this process goes on — I think that’s a no-brainer,” Mr. Gates told troops at Forward Operating Base Dwyer. “I’d opt to keep the shooters and take the support out first.”

But the latest strategy review is about far more than how many troops to take out in July, Mr. Gates and other senior officials said over the weekend. It is also about setting a final date by which all of the 30,000 surge troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan.

A separate timetable would dictate the departure of all foreign troops by 2014, including about 70,000 troops who were there before the surge, as agreed to by NATO and the Afghan government.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Afghanistan, sounded a cautious note about the state of the war in a telephone interview on Sunday. Although General Petraeus said there was “no question” that the Americans and the Afghans had made military progress in the crucial provinces of Helmand and Kandahar in the south, he said the Taliban were moving to reconstitute after the beating they took this past fall and winter.

“We’ve always said they would be compelled to try to come back,” General Petraeus said, adding that the Taliban would be trying to “regain the momentum they had a year ago.”

General Petraeus declined to discuss the withdrawal of American forces in July or the number he might recommend to the president. Late last week Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that General Petraeus had not yet submitted his recommended withdrawal number.

The decisions on force levels in Afghanistan could mirror how Mr. Obama handled the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Senior Pentagon officials noted that after Mr. Obama set a firm deadline for dropping to 50,000 troops in Iraq, he then let his commanders in Baghdad manage the specifics of which units to order home and when. The argument over where to set those “bookends” promises to be one of the most consequential and contentious of Mr. Obama’s presidency. It also has major implications for his re-election bid.

At one end of the debate is Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and, presumably, a range of Mr. Obama’s political advisers, who opposed the surge in 2009 and want a rapid exit, keeping in place a force focused on counterterrorism and training.

At the other end is Mr. Gates, who leaves office at the end of the month and who won the 2009 debate over the troop surge along with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and senior commanders on the ground.

It is not clear what Mrs. Clinton’s position is now as the internal debate is rejoined, and Mr. Obama’s team has changed considerably in the past 18 months. Thomas E. Donilon, appointed national security adviser last fall, was leery of the surge and is likely to lean toward a speedier withdrawal, colleagues say.

Leon E. Panetta, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, supports greater use of unmanned drone technology and will have a voice as Mr. Gates’s nominated successor. General Petraeus is leaving his post in Afghanistan shortly to head the C.I.A., assuming he is confirmed by the Senate this summer.

In the past, when administration officials were asked about the pace of withdrawal, they often said it would depend on “conditions on the ground” — in other words, assessments of the strength of the Taliban, the pace at which Afghan troops and police are prepared to take over and the progress of the economic and political rebuilding of the country. “Most of those would weigh in favor of staying longer,” one senior official said.

But the growing list of so-called strategic considerations amounts to countervailing factors, senior officials said. Mr. Obama has said his goal is to dismantle Al Qaeda so that it can never use Afghanistan again to initiate a Sept. 11-style attack.

With the killing of Bin Laden, and with other members of the terrorist group on the run as American officials pick up clues from data seized at the Bin Laden compound, Mr. Obama can argue that Al Qaeda is much diminished.

The pressure to show Democrats that the cost of the war is declining is intense — so intense that Mr. Gates, during his travels, warned against undercutting a decade-long investment by cutting budgets too rapidly.

May 16, 2011

Michael Hastings: My Decade of Bin Laden
He got the carnage he hoped for. Now it's time to end the wars he provoked
from Rolling Stone

Osama bin Laden's actions, and our reactions to them, have defined my adult life. I was in New York City on September 11th, 2001, a senior in college. After the towers collapsed, I walked 95 blocks to get as close to Ground Zero as possible, so I could see first-hand the destruction that would define our future. By the time I got to Baghdad four years later, very few Americans believed that the people we were fighting in Iraq posed a threat to the United States. Even the military press didn't bother lying about it anymore, referring to our enemies as "insurgents" rather than "terrorists." A woman I loved was killed in Baghdad in January 2007 — Al Qaeda in Iraq took credit for it — and my younger brother fought for 15 months as an infantry platoon leader, earning a Bronze Star. Other friends, both American and Iraqi, suffered their own losses: homes, limbs, loved ones.

By the fall of 2008, when I had moved on to Afghanistan, bin Laden and Al Qaeda were barely footnotes to what we were doing there. "It's not about bin Laden," a military intelligence official told me. "It's about fixing the mess." This added to the growing despair Americans felt about the war: If it wasn't about bin Laden, then what the fuck was it about? Why were we fighting wars that took us no closer to the man responsible for unleashing the horror of September 11th? A top-ranking military official told me last year that he didn't think we'd ever get bin Laden. Yet each time our presidents and generals told us why we were still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, they always used bin Laden and September 11th as an excuse. As long as they insisted on fighting these wars we didn't need to fight, the wound to the American psyche wasn't allowed to heal.

Right from the start, the idea of the War on Terror was a fuzzy one at best. We were promised there would be no "battlefields and beachheads," as President George W. Bush put it. It would be a secret war, conducted mostly in the dark, no holds barred. And that's how it might have played had we got bin Laden early on, dead or alive. But that's not what happened. Instead, we went on a rampage in the full light of day. We got our battlefields and beachheads after all. Kabul, Kandahar, Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi, Najaf, Mosul, Kirkuk, Basra, Kabul and Kandahar again — the list went on and on. We couldn't find bin Laden, so we went after anyone who looked like him, searching for other monsters to put down: the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

In the end, bin Laden got the carnage he had hoped to unleash. Nearly 3,000 Americans were killed on September 11th. Since then, 6,022 American servicemen and women have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 42,000 have been wounded. More than 3,000 allied soldiers have died, along with some 1,200 private contractors, aid workers and journalists. Most of the killing didn't take place in battles — it was in the dirty metrics of suicide bombs, death squads, checkpoint killings, torture chambers and improvised explosive devices. Civilians on their way to work or soldiers driving around in circles, looking for an enemy they could seldom find. We may never know how many innocent civilians were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, but estimates suggest that more than 160,000 have died so far. Al Qaeda, by contrast, has lost very few operatives in the worldwide conflagration — perhaps only "scores," as President Obama said this month. In truth, Al Qaeda never had many members to begin with. Not since Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand, setting off World War I, has a conspiracy undertaken by so few been felt by so many.

After learning of bin Laden's death, I congratulated my friends in the military and the intelligence community, tweeted my appreciation to President Obama and his team, then sat back and listened to the horns honking outside my apartment in Washington. I thought of all the dead, and what adding this fucker's name to the list actually means. My hope — and it is not one I have much hope in — is that our political leaders will use bin Laden's death to put an end to the madness he provoked. Withdraw our remaining troops from Iraq, a country that never posed a threat to us. End the war in Afghanistan, where we will spend $120 billion this year to prevent the country from becoming a hideout for Al Qaeda. As bin Laden's death makes clear, our true enemies will always find a hideout, no matter how many people we torture and bribe and kill. For the past 10 years, we have used the name Osama bin Laden to justify our wars. Perhaps, now that he is dead, we can use it in the cause of peace.

May 11, 2011

What is the objective now?
With no goal, Afghanistan is an expensive, deadly quagmire.
The only concrete goal I ever heard was "We're there to catch Osama."

Now we've caught him, why are we still there? Why are we still sacrificing so many precious American lives and so much American money?

Please write our president a letter and tell him, "Please get out of Afghanistan asap." Contact the White House. Click here.

May 1, 2011

"There is never a good answer."
So Why Are We Still There?

The following New York Times article is about a highway America decided to build in Afghanistan. The idea to build the highway and the highway itself is an unmitigated disaster.This is yet another instance of us financing our enemies. with precious money we clearly can't afford. As you read this, think of how many American school teacher salaries the highway money could pay for. And then think of the thousands of schoolteachers who are losing their jobs all over America because local governments are desperately short of money. The quote "there is never good answer" is a quote from an unidentified military officer. It's the last sentence of this article. I have bolded some of the more depressing parts. -- Harry Newton

May 1, 2011

Costly Afghanistan Road Project Is Marred by Unsavory Alliances

GARDEZ, Afghanistan — When construction crews faced attacks while working on a major American-financed highway here in southeastern Afghanistan, Western contractors turned to a powerful local figure named simply Arafat, who was suspected to have links to Afghanistan’s insurgents.

Subcontractors, flush with American money, paid Mr. Arafat at least $1 million a year to keep them safe, according to people involved in the project and Mr. Arafat himself.

The money paid to Mr. Arafat bought neither security nor the highway that American officials have long envisioned as a vital route to tie remote border areas to the Afghan government. Instead, it added to the staggering cost of the road, known as the Gardez-Khost Highway, one of the most expensive and troubled transportation projects in Afghanistan. The 64-mile highway, which has yet to be completed, has cost about $121 million so far, with the final price tag expected to reach $176 million — or about $2.8 million a mile — according to American officials. Security alone has cost $43.5 million so far, U.S.A.I.D. officials said.

The vast expenses and unsavory alliances surrounding the highway have become a parable of the corruption and mismanagement that turns so many well-intended development efforts in Afghanistan into sinkholes for the money of American taxpayers, even nine years into the war. The road is one of the most expensive construction projects per mile undertaken by U.S.A.I.D., which has built or rehabilitated hundreds of miles of Afghan highways and has faced delays and cost overruns on similar projects, according to the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction.

After years of warnings that Mr. Arafat was making a small fortune playing both sides in the war — and after recent queries by The New York Times about payments to him — American officials said they had finally moved to cut him off in April.

Despite the expense, a stretch of the highway completed just six months ago is already falling apart and remains treacherous. The unfinished portion runs through Taliban territory, raising questions about how it can be completed. Cost overruns are already more than 100 percent, all for a road where it was never certain that local Afghans wanted it as badly as the American officials who planned it.

At their worst, the failures have financed the very insurgents that NATO and Afghan forces are struggling to defeat. Some American officials and contractors involved in the project suspect that at least some of the money funneled through Mr. Arafat made its way to the Haqqani group, a particularly brutal offshoot of the Taliban.

Critics say that payoffs to insurgent groups, either directly or indirectly, by contractors working on highways and other large projects in Afghanistan are routine. Some officials say they are widely accepted in the field as a cost of doing business, especially in areas not fully under the control of the United States military or the Afghan government. As a result, contracting companies and the American officials who supervise them often look the other way.

“Does it keep the peace?” asked one United States military officer with experience in volatile eastern Afghanistan. “Definitely. If the bad guys have a stake in the project, attacks go way down.” The officer, like many of the people interviewed, did not want to be named for fear of retribution for criticizing a project that is considered a priority by the American and Afghan governments.

Some also suspected that Mr. Arafat had been staging attacks himself to extort more money for protection, a vicious cycle of blackmail that contractors and American officials acknowledged was a common risk.

In an interview, Mr. Arafat confirmed that he had been fired, but he called accusations that he had funneled money to the Haqqani group a “lie and propaganda,” and he denied staging attacks.

The possibility that American taxpayers’ money has been going to someone with ties to an insurgency that has killed American soldiers and Afghan civilians is just one of the many problems of the Gardez-Khost Highway.

From the beginning in 2007, no one thought that building the road would be easy. Traversing high, rugged terrain, the road rises to more than 9,000 feet. In winter, it is buried in deep snow. In summer, it is covered by a thick layer of chalky earth that engineers refer to as moon dust, which turns to mud in the rain.

But American officials judged the original price tag of $69 million to be worth the cost. The highway was seen as an important way to connect two mountainous provinces in southeast Afghanistan — Paktia and Khost — and wrest from the insurgents a route that they had long used to move money, men and guns into Afghanistan from Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Development officials hoped that the road would better link Afghanistan’s strategic border region to the central government in the capital, Kabul, and encourage commerce. The military hoped it would provide faster access for supplies and fresh troops.

However, interviews with more than 20 current and former American government officials, as well as military officers, private contractors, Afghan officials and local Afghan tribal leaders, show that despite the lofty goals the highway project was troubled virtually from the start, and problems quickly mounted.

The United States Agency for International Development, which has financed the project, turned it over to a joint venture of the Louis Berger Group, a New Jersey consulting and construction services firm, and Black & Veatch, a construction company in Kansas. In November, the Louis Berger Group paid one of the highest fines ever in a wartime contracting case to the federal government for overbilling.

Louis Berger hired an Indian subcontractor, which was a joint venture of two companies, BSC and C&C Construction, to handle the construction, and a South African private security contractor, ISS-Safenet, to provide security. Both sides in turn subcontracted to Afghans like Mr. Arafat, who did not even have a registered company, according to the Afghan Interior Ministry.

Each subcontract raised the costs as everyone took a share, and it was not long before the money allocated for the project had been drained.

“There would be a string of subcontracts, where the subcontractors would take a cut and subcontract it out again,” said a civilian who worked with the military on the project. “And we had a problem that with the final subcontractors, they didn’t have enough money to get the work done.”

Monitoring the money was a problem. The Agency for International Development has faced significant cuts in recent years and “cannot conduct serious oversight,” said one military officer who was stationed near the road. “U.S.A.I.D. is a shell of its former self,” the officer said. “Now, it’s just a big contracting mechanism.”

The hiring of an Indian subcontractor stoked resentments among Afghans, who believed the business should have been given to them, according to Afghan and American officials.

Most important, both sides of the border are dominated by the Haqqani group, whose leaders are from Khost, and Paktia’s powerful Zadran tribe. The Haqqani group is the Taliban offshoot that has long acted as a proxy in Afghanistan for Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani military and intelligence service. Hiring a subcontractor from India — Pakistan’s mortal enemy — in a region dominated by people with close ties to Pakistan was like waving a red flag at Pakistan’s insurgent proxies.

Not least among the problems was that construction began before the region was cleared of insurgents. “You are talking about pushing development before there’s security,” said a former American government official who was involved in the project.

“And you have military or politically driven timelines and locations which make no sense, or which force us into alliances with the very malign actors that are powerfully part of the broader battles we are fighting,” the official said. “No one steps back and looks at the whole picture.”

Within weeks of starting work, a construction camp was hit with rocket-propelled grenades, said Steve Yahn, the former chief engineer for the Gardez-Khost Highway project. Afterward, the provincial governor and the police chief told the Americans that if they had hired the right people for security, the attack would never have happened. “We got the message,” Mr. Yahn said.

That is when Mr. Arafat and 200 of his men were brought in to protect work crews. He was recommended by tribal elders from the Zadran tribe, said Paktia’s governor, Juma Khan Hamdard.

Mr. Arafat is feared in the area and has deep roots there. A local businessman, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said Mr. Arafat spent part of his childhood in the same area as the sons of the insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, who heads the group named for him, and had maintained close ties with them.

“Despite all the building by the P.R.T.’s, by the U.S., this area is strongly under Haqqani influence — it has been for years,” said Gul Bacha Majidi, a member of Parliament from Paktia, referring to the Americans’ Provincial Reconstruction Teams, responsible for many development projects. “And if you are working there or living there, you must have links with Haqqani.”

A former U.S.A.I.D. worker described the area as a place where the American military and development officers had no idea whom they were dealing with. “The Haqqanis were out there, HIG, Al Haq, ISI,” the worker said, rattling off a host of insurgent groups and the Pakistani intelligence agency, which maintains ties to many of them. “Everyone was there, and the local population is as likely to sabotage a project as to protect it.”

Indeed, some suspected Mr. Arafat of arranging attacks himself. However, they were reported up the American military chain of command like almost all other attacks, without any hint that they might have been staged for the purpose of squeezing money from the United States government.

In one instance in 2009, Afghan soldiers searched a small car in Gardez and found it filled with explosives, and the two men riding in it quickly explained that they worked for Mr. Arafat. The explosives disappeared and the men were freed before they could be handed over to the United States military, according to an American official familiar with the case.

Another American contractor said that an Afghan worker had told him that he had been ordered by security subcontractors to write “night letters” — anonymous death threats — to the Americans working on the highway to frighten them into paying more for security.

Shootings and other violence often broke out on paydays, said one American official who worked on the road, adding that those were the only occasions when many of the local security guards would show up, even though on paper there were supposed to be nearly 1,000 guards.

“On paper, the G.K. road was paying an enormous security detail of local-hire Afghans,” said one United States official. The highway contractors “would make a big deal out of their camps’ getting hit from time to time, and some of their guys would get shot in night attacks, but every instance I ever heard about coincided with payment negotiations with the Afghan security detail, of whom Arafat was the chief point of contact,” the official said.

It is impossible to determine how many of the attacks on the highway may have been staged by Mr. Arafat or his men. Despite all the money spent on security, however, there have been 364 attacks on the Gardez-Khost Highway, including 108 roadside bombs, resulting in the deaths of 19 people, almost all of them local Afghan workers.

Mr. Arafat’s insurgent connections appear to have been known to virtually everyone, yet there was a conspiracy of silence among both the Americans and the Afghans to keep the project running, contractors and others said.

The U.S.A.I.D. inspector general first investigated Mr. Arafat’s ties to the insurgency in 2009, but top agency officials concluded there was insufficient evidence to take action against him, an official at the agency said.

Similarly, United States military officers in the region declined to take action against Mr. Arafat, even after they were warned about his ties to the Haqqanis, said Matt Mancuso, an American contractor who was the liaison between the security contractor, ISS-Safenet, and the United States military in 2009.

No action was taken even though Mr. Arafat was on the United States military’s joint prioritized effects list — the record of those suspected of ties to terrorism and singled out for capture or killing — in early 2009 because of his suspected ties to the Haqqanis.

Mr. Mancuso said he proposed a plan to lure Mr. Arafat onto an American base to be captured so that he could collect the reward. He was told days later by American military commanders that Mr. Arafat had been taken off the list. He said he believed they removed Mr. Arafat’s name because they did not want to risk instability along the highway.

Meanwhile, Mr. Yahn said he believed that Mr. Arafat was dropped from the target list after appeals from contractors working on the highway. “We told them, ‘He’s keeping relative peace, and if he’s killed we are worried that there will be infighting and there will be more problems,’ ” Mr. Yahn said.

How much money might the Haqqanis have received through their ties to Mr. Arafat?

Mr. Mancuso said that during his time working on the project, ISS-Safenet paid Mr. Arafat $160,000 a month to provide security for the road in Paktia Province. The amount, he said, was grossly inflated above the legitimate costs of security.

As The New York Times pressed U.S.A.I.D. and the military for information on the project, American officials finally decided to disqualify Mr. Arafat as a subcontractor, saying in response to queries that he was “no longer eligible to receive U.S.A.I.D. funds.”

Similarly, in April, the military’s Task Force 2010, which handles anticorruption issues, disqualified one of the Afghan construction subcontractors working on the road because of “derogatory information,” according to Lt. Bashon Mann, a spokesman for the task force. The term “derogatory information” referred to evidence that the local construction company had ties to the Haqqani group and was paying it off.

While Mr. Arafat’s dismissal may reduce the payments that may have been funneled to the Haqqanis, some officials fear he may try to endanger the project by sabotaging his successors, which could drive costs up further.

“Since I have left the security of the road, it’s chaos there,” Mr. Arafat said. In fact, security officials have not seen any significant incidents since Mr. Arafat’s departure, they said.

A military officer who asked not to be identified said that contractors working in remote stretches of Afghanistan constantly faced such dilemmas. Do you keep paying off insurgents, or others, to keep the peace, even though they could use the money to buy weapons and sustain the insurgency?

“It’s a tradeoff,” said the officer. “It’s Afghanistan; there is never a good answer.”

April 7, 2011

Pakistan: Another Dumb Reason to be in Afghanistan

This article is from the April 7 issue of the Economist. It is a review of two new books on Pakistan. The Economist calls Pakistan an important but confusing country which has been driven, partly by American intervention into strange ways.

Pakistan: A Hard Country. By Anatol Lieven. PublicAffairs; 558 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £30. Buy from,

Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad. By Bruce Riedel. Brookings Institution Press; 180 pages; $24.95 and £16.99. Buy from,

IT IS a shame that these books should be published at a time when the world is riveted by events in the Middle East. Pakistan’s population is more than half the size of the entire Arab world; for most of the past three decades it has been involved in a war with a superpower, first against it, and now on the same side as it; it suffers from an Islamic insurgency that has killed 30,000 people over the past four years; it is regarded by students of geopolitics as the most likely location of nuclear conflict; and the reasons why it does not work as a country are many and fascinating.

The trouble with Pakistan’s story is that the country is one rather depressing stage on from the Middle East. Its people have risen up bravely against autocrats (three times over, if you count only the generals, or four if, like some Pakistanis, you count Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as well) and had several unsuccessful attempts at democracy. So it ricochets between military and civilian governments, with a state that does not work very well but has not collapsed, and an insurgency that is not turning into a civil war but won’t go away. Unlike the Middle East, it is not full of hope.

Yet for drama, colour and complexity, the place is hard to beat; and Anatol Lieven captures the richness of the place wonderfully. His book has the virtues of both journalism and scholarship—not surprising, since Mr Lieven used to be a reporter for the Times and is now at King’s College, London. He has travelled extensively and talked widely, to generals, shopkeepers, farmers, lawyers and bureaucrats.

He quotes the people he meets with both sympathy and scepticism, pointing to “Pakistani society’s ability to generate within an astonishingly short space of time several mutually incompatible versions of a given event or fact, often linked to conspiracy theories which pass through the baroque to the rococo”—a characteristic which anybody who has worked there will recognise. He has a great affection for the country, which he describes as “a place that cries out for the combined talents of a novelist, an anthropologist and a painter.” Aside from occasional bits of horrible writing, he does it justice.

The notion that Pakistan is approaching the condition of a failed state is popular these days. Mr Lieven rejects it. The state may be weak, but in his view society is strong, which both holds the place together and frustrates attempts to modernise it. For instance, Mr Lieven finds the official bit of the legal system—the police, lawyers and judges—horribly wanting. “When I visited the city courts in Quetta, Baluchistan, a majority of the people with whom I spoke outside had cases which had been pending for more than five years, and had spent more than 200,000 rupees [$4,500] on legal fees and bribes—a colossal sum for a poor man in Pakistan.”

Many therefore turn to tribal courts, or to the Pakistani Taliban in areas where they are strong. Few outsiders would recognise some of the tribal courts’ decisions as justice—girls are traditionally given as compensation for particularly serious crimes—yet service is speedy and generally reckoned to be superior to that provided by the state. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons why the Taliban’s rise was, at least initially, widely welcomed.

Democracy, similarly, sits uncomfortably with traditional society. Politics is dominated by big landowners and tribal chiefs, who regard their job not as developing the country’s economy and civil institutions for the good of all Pakistanis, but as distributing patronage to their clan or tribe; and that’s how government is run. Values diverge radically from those normally associated with representative democracy. In 2008, three teenage Baluch girls were shot and buried alive for refusing to marry the husbands chosen for them by their tribes. A tribal chief, a senator belonging to the Pakistan People’s Party of President Asif Ali Zardari, commented: “these are centuries-old traditions and I will continue to defend them. Only those who commit immoral acts should be afraid.” The man was subsequently made a federal minister.

Mr Lieven thinks growing resentment at the hierarchical nature of Pakistani society has helped the Taliban. Educated Pakistanis would ask of some Islamist on the rise: “Who on earth can respect a former bus conductor as a leader?” The answer, says Mr Lieven in rather cross italics, is “another bus conductor…It is precisely the lowly origins of the Taliban…which endear them to the masses.”

Still, Mr Lieven reckons that because of the strength of traditional social bonds, which tie individual to family, and family to tribe or clan, “Pakistani society is probably strong enough to prevent any attempt to change it radically through Islamist revolution, which is all to the good.” Bruce Riedel is less sanguine. He regards “a jihadist victory” in Pakistan as “neither imminent nor inevitable…[but] a real possibility that needs to be assessed”. It might come about, he reckons, as a result of a military coup by an officer sharing the world- view of General Zia ul Haq, or as a result of an insurgent victory; neither of which Mr Lieven’s analysis suggests is likely.

Though Mr Lieven knows Pakistan from the inside, Mr Riedel, who has advised no fewer than four American presidents, knows power from the inside—something he is keen to share with the reader. Every chapter starts with some version of “We were aboard Air Force One en route to California when I began briefing President Barack Obama…”

For readers who can successfully suppress their irritation, his book provides a useful account of the dysfunctional relationship between Pakistan and America. The governments are supposedly close allies, yet betray each other with monotonous regularity. After the Soviet Union left Afghanistan, America abandoned Pakistan for India. Pakistan both helps America in its war against the Afghan Taliban and—playing both sides—allows Taliban fighters to conduct attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistani territory. Pakistan’s people regard America with deep suspicion, and Pakistan’s Taliban is taking up the baton of global (and particularly anti-American) terror from a weakened al-Qaeda.

Although the books disagree somewhat about Pakistan’s prospects, they are not far apart on at least one important aspect of its past. America’s interventions, argues Mr Riedel, have made it “harder for Pakistanis to develop a healthy democracy that can effectively fight terror”, by encouraging military interference in civilian affairs. “It has above all been the US-led campaign in Afghanistan,” says Mr Lieven, “which has been responsible for increasing Islamist insurgency and terrorism in Pakistan since 2001.” These two books, in different ways, sharply illustrate an uncomfortable truth about American foreign policy: that the war in Afghanistan has helped foster in Pakistan exactly the sorts of tendencies that America went into Afghanistan to wipe out.

March 26, 2011

A year At War
The Endgame in Afghanistan

by James Dao, New York Times

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — The general arrived late, but in style, bursting into a meeting with American commanders dressed in leather bomber jacket, riding boots and creased corduroys. To his critics, he was a warlord in uniform. But on this February day, he radiated the sly charisma of a congressman on the stump.

This series follows the deployment of one battalion in the northern Afghanistan surge, chronicling the impact of war on individual soldiers and their families back home.

This was my introduction to Gen. Abdul Rahman Saidkhail, the police chief of Kunduz Province. When he first came to Kunduz last summer, replacing a more cautious commander, the province seemed to be slipping into chaos, with insurgents and criminal gangs controlling nearly as much real estate as the government.

Initially wary, American officers became fans, as the general led bold attacks on insurgent redoubts over the winter and pressured low-level Taliban commanders to switch sides. By February, districts that had been off limits except to heavily armed American units were being patrolled by Afghan police officers.

And then, in early March, the general was dead, killed by a suicide bomber outside the office where I had met him weeks before.

This is war in northern Afghanistan, just a few months before the United States begins drawing down troops. Over the past year, I spent more than four months in Kunduz with a photographer, Damon Winter, documenting the deployment of an outfit from Fort Drum, N.Y., the First Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division — part of President Obama’s Afghan surge. Now northern Afghanistan is secure by Afghan standards, less Taliban-infested than the south and east, where American troops, and media coverage, are concentrated. But in its ethnic rivalries, strongman politics, government corruption and unreliable security forces, Kunduz is also representative of the challenges facing the American military as it tries to midwife a stable nation.

With the Obama administration pledging to withdraw most American forces by 2014, starting this summer, Kunduz offers some object lessons. Among them: the battered Taliban remain a deadly force; the militias the Americans increasingly rely upon are often as shady as the insurgents they fight; American technology still cannot defend against some maddeningly simple weapons, mines and roadside bombs.

In particular, I came to view General Saidkhail as a metaphor for the one-step-forward, one-step-back nature of the long American mission.

Everything about the general was messy. Intelligence reports suggested that he had ties to insurgent leaders in his native Parwan Province. Pashtun leaders thought that he played favorites to Tajiks and Uzbeks. His deep roots in the Northern Alliance worried confidantes of President Hamid Karzai, himself a Pashtun.

But he was aggressive and, American officers say, effective. I left Kunduz in early March convinced that it was more secure than when the 1-87 first arrived 11 months before. Over the winter, American and Afghan forces had cleared many villages that were once Taliban-controlled, including Mullah Quli, where the stoning of a young couple who had eloped last year became a symbol of the Taliban’s resurgence.

Roads that had been impassable because of roadside bombs were de-mined, and people who had fled the Taliban for the safety of Kunduz City returned home. Commerce picked up. Nighttime cellphone service, once blocked by the Taliban, was restored. Things had improved enough that the soldiers replacing the 1-87 speculated that they would be the last American unit in Kunduz.

But as the assassination of General Saidkhail suggests, the security gains might have been skin deep. The incoming American battalion is smaller than the 1-87 and will be unable to patrol important districts. Security in those areas will be left to the local police, German forces and pro-government militias.

The Afghan police force, while growing, remains small and poorly equipped. The Germans operate under restrictive rules that hamper their effectiveness. And the village militias are untested, often corrupt and of questionable loyalty. Just a few weeks ago, many of those militias were fighting alongside the Taliban.

Moreover, the winter offensives that pushed the Taliban out of much of Kunduz occurred while the insurgents were least prepared to fight: in the cold, with little vegetation for cover. By May, warm temperatures and leaves on the trees will be back. So will the insurgents.

In recent weeks, Taliban commanders — who were reportedly chastised in Pakistan for their poor performance during the winter — began a terror campaign that included killing not just General Saidkhail, but also more than 30 civilians near a police compound in the northern city of Imam Sahib and more than 36 people at a military recruiting office in Kunduz City.

Assassinations and terrorist bombings can be a perverse indication of progress, American officials assert: signs of desperation. But they can also undermine faith in the Karzai government.

No one understood the tenuous situation better than General Saidkhail himself. “We may not be able to see the enemy,” he told his district commanders over lunch a few weeks before he died, “but they are still here.”

On a muggy day last April, I accompanied a patrol of American soldiers into a remote area near the Tajikistan border. The Americans had never visited these villages but felt confident that they were safe. Why? Because they were under the control of a militia leader known as Rozeboi.

Rozeboi, a hulking man in his 30s who bore a resemblance to Tom Selleck, commanded a couple of dozen fighters in Imam Sahib. The district is a vital gateway to Central Asia for commerce in food and construction materials — as well as opium and weapons. American officials say many local officials and militia leaders have a hand in the trafficking, Rozeboi included.

The soldiers described an encounter with Rozeboi’s fighters. The Americans had raided a compound where they found antipersonnel mines and drugs. But when they checked with Afghan authorities about the find, they were told that the compound and its “goods” should be left to Rozeboi’s men. Such winks and nods are standard operating practice for a simple reason: The Americans need militias to bolster shaky government forces. Rozeboi’s could be counted on to help American troops in a fight.

The American strategy for handing over security responsibilities to the Afghan government rests on a similar strategy: putting local militias on the government payroll. Such “recruits” are supposed to be vetted. But in the months it will take to complete that process, American commanders are counting on ragtag militias like Rozeboi’s to fight the Taliban.

Many of the militias are controlled by strongmen who traffic in drugs and weapons and pay their soldiers by taxing the locals, as the Taliban do. Indeed, several militias in Kunduz fought alongside the Taliban before switching to the government’s side.

Can the Karzai government provide the food, clothing and salaries needed to keep those militias friendly? “If they do not have income, they will return to their old bosses,” the mayor of Imam Sahib, Sufi Manaan, warned American officers in February. He should know. Some American commanders believe that he has links to a militia that fought against their soldiers last fall.

In September, I accompanied an American platoon trying to secure a hill in Imam Sahib on the eve of parliamentary elections. The soldiers had received warning that there were antipersonnel mines atop the hill. But Navy explosives experts were confident that they could find them.

They could not. The first man wounded was one of the minesweepers himself. His metal detector did not alert him to the plastic mine in the ground beneath his feet. He lost both of them.

After the minesweeper was carried to a medevac helicopter, I made my way back up the hill, stepping carefully in other men’s tracks. There I met a sergeant whose face betrayed a mixture of disgust and dismay. “You’ve been in combat before, right?” he asked me. “So you know — about the futility.”

A squad of soldiers sat in trenches along the hill’s crest. One of them had a camera mounted on his helmet. The video captured the men waiting anxiously to leave, trying to avoid movements that might trigger other mines.

Then one of them, Specialist Matt Hayes, walked toward the camera, looking, it seems, for a bottle of water. “Time for a new job,” he muttered as he stepped past the lens.

A minute or two later, there is an explosion. The camera pans back to capture a cloud of dust and the screams of Specialist Hayes. He had stepped on a mine while making his way back to his trench. He lost his right leg.

Almost immediately, the sergeant is at his side, no trace of futility in his voice as he comforts the specialist with a joke. A tourniquet is applied, a morphine drip is begun and the soldier is carried down by stretcher. The camera captures what is left on the hill: Matt Hayes’s boot.

The last of the 1-87 returned to Fort Drum just in time for St. Patrick’s Day. Specialist Hayes, moving nimbly on a prosthetic leg, took leave from Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit his platoon mates. In Kunduz, a new unit has begun patrolling in Imam Sahib. It has no plans to clear the hill of mines.

February 24, 2011

The Next Impasse
By DEXTER FILKINS, the New York Times.

(a new book)
Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan
by Bing West
Illustrated. 307 pages Random House. $28.

In the nine years since the first American troops landed in Afghanistan, a new kind of religion has sprung up, one that promises success for the Americans even as the war they have been fighting has veered dangerously close to defeat. Follow the religion’s tenets, give yourself over to it and the new faith will reward you with riches and fruits.

The new religion, of course, is counterinsurgency, or in the military’s jargon, COIN. The doctrine of counterinsurgency upends the military’s most basic notion of itself, as a group of warriors whose main task is to destroy its enemies. Under COIN, victory will be achieved first and foremost by protecting the local population and thereby rendering the insurgents irrelevant. Killing is a secondary pursuit. The main business of American soldiers is now building economies and political systems. Kill if you must, but only if you must.

The showcase for COIN came in Iraq, where after years of trying to kill and capture their way to victory, the Americans finally turned the tide by befriending the locals and striking peace deals with a vast array of insurgents. In 2007 and 2008, violence dropped dramatically. The relative stability in Iraq has allowed Americans to come home. As a result, counterinsurgency has become the American military’s new creed, the antidote not just in Iraq but Afghanistan too. At the military’s urging, President Obama has become a convert, ordering thousands of extra young men and women to that country, in the hopes of saving an endeavor that was beginning to look doomed. No one in the Obama administration uses the phrase “nation-building,” but that is, of course, precisely what they are trying to do — or some lesser version of it. Protect the Afghan people, build schools and hold elections. And the insurgents will wither away.

So what’s wrong? Why hasn’t the new faith in Afghanistan delivered the success it promises? In his remarkable book, “The Wrong War,” Bing West goes a long way to answering that question. “The Wrong War” amounts to a crushing and seemingly irrefutable critique of the American plan in Afghanistan. It should be read by anyone who wants to understand why the war there is so hard.

The strength of West’s book is the legwork he’s done. Most accounts of America’s wars, particularly those by former military officers, are written in the comfort of an office in the United States. Not so here. At age 70, West, the author of several books on America’s wars, went to Afghanistan and into the bases and out on patrols with the grunts, waded through the canals, ran through firefights and humped up the mountains. (At one point he contracted cholera and was evacuated by helicopter.) Embedding with American troops in God-forsaken places like Kunar and Helmand Provinces is hard business. What drives this man? West is worth a book in himself.

But the legwork pays off. West shows in the most granular, detailed way how and why America’s counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is failing. And, in the places where the effort is showing promise, he demonstrates why we don’t have the resources to duplicate that success on a wider scale. Mind you, West is no antiwar lefty: he’s a former infantry officer who fought in Vietnam. An assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, he admires — nay, adores — America’s fighting men and women, and he wants the United States to succeed. But the facts on the ground, it appears, lead him to darker truths.

West joined American troops in Garmsir, Marja and Nawa in Helmand Province; Barge Matal in Nuristan; and the Korengal Valley in Kunar — all in the heart of the fight. His basic argument can be summed up like this: American soldiers and Marines are very good at counterinsurgency, and they are breaking their hearts, and losing their lives, doing it so hard. But the central premise of counterinsurgency doctrine holds that if the Americans sacrifice on behalf of the Afghan government, then the Afghan people will risk their lives for that same government in return. They will fight the Taliban, finger the informants hiding among them and transform themselves into authentic leaders who spurn death and temptation.

This isn’t happening. What we have created instead, West shows, is a vast culture of dependency: Americans are fighting and dying, while the Afghans by and large stand by and do nothing to help them. Afghanistan’s leaders, from the presidential palace in Kabul to the river valleys in the Pashtun heartland, are enriching themselves, often criminally, on America’s largesse. The Taliban, whatever else they do, fight hard and for very little reward. American soldiers, handcuffed by strict rules of engagement, have surrendered the initiative to their enemies. Most important, the Afghan people, though almost certainly opposed to a Taliban redux, are equally wary of both the Americans and their Afghan “leaders.” They will happily take the riches lavished on them by the Americans, but they will not risk their lives for either the Americans or their own government. The Afghans are waiting to see who prevails, but prevailing is impossible without their help.

Time after time, West shows the theory of counterinsurgency scraping up against the hard and jagged ground of the real Afghanistan. In one instance, he examines the work of a group of American soldiers and civilians, known as a provincial reconstruction team, whose job was to provide development assistance to Afghan locals in Asadabad (A-Bad to the Americans) in eastern Afghanistan. It was overseen by a battalion known as the 1-32 and commanded by a lieutenant colonel named Mark O’Donnell. In June 2009, after the reconstruction team had been working there for three years, an American supply truck blew a tire on the main road. A crowd of Afghans gathered, and then suddenly a grenade exploded, killing and maiming several Afghans. A riot ensued. “Kill the Americans!” the Afghans shouted. “Protect Islam!” Only later did a videotape of the incident show clearly that an Afghan had tossed the grenade.

About this, West writes:

“For three years, the provincial reconstruction team had lived in a compound a few blocks from the scene of the tragedy. The P.R.T. had paid over $10 million to hire locals, who smiled in appreciation. Every time a platoon from 1-32 patrolled through town, they stopped to chat with storekeepers and to buy trinkets and candy to give to the street urchins. Yet the locals had turned on the soldiers in an instant. That the townspeople in A-Bad who profited from American protection and projects would believe the worst of O’Donnell’s soldiers — whom they knew personally — suggested that the Americans were tolerated but not supported, regardless of their good works and money.”

West’s book is coming out just as the American military, fortified by the extra troops, is claiming to be making significant progress in routing the Taliban from their strongholds in the south. This may be true, but remember who is doing most of the hard work: the Americans, not the Afghans themselves. It’s still an American war.

The subtitle of West’s book promises a “way out,” but it’s a little thin on exit strategies. His solution, tacked on to the final pages of the book, is to transform the American mission to one almost entirely dedicated to training and advising the Afghan security forces. Let the Afghans fight. “Our mistake in Afghanistan was to do the work of others for 10 years, expecting reciprocity across a cultural and religious divide.”

West is not the first to advocate such a course. But it’s not that simple, as he well knows. Nothing in Afghanistan is. Nine years of training and investment have created an Afghan Army fraught with the same corruption and lack of cohesion as the rest of the country. As it is, the Americans are now pouring more resources into the Afghan security forces than ever before. At best, the Afghans are years away from taking over the bulk of the fighting. And even that is a very fragile hope.

Until then, what? As “The Wrong War” shows so well, the Americans will spend more money and more lives trying to transform Afghanistan, and their soldiers will sacrifice themselves trying to succeed. But nothing short of a miracle will give them much in return.

Dexter Filkins is a staff writer for The New Yorker.

February 15, 2011

Afghantistan -- "The Good War"
by Harry Newton

President Obama compaigned on the promise of bringing the War in Afghanistan to an end.

His first major action was to send an additional 30,000 troops. My friends in Washington tell me that his military advisors told him categorically that the 30,000 would accomplish nothing to win the War or the Peace, or whatever the U.S. was hoping to accomplish there. The military advisors recommended strongly against the 30,000 surge.

The only "accomplishment" of the surge would be to put another 30,000 Americans in serious harm's way.

So, why the additional 30,000?

My friends' answer: "The decision was 100% political.. President Obama wanted to show his party, the Democrats, the opposition party, the Republicans and the American public that he could be tough.

When he announced the 30,000 extra troops, he said he would begin withdrawing American troops in July of 2011.

Of course, that's makes no sense. It alerted the Taliban of the day they could begin to move back in.

Obama's logic? Obama said his thrust was training the Afghan police and military who would, by July, 2011, be able to hold the Taliban back.

Many senior American politicians, like Senator Carl Levin, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, believe that we are succeeding at that training. And that the Afghan forces will be able to hold the Taliban back and the American military pullout will begin in July.

Levin, who told Obama not to send the 30,000, believes Obama will begin the pullout in July -- though Levin has no idea whether it will be one American solider or a thousand, or ten thousand.

So, how to make it more than less?

Levin has no idea, other than writing Obama, who is, after all, Commander-in-Chief, and can basically run the war in Afghanistan any way he feels like.

Write Obama at the White House. Maybe an avalanche of letters may do some good?

The sad thing about Afghanistan is that it essentially has dropped off the American political radar screen, to be replaced by an ailing economy, with its high unemployment.

Had we spent the money we spent in Afghanistan inside America, we could have built many bridges, new highways, wondereful mass transit systems and employed many people in productive ways. As it is now, we have wasted billions of dollars, lost 1,500 brave lives and wrecked the lives of 100,00 who have been wounded physically and emotionally in Afghanistan.

As an American , I am not proud of this adventure. I wish I had a better answer to bring this War to an quick end. For the moment, send Obama a letter..

February 21, 2011

Midlevel Taliban Admit to a Rift With Top Leaders
By CARLOTTA GALL of the New York Times

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Recent defeats and general weariness after nine years of war are creating fissures between the Taliban’s top leadership based in Pakistan and midlevel field commanders, who have borne the brunt of the fighting and are reluctant to return to some battle zones, Taliban members said in interviews.

After suffering defeats with the influx of thousands of new American troops in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand last year, many Taliban fighters retreated across the border to the safety of Pakistan. They are now coming under pressure from their leaders to return to Afghanistan to step up the fight again, a Taliban commander said. Many are hesitant to do so, at least for now.

“I have talked to some commanders, and they are reluctant to fight,” one 45-year-old commander who has been with the Taliban since its founding in 1994 said in an interview in this southern city. He spoke on condition he not be identified because he was in hiding from American and government forces. “Definitely there is disagreement between the field commanders and the leaders over their demands to go and fight.”

The differences point not just to the increasing stresses on the battlefield for midlevel Taliban commanders like him, but also to the difficulty of ending the insurgency as long as the Taliban’s top leadership has sanctuary in Pakistan, which has long protected and sponsored the Taliban.

Secure across the border, and tightly controlled by Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies, the top Taliban leadership remains uncompromising. At the urging of their protectors in Pakistan, Taliban members say, they continue to push midlevel Taliban commanders back across the border to carry on the insurgency, which extends Pakistan’s influence in southern Afghanistan.

The midlevel commanders have little choice but to comply, as they also depend on sanctuaries in Pakistan, where they maintain their families, say residents in Kandahar who know the Taliban well. The Taliban commander said in his interview that the field commanders would obey their orders to resume the fight, however reluctant they might be.

In a meeting across the border in Pakistan this month, Taliban leaders ordered each commander to send four or five men back into their home areas to resume operations by planting bombs, he said. “While commanders are worried for their lives, they have to go, or at least send some people,” he said.

Some of the dissension in Taliban ranks stems from raids by American forces, which have been specifically aimed at eliminating Taliban field commanders. The raids have taken a toll on the quality of the Taliban’s fighting forces and exacerbated differences between the fighters on the ground and their leaders giving orders from their sanctuary in Pakistan.

One close supporter of the Taliban in Helmand Province said that the insurgents had lost 500 fighters there last year, including virtually all the known commanders. Those who survived remonstrated with the leadership in Pakistan over why they had to sacrifice so many men.

The accounts of divisions between the Taliban leadership and its field commanders come on top of reports from American military officials of new frictions within the top Taliban leadership, which is believed to be based in the western Pakistani city of Quetta.

In an assessment of the war written in January to his troops, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, said that there were “numerous reports of unprecedented discord among the members of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban senior leadership body.”

A NATO intelligence officer in Kandahar said that he had received one report of a knife fight in a Taliban leadership meeting in December, which he said was a sign of growing internal tensions. People have to leave their guns outside the meeting room, which explains why someone might pull a knife, the officer said.

He also cited divisions over a suicide bombing at a wedding in Kandahar Province last year that was organized by a more radical field commander, without the approval of the Taliban leadership. Some of the younger, more radical commanders have come up through the ranks to replace those who have been killed.

During the fighting in the fall, the Taliban commanders sometimes found their calls for help going unanswered, according to American military officials. One group, in Sia Choy, in the Zhare District of Kandahar Province, appealed for help from commanders to no avail.

Taliban groups to the north, in Arghandab, also flatly refused to help, said Capt. Matthew Crawford, a senior intelligence officer with the 101st Airborne Division.

“There is a definite reluctance to come back into this area,” Captain Crawford said. “I don’t think they were prepared for how we approached the problem.”

The raids have eroded Taliban morale, said Maj. Chris Cavin, chief of operations for the Second Brigade Combat Team from the 101st Airborne Division, fighting in Zhare.

“It created a sense of anxiety,” he said. “Now at night you start thinking, ‘Wow, that guy got taken, that guy got taken.’ You have got to start switching places in the middle of the night. You have got to start being careful how you communicate with others, because, are you a target or not?”

The Taliban commander interviewed said he did not stay more than a day in any one place. He looks like any other Afghan from the countryside, tall, bearded and wrapped in a cotton shawl. He claims to have passed through military and police checkpoints without difficulty.

He wears leather shoes with no socks, despite the near freezing temperature, and sat without hesitation on the cold floor of the unfurnished meeting place for an interview.

He admitted that the Taliban forces had taken a battering in the recent fighting and that some were losing heart. “Compared to two years ago when people were willingly going to fight, that mood is reduced,” he said. “We are tired of fighting and we say this among ourselves. But this is our vow, not to leave our country to foreigners.”

Taliban commanders were even discussing the option of peace talks, but say they will only negotiate with the Afghan government after foreign forces leave, he said.

The Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, recently exhorted his men in an audio tape to keep fighting, the commander said.

“His words have a very powerful effect on us,” the Taliban commander said. “We obey his orders, every Talib does, and we believe in him.”

Despite the setbacks, the commander made light of the Taliban’s loss of territory around Kandahar in recent months. Taliban casualties were lower than claimed by NATO forces, he said.

Most of his men had pulled out and would wait and prepare for an offensive in the spring when the weather is warmer and the trees provide cover, he said.

“It will not be difficult,” he said. “We do not bring in tanks and heavy equipment. What we bring is very light and simple,” he said.

In the end the Taliban would return to their own land, he said. “This is our country, these are our people, and we have only to retreat and wait and use other tactics.”

January 31, 2011

"The Scale of Corruption tops even the worst estimates"

Why WikiLeaks Matters
Greg Mitchell | January 13, 2011, The Nation Magazine

More than fifty days have passed since the WikiLeaks document release in late November, this one centering on US diplomatic cables and quickly dubbed "Cablegate." At this writing, not even 3,000 cables from the cache, which reportedly holds more than 251,000 documents, have been published by WikiLeaks or, in most cases, by its newspaper partners, and it's impossible to know whether everything of prime importance has already emerged in the cherry-picking.

Julian Assange's next court date in his sex-crime extradition case is not until February 7, and a major WikiLeaks release—rumored to focus on Bank of America—seems to have been pushed back, partly because of WikiLeaks' financial problems. So it's an appropriate time to assess what we have learned so far—about Assange and alleged leaker Bradley Manning (heroes? villains?), the media's love-hate relationship with WikiLeaks and limits on civil liberties for journalists and whistleblowers.

Then there are the various threats and retreats inspired by the latest leak: the likely US prosecution of Assange, along with calls by some pundits and politicians for his execution or assassination; leading corporations such as PayPal and Amazon cutting off services for WikiLeaks; Rep. Peter King's call this week for a ban on American companies dealing with WIkiLeaks; and our Justice Department's secret subpoenas for Twitter (and likely other social networks) seeking information on some WikiLeaks supporters.

How all these issues and others are viewed by the public hinges significantly, however, on the perceived value of the leaked cables. US officials, even in charging foul, usually focus on the embarrassing loss of control and secrecy, not the damaging content of the cables. And as with earlier WikiLeaks bombshells—the massive Iraq and Afghanistan "war logs"—many critics in the media soon labeled the Cablegate revelations minor, old hat. Some of WikiLeaks' media partners, after a dozen days of heavy-duty reporting, severely reduced coverage of the cables. Now most of them are emerging via El País and the Norwegian daily Aftenposten.

For balance, then, it's important to review a small sample of what we have learned thanks to WikiLeaks since April and the release of the "Collateral Murder" US helicopter video, which showed the killing of two Reuters journalists, among others. It's necessary to do this because most in the US media, after brief coverage, provided little follow-up. Consider the scope of even this very limited list of revelations (and I have not even included the shockers that some feel helped spark this month's revolt in Tunisia):

§ The Saudis, our allies, are among the leading funders of international terrorism.

§ The scale of corruption in Afghanistan tops even the worst estimates. President Hamid Karzai regularly releases major drug dealers who have political connections. His half-brother is a major drug operator.

§ The Pentagon basically lied to the public in downplaying sectarian violence in Iraq. Our military handed over many detainees they knew would be tortured to the Iraqis. US authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of torture and abuse by Iraqi police and military.

§ After the release of the Iraq logs, new tallies put the number of documented civilian casualties there at more than 100,000. The Afghanistan logs similarly showed many more civilians killed there than previously known, along with once-secret US assassination missions against insurgents.

§ The British government assured Washington that our interests would be protected in its "independent" public inquiry into the Iraq War.

§ The Pakistani government has allowed its intelligence unit to hold strategy sessions with the Taliban. Despite longstanding denials, the United States has indeed been conducting special ops inside Pakistan and taking part in joint operations with the Pakistanis.

§ The Yemenis have lied to their own people, taking credit for air attacks on militants in that country—but it was the United States that did the job. The Yemeni president gave us an "open door" to combat terrorism. Washington has secretly shipped arms to the Saudis for use in Yemen.

§ The Saudis, contrary to their public statements, want us to get even tougher vs. Iran. So do some other countries in the region—or so they say in private.

§ Our State Department asked our diplomats at the United Nations to spy on others, including the secretary general, even aiming to retrieve credit card numbers.

§ At last we got to read in full the historic 1990 memo from US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf War.

§ The Obama administration worked with Republicans to protect Bush officials who faced a criminal investigation in Spain for alleged torture.

§ Pope Benedict XVI impeded an investigation into alleged child sex abuse within the Catholic Church in Ireland.

§ Bribery and corruption mark the Boeing versus Airbus battle for plane sales. "United States diplomats were acting like marketing agents, offering deals to heads of state and airline executives whose decisions could be influenced by price, performance and, as with all finicky customers with plenty to spend, perks," the New York Times reported early this month.

§ Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.

§ US diplomats have been searching for countries that will take Guantánamo detainees, often bargaining with them; the receiving country might get a one-on-one meeting with Obama or some other perk.

§ Among several startling revelations about control of nuclear supplies: highly enriched uranium has been waiting in Pakistan for more than three years for removal by an American team.

§ The U.S. embassy in Paris advised Washington to start a military-style trade war against any European Union country which opposed genetically modified (GM) crops.

§ The British have trained a Bangladeshi paramilitary force that human rights organizations consider a "government death squad."

The revelations go on and on; for an even longer list, and divided region-by-region, see Joshua Norman's report [1] at CBS News. As the many key issues surrounding WikiLeaks are debated in the weeks ahead, we must recognize what we would have missed without the 2010 "document dumps."

And there's another crucial aspect. "The reaction that the WikiLeaks episode most deserves has been the least evident," observes former British diplomat Carne Ross, who now runs the advisory group Independent Diplomat. "The picture of the world revealed in the cables demands a sober and informed reflection on the realities of policy-making.... The reactions to WikiLeaks share one abiding characteristic, so obvious that it can easily be overlooked, namely, an unwillingness to address with any sophistication or seriousness the complex and ever-changing world that the United States—and all of us—must now deal with. The prevailing and lazy assumption is implied but all too clear: that the foreign policy elite, and government, should be left to get on with the job, with whatever secrecy that they demand."

"You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."
-- Richard Holbrooke on the operating table. His last words.

Breaking News Alert, The New York Times
Wed, January 19, 2011 -- 11:07 AM ET

Karzai Delays Afghan Parliament, Deepening Turmoil Over Election

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan ordered a delay of at least a month in the inauguration of the country's new parliament, after a special court he personally appointed asked for more time to study electoral fraud and hear complaints from losing candidates.

The move leaves Afghanistan without a parliament for at least five months after its election, with the prospect of even further delays. It deepens the country's political turmoil and puts Mr. Karzai at odds with his international supporters and with two independent electoral commissions, which have insisted that the election results they certified were valid.
In the meanwhile, Mr. Karzai effectively rules by decree.

The News from Afghanistan is getting worse and worse.

December 28, 2010

Insurgents Set Aside Rivalries on Afghan Border
By THOM SHANKER, New York Times

WASHINGTON — Rival militant organizations on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have increasingly been teaming up in deadly raids, in what military and intelligence officials say is the insurgents’ latest attempt to regain the initiative after months of withering attacks from American and allied forces.

New intelligence assessments from the region assert that insurgent factions now are setting aside their historic rivalries to behave like “a syndicate,” joining forces in ways not seen before. After one recent attack on a remote base in eastern Afghanistan, a check of the dead insurgents found evidence that the fighters were from three different factions, military officials said.

In the past, these insurgent groups have been seen as sharing ideology and inspiration, but less often plans for specific missions.

Now the intelligence assessments offer evidence of a worrisome new trend in which extremist commanders and their insurgent organizations are coordinating attacks and even combining their foot soldiers into patchwork patrols sent to carry out specific raids.

The change reveals the resilience and flexibility of the militant groups. But at the same time, officials say, the unusual and expanding alliances suggest that the factions are feeling new military pressure. American and NATO officials say these decisions by insurgent leaders are the result of operations by American, Afghan and allied forces on one side of the border, and by the Pakistani military — and American drone strikes — on the other.

American commanders recently have been seeking even more latitude to operate freely along the porous border, including inside Pakistan, and have consistently warned that whatever gains they have made in the past few months are fragile. One official said it was “a wake-up call” to find evidence, after the attack on the forward operating base, that the fighters were partisans from three factions with long histories of feuding: the Quetta Shura Taliban of Mullah Muhammad Omar; the network commanded by the Haqqani family; and fighters loyal to the Hekmatyar clan.

These extremist groups have begun granting one another safe passage through their areas of control in Afghanistan and Pakistan, sharing new recruits and coordinating their propaganda responses to American and allied actions on the ground, officials said.

American military officials sought to cast these recent developments as a reaction to changes in the American and allied strategies in the past year, including aggressive military offensives against the insurgents coupled with attempts to provide visible and reliable protection to the local Afghan population.

“They have been forced to cooperate due to the effect our collective efforts have had on them,” said Lt. Col. Patrick R. Seiber, a spokesman for American and coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan.

Colonel Seiber said insurgent commanders recognized that as the number of American forces increased this year in Afghanistan, “they would need to surge as well.” Veteran militant leaders, many with a long history of open warfare against one another, have “put aside differences when they see a common threat,” Colonel Seiber said.

Over the past 90 days, signs of this new and advanced syndication among insurgent groups have been especially evident in two provinces of eastern Afghanistan, Kunar and Paktika. Pentagon and military officials said they had no specific count of these combined attacks, but said the syndicated nature of cooperative action went beyond just the raids.

Increased cooperation among insurgent factions also is being reported inside Pakistan, where many of the extremist organizations are based or where their leaders have found a haven.

American and NATO officials said they had seen evidence of loose cooperation among other insurgent groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and Tehrik-i-Taliban.

Lashkar is a Punjabi group and is considered one of the most serious long-term threats inside Pakistan. The Punjabi groups, many of which were created by Pakistani intelligence to fight against India’s interests in Kashmir, now appear to be teaming up with Pashtun groups like the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban to fight their creators, the Pakistani intelligence and security services.

Pentagon and military officials who routinely engage with their Pakistani counterparts said officials in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, agreed with the new American and NATO assessments.

“This is actually a syndicate of related and associated militant groups and networks,” said one American officer, summarizing the emerging view of Pakistani officials. “Trying to parse them, as if they have firewalls in between them, is really kind of silly. They cooperate with each other. They franchise work with each other.”

The role of senior leaders of Al Qaeda, who are believed to be hiding in the tribal areas of Pakistan, remains important as well, officials said.

“They are part of this very complex collusion that occurs between all of these extremist groups,” one American official said. “Each group provides certain value to the syndicate. Al Qaeda senior leadership provides ideological inspiration and a brand name — which is not all that tangible, frankly, but it’s still pretty important.”

Officials said the loose federation was not managed by a traditional military command-and-control system, but was more akin to a social network of relationships that rose and faded as the groups decided on ways to attack Afghan, Pakistani, American and NATO interests.

While these expanding relationships among insurgent groups are foremost a response to increased American and allied attacks, another motivation is eliminating the need for each group to guard its physical territory and money-generating interests from the other extremist organizations.

“They do not want to have to defend that against each other,” one NATO officer said.

The officer cited information gathered on the ground confirming that insurgent groups now allowed rivals free passage through their areas of control in exchange for that right across the other group’s turf. There also is intelligence pointing to threads of financing that run from senior Qaeda leaders and then pass among several of the insurgent organizations.

Commanders also warn of another response to the increase of American troop levels in Afghanistan: larger numbers of insurgent foot soldiers are expected to be ordered to remain in Afghanistan this winter to fight on, rather than retreat to havens in Pakistan to await the spring thaw and a return to combat.

“What our intelligence is telling us, we’re probably going to see about a 15 to 20 percent increase in the amount of attacks compared to the same time frame of 2009,” said Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of American and allied forces in eastern Afghanistan. “We think many are going to stay and try to fight.”

December 16, 2010, From the Wall Street Journal:

U.S. War Review Finds Fragile Progress in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON—A much-anticipated White House review of the Afghan war finds that "components" of the administration's strategy are working but that gains are fragile because of concerns about insurgent safe havens in Pakistan and the challenge of developing independent Afghan security forces.

The report says the Taliban's momentum has been arrested in much of Afghanistan, but those gains could be reversed.

"Consolidating those gains will require that we make more progress with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for violent extremist networks," according to a summary of the report released by the White House. "Durability also requires continued work with Afghanistan to transfer cleared areas to their security forces."

The White House review of progress in the Afghan war puts off key decisions about the pace of pulling troops out of the country and whether changes in strategy there will be needed.

But the White House made clear it believes progress in Afghanistan has been substantial enough to begin a troop drawdown, as planned, in July. Questions remain about the number of troops that will be withdrawn, and from what parts of the country. While many in the military would like to keep a robust number of troops in Afghanistan, some in the White House want a faster pullout.

President Barack Obama mandated the strategy review when he announced a surge of 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan in December 2009, in what was a defining moment of the president's foreign policy.

In recent weeks, some officials have tried to play down the significance of the review, saying it wasn't meant to be an opportunity to rewrite strategy.

The report stops short of proposing policy changes. Officials said the full effect of the troop surge has only recently started to be felt and that it would be premature to judge how the campaign will progress.

Much of the review is focused on al Qaeda's central leadership in Pakistan. While the military campaign in Afghanistan is focused almost entirely on defeating the Taliban-led insurgency, the White House has insisted their overall strategy is focused on al Qaeda.

The report says that the al Qaeda's safe haven in Pakistan is "smaller and less secure" than it was a year ago. The report does not say how that might have been achieved, but the Central Intelligence Agency has stepped up dramatically the number of drone attacks it conducts in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Compared to a September report to Congress, the White House appeared to tone down its criticism of Pakistan, arguing that the U.S. is "laying the foundation for a strategic partnership" even as it argues the only way to make durable gains against al Qaeda is to eliminate the safe havens in the country's tribal regions.

The previous report accused Pakistan of intentionally avoiding confronting al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban in the North Waziristan tribal zone bordering Afghanistan, a finding that drew a hostile response from Islamabad.

Administration officials remain divided on how hard to push Pakistan to take more direct action in North Waziristan, a haven for the Haqqani militant network, which operates in eastern Afghanistan, and in Baluchistan, where the Taliban makes its headquarters.

Devastating floods in Pakistan have pulled the focus of the country's military away toward humanitarian relief, and U.S. officials said they didn't expect the Pakistani military to expand its operations soon.

But a senior defense official said: "For long-term stability, you need to get at the safe havens, and the sooner the better."

The White House does not plan to release the full review, much of which remains classified. But even in the summary document, the administration's nervousness about Afghanistan's ability to provide governance and security is clear.

"We've had progress. The question is: Is it fast enough? Is it sustainable? Will we really be able to transition?" said a senior administration official involved in the deliberations. "You can clear an area of the Taliban, but then what?"

The report emphasizes the military's expanded special operations campaigns, both to attack insurgent leaders and train local village security forces, arguing both initiatives have reduced Taliban influence.

The summary of the report cites "significant development challenges" with Afghan security forces, but provides few specifics.

Officials said the full report contains concerns about the ability of the Afghan army and police to conduct independent operations.

The drafting process drew out lingering divisions within the administration that emerged during Mr. Obama's lengthy 2009 Afghanistan review.

In a meeting on Saturday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, supporters of the troop surge, argued that the current strategy has shown progress, according to an official familiar with the deliberations. But Vice President Joe Biden, who has long pushed for a counterterrorism-focused strategy requiring fewer forces, sounded more skeptical notes.

National Security Adviser Tom Donilon raised questions in meetings about the scope of the mission, asking if the U.S. was trying to do too much.

In the end, the debate was resolved in favor of highlighting military gains, particularly in the south, the official familiar with the deliberations said.

The White House played down any differences among Mr. Obama's advisers. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said Mr. Obama asked for some changes to be made to the draft after reviewing different sections but he didn't specify what those changes were.

The White House said issues raised in the report would be addressed in meetings of the National Security Council and top military leaders. Those meetings will determine the pace of the drawdown and could result in strategy changes.

The news from Afghanistan just gets worse and worse:

December 14, 2010, from the New York Times.

Killings of Afghan Relief Workers Stir Strategy Debate

KABUL, Afghanistan — At least 100 relief workers in Afghanistan have been killed so far this year, far more than in any previous year, prompting a debate within humanitarian organizations about whether American military strategy is putting them and the Afghans they serve at unnecessary risk.

Most of the victims worked for aid contractors employed by NATO countries, with fewer victims among traditional nonprofit aid groups.

Men from displaced families waited for aid from the World Food Program and Unicef in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, in February.

The difference in the body counts of the two groups is at the heart of a question troubling the aid community: Has American counterinsurgency strategy militarized the delivery of aid?

That doctrine calls for making civilian development aid a major adjunct to the military push. To do that there are Provincial Reconstruction Teams in 33 of 34 provinces, staffed by civilians from coalition countries to deliver aid projects. The effort is enormous, dominated by the Americans; the United States Agency for International Development alone is spending $4 billion this year, most of it through the teams.

The so-called P.R.T.’s work from heavily guarded military compounds and are generally escorted by troops from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

Traditional aid workers worry that the P.R.T.’s and the development companies working for them are compromising their neutrality. Oxfam and 28 other charitable groups signed a report last month, “Nowhere to Turn,” that denounces the practice, saying it puts civilians at greater risk.

“In many instances, where P.R.T. projects have been implemented in insecure areas in an effort to win ‘hearts and minds,’ they put individuals and communities at risk,” the Oxfam report said.

Michiel Hofman, the head of Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan, said, “This assistance forces the beneficiaries to choose sides, and many people in the disputed areas do not want to choose sides.”

The military and its NATO civilian partners disagree. Earl Gast, the mission director for U.S.A.I.D. in Afghanistan, said the United Nations and the International Security Assistance Force had agreed on a clear distinction and clear rules regarding humanitarian aid — “that it can’t be militarized and it can’t be politicized.”

“Those are rules that we follow,” Mr. Gast said.

Part of the problem is the definition of humanitarian aid. Traditionally it means life-saving emergency assistance, but the distinction is often unclear. Providing medical care for disaster victims, for instance, is clearly humanitarian, but building a medical clinic for war victims could be considered either humanitarian or developmental aid, properly within the scope of the civil-military effort.

Further complicating matters, many traditional relief groups have expanded their efforts into development work, although they take pains to ensure that their projects are not connected to the government or the military.

But the military and its supporters say traditional aid groups have neither the capacity nor the willingness to bring large-scale aid programs to conflict areas. This has resulted in a reliance on private development companies, most of them profit-making, to deliver the aid programs paid for by NATO countries.

“Someone has to go into the areas where the war is being fought,” Mr. Gast said. “We recognize that some N.G.O.’s don’t have the capacity and some of them don’t want to, but there are other willing partners who can go,” he said, using the abbreviation for nongovernmental organizations.

A Dec. 1 report by Refugees International was highly critical. “U.S.A.I.D.’s use of development contractors and frequent embeds with the military have dangerously blurred humanitarian principles by associating such programs with a party to the conflict,” the group wrote.

Among the contracted aid groups working for coalition government programs, which nearly always employ armed guards and work in fortified compounds or from military bases, the body count has been particularly severe. Eighty aid contractors employed by the United States Agency for International Development were killed and 220 wounded from January through early November of this year. (In the same period, 410 American soldiers and Marines died.)

The aid contractors were attacked on average 55 times a month — a sevenfold increase over 2009, Mr. Gast said. By contrast, 20 people employed by charitable and humanitarian groups, which refuse to use armed guards or work with the military, were killed during the first nine months of this year.

Sixty-four charitable aid workers were kidnapped by insurgents this year. All were released unharmed, usually after negotiations involving local community leaders who vouched for them, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office.

One U.S.A.I.D. contractor who was kidnapped, Linda Norgrove, was killed during a botched rescue attempt by American Special Forces troops.

The military and its supporters say the difference in body counts only reflects the fact that the aid contractors work in dangerous areas where many nongovernmental organizations are unwilling to operate.

Nongovernmental organizations vigorously disagree. “We are in 26 provinces,” said Ashley Jackson of Oxfam, “and in Arghandab there are four N.G.O.’s working on health care and education.” Arghandab is one of the most dangerous areas in Kandahar, with a district-level team from the Provincial Reconstruction Team running more than 50 aid projects. “The P.R.T.’s’ presence makes it more dangerous to work there,” Ms. Jackson said.

NATO officials contend that insurgents do not distinguish between aid workers. “Insurgents have made clear both in their rhetoric and their actions that they target N.G.O.’s and aid workers,” said Mark Jacobson, the deputy senior civilian representative of NATO in Afghanistan.

But aid officials counter that the very difference in casualties between private contractors and charitable ones shows that the Taliban do make a distinction.

“It’s quite easy,” said Mr. Hofman of Doctors Without Borders. “We don’t use armed guards, we don’t have barbed wire on our gates, there’s a clear logo on our cars, and we are not associated with any program strengthening government. The government is just one of many warring parties.”

Doctors Without Borders has offices in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, where it runs a hospital. Those offices have never been attacked, while a private development company, International Relief and Development, just down the same street, has a fortified compound that has been attacked by insurgents. In Kunduz, his group has not been attacked, but the company DAI has been.

Many of the traditional aid groups are particularly critical of the United Nations, which they accuse of failing in its responsibility to make sure aid efforts are not militarized. The United Nations recognizes the Afghan government and is politically committed to it, but many of its agencies, including Unicef and the World Food Program, are expected to deliver humanitarian aid.

The conflict inherent in those two roles is typified by Robert Watson, who is both the deputy special representative of the secretary general, a political role, and the head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Kabul.

Mr. Watson agrees that the lines are often blurred. “It makes it difficult for us in the humanitarian community to demonstrate to those on the other side of the conflict that we strive to be neutral intermediaries,” he said.

December 11, 2010, from the New York Times

Jailed Afghan Drug Lord Was C.I.A. U.S. Informer

WASHINGTON — When Hajji Juma Khan was arrested and transported to New York to face charges under a new American narco-terrorism law in 2008, federal prosecutors described him as perhaps the biggest and most dangerous drug lord in Afghanistan, a shadowy figure who had helped keep the Taliban in business with a steady stream of money and weapons.

But what the government did not say was that Mr. Juma Khan was also a longtime American informer, who provided information about the Taliban, Afghan corruption and other drug traffickers. Central Intelligence Agency officers and Drug Enforcement Administration agents relied on him as a valued source for years, even as he was building one of Afghanistan’s biggest drug operations after the United States-led invasion of the country, according to current and former American officials. Along the way, he was also paid a large amount of cash by the United States.

At the height of his power, Mr. Juma Khan was secretly flown to Washington for a series of clandestine meetings with C.I.A. and D.E.A. officials in 2006. Even then, the United States was receiving reports that he was on his way to becoming Afghanistan’s most important narcotics trafficker by taking over the drug operations of his rivals and paying off Taliban leaders and corrupt politicians in President Hamid Karzai’s government.

In a series of videotaped meetings in Washington hotels, Mr. Juma Khan offered tantalizing leads to the C.I.A. and D.E.A., in return for what he hoped would be protected status as an American asset, according to American officials. And then, before he left the United States, he took a side trip to New York to see the sights and do some shopping, according to two people briefed on the case.

The relationship between the United States government and Mr. Juma Khan is another illustration of how the war on drugs and the war on terrorism have sometimes collided, particularly in Afghanistan, where drug dealing, the insurgency and the government often overlap.

To be sure, American intelligence has worked closely with figures other than Mr. Juma Khan suspected of drug trade ties, including Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half brother, and Hajji Bashir Noorzai, who was arrested in 2005. Mr. Karzai has denied being involved in the drug trade.

Afghan drug lords have often been useful sources of information about the Taliban. But relying on them has also put the United States in the position of looking the other way as these informers ply their trade in a country that by many accounts has become a narco-state.

The case of Mr. Juma Khan also shows how counternarcotics policy has repeatedly shifted during the nine-year American occupation of Afghanistan, getting caught between the conflicting priorities of counterterrorism and nation building, so much so that Mr. Juma Khan was never sure which way to jump, according to officials who spoke on the condition that they not be identified.

When asked about Mr. Juma Khan’s relationship with the C.I.A., a spokesman for the spy agency said that the “C.I.A. does not, as a rule, comment on matters pending before U.S. courts.” A D.E.A. spokesman also declined to comment on his agency’s relationship with Mr. Juma Khan.

His New York lawyer, Steven Zissou, denied that Mr. Juma Khan had ever supported the Taliban or worked for the C.I.A.

“There have been many things said about Hajji Juma Khan,” Mr. Zissou said, “and most of what has been said, including that he worked for the C.I.A., is false. What is true is that H. J. K. has never been an enemy of the United States and has never supported the Taliban or any other group that threatens Americans.”

A spokeswoman for the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which is handling Mr. Juma Khan’s prosecution, declined to comment.

However, defending the relationship, one American official said, “You’re not going to get intelligence in a war zone from Ward Cleaver or Florence Nightingale.”

At first, Mr. Juma Khan, an illiterate trafficker in his mid-50s from Afghanistan’s remote Nimroz Province, in the border region where southwestern Afghanistan meets both Iran and Pakistan, was a big winner from the American-led invasion. He had been a provincial drug smuggler in southwestern Afghanistan in the 1990s, when the Taliban governed the country. But it was not until after the Taliban’s ouster that he rose to national prominence, taking advantage of a record surge in opium production in Afghanistan after the invasion.

Briefly detained by American forces after the 2001 fall of the Taliban, he was quickly released, even though American officials knew at the time that he was involved in narcotics trafficking, according to several current and former American officials. During the first few years of its occupation of Afghanistan, the United States was focused entirely on capturing or killing leaders of Al Qaeda, and it ignored drug trafficking, because American military commanders believed that policing drugs got in the way of their core counterterrorism mission.

Opium and heroin production soared, and the narcotics trade came to account for nearly half of the Afghan economy.

By 2004, Mr. Juma Khan had gained control over routes from southern Afghanistan to Pakistan’s Makran Coast, where heroin is loaded onto freighters for the trip to the Middle East, as well as overland routes through western Afghanistan to Iran and Turkey. To keep his routes open and the drugs flowing, he lavished bribes on all the warring factions, from the Taliban to the Pakistani intelligence service to the Karzai government, according to current and former American officials.

The scale of his drug organization grew to stunning levels, according to the federal indictment against him. It was in both the wholesale and the retail drug businesses, providing raw materials for other drug organizations while also processing finished drugs on its own.

Bush administration officials first began to talk about him publicly in 2004, when Robert B. Charles, then the assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, told Time magazine that Mr. Juma Khan was a drug lord “obviously very tightly tied to the Taliban.”

Such high-level concern did not lead to any action against Mr. Juma Khan. But Mr. Noorzai, one of his rivals, was lured to New York and arrested in 2005, which allowed Mr. Juma Khan to expand his empire.

In a 2006 confidential report to the drug agency reviewed by The New York Times, an Afghan informer stated that Mr. Juma Khan was working with Ahmed Wali Karzai, the political boss of southern Afghanistan, to take control of the drug trafficking operations left behind by Mr. Noorzai. Some current and former American counternarcotics officials say they believe that Mr. Karzai provided security and protection for Mr. Juma Khan’s operations.

Mr. Karzai denied any involvement with the drug trade and said that he had never met Mr. Juma Khan. “I have never even seen his face,” he said through a spokesman. He denied having any business or security arrangement with him. “Ask them for proof instead of lies,” he added.

Mr. Juma Khan’s reported efforts to take over from Mr. Noorzai came just as he went to Washington to meet with the C.I.A. and the drug agency, former American officials say. By then, Mr. Juma Khan had been working as an informer for both agencies for several years, officials said. He had met repeatedly with C.I.A. officers in Afghanistan beginning in 2001 or 2002, and had also developed a relationship with the drug agency’s country attaché in Kabul, former American officials say.

He had been paid large amounts of cash by the United States, according to people with knowledge of the case. Along with other tribal leaders in his region, he was given a share of as much as $2 million in payments to help oppose the Taliban. The payments are said to have been made by either the C.I.A. or the United States military.

The 2006 Washington meetings were an opportunity for both sides to determine, in face-to-face talks, whether they could take their relationship to a new level of even longer-term cooperation.

“I think this was an opportunity to drill down and see what he would be able to provide,” one former American official said. “I think it was kind of like saying, ‘O.K., what have you got?’ ”

While the C.I.A. wanted information about the Taliban, the drug agency had its own agenda for the Washington meetings — information about other Afghan traffickers Mr. Juma Khan worked with, as well as contacts on the supply lines through Turkey and Europe.

One reason the Americans could justify bringing Mr. Juma Khan to Washington was that they claimed to have no solid evidence that he was smuggling drugs into the United States, and there were no criminal charges pending against him in this country.

It is not clear how much intelligence Mr. Juma Khan provided on other drug traffickers or on the Taliban leadership. But the relationship between the C.I.A. and the D.E.A. and Mr. Juma Khan continued for some time after the Washington sessions, officials say.

In fact, when the drug agency contacted him again in October 2008 to invite him to another meeting, he went willingly, believing that the Americans wanted to continue the discussions they had with him in Washington. He even paid his own way to Jakarta, Indonesia, to meet with the agency, current and former officials said.

But this time, instead of enjoying fancy hotels and friendly talks, Mr. Juma Khan was arrested and flown to New York, and this time he was not allowed to go shopping.

It is unclear why the government decided to go after Mr. Juma Khan. Some officials suggest that he never came through with breakthrough intelligence. Others say that he became so big that he was hard to ignore, and that the United States shifted its priorities to make pursuing drug dealers a higher priority.

The Justice Department has used a 2006 narco-terrorism law against Mr. Juma Khan, one that makes it easier for American prosecutors to go after foreign drug traffickers who are not smuggling directly into the United States if the government can show they have ties to terrorist organizations.

The federal indictment shows that the drug agency eventually got a cooperating informer who could provide evidence that Mr. Juma Khan was making payoffs to the Taliban to keep his drug operation going, something intelligence operatives had known for years.

The federal indictment against Mr. Juma Khan said the payments were “in exchange for protection for the organization’s drug trafficking operations.” The alleged payoffs were what linked him to the Taliban and permitted the government to make its case.

But even some current and former American counternarcotics officials are skeptical of the government’s claims that Mr. Juma Khan was a strong supporter of the Taliban.

“He was not ideological,” one former official said. “He made payments to them. He made payments to government officials. It was part of the business.”

Now, plea negotiations are quietly under way. A plea bargain might keep many of the details of his relationship to the United States out of the public record.

December 2, 2010, from today's New York Times

Cables Describe Scale of Afghan Corruption as Overwhelming
This article is by Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins.

WASHINGTON — From hundreds of diplomatic cables, Afghanistan emerges as a looking-glass land where bribery, extortion and embezzlement are the norm and the honest man is a distinct outlier.

Describing the likely lineup of Afghanistan’s new cabinet last January, the American Embassy noted that the agriculture minister, Asif Rahimi, “appears to be the only minister that was confirmed about whom no allegations of bribery exist.”

One Afghan official helpfully explained to diplomats the “four stages” at which his colleagues skimmed money from American development projects: “When contractors bid on a project, at application for building permits, during construction, and at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.” In a seeming victory against corruption, Abdul Ahad Sahibi, the mayor of Kabul, received a four-year prison sentence last year for “massive embezzlement.” But a cable from the embassy told a very different story: Mr. Sahibi was a victim of “kangaroo court justice,” it said, in what appeared to be retribution for his attempt to halt a corrupt land-distribution scheme.

It is hardly news that predatory corruption, fueled by a booming illicit narcotics industry, is rampant at every level of Afghan society. Transparency International, an advocacy organization that tracks government corruption around the globe, ranks Afghanistan as the world’s third most corrupt country, behind Somalia and Myanmar.

But the collection of confidential diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to a number of publications, offers a fresh sense of its pervasive nature, its overwhelming scale, and the dispiriting challenge it poses to American officials who have made shoring up support for the Afghan government a cornerstone of America’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

The cables make it clear that American officials see the problem as beginning at the top. An August 2009 report from Kabul complains that President Hamid Karzai and his attorney general “allowed dangerous individuals to go free or re-enter the battlefield without ever facing an Afghan court.” The embassy was particularly concerned that Mr. Karzai pardoned five border police officers caught with 124 kilograms (about 273 pounds) of heroin and intervened in a drug case involving the son of a wealthy supporter.

The American dilemma is perhaps best summed up in an October 2009 cable sent by Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, written after he met with Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half brother, the most powerful man in Kandahar and someone many American officials believe prospers from the drug trade.

“The meeting with AWK highlights one of our major challenges in Afghanistan: how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt,” Ambassador Eikenberry wrote.

American officials seem to search in vain for an honest partner. A November 2009 cable described the acting governor of Khost Province, Tahir Khan Sabari, as “a refreshing change,” an effective and trustworthy leader. But Mr. Sabari told his American admirers that he did not have “the $200,000-300,000 for a bribe” necessary to secure the job permanently.

Ahmed Zia Massoud held the post of first vice president from 2004 to 2009; the brother of the famous Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, he was discussed as a future presidential prospect. Last year, a cable reported, Mr. Massoud was caught by customs officials carrying $52 million in unexplained cash into the United Arab Emirates.

A diplomatic cable is not a criminal indictment, of course, and in an interview, Mr. Massoud denied taking any money out of Afghanistan. “It’s not true,” he said. “Fifty-two million dollars is a pile of money as big as this room.” Yet while his official salary was a few hundred dollars a month, Mr. Massoud lives in a waterfront house on Palm Jumeirah, a luxury Dubai community that is also home to other Afghan officials. When a reporter visited the dwelling earlier this year, a dark blue Rolls-Royce was parked out front.

The cables describe a country where everything is for sale. The Transportation Ministry collects $200 million a year in trucking fees, but only $30 million is turned over to the government, according to a 2009 account to diplomats by Wahidullah Shahrani, then the commerce minister. As a result, “individuals pay up to $250,000 for the post heading the office in Herat, for example, and end up owning beautiful mansions as well as making lucrative political donations,” said Mr. Shahrani, who also identified 14 of Afghanistan’s governors as “bad performers and/or corrupt.”

Then again, another cable reports “rumors” that Mr. Shahrani himself “was involved in a corrupt oil import deal.” He denied the rumors, saying that they were inventions by two rivals who were “among the most corrupt in Afghanistan,” the cable said.

Pity the diplomat who must sort out whose version of reality to believe. One cable reported the American ambassador’s attempt to size up Mr. Shahrani, who later became the minister of mines. “Ambassador Eikenberry noted Shahrani’s extravagant home, suggesting that the Afghans knew best who is corrupt,” the cable said.

The cables lay out allegations of bribes and profit-skimming in the organization of travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, or pilgrimage; in a scheme to transfer money via cellphones; in the purchase of wheat seed; in the compilation of an official list of war criminals; and in the voting in Parliament.

Dr. Sayed Fatimie, the minister of health, told American diplomats in January that members of Parliament wanted cash to confirm his appointment. “Expressing shock at the blatancy of these extortion attempts, Fatimie said MPs had offered their own votes and the votes of others they could purportedly deliver for $1,000 apiece,” a cable said.

The case of the Kabul mayor, Mr. Sahibi, shows how complicated it can be to sort out corruption charges. A Jan. 7 cable signed by Ambassador Eikenberry gave an account sharply at odds with media reports, which treated the prosecution as a landmark in the campaign for honest government.

The cable, referring to embassy interviews with Mr. Sahibi, said the charges against him were based on a decision to lease a piece of city property to shopkeepers. Three months after the lease was signed, another bidder offered $16,000 more. The “loss” of the potential additional revenue became the “massive embezzlement” described by prosecutors, the cable said.

Mr. Sahibi told the Americans he had been summoned to appear in court on Dec. 7 to be assigned a hearing date. Instead, he said, he was given a four-year sentence and a $16,000 fine.

As for the motive behind his prosecution, Mr. Sahibi said that in less than two years as mayor “he had found files for approximately 32,000 applicants who paid for nonexistent plots of land in Kabul city.” He said he halted the land program and “invalidated the illegal claims of some important people,” who took their revenge through the bogus criminal case.

The embassy cable largely supported Mr. Sahibi’s version of events, saying that the mayor’s “official decision may have antagonized powerful people who then sought the power of the state to discredit him.” Far from being a blow against corruption, the cable suggested, the case was a travesty of justice.

The widespread corruption is made possible in part by a largely unregulated banking infrastructure and the ancient hawala money transfer network that is the method of choice for politicians, insurgents and drug traffickers to move cash around the Muslim world.

Last year, a cable signed by Ambassador Eikenberry said that the hawala favored by the Afghan elite, New Ansari, “is facilitating bribes and other wide-scale illicit cash transfers for corrupt Afghan officials” and providing financial services to narco-traffickers through front companies in Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates. He asked Washington to send more investigators and wiretap analysts to assist nascent Afghan task forces that were examining New Ansari.

The anticorruption task forces already faced significant obstacles. For instance, Afghanistan’s interior minister asked that the American government “take a low profile on the New Ansari case” to avoid the perception that investigations were being carried out “at the behest of the United States.”

Months later, when the New Ansari investigators carried out a predawn raid on the house of a top aide to President Karzai whom investigators heard soliciting a bribe on a wiretap, Mr. Karzai intervened to release the man from jail and threatened to take control of the anticorruption investigations. In November, the Afghan government dropped all charges against the aide.

The resulting standoff between Kabul and Washington forced the Obama administration to take stock of its strategy: was trying to root out corruption, at the risk of further alienating Mr. Karzai, really worth it? And with American troops set to begin leaving Afghanistan next summer, and the American public having long ago lost the appetite for nation-building, was trying to root out corruption a Sisyphean task?

In September, President Obama acknowledged the dilemma. “Are there going to be occasions where we look and see that some of our folks on the ground have made compromises with people who are known to have engaged in corruption?” he asked. “There may be occasions where that happens.”

A February cable described exactly such a compromise, reporting on a police chief at a border crossing in southern Afghanistan, Col. Abdul Razziq, who was reputed to be corrupt — and good at his job.

Western officials, it said, “walk a thin tightrope when working with this allegedly corrupt official who is also a major security stabilizing force.”

Andrew W. Lehren contributed reporting.

October 31, 2010

Insider Outsider
by Deborah Solomon, New York Times Magazine

As a presidential historian and emeritus professor at Northwestern, you're well aware that the Democrats are facing the likelihood of an electoral setback this Tuesday. Yet President Obama continues to be the object of scathing criticism among Democrats, including yourself. Why won't you give him credit for getting things done?
He gets things done in a very crippled way. The health care plan and the finance plan - he made so many bargains along the way.

You've accused him of excessive ingratiation, or "omnidirectional placation," as you wrote in a blog post for The New York Review of Books.
As a black man with an odd name, he often had to ingratiate himself in the companies that he kept, and he does. Beyond that, I think he may have a principle of trying to compromise, but that has proved to be a big mistake.

You were invited to the White House for an off-the-record dinner during Obama's first year in office, along with some other presidential historians. Can you tell us what advice you gave him?
I said, "Don't go into Afghanistan."

We were already there, so I assume you're referring to the deployment of additional troops. How did he respond?
He was very prickly. He said: "I'm not a naïve optimist. I know of the difficulties. They're all being considered and taken care of." He really cut off this conversation.

That's surprising, especially since you describe him as a placater.
He's kept a pretty tight little circle around him. By the way, that meeting with us was supposed to be the first of many. There have been none after.

October 25, 2010

Afghan Leader Admits His Office Gets Cash from Iran

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai acknowledged on Monday that he regularly receives bags of cash from the Iranian government in payments amounting to millions of dollars, as evidence mounted of a worsening rift between his government and its American and NATO supporters.

During an often hostile news conference, Mr. Karzai also accused the United States of financing the “killing” of Afghans by paying private security contractors to guard construction projects and convoys in Afghanistan. He has declined to postpone a December deadline he set for ending the use of private security forces despite urgent pleas from Western organizations, including development organizations, that need protection here.

His statements were the latest indication that American relations with Mr. Karzai were badly frayed, despite diplomatic efforts to mend ties and improve governance in Afghanistan. The tensions threaten to undermine President Obama’s goal of handing responsibility for the war against the Taliban to Mr. Karzai and the Afghan military, allowing the United States to begin withdrawing troops next year.

“They do give us bags of money — yes, yes, it is done,” Mr. Karzai said, responding to questions about a report in The New York Times on Sunday that Iran sends regular cash payments to his chief of staff, Umar Daudzai. “We are grateful to the Iranians for this.”

“Patriotism has a price,” he said.

Afghan and Western officials said the Iranian payments were intended to drive a wedge between Mr. Karzai and the United States and NATO.

On Sunday, Mr. Karzai held a volatile meeting with the NATO commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, as well as other senior Afghan and Western officials to discuss the private security firms. Mr. Karzai stormed out of the session, saying that he did not need the West’s help, according to people knowledgeable about the confrontation.

President Karzai has so far refused to modify the ban, although he has said that he would consider requests to delay it on a case-by-case basis. In many respects, his sharp words reflect a widespread feeling among Afghans, especially in insecure areas, that foreign security firms are running roughshod over them and intruding in culturally unacceptable ways on their daily lives.

At the news conference, Mr. Karzai lashed out at the United States, implying that American officials had leaked information to The New York Times about Iranian payments because of disagreements over the private security companies.

The private security companies, many of which are paid for by the United States, are spreading chaos and unjustly killing Afghan civilians, Mr. Karzai said.

“The money dealing with the private security companies starts in the hallways of the U.S. government,” he said. “Then they send the money for killing here.”

Under a decree he issued in August, all private security firms must stop operations by Dec. 17. The United States and other Western governments here say they accept the ban, and they are trying to switch to the use of the Afghan police and soldiers to protect their military convoys. But many Western officials say the Afghan police and military are undertrained, overstretched and ill equipped to provide proper protection for foreign interests.

They have asked for additional time to make the change, especially for civilian development organizations. Those organizations say they will not be able to continue work without security for employees, potentially endangering several billion dollars worth of programs and projects.

The Afghan president said security companies were responsible for a litany of bloody crimes against the country’s people. “When this money comes to Afghanistan, it causes insecurity in Afghan homes and causes the killing of Afghan children and causes explosions and terrorism in Afghanistan,” Mr. Karzai said.

He leveled several accusations against Western interests in Afghanistan and the news media, even going so far as to say that the security companies were interchangeable with the Taliban.

“In fact we don’t know how many of the explosions are the fault of the Taliban and how much by them,” said Mr. Karzai, referring to the security companies.

Mr. Karzai’s distrust of the Western alliance has increased over the past several months even as more soldiers have flowed into the country and more civilian development workers have begun to carry out projects, leaving diplomats and military officials increasingly frustrated and confused.

Western officials said they were disheartened but not surprised by the virulence of his tone, and they said they would continue to try to find a solution that allowed development projects to continue.

“It’s disappointing, but it’s vintage Karzai,” said a Western official in Kabul, adding that the accusations were hurtful when Western soldiers and Marines were dying in the field. “But when you are losing the numbers we are as an alliance and then when you got your reliable partner in Kabul saying such things, it sticks in the craw a bit.”

The Iranian payments are another significant source of tension. Mr. Karzai discounted their importance, claiming that the cash transfers were well known, and that he had even disclosed them to former President George W. Bush during a meeting at Camp David. He says that he uses the money to pay expenses incurred in the course of doing his job, including for “special expenses and helping people.”

Mr. Karzai says others give him cash payments as well. “The United States is doing the same thing. They are providing cash to some of our offices,” he said.

He says Mr. Daudzai is the courier for the Iranian cash, which amounts to about $1 million “once or twice a year.” The Times previously quoted Afghan and Western officials as saying that Mr. Daudzai has received regular payments from Iran that totaled about $6 million.

Asked what he does in return for the Iranian money, Mr. Karzai said: “They have asked for good relations in return and for lots of other things in return.”

Mr. Karzai’s admission followed firm denials by members of his staff that such payments existed. Iran’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Feda Hussein Maliki, also denied that he or his government passed any money to Mr. Karzai’s office.

The Iranian payments are not large, at least compared with the hundreds of billions of dollars the United States has spent to oust the Taliban from power, support Mr. Karzai’s government and fight a tenacious insurgency intent on toppling Mr. Karzai.

But Western officials say they are disturbed by Mr. Karzai’s close relationship with Iran’s leaders, in part because of mounting evidence that the country’s intelligence services are aggressively trying to undermine the American-led mission here. NATO officials say that Iran is paying for, arming and training Taliban fighters, as well as financing political candidates in the parliamentary elections.

In his news conference, Mr. Karzai also attacked The Times for publishing the report about Iranian payments, even as he confirmed receiving such payments. He urged the Afghan news media to “defame The New York Times as they defame us.”

October 23, 2010

Excerpted from;

Despair Helped Turn Iraqis, but not without rarer element of trust
by Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times. (For the full article, click here.)

In Iraq, Americans expected to be hailed as liberators, but they were resented as occupiers, and Iraqis eventually turned to the Americans largely out of exhaustion and despair. In Afghanistan, Americans were welcomed at first, but as the war dragged on, Afghans lost faith in the Americans’ ability to protect them — and it is unclear whether that faith can be restored. The lesson of Iraq is that without it, no strategy, however well conceived, can be successful.

Excerpted from;

Use of Contractors Added to War’s Chaos in Iraq
Published: October 23, 2010 (For the full article, click here.)

Even now — with many contractors discredited for unjustified shootings and a lack of accountability amply described in the documents — the military cannot do without them. There are more contractors over all than actual members of the military serving in the worsening war in Afghanistan.

The archive, which describes many episodes never made public in such detail, shows the multitude of shortcomings with this new system: how a failure to coordinate among contractors, coalition forces and Iraqi troops, as well as a failure to enforce rules of engagement that bind the military, endangered civilians as well as the contractors themselves. The military was often outright hostile to contractors, for being amateurish, overpaid and, often, trigger-happy.

Contractors often shot with little discrimination — and few if any consequences — at unarmed Iraqi civilians, Iraqi security forces, American troops and even other contractors, stirring public outrage and undermining much of what the coalition forces were sent to accomplish.

For all the contractors’ bravado — Iraq was packed with beefy men with beards and flak jackets — and for all the debates about their necessity, it is clear from the documents that the contractors appeared notably ineffective at keeping themselves and the people they were paid to protect from being killed.

October 17, 2010

Tea in Kabul
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF of the New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan

A few vignettes to explain why I believe America’s strategy in Afghanistan isn’t working:

Scene 1: A home in Kabul where I’m having tea with a remarkable woman, Soora Stoda, who runs a logistics company serving the American military.

Ms. Stoda despises the Taliban and shudders as she remembers her terror as a seventh grader when the Taliban stormed her secret school for girls. She said Taliban thugs beat the girls and murdered the teacher, who was Ms. Stoda’s aunt.

Yet Ms. Stoda, like all contractors, has to pay off the Taliban directly or indirectly to work in insecure areas. She estimates that for every $1,000 her company is paid for work in such places, some $600 often ends up in the hands of the Taliban. “Sometimes, it’s even more,” she added.

Last year, she had a $200,000 contract to transport laptop computers to the American military in Kandahar. The Taliban seized the shipment, and she says she had to pay $150,000 to get it released.

It’s the same with all contractors, and the upshot is that the American taxpayer has become a significant source of financing for the Taliban, along with drugs and donations from Gulf Arabs. With the money they milk from the United States, the Taliban hire more fighters.

“In one way, it hurts the Taliban,” Ms. Stoda said of the American presence. “In another way, it helps the Taliban.”

One security expert here did the math for me. A single American soldier in Helmand Province, he estimated, causes enough money to leak to the Taliban to recruit another 10 fighters trying to kill that American.

Scene 2: A dusty shantytown in Kabul, where I’m with a group of hundreds of disgruntled men from war-torn Helmand Province.

The men say that they will probably end up joining the Taliban. My driver is nervous, and my interpreter says that he thinks that the men are already Taliban.

What intrigues me is that the men don’t seem particularly ideological. They admire the Taliban’s piety and ability to impose law and order, but they regard many Taliban commanders as overzealous and brutal. They said they were sickened when one commander recently beheaded seven of their fellow villagers.

These men say that their preference would be to get regular jobs and live in peace. But there are no jobs, and now they are being told that they will be kicked out of their camp. They say the threatened expulsion is the result of a corrupt land deal by tycoons tied to the government of President Hamid Karzai.

“If the government forces us out, then we’ll have to go and join the Taliban and fight,” says Muhammad Ibrahim, a mullah.

Another man, Abdul Muhammad, says he thought about joining the Taliban four years ago when his wife, three sons and two daughters were killed in an American air attack (he acknowledges that Taliban were shooting at Americans from the area). Instead, he came to Kabul because: “I go to whomever is strongest.” He added: “If they force me to leave here, I will join the Taliban.”

Several men say that they were recruited by the Taliban with a pitch that was partly ideological — “we must fight the infidels who have invaded our land!” — but also partly capitalist, promising hundreds of dollars a month and fringe benefits of free food, tea and sugar.

But our counterinsurgency doesn’t include enough counterrecruitment. Coalition forces go to any expense to kill the Taliban and need to be equally assiduous about providing jobs and outreach to prevent Afghans from joining the enemy.

Scene 3: A group of distinguished Afghans sit on a carpet with me in an office, telling stories.

They break my heart by wondering aloud whether the Russians or the Americans were worse for the Afghan people.

“America does development projects,” acknowledged Hajji Gulamullah, a brigadier general in the police force in Kabul. “But not as many as the Russians did.”

Amin Shah Mungal, a retired brigadier general in the army from Khost, added: “If you go to the villages and ask people who was better, the Russians or the Americans, they’ll say the Russians.”

Grrr! The Soviet invasion helped destroy Afghanistan, while American troops these days try hard to be respectful and avoid civilian casualties — and most Afghans acknowledge the difference when they’re in a reasonable mood. But after nine years, many Afghans are sick of us. Some actually suggest that America is in league with Osama bin Laden to keep Afghanistan weak and divided.

My latest visit to Afghanistan leaves me with 100 such vignettes suggesting to me that our strategy in Afghanistan is unsustainable. We’re inadvertently financing our adversaries. We’re backing a corrupt government that drives people to the Taliban. And we’re more eager to rescue the Afghans than the Afghans are to be rescued.

October 6, 2010

The United States is paying for this nonsense.
From October's 5 New York Times:

Karzai’s Kin Use Ties to Gain Power in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — Until recently, Taj Ayubi’s specialty was retail. Mr. Ayubi, an Afghan immigrant, ran a furniture store in Leesburg, Va., and before that, a thrift shop in Washington.

But today, Mr. Ayubi’s specialty is foreign policy. He is the senior foreign affairs adviser to the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.

Among Mr. Ayubi’s qualifications for his post in Kabul are ties to President Karzai’s extended family. His sister is married to a Karzai, and her sons are now important junior members of the growing Karzai family network in Afghanistan.

In recent years, dozens of Karzai family members and close allies have taken government jobs, pursued business interests or worked as contractors to the United States government, allowing them to shape policy or financially benefit from it.

While the roles played by two of President Karzai’s brothers — Ahmed Wali Karzai, the power broker of Kandahar, and Mahmoud Karzai, a prominent businessman and investor in the troubled Kabul Bank — have been well documented, the extensive web of other family members has not previously been reported. Most of them lived in the United States before going to Afghanistan, leveraging the president’s position to put them at the center of a new oligarchy of powerful Afghan families.

One of President Karzai’s nephews is a top official in the intelligence service, giving him authority over some of Afghanistan’s most sensitive security operations. A brother of the president is an official in the agency that issues licenses required for all Afghan corporations; an uncle is now ambassador to Russia.

At least six Karzai relatives, including one who just ran for Parliament, operate or are linked to contracting businesses that collect millions of dollars annually from the American government.

Other brothers, cousins, nephews and in-laws wield influence in Kabul and the family’s native Kandahar, through government posts or businesses like trucking and real estate development.

The family’s expanding presence serves both to strengthen and to undermine President Karzai, according to American and Afghan officials. Corruption allegations taint his government, and Afghans routinely accuse him of turning a blind eye to the activities of some of his relatives. They include Ahmed Wali Karzai, who denies repeated accusations of ties to the drug trade, and Mahmoud Karzai, whose business dealings are under investigation by American prosecutors.

A Survival Mechanism

But even if the extended clan fosters resentment in Afghanistan, the family also helps fortify a fragile presidency.

Ronald E. Neumann, the United States ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, said he believed that President Karzai intended to create a support network that could help him survive after the withdrawal of American troops, the same way that another Afghan president, Najibullah, survived for years after Soviet troops withdrew in 1989.

“Karzai is convinced that we are going to abandon him,” Mr. Neumann said. “What’s his answer? To create a web of loyalties and militia commanders and corrupt families all knitted together.”

“This network,” he added, “is part of his survival mechanism.”

Mahmoud Karzai defended his family, saying the Karzais worked hard — and honestly — to help Afghanistan. “You need people like us,” he said in an interview. “It’s very difficult to get qualified people to come here, and work here. We can’t build this country unless there are people willing to take the risk.”

American officials say the Karzais and a handful of other well-connected families have benefited from the billions of dollars that the United States has poured into the country since 2001. That money has helped pay the salaries of some Karzais who are government employees, kick-started real estate development and construction projects involving family members and created demand for businesses tied to the Karzais.

“Family politics is part of the culture of this part of the world,” said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author who has written extensively about Afghanistan. “Right now, Afghanistan is going through a phase of very primitive capital accumulation by the country’s leading families.”

Still, many relatives are hedging their bets against the decline and fall of the Karzai government, keeping their own families and homes outside of Afghanistan, either in the United States, in Dubai or elsewhere, several relatives said in interviews.

And some are increasingly critical of their kin, complaining that their rush back to Afghanistan to stake a claim has been unseemly. As more Karzais have gained prominence in Afghanistan over the last few years, some relatives have privately begun to point fingers at one another for trading too heavily on their connections to President Karzai, and accuse others of excessive political ambition and insider dealing.

“The Karzais are over there in Afghanistan cashing in on their last name,” said Mohammad Karzai, a cousin of President Karzai who lives in Maryland. “My relatives have told me they can’t understand why I don’t come over with them and get rich.”

Rising Fortunes

It is hard to quantify how the Karzais may have prospered from their proximity to power. But some appear to have significantly improved their circumstances.

Before 2001, Yama Karzai, a nephew of the president, was living with his brothers in Quetta, Pakistan, and receiving financial support from relatives in the United States, Mohammad Karzai said. Today, Yama Karzai is a top Afghan intelligence official and owns a house in Virginia, according to land records. He did not respond to inquiries from The New York Times.

Hashim Karzai, a cousin of President Karzai, now works as a consultant to Pamir Airways, an airline based in Kabul that has been controlled by one of Mahmoud Karzai’s business partners, and lives in Dubai on one of the luxurious Palm Islands. In August, he rented the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, one block from the White House, for his son’s wedding to a niece of President Karzai, according to Qayum Karzai, the bride’s father and the president’s brother.

And Mahmoud Karzai, widely considered to be the most well-connected business leader in Afghanistan, said a residential real estate project he has been developing in Kandahar was now worth $900 million, including the value of homes sold. The original five partners, including Mr. Karzai, started with an investment of $4 million, he said. The Kandahar project set off a bitter dispute with the Afghan Army, which claims ownership of the land used for the project.

One Afghan Parliament member said family members exploited their connections to get in on favorable business ventures. “They have carte blanche to be partners with anyone they want to; it’s the unwritten law,” said the official, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “Anyone who wants to start a business and has problems becomes partners with them.”

Before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, many members of the extended Karzai family were quietly building new lives as American immigrants, and the family’s center of gravity had shifted from war-ravaged Kandahar to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, where many of them settled in the 1970s and ’80s.

Of the seven sons of Abdul Ahad Karzai, a prominent Kandahar politician who lived in exile in Quetta, Pakistan, until his 1999 assassination by the Taliban, only one — Hamid Karzai — had never lived in the United States. By 2001, a generation of Karzais who had grown up in the United States and knew little of Afghanistan was emerging.

But after the American-led invasion of Afghanistan ousted the Taliban in 2001 and lifted Hamid Karzai from obscurity to the presidency, the family’s migration pattern reversed. Only one of his brothers, Abdul Wali Karzai, a biochemistry professor at Stony Brook University in New York, declined to go back home. Many others seized the opportunity.

The Obama administration’s attitude toward the Karzais has been deeply ambivalent. The White House has sent mixed signals about whether to investigate or tolerate reports of corruption of those around the president. While federal prosecutors in New York are investigating Mahmoud Karzai’s business dealings, no inquiry has been opened into Ahmed Wali Karzai even though many United States officials have said they suspect that he benefits from drug trafficking.

Abdul Wali Karzai, the Stony Brook professor, said that his family had been unfairly attacked, but that the second-guessing of everything the Karzais did in Afghanistan explained his refusal to join his brothers. “The way the Afghan society is structured,” he said, “anything I do would be subjected to all kinds of rumors and false stories.”

Power Behind the Scenes

Some family members have had lower profiles than the three better-known brothers. Qayum Karzai, for example, served as a member of Parliament from Kandahar and then as President Karzai’s intermediary with the Taliban, while continuing to own three restaurants in Baltimore. Today, he talks of opening a university in Afghanistan. An Afghan business leader said Qayum Karzai had been a behind-the-scenes force in Kabul’s politics.

“Qayum is the interlocutor for the president with other political players in Afghanistan, and with foreign powers,” said the businessman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared the consequences of talking publicly about the president’s family. “He is a sounding board.”

Shahwali Karzai, another brother, lives in Ahmed Wali Karzai’s compound in Kandahar, where he runs his own engineering consulting firm and Mahmoud’s real estate project. Abdul Ahmad Karzai, who worked at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport before his brother became president, now works for the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, which issues corporate licenses.

Ahsan Karzi and Zabeh Karzi, younger cousins of the president who grew up in Los Angeles, now own a trucking company in Kandahar that has contracts with the United States military, according to Mahmoud Karzai.

Two other cousins, Rateb Popal and his brother Rashid Popal, own a security company that has contracts with the American military. Ajmal Popal, the son of Abdullah Popal, a former mayor of Kandahar and a Karzai relative, works for a company that has contracts with the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

With so many Karzais flooding back into the country, tensions and rivalries have emerged among them, according to several family members. Rateb Popal, for example, has been feuding with Mahmoud Karzai, and in interviews, Mr. Popal, who served a prison sentence in New York on drug-related charges in the 1990s, accused Mahmoud Karzai and the president of undermining his business deals.

“I haven’t had a good relationship with Hamid from the beginning,” Rateb Popal said.

And Hekmat Karzai, a cousin who now runs a research organization in Kabul, recently irritated President Karzai. After the president denied reports earlier this year that he had secretly met with an insurgent leader, Hekmat Karzai gave a television interview in which he indirectly confirmed the supposed meeting, according to Qayum Karzai.

Qayum Karzai said the criticism of the family was unfair, adding that it had taken an emotional toll. “We have been on the political scene in Afghanistan for more than 100 years, and never has our name been mentioned with narcotics or wheeling or dealing,” he said. “We have always been identified with the moderate traditions of Afghanistan. So this is very heartbreaking to every family member.”

September 28, 2010

A Week in the War: Afghanistan, Sept. 22-28, 2010
September 28, 2010 | 2022 GMT

Afghan President Hamid Karzai called upon the Taliban to come to the negotiating table Sept. 28 in an impassioned speech in which he said he would name the members of the High Peace Council agreed upon at the June National Council for Peace, Reconciliation and Reintegration. The list of the 68 members — including clerics, former government officials and tribal elders, with seven women among them — was then released. Former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf and Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq — all warlords who resisted Taliban rule — were on the list. Hizb-i-Islami is reportedly represented, but it is not clear to what extent former Taliban supporters made the cut.

The day before, the commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, announced that the Taliban had sought to enter discussions with Karzai. In remarks reported by The New York Times, Petraeus claimed that “very high-level” Taliban leaders reached out to the “highest levels” of the Afghan government.

The American strategy has long necessitated some manner of negotiated settlement. By the time U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration was deciding upon a strategy, the Taliban movement — never defeated in 2001 — had resurged to the point that it could not be defeated with the resources the United States was willing to dedicate to the conflict on a timetable compatible with U.S. domestic political realities. What has evolved is the understanding of just how broad and entrenched the Taliban have become. Initial U.S. hopes of dividing the movement and hiving off “reconcilable” elements have been overtaken by Kabul’s and Islamabad’s attempts to negotiate in a more comprehensive way with senior Taliban leaders like Mullah Mohammad Omar.

There is no doubt that all manner of discussions are not only likely but have already occurred behind closed doors. Indeed, smaller contingents of the Taliban have already come forth to negotiate, and in some circumstances have been integrated into the Afghan government and security forces. But the Taliban have proven capable of maintaining considerable internal discipline, even as they remain an amorphous and decentralized phenomenon. Salafi Taliban in eastern Afghanistan have already released denials in response to Petraeus’ statements, but the area is particularly noteworthy because it is dominated by the Haqqani network, a group that is part of the Taliban but also fairly distinct (it also has connections to al Qaeda). Reports have surfaced before of a personal meeting between Sirajuddin Haqqani and Karzai, and efforts to negotiate with the Haqqanis certainly need to be monitored closely.

But it must be remembered that overall, it is the United States and the Karzai government that seek negotiation on a specific timeline. It is their strength that is currently at its peak, and so far the Taliban do not appear to be feeling pressured to negotiate meaningfully on Washington’s and Kabul’s timetables. Indeed, the Taliban have declared that Afghans look forward to an impending Taliban victory. As a guerrilla force — indeed, as a guerrilla force that perceives itself to be winning — the Taliban are the ones that have the luxury of time. Thus, Pakistan’s involvement and influence at the negotiating table — the “Pakistanization” of the conflict — will probably be necessary to move the process along.

But with Karzai’s Sept. 28 speech and the actual assembly of the High Peace Council, considerable ground has been covered regarding negotiation efforts in recent days. It is not at all clear that meaningful progress is possible anytime soon, but as political accommodation will both underlie and facilitate an American drawdown, any progress in this realm will be significant.

Current Operations

Meanwhile, the pursuit of counterinsurgency-focused efforts continues, with clearing efforts in the districts of Zhari and Panjwai west of the capital city of Kandahar province. Like operations in Helmand province, this will only mark the beginning of what is intended to be a sustained security presence. The city of Kandahar and its environs have long been a key focal point for the additional forces sent into Afghanistan. These areas around the city of Kandahar, along with operations elsewhere in the province and in neighboring Helmand province, are the main element of the American-led military effort in Afghanistan.

Across the border with Pakistan, U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle strikes have intensified, averaging nearly one per day for the month of September so far. Whether this is a result of the lowering of thresholds for conducting a strike or a reflection of a new influx of actionable intelligence — or both — is not clear. The United States certainly has the capacity to increase strikes, but if it is doing so with a new stream of actionable intelligence, that would be more significant. More than 100 militants supposedly have been killed.

Concurrently, efforts to increase the number of Western trainers for Afghan forces continue. Six German Tornado reconnaissance fighters have been withdrawn and their pilots and ground crews are being replaced with trainers. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who is in charge of the training efforts, called Sept. 28 for allies to contribute hundreds more trainers. Attrition and desertion are still issues with the Afghan security forces, increasing significantly the annual requirement for training which is central to the “Vietnamization” of the conflict.

Strategy Review

However, the main effort is only just ramping up to full strength and full intensity, and winter is looming (the United States is on a tight timetable and can be expected to sustain operations to the extent possible through the winter months). Petraeus and others are already trying to moderate expectations for the strategy review due at the end of the year, instead emphasizing that it is too soon to see decisive results. So far, the “proof of concept” efforts in places like Marjah and elsewhere in Helmand province have been more difficult than anticipated, and progress has been slow.

But the point of the review has long been to assess whether the current counterinsurgency-focused strategy is working. There is little grounds for optimism on this point when the U.S. timetable is taken into account. Tensions within the administration chronicled in Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s War” are not only alive and well, but appear to be re-intensifying as advances in the war prove elusive. As a key benchmark in the progress of the war effort, the review (which is already being prepared) will give the administration the first opportunity for a strategic shift if it chooses to make a change.

September 27, 2010

The Cover of The Week magazine, September 24, 1010

September 15, 2010

War in Afghanistan
A book review from the print edition of the Economist

Embed: With the World’s Armies in Afghanistan by Nick Allen. The History Press; 288 pages; £18.99. Buy from

THE extent to which Donald Rumsfeld, America’s former secretary of defence, transformed war-reporting is not widely appreciated. By permitting over 700 journalists to witness America’s invasion of Iraq as “embedded” reporters, he provided a remarkable level of media access that continues, among American and allied forces, in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. With the explosion of e-mails and blogs from the front, a huge amount of battlefield information is now freely available.

An obvious risk in this is that embedded reporters, constrained by rules imposed by their protectors, and often admiring of them, will produce biased accounts. That is after all what Mr Rumsfeld wanted. Another is that by making war so freely available to green freelancers and self-styled analysts, with almost all expenses paid by their army hosts, embeds will generate lots of bad journalism. This account by Nick Allen, a British journalist, of his dozen visits with NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, illustrates both hazards.

Students of embedded reporting will find bits of it interesting. Few reporters have embedded themselves with so many of the NATO-led force’s minor troop contributors, among them the armies of New Zealand, Estonia, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Then again, few have wanted to, and Mr Allen’s write-up mainly confirms how extremely minor their contribution is to Afghanistan. Their smatterings of troops mostly provide modest policing to some of Afghanistan’s safest places, while deployed in relative comfort, and at enormous expense.

It is easy to mock. But the fact that Finnish troops always have a sauna and the Swedes are free to have sex with each other would seem less risible if they were more useful. Some of these Europeans are at least objective about NATO’s campaign, perhaps because they have so little stake in it. “We are winning lots of tactical battles,” says a pipe-smoking Norwegian major. “But in the long-term we are losing support because people expect more than we just kick out the Taliban for a short time.”

Mr Allen’s accounts of hard-fighting British and American troops are of a more familiar genre, which has been better done by more accomplished journalists. He describes some battle scenes quite well, but is a mediocre observer whose analysis is often trite. These weaknesses exaggerate the tendency of all embedded reporters to do down the enemy. Indeed Mr Allen, perhaps learning from a lot of poorly educated squaddies, seems to consider most Afghans to be grasping or witless. They are almost all faintly sketched. Introducing a brigandish Pushtun, he writes, “Cunning comes naturally in areas where there is only the hard school of life for most inhabitants.” You get the idea.

But Mr Allen is at least no stooge to NATO’s troops. He is often angered by their failings, and says so. Such criticism is generally more common than Mr Rumsfeld would have liked. Despite much sympathetic reporting on Western soldiers, especially by American newspaper journalists, embedded reporters have generally portrayed the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns as the disasters that they largely are. That is why the troops, especially British ones, often dislike having journalists billeted among them, and Mr Allen misses no opportunity to relate the slights he suffers as a result.

It is easy to deride him, too. Yet, in an odd way, his petty grudges, clunky prose and autistic notions of verisimilitude do at least mitigate the tendency of those who have seen combat to glorify it. Trudging around Afghanistan with Mr Allen, the war seems largely a waste of effort.

September 13, 2010

Indicators of Worsening Security in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is more dangerous than it has ever been during this war, with security deteriorating in recent months, according to international organizations and humanitarian groups.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Even as more American troops flow into the country, Afghanistan is more dangerous than it has ever been during this war, with security deteriorating in recent months, according to international organizations and humanitarian groups.

Large parts of the country that were once completely safe, like most of the northern provinces, now have a substantial Taliban presence — even in areas where there are few Pashtuns, who previously were the Taliban’s only supporters. As NATO forces poured in and shifted to the south to battle the Taliban in their stronghold, the Taliban responded with a surge of their own, greatly increasing their activities in the north and parts of the east.

These charts and words come from the New York Times. You can read the article here.

Our continuing presence is worsening things there. Why are we still there? (See below for explanations.)

I'm betting that soon Karzai and his bunch of crooks will flee and abandon the country to the Taliban and the coalition forces (i.e. the U.S. and its few partners).At that point, we'll probably leave, and leave the Taliban billions of dollars of arms, equipments, buildings and other booty.

What idiots we will have been. -- Harry Newton.

The 10 civilian aid workers killed Aug. 5 in Afghanistan, from top left: Glen D. Lapp, Tom Little, Dan Terry, Dr. Thomas L. Grams, Cheryl Beckett, Brian Carderelli, Dr. Karen Woo, Daniela Beyer, Mahram Ali and Ahmed Jawed.

September 4, 2010

Two or three more years of combat operations
from the Wall Street Journal

COMBAT OUTPOST SENJARAY, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he envisions two or three more years of combat operations in Afghanistan before the U.S. transitions to an advisory role, a mission likely to last years more.

Mr. Gates's comments Friday at a military camp outside Kandahar were his most decisive to date on the war's timeline. They came as he made a vigorous, public case that the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy would prove to be working by the time the Obama administration begins its next review of the war in December.

President Barack Obama announced a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops in December 2009, bringing the current American force to about 100,000 today. But Mr. Obama has pledged to begin drawing down the surge troops in July. The timeline outlined by Mr. Gates Friday appeared to be an attempt to set expectations that combat will continue in Afghanistan, without making it appear that he supports an endless war.

September 3, 2010

Karzai Kin Asks U.S. to Bolster His Bank

KABUL—A top shareholder in Afghanistan's largest bank called on the U.S. to shore up the lender after depositors withdrew about a third of its cash reserves in two days, while the country sought to avert a destabilizing crisis at a crucial moment in the fight against the Taliban.

Mahmood Karzai, brother of Afghanistan's president and the third-largest shareholder in Kabul Bank, urged the U.S. to calm the situation, saying the lender could keep up with the pace of withdrawals for only a few more days.

"America could support Kabul Bank to the last penny, of course that would help," he said in an interview at his Kabul home. "The full faith and credit of the U.S. government behind Kabul Bank—what more do you want?"

The U.S. said it has no plans to prop up Kabul Bank and has only sent in a small team of experts to help the Afghan central bank sort out the mess. "While we are providing technical assistance to the Afghan government, we are taking no steps to bail out Kabul Bank," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

On Thursday, crowds of depositors gathered at Kabul Bank's branches to try to withdraw their cash.

If the withdrawals continue apace, Mr. Karzai said, the bank would be effectively insolvent by early next week. The bank has $1.3 billion in deposits, and its total assets are almost equal to its liabilities. But the lender only had $500 million in cash on hand at the start of the crisis, he said. Its other assets—including Dubai real estate investments of uncertain value—aren't easily convertible into cash.

Mr. Karzai's numbers were confirmed by a senior central bank official.

Kabul Bank's woes became public late Tuesday when word emerged that Afghanistan's central bank had quietly forced out the bank's two top executives, and its biggest shareholders, amid allegations that they made hundreds of millions of dollars in often-clandestine loans to themselves and Afghan government insiders.

U.S. and Afghan officials say they hope that even the worst-case scenario—Kabul Bank's collapse—would have a limited economic impact. Afghanistan's economy is largely cash-based and the vast majority of financial transactions are conducted through informal money-transfer firms, none of which are thought to be in peril. Formal banks account for only a tiny sliver of Afghanistan's financial activity.

Yet among those banks, Kabul Bank fills a special role: Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, teachers and police are paid through the bank, and many of the government's own accounts are kept there. President Hamid Karzai said Thursday that paychecks continued to go out through the bank.

Kabul Bank's woes pose a threat to Afghanistan's nine other private banks, potentially foiling years of American-backed efforts to build from scratch the kind of banking system seen as essential to a healthy economy.

Kabul Bank has close ties to the administration of President Hamid Karzai, and the allegations of insider dealing at the bank thus pose a double challenge for the U.S. Restoring the credibility of the corruption-riddled Karzai administration is a pillar of the U.S. strategy here.

Many Afghans said they saw the activities at Kabul Bank as another sign of government-sanctioned, Western-backed avarice.

"It comes down to the weak government. They issue licenses to people to open banks to use as their own personal accounts," said one Kabul Bank customer, who gave his name as Mohammed. He had been waiting for hours in a packed Kabul Bank branch to collect the $3,000 in his account and had yet to reach a teller.

President Karzai, appearing Thursday at a news conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, repeated pledges by other officials to guarantee deposits at Kabul Bank.

The lender "is safe, people do not have to panic. The government of Afghanistan is fully behind that bank," he said. "Even if the whole financial situation in Afghanistan collapses, we have the money to support it, so people do not have to be worried."

The lender's $1.3 billion in deposits represent more than a quarter of the $4.8 billion that President Hamid Karzai said Thursday Afghanistan holds in hard currency reserves.

Some U.S. officials expressed doubt that the Afghan government could bear the strain of propping up Kabul Bank without outside help. The government took in less than $1 billion in revenue last year and relies on the U.S. and other donors for much of its budget.

If Kabul Bank were to run short of money, the cash for depositors "may well come from the coffers of U.S. taxpayers and other international donors," said one U.S. official.
U.S. and Afghan officials said the need for U.S. help would be even more pressing if Afghans begin to lose confidence in other banks—which doesn't yet appear to be happening.

Working in Kabul Bank's favor was the arrival of the Afghan weekend on Friday, when banks, like most shops and offices, are closed. Mahmood Karzai said he hoped cooler heads would prevail after the banks reopened Saturday.

At a separate news conference, Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal blamed the bank's troubles on alarmist reports in the foreign media. He told reporters it would "never collapse." The large volume of withdrawals were "not a crisis," he said.

Yet Mahmood Karzai's account of the bank's financial situation painted a darker picture.

He said depositors have withdrawn about $177 million from the lender—about a third of its available cash—in the two days since Afghan regulators forced out its two top executives and placed a central bank official in charge.

On Thursday, two Afghan soldiers waited to transfer their $200 salaries from the bank to their families in Baghlan province, in the north. Despite the chaotic crowd and no real lines, the soldiers took a number and were still waiting to be called by one of the branch's 15 tellers two hours later.

"There are so many people, they are all worried the bank will collapse," said another customer, Adisha Mahmoud, the owner of an Afghan construction company. Dressed in a light blue shirt and a pin-striped vest,Mr. Mahmoud had been waiting for an hour, trying to withdraw the $40,000 he has on deposit at the bank.

See the next story on what happened to all the money. ..

September 3, 2010

Troubles at Afghan Bank Jolt Financial System
By DEXTER FILKINS, the New York Times, published August 31, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government intervened to shore up a deeply troubled bank on Tuesday, sending shock waves through the capital and prompting fears that Afghanistan’s pervasive corruption had now put the country’s entire financial system at risk.

Sherkhan Farnood and Khalilullah Frozi, the top executives of Kabul Bank, abruptly left their jobs this week at the demand of officials at the Central Bank of Afghanistan, after the discovery that Kabul Bank’s losses might exceed $300 million. That number far exceeds the bank’s assets.

The Central Bank installed its own chief financial officer, Masood Khan Musa Ghazi, as the chief executive of the bank.

Afghan and American officials expressed alarm not only at Kabul Bank’s financial condition but also at the prospect of a collapse of confidence in Afghanistan’s fragile financial system, which was built from scratch after the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.

The immediate concern was that news of the bank’s financial irregularities, already spreading through the capital, would prompt a run on the bank itself and that the panic would spread to other financial institutions. Bank deposits in Afghanistan are not guaranteed by the central government, officials here said.

“This could be catastrophic for the country,” a senior Afghan banking official said. “The next few days are critical. I am worried.”

Kabul Bank and its chairman, Mr. Farnood, lie at the heart of the political and economic nexus that sustains — and is sustained by — the government of President Hamid Karzai. Mr. Frozi was an adviser to Mr. Karzai’s presidential re-election campaign last year, and Kabul Bank provided millions to Mr. Karzai’s campaign.

American investigators say that Mr. Farnood’s unorthodox financial dealings, which included lending tens of millions of dollars to himself and other politically connected Afghans, have long been shielded from scrutiny by his close ties to Mr. Karzai.

American officials said the intervention by the Central Bank was personally approved by President Karzai himself, after he was briefed about the details of Kabul Bank’s financial condition and its irregularities.

Investigators and bank regulators say Kabul Bank is also tied to the inquiry into New Ansari, the money-transfer firm, or hawala, that is suspected of moving billions of dollars out of the country for Afghan politicians, drug traffickers and insurgents. Kabul Bank used the firm, whose dealings are nearly impossible to track, to transfer at least $60 million out of the country, a bank shareholder said.

For a bank to use a hawala to move money is inherently suspect, investigators say, because a financial institution like Kabul Bank already has the means to transfer the money electronically. Electronic transfers are easier for regulators to follow.

Neither Mr. Farnood nor Mr. Frozi could be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Bank regulators emphasized that the Afghan government had not taken over Kabul Bank. The regulators said they were worried that the bank would not be able to cover a run of withdrawals from nervous creditors.

Afghan officials and businessmen said other financial institutions here might be affected by similar troubles; the shareholders of other banks also indulge in the practice of lending large sums of money to themselves.

In interviews, Afghan officials and businessmen described Kabul Bank as Mr. Farnood’s personal fief, which he used to reward himself, shareholders and political allies who could advance his financial interests.

First among the beneficiaries was Mr. Farnood himself, the officials said. He invested about $140 million of the bank’s money in the real estate market in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, said Mahmoud Karzai, the president’s brother and a Kabul Bank shareholder. Among those properties were more than a dozen multimillion-dollar villas in Mr. Farnood’s name, some of them on Palm Jumeria, an island off Dubai’s coast, Mr. Karzai said.

The Dubai real estate market collapsed in 2008, wiping out much of Mr. Farnood’s investment and leaving Kabul Bank with the losses. A senior Afghan banking official said that the bank’s estimated losses were believed to be about $300 million, with assets of about $120 million.

It is not clear what Mr. Farnood did with all the properties he purchased, but he made at least some of them available to his friends and allies. One of them was Mahmoud Karzai, who owns about 7 percent of the bank. Speaking in an interview from Dubai, Mr. Karzai said he had rented one of Mr. Farnood’s villas for the past year and a half.

Mr. Karzai said the bank’s troubles — and Mr. Farnood’s opaque dealings — had made him decide to vacate soon.

“I want to move to a different house,” Mr. Karzai said. “I want to cut this out.”

Kabul Bank also lent some $100 million to Haseen Fahim, a shareholder. Mr. Fahim is the brother of Muhammad Fahim, Afghanistan’s first vice president and a close political ally of President Karzai. Haseen Fahim is the owner of Gas Group, a large distributor of natural gas, and the developer of several large construction projects.

“I am not completely aware of what he has done,” Mr. Karzai said of Mr. Farnood.

Mr. Farnood was a banker before Afghanistan had a modern financial system, opening a hawala in the 1970s. A hawala allows a person in Afghanistan, say, to hand someone a bundle of cash and have it instantly credited to an account in another country — say, in the United Arab Emirates.

Hawalas typically operate outside any government regulation.

Mr. Farnood closed his hawala and started Kabul Bank in 2004. From the beginning, the Afghan banking official said, Mr. Farnood ran Kabul Bank outside the law, daring regulators to rein him in. Kabul Bank often exceeded the limit of what it was allowed to lend on any particular project, and it sometimes skirted collateral and deposit requirements.

“Sherkhan Farnood is a very clever individual,” the Afghan banking official said. “Keeping the bank in line with the law was a constant challenge for us.”

New Ansari is known to be intimately connected to another financial institution, Afghan United Bank, officials say.

Asked why Mr. Farnood would use a hawala to transfer money abroad, Mahmoud Karzai, a shareholder, said he did not know. “This a very legitimate question,” Mr. Karzai said. “You should ask Sherkhan.”

The New Ansari case has drawn close attention, and not only because American investigators say the money trails lead to Afghan political elites, insurgents and suspected criminals. One of the men arrested in connection with the inquiry is a senior aide to President Karzai. The aide, Mohammed Zia Salehi, was released in early August after investigators were pressured by President Karzai himself.

Afghan officials say they hope they can avoid a meltdown of Kabul Bank — and of the country’s financial system. Mr. Farnood has promised to transfer the title of all of his properties to the bank, Mr. Karzai said, which would provide the bank with at least some assets to cover the loses. But it is not clear, after the collapse of the Dubai property market, how much Mr. Farnood’s properties are worth.

Mr. Farnood and Mr. Frozi together owned more than half of the bank, meaning that the other shareholders had little leverage with them, officials said. It was only recently, as the bank’s losses mounted, that the two men began to disagree.

Mr. Karzai and other Afghan officials said the departure of Mr. Farnood and Mr. Frozi would allow the bank to finally be run properly. Without federal depositors’ insurance, the senior Afghan banking official said, that might be the only chance depositors had of getting their money back.

“The only government guarantee is the effective supervision of this bank,” he said.

September 1, 2010

Afghanistan: Why the Taliban are Winning

With additional troops committed and a new strategy in place, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is making its last big push to win the war in Afghanistan. But domestic politics in ISAF troop-contributing nations are limiting the sustainability of these deployments while the Taliban maintain the upper hand. It is not at all clear that incompatibilities between political climates in ISAF countries and military imperatives in Afghanistan can ever be overcome. And nothing the coalition has achieved thus far seems to have resonated with the Taliban as a threat so dangerous and pressing it cannot be waited out.

Almost 150,000 U.S. and allied troops are now in Afghanistan, some 30,000 more than the number of Soviet troops at the height of their occupation in the 1980s. The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is now at the pinnacle of its strength, which is expected to start declining, one way or another, by the latter half of 2011, a trend that will have little prospect of reversing itself. Though history will undoubtedly speak of missed or squandered opportunities in the early years of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, this is now the decisive moment in the campaign.

It is worth noting that nearly a year ago, then-commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the ISAF Gen. Stanley McChrystal submitted his initial assessment of the status of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan to the White House. In his analysis, McChrystal made two key assertions:

+ The strategy then being implemented would not succeed, even with more troops.

+ A new counterinsurgency-focused strategy just proposed would not succeed without more troops.

There was no ambiguity. The serving commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan told his commander in chief that without both a change in strategy and additional troops to implement the new strategy, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan would fail. Nowhere in the report, however, did McChrystal claim that with the new strategy and more troops the United States would win the war in Afghanistan.

Today, with the additional troops committed and a new strategy governing their employment, the ISAF is making its last big push to reshape Afghanistan. But domestic politics in ISAF troop-contributing nations are severely constraining the sustainability of these deployments at their current scale. Meanwhile, the Taliban continue to retain the upper hand, and the incompatibilities of the political climates in troop-contributing nations with the military imperatives of an effective counterinsurgency are becoming ever more apparent. This leads to the question: What is the United States ultimately trying to achieve in Afghanistan and can it succeed?

The surges of U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007 and into Afghanistan in 2010 represent very different military campaigns, and a look at the contrasts between the two campaigns can be instructive. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Washington had originally intended to install a stable, pro-American government in Baghdad in order to fundamentally reshape the region. Instead, after the U.S. invasion destroyed the existing Iraqi-Iranian balance of power, Washington found itself on the defensive, struggling to prevent the opposite outcome — a pro-Iranian regime. An Iran unchecked by Iraq (a key factor in Iran’s rise and assertiveness over the last seven years) and able to use Mesopotamia as a stepping-stone for expanding its influence across the Middle East would reshape the region every bit as much as a pro-American regime.

The American adversaries in Iraq were Sunni insurgents (including a steadily declining pool of Baathist nationalists), al Qaeda fighters and a smattering of other foreign jihadists and Iranian-backed Shiite militias. The Sunnis provided support and shelter for the jihadists while fighting a pair of losing battles they viewed as existential struggles — simultaneously taking on the U.S. military and the security forces of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, with a Shiite Iran meddling all the while in Iraqi Shiite politics.

But the foreign jihadists ultimately overplayed their hand with Iraq’s Sunnis, a decisive factor in their demise. Their attempts to impose a harsh and draconian form of Islamism and the slaying of traditional Sunni tribal leaders cut against the grain of Iraqi cultural and societal norms. In response, beginning well-before the surge of 2007, Sunni Awakening Councils and militias under the Sons of Iraq program were formed to defend against and drive out the foreign jihadists.

At the heart of this shift was Sunni self-interest. Not only were the foreign jihadists imposing a severe and unwelcome form of Islamism, but it was also becoming clear to the Sunnis that the battles they were waging held little promise of actually protecting them from Shiite subjugation. Indeed, with foreign jihadist attacks on the traditional tribal power structure, it was increasingly clear that the foreign jihadists themselves were, in their own way, attempting to subjugate Iraqi Sunnis for their own purposes. As the Sunnis began to warm to the United States, they found themselves with very few options. Faced with subjugation from many directions and having realized that the way they held the upper hand in Iraq before 2003 was simply not recoverable, the Sunnis came to see siding with the United States as the best alternative.

When the United States surged troops into Iraq in 2007, one of the main U.S. adversaries in Iraq (the Sunnis) turned against another (al Qaeda and the jihadists). While the surge was instrumental in breaking the cycle of violence in Baghdad and shifting perceptions both within Iraq and around the wider region, there were nowhere near enough troops to impose a military reality on the country by force. Instead, the strategy relied heavily on capitalizing on a shift already taking place: the realignment of the Sunnis, who not only fed the U.S. actionable intelligence on the foreign jihadists but also became actively engaged in the campaign against them.

While success appeared anything but certain in 2007, almost an entire segment of Iraqi society had effectively changed sides to ally with the United States. This alliance allowed the United States to hunt down jihadist leaders and systematically disrupt jihadist networks while arming the Sunnis to the point that only a unified Shiite segment with consolidated command of the security forces could destroy them — and even then, only with considerable effort and bloodshed.

But despite the marked shift in Iraq since the surge, the security gains remain fragile, the political situation tenuous and the prospects of an Iraq not dominated by Iran limited. In other words, for all the achievements of the surge, and despite the significant reduction in American forces in the country, the situation in Iraq — and the balance of power in the region — is still unresolved.

The Afghanistan Campaign

With this understanding of the 2007 surge in Iraq in mind, let us examine the current surge of troops into Afghanistan. In Iraq, the United States was forced to shift its objective from installing a pro-American regime in Baghdad to preventing the wholesale domination of the country by Iran (a work still in progress). In Afghanistan, the problem is the opposite. The initial American objective in Afghanistan was to disrupt and destroy al Qaeda, and while certain key individuals remain at large, the apex leadership of what was once al Qaeda has been eviscerated and no longer presents a strategic threat. This physical threat now comes more from al Qaeda “franchises” like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

In other words, while the original objective was never achieved in Iraq and the United States has been scrambling to re-establish a semblance of the old balance of power, the original American objective has effectively been achieved in Afghanistan (though the effort is ongoing). Most of what remains of the original al Qaeda prime that the United States set out to destroy in 2001 now resides in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Despite — or perhaps because of — the remarkably heterogeneous demography of Afghanistan, there is no sectarian card to play. Nor is there a regional rival, as there is in Iraq with Iran, that U.S. grand strategy dictates must be prevented from dominating the country. Indeed, an Afghanistan dominated by Pakistan is both largely inevitable and perfectly acceptable to Washington under the right conditions.

The long-term American geopolitical interest in Afghanistan has always been and remains limited: to prevent the country from ever again serving as a safe haven for transnational terrorists. While counterterrorism efforts on both sides of the border are ongoing, the primary strategic objective for the United States in Afghanistan is the establishment of a government that does not espouse transnational jihadism and provide sanctuary for its adherents and one that allows limited counterterrorism efforts to continue indefinitely.

Al Qaeda itself has little to do with this objective in Afghanistan anymore. The challenge now is crafting circumstances in the country that are sufficient to safeguard American interests. Given this objective, the enemy in Afghanistan is no longer al Qaeda. It is the Taliban, which controlled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and provided sanctuary for al Qaeda until the United States and the Northern Alliance ousted them from power. (It is important to note that the Taliban were not defeated in 2001. Faced with a superior force, they declined combat and refused to fight on American terms, only to resurge after American attention shifted to Iraq.) But it is not the Afghan Taliban per se that the United States is opposed to, it is their support for transnational Islamist jihadists -- something to which the movement does not necessarily have a deep-seated, non-negotiable commitment.

As a grassroots insurgency, the Taliban enjoy a broad following across the country, particularly among the Pashtun, the single-largest demographic segment in the country (roughly 40 percent of the population). The movement has proved capable of maintaining internal discipline (recent efforts to hive off “reconcilable” elements have shown little tangible progress) while remaining a diffuse and multifaceted entity with considerable local appeal across a variety of communities. For many in Afghanistan, the Taliban represent a local Afghan agenda and its brand of more severe Islamism — while hardly universal — appeals to a significant swath of Afghan society. The Taliban’s militias were once Afghanistan’s government-sponsored military force. And as a light-infantry force both appropriate for and intimately familiar with the rugged Afghan countryside, the Taliban enjoy superior knowledge of the terrain and people as well as superior intelligence (including intelligence from compromised elements of the Afghan security forces). The Taliban are particularly well-suited for waging a protracted insurgency and they perceive themselves as winning this one — which they are.

Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency

The Taliban are winning in Afghanistan because they are not losing. The United States is losing because it is not winning. This is the reality of waging a counterinsurgency. The ultimate objective of the insurgent is a negative one: to deny victory — to survive, to evade decisive combat and to prevent the counterinsurgent from achieving victory. Conversely, the counterinsurgent has the much more daunting and affirmative task of forcing decisive combat in order to end hostilities. It is, after all, far easier to disrupt governance and provoke instability than it is to govern and provide stability.

This makes the timetables dictated by political realities in ISAF troop-contributing nations extremely problematic. Counterinsurgency efforts are not won or lost on a timetable compatible with the current political climate at home. Admittedly, the attempt is not to win the counterinsurgency in the next year or the next three years (the U.S. timetable calls for troop withdrawals to begin in July 2011). Rather, the strategy is now one of “Vietnamization”, in which indigenous forces are assembled and trained to assume responsibility for waging the counterinsurgency with sufficient skill and malleability to serve American interests.

But the effort to which the bulk of ISAF troops are being dedicated and the effort in which the ISAF hopes to demonstrate progress for domestic consumption is the counterinsurgency mission, not the counterterrorism one. This effort, specifically, is taking place in key population centers and particularly in the Taliban’s core turf in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the country’s restive south. The efforts in Helmand and Kandahar were never going to be easy — they were chosen specifically because they are Taliban strongholds. But even with the extra influx of troops and the prioritization of operations there, progress has proved elusive and slower than expected. The fact is, the counterinsurgency effort is plagued with a series of critical shortcomings that have traditionally proved pivotal to success in such efforts.


The heart of the problem is twofold. First, the core strengths of the Taliban as a guerrilla force are undisputed, and the United States and its allies are unwilling to dedicate the resources and effort necessary to fully defeat it. To be clear, this would not be a matter of a few more years or a few more thousand troops, but a decade or more of forces and resources being sustained in Afghanistan at not only immense immediate cost but also immense opportunity cost to American interests elsewhere in the world. In reality (if not officially), the end objective now appears to be political accommodation with the Afghan Taliban and their integration into the regime in Kabul.

The idea originally was to take advantage of the diffuse and multifaceted nature of the Taliban and hive off so-called “reconcilable elements,” separating the run-of-the-mill Taliban from the hard-liners. The objective would be to integrate the former while making the situation more desperate for the latter. But from the beginning, both Kabul and Islamabad saw this sort of localized, grassroots solution as neither sufficient nor in keeping with their longer-term interests.

While some localized changing of sides has certainly taken place (in both directions, with some Afghan government figures going over to the Taliban), the Afghan Taliban movement has proved to have considerable internal discipline that is no doubt bolstered by the widespread belief that it is only a matter of time before the foreigners leave. This makes the long-term incentive to remain loyal to the Taliban — or, at the very least, not to so starkly break from them that only brutal reprisal awaits when the foreign forces leave — very difficult to resist. So the negotiation effort has shifted more into the hands of Kabul and Islamabad, both of which favor a comprehensive agreement with the Afghan Taliban’s senior leadership.

Compelling the Enemy to Negotiate

And this is where the second aspect of the problem comes into play. While special operations forces have been successful in capturing or killing some Taliban leaders, the Pakistanis have so far continued to provide only grudging and limited assistance, and there is no Afghan analogy to the Sunni Awakening in Iraq. In addition to building up indigenous government forces, the focus of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is on securing the country’s key population centers, thereby denying the Taliban key bases of support. The idea is that, as the Taliban continue to decline decisive combat and resort to harassing attacks, local loyalties will have shifted by the time ISAF forces leave and strengthened Afghan security forces will be able to manage a weakened Taliban movement.

However, this entails much more than just temporarily clearing Taliban fighters out of key population centers. The ISAF has made a concerted effort to secure and protect such areas (including Kandahar, the second-largest city in Afghanistan) from surreptitious intimidation as well as overt violence and to guarantee not just stability but also jobs and adequate governance. But the strategy requires that such transformations become entrenched and durable on an extremely short timetable in a national population that is anything but homogenous. Indeed, all three aspects of the ISAF’s concept of operations — shifting local loyalties, weakening the Taliban and putting capable Afghan security forces in place — are proving problematic.

The underlying point here is that the United States does not intend to defeat the Taliban; it seeks merely to draw them into serious negotiations. While deception and feints are an inherent part of waging war, the history of warfare shows that seeking to convince the enemy to negotiate without being dedicated to his physical and psychological destruction can be perilous territory. The failed attempt by the United States to drive North Vietnam to the negotiating table through the Linebacker air campaigns is an infamous case in point. Like those bombing campaigns, current U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan appear to lack the credibility to be compelling — much less forceful enough to bring the Taliban to the table.

The application of military power, as Clausewitz taught, must be both commensurate with the nation’s political objectives and targeted at the enemy’s will to resist. The Taliban’s will to resist is unlikely to be altered by an abstract threat to key bases of support, especially one that may or may not materialize years from now — and, in particular, when the Taliban genuinely doubt both the efficacy of the concept of operations and the national resolve. In any event, this is ultimately a political calculation. The application of military force to that calculation must be tailored in such a way as to bring the enemy to its knees — to force the enemy off balance, strike at his center of power and exploit critical vulnerabilities. To be effective, this must be done relentlessly, at a tempo to which the enemy cannot adapt. This is done to force the enemy not to negotiate but to seriously contemplate defeat — and thereby seek negotiation out of fear of that defeat. Although Pakistan has intensified its counterinsurgency efforts on its side of the border, an international border and the Taliban’s ability to take refuge on the far side of it further restricts, as it did in Vietnam, the American ability to target and pressure its adversary. So far, nothing that has been achieved appears to have resonated with the Taliban as a threat too dangerous and pressing to wait out.

Political accommodation can be the result of both fear and opportunity. Force of arms is meant to provide the former. And the heart of the problem for the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan is that the counterinsurgency strategy does not target the Taliban directly and relentlessly to create a sense of immediate, visceral and overwhelming threat. By failing to do so, the military means remain not only out of sync with the political objectives but also, given the resources and time the United States is willing to dedicate to Afghanistan, fundamentally incompatible. As an insurgent force, the Taliban is elusive, agile and able to seamlessly maneuver within the indigenous population even if only a portion of the population actively supports it. The Taliban is a formidable enemy. As such, they are making the political outcome appear unachievable by force of arms — or at least the force of arms that political realities and geopolitical constraints dictate.

August 28, 2010

Graft-Fighting Prosecutor Fired in Afghanistan
By DEXTER FILKINS and ALISSA J. RUBIN of the New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — One of the country’s most senior prosecutors said Saturday that President Hamid Karzai fired him last week after he repeatedly refused to block corruption investigations at the highest levels of Mr. Karzai’s government.

Fazel Ahmed Faqiryar, the former deputy attorney general, said investigations of more than two dozen senior Afghan officials — including cabinet ministers, ambassadors and provincial governors — were being held up or blocked outright by Mr. Karzai, Attorney General Mohammed Ishaq Aloko and others.

Mr. Faqiryar’s account of the troubles plaguing the anticorruption investigations, which Mr. Karzai’s office disputed, has been largely corroborated in interviews with five Western officials familiar with the cases. They say Mr. Karzai and others in his government have repeatedly thwarted prosecutions against senior Afghan government figures.

An American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Afghan prosecutors had prepared several cases against officials suspected of corruption, but that Mr. Karzai was “stalling and stalling and stalling.”

“We propose investigations, detentions and prosecutions of high government officials, but we cannot resist him,” Mr. Faqiryar said of Mr. Karzai. “He won’t sign anything. We have great, honest and professional prosecutors here, but we need support.”

This month, Mr. Karzai intervened to stop the prosecution of one of his closest aides, Mohammed Zia Salehi, who investigators say had been wiretapped demanding a bribe from another Afghan seeking his help in scuttling a corruption investigation.

Mr. Karzai’s chief of staff disputed Mr. Faqiryar’s characterization of the president’s involvement, saying that the president had instructed the prosecutors to move cases forward “appropriately.”

“I strongly deny that the president has been in any way obstructing the investigations of these cases,” said the chief of staff, Umer Daudzai. “On the contrary, he has done his bit in all these cases, and it is his job to make sure that the justice is not politicized. And, unfortunately we see in some of these cases that it is politicized.”

Mr. Aloko did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday. Mr. Salehi could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Faqiryar made his accusations amid a growing sense of alarm in the Obama administration and in Congress over Mr. Karzai’s failure to take action against officials suspected of corruption, but also as the administration debates whether pushing too hard on corruption will alienate a government whose cooperation it needs to wage war.

Awash in American and NATO money, Mr. Karzai’s government is widely regarded as one of the most corrupt in the world. American officials believe that the corruption drives Afghans into the arms of the Taliban.

In a two hour interview at his home, Mr. Faqiryar said he and the other prosecutors in his office were demoralized by the repeated refusal of Mr. Karzai and Mr. Aloko to allow them to move against corrupt Afghan leaders.

Mr. Faqiryar said his prosecutors had opened cases on at least 25 current or former Afghan officials, including 17 members of Mr. Karzai’s cabinet, 5 provincial governors and at least 3 ambassadors. None of the cases, he said, have gone forward, and some have been blocked on orders from Mr. Karzai. He did not elaborate on each case, and it was not clear whether Mr. Aloko or Mr. Karzai were involved in all of the cases.

Mr. Karzai said he had intervened in the case of Mr. Salehi, an official on the National Security Council, because the American-backed anticorruption agencies were violating the civil rights of those they detained. He blamed foreign contractors for the corruption, and threatened to take control of the agencies, summoning the head of the one that arrested Mr. Salehi to the presidential palace for questioning.

Under intense Western pressure, Mr. Karzai appeared to back off, saying he would allow the anticorruption units to do their jobs.

Mr. Faqiryar, a 72-year-old career prosecutor, said he was fired Wednesday by Mr. Karzai after sending a midlevel prosecutor to speak about public corruption on an Afghan television station. After Mr. Karzai watched the broadcast, he called for the papers to authorize the dismissal, Mr. Faqiryar said.

But Mr. Faqiryar said his abrupt departure was the culmination of a long-running tug-of-war between him and his prosecutors on one side, and Mr. Karzai and Mr. Aloko on the other.

The dispute began last year, Mr. Faqiryar said, when he went before the Afghan Parliament and read aloud the names of at least 25 Afghan officials who were under investigation for corruption. The list included some of the most senior officials in Mr. Karzai’s government, including Mohammed Siddiq Chakari, the former minister for hajj and Islamic affairs, and Rangin Spanta, who is now the national security adviser.

When Mr. Faqiryar returned from Parliament, he said he was summoned by Mr. Aloko, who told him that Mr. Karzai was furious.

“He told me the president was not happy about this,” Mr. Faqiryar said. “He said, ‘I told you not to divulge this.’ ”

Mr. Daudzai, the president’s chief of staff, insisted that Mr. Faqiryar was not dismissed. He said Mr. Faqiryar had been due to retire and that his papers “were signed weeks ago but just now came to the surface.”

Some of the corruption cases involved relatively minor transgressions. But Mr. Faqiryar said his prosecutors had unearthed serious allegations of corruption against several senior Afghan officials. In many of those cases, he said, the prosecutors had substantiated the claims with ample evidence.

Just three of the 25 Afghan officials have been charged, he said, and in no case has a verdict been rendered. The cases of the other 22 have either been blocked or are lying dormant for inexplicable reasons, he said.

One of the most serious cases involves Khoja Ghulam Ghaws, the governor of Kapisa Province, who was appointed by Mr. Karzai in 2007. According to Western officials, Afghan prosecutors compiled a dossier against Mr. Ghaws that included telephone intercepts and sworn statements from Americans and Afghans working in the province.

According to these officials, prosecutors have enough evidence to charge Mr. Ghaws with colluding with insurgents and demanding kickbacks from contractors working on American- and Afghan-financed development projects. Mr. Ghaws is also a suspect in the killing of five members of a provincial reconstruction team last year.

Prosecutors turned over the Ghaws case to Mr. Aloko, the attorney general, four months ago, said a Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Mr. Aloko has refused to sign either the warrant to arrest Mr. Ghaws or the warrant to search his house, the official said. “He’s the president’s ally,” the official said of Mr. Ghaws. “Obviously, Karzai doesn’t want the case to go forward.”

Mr. Daudzai insisted that Mr. Karzai had made the first move against Mr. Ghaws “weeks ago” by signing a letter suspending him from his job and asking him to appear before the attorney general. He could not explain why Mr. Ghaws was still running the province and residing in the governor’s compound, where he was interviewed last week by The New York Times.

In the interview, Mr. Ghaws said he was innocent of any wrongdoing.

The case against Mr. Ghaws was raised two weeks ago by Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, who traveled to Kabul in part to urge Mr. Karzai to take action against corrupt officials.

In the interview, Mr. Faqiryar confirmed the Western official’s account, saying that Mr. Ghaws has been allowed to remain free at Mr. Karzai’s insistence.

“Mr. Karzai has not agreed,” Mr. Faqiryar said of the Ghaws case. “Aloko said to me, ‘You have to follow the president.’ ”

Mr. Aloko signed the arrest warrant of Mr. Salehi, the Karzai aide who was later released, but only after Western officials insisted that he do so, Mr. Faqiryar said.

Mr. Salehi was arrested as part of the investigation into New Ansari, a money transfer firm that American investigators say has shipped billions of dollars out of the country for Afghan politicians, insurgents and drug smugglers.

Mr. Aloko is also blocking the arrest of Hajji Rafi Azimi, the vice chairman of the Afghan United Bank and a key figure in the New Ansari case, Mr. Faqiryar said.

According to Western officials, Mr. Azimi is suspected of helping pass tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to Mr. Chakari, the former minister for hajj and Islamic affairs. Prosecutors say Mr. Chakari extorted the bribes from tour operators who arrange travel for Afghan pilgrims to Mecca in Saudi Arabia in exchange for steering business to the tour operators.

Mr. Azimi was out of Afghanistan and could not be reached for comment. Mr. Chakari fled the country last year as prosecutors prepared to arrest him and is believed to be in Britain. Afghan officials have filed an arrest warrant with Interpol.

American officials in Kabul say that Afghan prosecutors have tried to arrest Mr. Azimi but have been prevented from doing so by key figures in the Karzai government. In his interview, Mr. Faqiryar said Mr. Salehi had emerged from his office in the presidential palace and asked Attorney General Aloko to block Mr. Azimi’s arrest.

“The reason Mr. Aloko does not sign the arrest warrant for Mr. Azimi is because Salehi told him not to,” he said.

Mr. Faqiryar listed three cases of corruption among senior Afghan diplomats posted in Canada, Germany and Britain, and said there were other cases as well. In each of the three cases he said, they were suspected of stealing public money. None of them, including two former ambassadors and a consul general, have been prosecuted.

Reached Saturday, an official at the Afghan Foreign Ministry confirmed that the three diplomats had in fact taken public money. But, the official said, at least two of them, the former ambassadors to Britain and Germany had “paid the money back.”

After a career spanning 48 years, Mr. Faqiryar said he was looking forward to retirement.

“It’s good to be away from them and not held accountable for their wrongdoings,” he said.

Afghans Deny C.I.A. Payments

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s presidential office on Saturday condemned American news media reports that Afghan government officials had received payments from the C.I.A. in return for information.

A statement from the spokesman’s office called the reports part of an attempt to divert attention from the greater priorities of fighting terrorism, preventing civilian casualties, and disbanding private security companies.

“Afghanistan believes that making such allegations will not strengthen the alliance against terrorism and will not strengthen an Afghanistan based on the law and rules, but will have negative effects in those areas,” the statement said.

“We strongly condemn such irresponsible allegations which just create doubt and defame responsible people of this country,” it said.

The New York Times reported that the C.I.A. had been paying Mohammed Zia Salehi, the chief of administration for Afghanistan’s National Security Council, who was arrested last month as part of an investigation into corruption. The Washington Post reported that the C.I.A. was making payments to a large number of officials in President Hamid Karzai’s administration.

Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting.

August 15, 2010

Total Nonsense from General Petraeus
But Obama didn't fire him for speaking out of line. Does that mean this is The New Line?

The New York Times, August 15, 2010: Petraeus Opposes a Rapid Pullout in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of American and NATO forces, began a campaign on Sunday to convince an increasingly skeptical public that the American-led coalition can still succeed here despite months of setbacks, saying he had not come to Afghanistan to preside over a “graceful exit.”

In an hourlong interview with The New York Times, the general argued against any precipitous withdrawal of forces in July 2011, the date set by President Obama to begin at least a gradual reduction of the 100,000 troops on the ground. General Petraeus said that it was only in the last few weeks that the war plan had been fine-tuned and given the resources that it required. “For the first time,” he said, “we will have what we have been working to put in place for the last year and a half.”

In another in a series of interviews, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” General Petraeus even appeared to leave open the possibility that he would recommend against any withdrawal of American forces next summer.

“Certainly, yes,” he said when the show’s host, David Gregory, asked him if, depending on how the war was proceeding, he might tell the president that a drawdown should be delayed. “The president and I sat down in the Oval Office, and he expressed very clearly that what he wants from me is my best professional military advice.”

The statement offered a preview of what promised to be an intense political battle over the future of the American-led war in Afghanistan, which has deteriorated on the ground and turned unpopular at home. Already, some Democrats in Congress are pushing for steep withdrawals early on, while supporters of the war say that a rapid draw-down could endanger the Afghan mission altogether.

General Petraeus, in his interview with The Times, said American and NATO troops were making progress on a number of fronts, including routing Taliban insurgents from their sanctuaries, reforming the Afghan government and preparing Afghan soldiers to fight on their own.

General Petraeus, who took over last month after Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal was fired for making disparaging remarks about civilian leaders, said he believed that he would be given the time and matériel necessary to prevail here. He expressed that confidence despite the fact that nearly every phase of the war is going badly — and even though some inside the Obama administration have turned against it.

“The president didn’t send me over here to seek a graceful exit,” General Petraeus said at his office at NATO headquarters in downtown Kabul. “My marching orders are to do all that is humanly possible to help us achieve our objectives.”

General Petraeus’s public remarks, his first since taking over, highlight the extraordinary challenges, both military and political, that loom in the coming months. American soldiers and Marines are dying at a faster rate than at any time since 2001. The Afghan in whom the United States has placed its hopes, President Hamid Karzai, has demonstrated little resolve in rooting out the corruption that pervades his government.

And perhaps most important, the general will be trying to demonstrate progress in the 11 months until Mr. Obama’s deadline to begin withdrawing troops.

The date was chosen in part to win over critics of the war and to push the Afghan government to reform more quickly. But as critical battles to reclaim parts of the Taliban heartland have faltered, military commanders have begun preparing to ask the White House to keep any withdrawals next year to a minimum.

In the interview with The Times, General Petraeus also suggested that he would resist any large-scale or rapid withdrawal of American forces. If the Taliban believes that will happen, he said, they are mistaken.

“Clearly the enemy is fighting back, sees this as a very pivotal moment, believes that all he has to do is outlast us through this fighting season,” the general said. “That is just not the case.”

The public campaign begun Sunday echoes the similarly high-profile efforts the general undertook at the bloodiest phase of the war in Iraq. In early 2007, joining a group of defense intellectuals and retired generals, General Petraeus asserted that the anarchic situation in Iraq could be stabilized with an infusion of tens of thousands additional American troops.

Then-President George W. Bush endorsed the effort and chose General Petraeus to lead it. And, to the surprise of many, the campaign, known as “the surge,” helped bring about a dramatic drop in violence that has largely held. During the surge, General Petraeus sometimes skirted the traditional lines separating the military and political worlds, testifying before Congress and speaking almost weekly to Mr. Bush.

General Petraeus has taken a lower public profile since Mr. Obama’s inauguration. His efforts on Sunday — which will continue with more interviews in the coming days — represent his first attempt to convince the American people that his efforts and those of the American soldiers and Marines deployed here can succeed.

The general’s latest outreach campaign, which included an interview with The Washington Post, highlighted his political strengths as much as his military ones. He was careful, patient and disciplined — sticking to his main points — traits that have won him widespread respect.

Among other things, the general is fighting to preserve his own legacy, based on the dramatic turnaround he helped orchestrate during the war in Iraq. The hallmark of that strategy was its focus on protecting civilians, even at the expense of letting insurgents walk away.

In Afghanistan, that approach is coming under growing criticism, mainly from people who regard it as too expensive and open ended. Some in the Obama administration have been advocating a move from counterinsurgency toward a strategy focused on hunting and killing insurgents.

General Petraeus has imported some hands from his Iraq days to help him. Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, one of the most innovative officers in the Iraq war, has taken charge of a task force assigned to attack corruption. Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute — one of the fathers of the surge and more recently a critic of the Afghan government — has come to help as well.

The drafting of those experts suggests that General Petraeus intends to take a harder line against corruption in the Karzai government, which ranks among the biggest factors driving Afghans to the Taliban.

Mr. Karzai has promised over the years to root out corruption but has largely failed to do so. He has refused requests from American officials to remove his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, as chairman of the provincial council in Kandahar Province despite widespread reports of corruption. Last week, the president tried to assert control over two American-backed Afghan anticorruption units that are investigating Afghan officials.

General Petraeus declined to discuss the status of Ahmed Wali Karzai, and he praised President Karzai’s efforts to attack corruption. In any case, he suggested, American leverage over Mr. Karzai is limited. “President Karzai is the elected leader of a sovereign country,” he said. “That is how the people see him by and large; he is therefore — and has to be, for sure — our partner.”

Afghan medical mission ends in death for 10
By KATHY GANNON, Associated Press Writer

August 8, 2010. KABUL, Afghanistan – They hiked for more than 10 hours over rugged mountains — unarmed and without security — to bring medical care to isolated Afghan villagers until their humanitarian mission took a tragic turn.

Ten members of the Christian medical team — six Americans, two Afghans, one German and a Briton — were gunned down in a gruesome slaughter that the Taliban said they carried out, alleging the volunteers were spying and trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. The gunmen spared an Afghan driver, who recited verses from the Islamic holy book Quran as he begged for his life.

Team members — doctors, nurses and logistics personnel — were attacked as they were returning to Kabul after their two-week mission in the remote Parun valley of Nuristan province about 160 miles (260 kilometers) north of Kabul. They had decided to veer northward into Badakhshan province because they thought that would be the safest route back to Kabul, said Dirk Frans, director of the International Assistance Mission, which organized the team.

The bullet-riddled bodies — including three women — were found Friday near three four-wheeled drive vehicles in a wooded area just off the main road that snakes through a narrow valley in the Kuran Wa Munjan district of Badakhshan, provincial police chief Gen. Agha Noor Kemtuz told The Associated Press.

One of the dead Americans had spent about 30 years in Afghanistan, rearing three daughters and surviving both the Soviet invasion and bloody civil war of the 1990s that destroyed much of Kabul.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told the AP that they killed the foreigners because they were "spying for the Americans" and "preaching Christianity." In a Pashto language statement acquired by the AP, the Taliban also said the team was carrying Dari language bibles and "spying gadgets."

Frans said the International Assistance Mission, or IAM, one of the longest serving non-governmental organizations operating in Afghanistan, is registered as a nonprofit Christian organization but does not proselytize.

Frans said the team had driven to Nuristan, left their vehicles and hiked for nearly a half day with pack horses over mountainous terrain to reach the Parun valley where they traveled from village to village on foot offering medical care for about two weeks.

"This tragedy negatively impacts our ability to continue serving the Afghan people as IAM has been doing since 1966," the charity said in a statement. "We hope it will not stop our work that benefits over a quarter of a million Afghans each year."

Among the dead was team leader Tom Little, an optometrist from Delmar, New York, who has been working in Afghanistan for about 30 years and spoke fluent Dari, one of the two main Afghan languages, Frans said. Little, along with employees from other Christian organizations, were expelled by the Taliban government in August 2001 after the arrest of eight Christian aid workers — two Americans and six Germans — for allegedly trying to convert Afghans to Christianity.

He returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban government was toppled in November 2001 by U.S.-backed forces. Known in Kabul as "Mr. Tom," Little supervised a network of IAM eye hospitals and clinics around the country largely funded through private donations.

"He was a remarkable man, and very committed to helping the people of Afghanistan," said David Evans of the Loudonville Community Church, New York, who accompanied Little on a 5,231-mile road (8,419-kilometer) trip to deliver the medical team's Land Rover vehicles from England to Kabul in 2004.

"They raised their three girls there. He was part and parcel of that culture," Evans said.

Little had been making such trips to Afghan villages for decades, offering vision care and surgical services in regions where medical services of any type are scarce.

The work has long been fraught with risk, but Evans said Little was a natural for the job. He spoke the language, knew the local customs, and had the patience and diplomatic skills to handle sticky situations.

Another relief organization, Bridge Afghanistan, said on its website that the group included one of its members, Dr. Karen Woo, who gave up a job in a private clinic in London to do humanitarian work in Afghanistan. A message posted last March on the Bridge Afghanistan website said she was "flat broke and living in a war zone but enjoying helping people in great need."

In a fundraising blog posted last month, Woo said the mission to Nuristan would require hiking with pack horses through mountains rising to 16,000 feet (5,000 meters) to reach the Parun valley, a harsh, isolated area about 9,500 feet (3,000 meters) above sea level where an estimated 50,000 people eke out a primitive existence as shepherds and subsistence farmers.

"The expedition will require a lot of physical and mental resolve and will not be without risk but ultimately, I believe that the provision of medical treatment is of fundamental importance and that the effort is worth it in order to assist those that need it most," she wrote.

"The area ... we will reach is one of great harshness but of great beauty also. I hope that we will be able to provide medical care for a large number of people."

Names of the other foreigners were not released until the bodies could be brought to Kabul for identification, Frans said.

Frans told the AP that he was skeptical the Taliban were responsible. He said the team had studied security conditions carefully before continuing with the mission.

"We are a humanitarian organization. We had no security people. We had no armed guards. We had no weapons," he said.

Authorities in Nuristan heard that foreigners were in the area and sent police to investigate, according to Nuristan Gov. Jamaluddin Bader. The police provided security for the final three or four days of the mission and escorted them across the boundary into Badakhshan, he said. The escorts left after the team told them that they felt safe in Badakhshan, he added.

Frans said he last talked to Little, over a scratchy satellite phone connection, on Wednesday evening. On Friday, the Afghan driver who survived the attack called to report the killings. A fourth Afghan member of the team was not killed because he took a different route home because he had family in Jalalabad, Frans said.

The surviving driver, Saifullah, told authorities that team members stopped for lunch Thursday afternoon in the Sharron valley and were accosted by gunmen when they returned to their vehicles, according to Kemtuz, the Badakhshan police chief. The volunteers were forced to sit on the ground. The gunmen looted the vehicles, then fatally shot them, Kemtuz said.

The Afghan driver who survived "told me he was shouting and reciting the holy Quran and saying 'I am Muslim. Don't kill me,'" Kemtuz said. The gunmen let the driver go free the next day. A shepherd witnessed the carnage and reported the killings to the local district chief, who then brought the bodies to his home, Kemtuz said.

Aid workers have been often targeted by insurgents.

In 2007, 23 South Korean aid workers from a church group were taken hostage in southern Afghanistan. Two were killed and the rest were later released. In August 2008, four International Rescue Committee workers, including three women, were gunned down in Logar province in eastern Afghanistan.

In October 2008, Gayle Williams, who had dual British and South African citizenship, was killed by two gunmen on a motorcycle as she walked to work in the capital of Kabul. In late 2009, a French aid worker was kidnapped at gunpoint in the Afghan capital. Dany Egreteau, a 32-year-old worker for Solidarite Laique, or Secular Solidarity, who was seen in an emotional hostage video, was later released after a month in captivity.

Afghanistan, July, 2010
This past month, much of the attention focused on Afghanistan centered on the release of thousands of classified documents from the war effort by WikiLeaks. While the consensus appears to be that nothing significantly new was revealed by the release, the picture painted by the documents remains rather bleak. NATO and the United States now have 143,000 troops in Afghanistan, set to peak at 150,000 in coming weeks as they take a counter-insurgency offensive into the insurgents' southern strongholds. Taliban control remains difficult to dislodge, and once removed from an area, Taliban forces often return once larger forces leave a region, especially in rural areas where local government presence remains small. Collected here are images of the country and conflict over the past month, part of an ongoing monthly series on Afghanistan. (47 photos total)

Here is the first photo. Australian soldiers carry a coffin of Pvt. Nathan Bewes at their base in Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan on July 12, 2010. Bewes died in an improvised explosive device blast in Uruzgan. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

You can see the other 46 incredible photos at the The Big Picture.

August 2, 2010

The Lunatic’s Manual
By BOB HERBERT of the New York Times

The Army, to its credit, tells the story of a middle-aged lieutenant colonel who had served multiple combat tours and was suffering the agonizing effects of traumatic brain injury and dementia. He also had difficulty sleeping. Several medications were prescribed.

On a visit to an emergency room, he was given a 30-tablet refill of Ambien. He went to his car and killed himself by ingesting the entire prescription with a quantity of rum. He left a suicide note that said his headaches and other pain were unbearable.

As if there is not enough that has gone tragically wrong in this era of endless warfare, the military is facing an epidemic of suicides. In the year that ended Sept. 30, 2009, 160 active duty soldiers took their own lives — a record for the Army. The Marines set their own tragic record in 2009 with 52 suicides. And this past June, another record was set — 32 military suicides in just one month.

War is a meat grinder for service members and their families. It grinds people up without mercy, killing them and inflicting the worst kinds of wounds imaginable, physical and psychological. The Pentagon is trying to cope with the surge in suicides, but it is holding a bad hand: the desperate shortage of troops has forced military officials to lower the bar for enlistment, thus letting in people whose drug and alcohol abuse or other behavioral problems would previously have kept them out. And the multiple deployments (four, five and six tours in the war zones) have jacked up stress levels to the point where many just can’t take it.

The G.I.’s have fought valiantly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands have died and many, many more have suffered. But the wars have been conducted as if their leaders had been reading from a lunatic’s manual. This is not Germany or Japan or the old Soviet Union that we’re fighting. But after nearly a decade, neither war has been won and there is no prospect of winning.

Trillions of dollars are being squandered. George W. (“Mission Accomplished”) Bush took the unprecedented step of cutting taxes while waging the wars. And Barack Obama has set a deadline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan without having any idea how that war might be going when the deadline arrives.

This is warfare as it might have been waged by Laurel & Hardy. Absent the bloodshed, it would be hilarious. I’d give a lot to hear Dwight Eisenhower comment on the way these wars have been conducted.

July was the deadliest month yet for American troops in Afghanistan. Sixty-six were killed, which was six more than the number who died in the previous most deadly month, June. The nation is paying little or no attention to those deaths, which is shameful. The president goes to fund-raisers and yuks it up on “The View.” For most ordinary Americans, the war is nothing more than an afterthought.

We’re getting the worst of all worlds in Afghanistan: We’re not winning, and we’re not cutting our tragic losses. Most Americans don’t care because they’re not feeling any of the tragic losses. A tiny, tiny portion of the population is doing the fighting, and those troops are sent into the war zone for tour after tour, as if they’re attached to a nightmarish yo-yo.

Some kind of shared sacrifice is in order, but neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Obama called on Americans to make any real sacrifices in connection with either of these wars. The way to fight a war is to mobilize the country — not just the combat troops — behind an integrated wartime effort. To do that, leaders have to persuade the public that the war is worth fighting, and worth paying for.

What we have in Afghanistan is a war that most Americans believe is not worth fighting — and certainly not worth raising taxes to pay for. President Obama has not made a compelling case for the war and has set a deadline for the start of withdrawal that seems curiously close to the anticipated start of his 2012 campaign for a second term.

It’s time to bring the curtain down for good on these tragic, farcical wars. The fantasy of democracy blossoming at the point of a gun in Iraq and spreading blithely throughout the Middle East has been obliterated. And it’s hard to believe that anyone buys the notion that the U.S. can install a successful society in the medieval madness of Afghanistan.

For those who haven’t noticed, we have a nation that needs rebuilding here at home. Maybe we could muster some shared sacrifice on that front.

It’s time to bring the troops back, and nurse the wounded, and thank them all for their extraordinary service. It’s time to come to our senses and put the lunatic’s manual aside.

Why I started this site
What I hope to accomplish

My name is Harry Newton. I am 68. I am a successful American businessman. With this site, I want to help bring our nine-year War in Afghanistan to an early end. Over 1,000 American servicemen and women have been killed. Over 40,000 have been hurt or maimed. This war is not worth a single additional young life. Moreover, we can no longer afford the cost. Our country is in a serious recession. I want us out ASAP. I believe there are ten basic arguments against the War in Afghanistan:

 1. The U.S. went to Afghanistan shortly after 9/11/2001 to find and kill Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda group -- the perpetrators and murderers of 9/11. Nine years later, bin Laden is still at large. And Al Qaeda has dispersed. But al Qaeda hasn't made any successful attacks inside the U.S. It's been stopped by conventional police work -- which is much more effective and cost-efficient than occupying an entire country. Presently, the U.S. has no clear objective for being in Afghanistan.

2. The U.S. has no strategic interest in Afghanistan. No one in Afghanistan can launch a nuclear missile against us. There is no oil. Afghanistan has no natural resources beyond poppies and pomegranates. Lately there is a talk of huge mining deposits. There are more efficient ways developing mines than occupying an entire country. The normal way is to sign an agreement with the local government. That could easily be done if and when Afghanistan acquires a legitimate government.

3. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are no longer in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda long ago spread to Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Europe. No one really knows where bin Laden is.

4. In Afghanistan, the U.S. is seen as supporting an ultra-corrupt administration, whose senior members steal whatever monies they can lay their hands on. They deposit those monies overseas, ready for the inevitable day the corrupt officials (including the Karzai family) are forced to flea the country. Little of these monies go to benefitting the Afghan people in the way of roads, reliable electricity, sewage, safety, etc.

5. No country and no army from Alexander the Great on has ever succeeded in conquering and/or subduing Afghanistan long-term. Britain invaded Afghanistan three times. Once it sent an army of 22,000. Only one soldier returned. When asked, Afghans will say proudly their major skill is fighting.

6. The Taliban, though nasty, pose no threat to the United States. Every time the U.S. and its NATO allies kill a Muslim, it hands the Taliban its most powerful recruiting tool: "The infidels have invaded our lands, and are killing our people. We must jihad." The big threat to the U.S. specifically and the world in general is the support which roque nation states -- including Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia -- provide to terrorist organizations, like Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah. Without money and weapons, these terrorist organizations would not exist.

7. Afghanistan is a sinkhole. Corruption is rampant. Most of our aid money disappears. When we transport supplies into and around Afghanistan, we bribe the Taliban and various warlords to allow our supply convoys through. In this way, we finance our enemies. We also support the corrupt Karzai government with our money and army. Without our support, the Karzai Government would collapse overnight.

8. The Afghanistan war is promoted by an increasing number of what I call "professional careerists." These are people who make their career and their living off the war. They live in and around Washington. They write endless papers. They live in Asia, where they are contractors and employees of various organizations whose job is to service the U.S. military and the U.S. State Department. These organizations and their employees are amazingly well-paid -- chiefly because they do things the military and the State Department don't want to do themselves, or want to hide from the American public and Congress. Many of these careerists maintain their cushy arrangements by pushing fear -- The whole area will explode into nuclear conflagration, etc. if we don't stay. This was an argument used to justify the Vietnam war. Yet today Vietnam is an important trading partner of the U.S. Many U.S. firms have factories there. I own a shirt that was made there. In short, no one has any idea what would happen should we and our NATO allies pull out of Afghanistan.

9. The War in Afghanistan is a waste of precious American lives and precious American dollars. At present we spend over $65 billion a year in Afghanistan. That's actually three times Afghanistan's entire annual GDP. Despite our best efforts, our military activities kill innocent Afghans regularly. This does not endear us.

10. America itself was founded by people who didn't like an outside power occupying them and meddling in their affairs. That power was the British. Why would the Afghans feel any different toward us?

On this web site, I have included articles I personally find informative. They are not an exhaustive view of all the issues relating to Afghanistan. They are a personal library. If you have favorites, please email me. I'll include them.

July 29, 2010 from The Wall Street Journal

The author recommends greater CIA involvement and less U.S. military involvement. This is totally predictable, given his background -- namely he worked at the CIA. Personally I think his approach has some merit, though I am most reluctant to hand the CIA a blank check made up of my taxes. -- Harry Newton.

The CIA Solution for Afghanistan
There's no 'victory' to be had there. But we can prevent it from becoming a haven for al Qaeda with a covert strategy based on Predator drones and alliances with local leaders.

The U.S. military will not achieve anything resembling victory in Afghanistan, no matter how noble the objective and heroic the effort.

It's time to face this reality. We should start by developing a new covert action plan to be implemented by the Central Intelligence Agency. The strategy should focus on forging the kinds of relationships necessary to keep Afghanistan from re-emerging as al Qaeda's staging ground once our forces depart, and also on continuing the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

If there is any lasting lesson from the recent demise of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, it's that the large and visible occupying army he commanded in Afghanistan is simply the wrong force to wage the battles being fought there. The British and the Russians know this too well.

Having run the CIA's Afghan Task Force—which covertly channeled U.S. support to the Afghans fighting to drive the Soviets out of their country—I recognize the playbook our policy makers are using today. It didn't work for the Soviets then, and it won't work for us now. However different our current objective, our efforts are alarmingly similar to those of the Russians. Instead of ignoring the lessons of that history, what we need to do is to be more like ourselves in the 1980s and in the months immediately following the attacks of 9/11.

In the '80s we essentially ended the Cold War with a well-funded and broadly supported covert action program. In 2001, under similar political circumstances, a small band of CIA operators restored old ties to Afghan tribal leaders, teamed up with U.S. Special Forces and, backed with U.S. air power, toppled the Taliban in a matter of weeks.

Our presence in Afghanistan is better left unseen. Most Afghans, even those willing to deal with us, would rather we get our military out of their country. A covert action program would address this concern. It would also cost less than a military effort in treasure and lives, and allow the U.S. to continue to protect its interests and the interests of the Afghans who desire nothing more than to see their country enter a period of calm.

A smart covert action program should rest on worst-case scenarios. Afghanistan will likely enter a period of heightened instability leading up to and following our planned 2012 departure, so we should figure out now which tribal leaders—and, under specially negotiated arrangements, which Taliban factions—we could establish productive relationships with. We must also consider the possibility that our departure could precipitate the eventual collapse of the Karzai government. Thus we should cultivate relationships with leaders inside and outside the current regime who are most likely to fill the power vacuum.

It's a good bet that the CIA already has substantial relationships with many of these personalities, particularly in areas where agency operators have long enjoyed relative freedom of movement. Afghanistan is a tribal society, not a nation state, and tribal interests are often easy to accommodate with cash and other assets that help tribal leaders maintain their power. Make no mistake: We're not talking about supporting advocates for Jeffersonian democracy here. But these partnerships have proven dependable and highly advantageous to U.S. policy makers in promoting regional stability in the past.

The cornerstone of a revitalized covert action plan in Afghanistan must be based on an updated Presidential Finding, which is required for any covert initiative. The president himself would have to authorize ample funding for the remains of the Karzai government, its opposition, tribal warlords and even some Taliban elements, as long as they're willing to help us achieve our objectives. The fact that many of them don't like each other will probably work to our benefit and against our enemies in al Qaeda.

My experience at the CIA helped me develop a few rules of engagement that I consider critical to successful covert action programs. First, they must have sufficient funding and bipartisan congressional approval. Second, a general consensus backing the effort must exist among the American public. Third, there must be robust support among key players and interest groups in the country where our covert action program functions. Perhaps most importantly, the rationale behind the program must be anchored in sound policy objectives.

It bears mentioning that covert action has been controversial, and has many opponents in and out of government. But such critiques often highlight flawed policy rather than failed execution. The CIA's work in Chile during the 1970s and in Central America during the 1980s are generally viewed as mistakes or failures. But in both cases the agency was operationally successful. The real issue was the flawed policy, which the CIA has no part in determining.

Congress, the executive and the public were justifiably disturbed by some of the means used to carry out covert action since 9/11, including waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques." Advocates for the expanded use of covert action must be clear in their refusal to countenance these practices, and in their commitment to strong oversight measures. More generally, an updated covert strategy should establish clearer rules of engagement. Predator drone attacks, which have been effective in killing al Qaeda leaders, should be relied upon. Covert activities should not be outsourced to private contractors, as has reportedly occurred in Afghanistan.

Preventing a return to a pre-9/11 version of Afghanistan is a realistic and achievable goal as long as our strategy is calibrated to the Afghan political, cultural and physical landscapes. A CIA-run covert action program is by nature custom-tailored to the reality on the ground. As such, it is a highly valuable tool that we should use to advance a modified objective in Afghanistan.

Mr. Devine is a former CIA deputy director of operations and chief of the CIA Afghan Task Force 1986-87. He is president of the Arkin Group, a private sector intelligence company based in New York.

July 8, 2010

I don't know the author. This email reads authentic. I'm glad he feels he's acccomplishing something -- namely killing the bad guys. My problem is there remains an apparently inexhaustible supply of bad guys. Our presence in the area is their best recruiting tool. Still, you should read his article. The sacrifices our troops make for us -- the American public -- are seriously impressive. My position is simple: I support our troops 110%. I don't support their mission. Afghanistan is unwinnable -- whatever the latest definition of of winning. -- Harry Newton

Chiggers, Sand Fleas and Scorpions!
From a Recon Marine in Afghanistan

From the Sand Pit, it's freezing here. I'm sitting on hard, cold dirt between rocks and shrubs at the base of the Hindu Kush Mountains , along the Dar 'yoi Pomir River , watching a hole that leads to a tunnel that leads to a cave. Stake out, my friend, and no pizza delivery for thousands of miles.

I also glance at the area around my ass every ten to fifteen seconds to avoid another scorpion sting. I've actually given up battling the chiggers and sand fleas, but the scorpions give a jolt like a cattle prod. Hurts like a bastard. The antidote tastes like transmission fluid, but God bless the Marine Corps for the five vials of it in my pack.

The one truth the Taliban cannot escape is that, believe it or not, they are human beings, which means they have to eat food and drink water. That requires couriers and that's where an old bounty hunter like me comes in handy. I track the couriers, locate the tunnel entrances and storage facilities, type the info into the handheld, shoot the coordinates up to the satellite link that tells the air commanders where to drop the hardware. We bash some heads for a while, then I track and record the new movement.

It's all about intelligence. We haven't even brought in the snipers yet. These scurrying rats have no idea what they're in for. We are but days away from cutting off supply lines and allowing the eradication to begin.

I dream of bin Laden waking up to find me standing over him with my boot on his throat as I spit into his face and plunge my nickel-plated Bowie knife through his frontal lobe. But you know me, I'm a romantic. I've said it before and I'll say it again: This country blows, man. It's not even a country. There are no roads, there's no infrastructure, there's no government. This is an inhospitable, rock pit, shit hole, ruled by eleventh century warring tribes. There are no jobs here like we know jobs.

Afghanistan offers two ways for a man to support his family: join the opium trade or join the army. That's it. Those are your options. Oh, I forgot, you can also live in a refugee camp and eat plum-sweetened, crushed beetle paste and squirt mud like a goose with stomach flu, if that's your idea of a party. But the smell alone of those 'tent cities of the walking dead' is enough to hurl you into the poppy fields to cheerfully scrape bulbs for eighteen hours a day.

I've been living with these Tajiks and Uzbeks, and Turkmen and even a couple of Pushtuns, for over a month-and-a-half now, and this much I can say for sure: These guys, all of 'em, are Huns...actual, living Huns. They LIVE to fight. It's what they do. It's ALL they do. They have no respect for anything, not for their families, nor for each other, nor for themselves. They claw at one another as a way of life. They play polo with dead calves and force their five-year-old sons into human cockfights to defend the family honor. Huns, roaming packs of savage, heartless beasts who feed on each other's barbarism. Cavemen with AK-47's. Then again, maybe I'm just cranky.

I'm freezing my ass off on this stupid hill because my lap warmer is running out of juice, and I can't recharge it until the sun comes up in a few hours. Oh yeah! You like to write letters, right? Do me a favor, Bizarre. Write a letter to CNN and tell Wolf and Anderson and that awful, sneering, pompous Aaron Brown to stop calling the Taliban 'smart.' They are not smart. I suggest CNN invest in a dictionary because the word they are looking for is 'cunning.' The Taliban are cunning, like jackals and hyenas and wolverines. They are sneaky and ruthless, and when confronted, cowardly. They are hateful, malevolent parasites who create nothing and destroy everything else. Smart. Pfft. Yeah, they're real smart.

They've spent their entire lives reading only one book (and not a very good one, as books go) and consider hygiene and indoor plumbing to be products of the devil. They're still figuring out how to work a Bic lighter. Talking to a Taliban warrior about improving his quality of life is like trying to teach an ape how to hold a pen; eventually he just gets frustrated and sticks you in the eye with it.

OK, enough. Snuffle will be up soon, so I have to get back to my hole. Covering my tracks in the snow takes a lot of practice, but I'm good at it.

Please, I tell you and my fellow Americans to turn off the TV sets and move on with your lives. The story line you are getting from CNN and other news agencies is utter bullshit and designed not to deliver truth, but rather to keep you glued to the screen through the commercials. We've got this one under control. The worst thing you guys can do right now is sit around analyzing what we're doing over here, because you have no idea what we're doing, and really, you don't want to know. We are your military, and we are doing what you sent us here to do.

Saucy Jack, Recon Marine in Afghanistan

Semper Fi
Freedom is not free...but the U.S. Marine Corps will pay most of your share".

July 4, 2010

Anne Jones' articles are always impressive. This piece gives a real flavor of the war -- greater than what we get from most reporters. -- Harry Newton

Counterinsurgency Down for the Count in Afghanistan…
But the War Machine Grinds On and On and On
By Ann Jones

President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy isn’t working. So said a parade of Afghanistan watchers during the flap over war commander General Stanley McChrystal’s firing. But what does that phrase, so often in the media these days, really mean? And if the strategy really isn’t working, just how can you tell?

The answers to these questions raise even more important ones, including: Why, when President Obama fires an insubordinate and failing general, does he cling to his failing war policy? And if our strategy isn’t working, what about the enemy’s? And if nothing much is working, why does it still go on nonstop this way? Let’s take these one at a time.

1. What do you mean by “it’s not working”?

“It” is counterinsurgency or COIN, which, in fact, is really less of a strategy than a set of tactics in pursuit of a strategy. Counterinsurgency doctrine, originally designed by empires intending to squat on their colonies forever, calls for elevating the principle of “protecting the population” above pursuing the bad guys at all cost. Implementing such a strategy quickly becomes a tricky, even schizophrenic, balancing act, as I recently was reminded.

I just spent some time embedded with the U.S. Army at a forward operating base near the Pakistan border where, despite daily “sig acts” -- significant activity of a hostile nature -- virtually every “lethal” American soldier is matched by a “nonlethal” counterpart whose job it is, in one way or another, to soften up those civilians for “protection.”

General McChrystal himself played both roles. As the U.S. commander, he was responsible for killing what he termed, at one point, “an amazing number of people” who were not threats, but he also regularly showed up at Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s palace to say, “Sorry.” Karzai praised him publicly for his frequent apologies (each, of course, reflecting an American act or acts that killed civilians), though angry Afghans were less impressed.

The part of the lethal activity that often goes awry is supposed to be counterbalanced by the “sorry” part, which may be as simple as dispatching U.S. officers to drink humble tea with local “key leaders.” Often enough, though, it comes in the form of large, unsustainable gifts. The formula, which is basic COIN, goes something like this: kill some civilians in the hunt for the bad guys and you have to make up for it by building a road. This trade-off explains why, as you travel parts of the country, interminable (and often empty) strips of black asphalt now traverse Afghanistan’s vast expanses of sand and rock, but it doesn’t explain why Afghans, thus compensated, are angrier than ever.

Many Afghans, of course, are angry because they haven’t been compensated at all, not even with a road to nowhere. Worse yet, more often than not, they’ve been promised things that never materialize. (If you were to summarize the history of the country as a whole in these last years, it might go like this: big men -- both Afghan and American -- make out like the Beltway Bandits many of them are, while ordinary Afghans in the countryside still wish their kids had shoes.)

And don’t forget the majority of Afghans in the countryside who have scarcely been consulted at all: women. To protect Afghan women from foreign fighters, Afghan men lock them up -- the women, that is. American military leaders slip easily into the all-male comfort zone, probably relieved perhaps to try to win the “hearts and minds” of something less than half “the population.”

It’s only in the last year or two that the Marines and the Army started pulling a few American women off their full-time non-combat jobs and sending them out as Female Engagement Teams (FETs) to meet and greet village women. As with so many innovative new plans in our counterinsurgency war, this one was cobbled together in a thoughtless way that risked lives and almost guaranteed failure.

Commanders have casually sent noncombatant American women soldiers -- supply clerks and radio operators -- outside the wire, usually with little training, no clear mission, and no follow up. Predictably, like their male counterparts, they have left a trail of good intentions and broken promises behind. So when I went out to meet village women near the Pakistan border last week with a brand-new Army FET-in-training, we faced the fury of Pashto women still waiting for a promised delivery of vegetable seeds.

Imagine. This is hardly a big item like the “government in a box” that General McChrystal promised and failed to deliver in Marja. It’s just seeds. How hard could that be?

Our visit did, however, open a window into a world military and political policymakers have ignored for all too long. It turns out that the women of Afghanistan, whom George W. Bush claimed to have liberated so many years ago, are still mostly oppressed, impoverished, malnourished, uneducated, short of seeds, and mad as hell.

Count them among a plentiful crew of angry Afghans who are living proof that “it’s not working” at all. Afghans, it seems, know the difference between genuine apologies and bribes, true commitment and false promises, generosity and self-interest. And since the whole point of COIN is to gain the hearts and minds of “the population,”
those angry Afghans are a bad omen for the U.S. military and President Obama.

Moreover, it’s not working for a significant subgroup of Americans in Afghanistan either: combat soldiers. I’ve heard infantrymen place the blame for a buddy’s combat injury or death on the strict rules of engagement (“courageous restraint,” as it’s called) imposed by General McChrystal’s version of COIN strategy. Taking a page from Vietnam, they claim their hands are tied, while the enemy plays by its own rules. Rightly or wrongly, this opinion is spreading fast among grieving soldiers as casualties mount.

It’s also clear that even the lethal part of counterinsurgency isn’t working. Consider all those civilian deaths and injuries, so often the result of false information fed to Americans to entice them to settle local scores. To give just one example: American troops recently pitched hand grenades into a house in Logar Province which they’d been told was used by terrorists. Another case of false information. It held a young Afghan, a relative of an Afghan agricultural expert who happens to be an acquaintance of mine. The young man had just completed his religious education and returned to the village to become its sole maulawi, or religious teacher. The villagers, very upset, turned out to vouch for him, and the Army hospitalized him with profuse apologies. Luckily, he survived, but such routine mistakes regularly leave dead or wounded civilians and a thickening residue of rage behind.

Reports coming in from observers and colleagues in areas of the Pashtun south, once scheduled to be demonstration sites for McChrystal’s cleared, held, built, and better-governed Afghanistan, are generally grim. Before his resignation, the general himself was already referring to Marja -- the farming area (initially trumpeted as a “city of 80,000 people”) where he launched his first offensive -- as “a bleeding ulcer.” He also delayed the highly publicized advance into Kandahar, the country’s second largest city, supposedly to gain more time to bring around the opposing populace, which includes President Karzai. Meanwhile, humanitarian NGOs based in Kandahar complain that they can’t do their routine work assisting the city’s inhabitants while the area lies under threat of combat. Without assistance, Kandaharis grow -- you guessed it -- angrier.

From Kandahar province, where American soldiers mass for the well-advertised securing of Kandahar, come reports that the Afghan National Army (ANA) is stealing equipment -- right down to bottled drinking water -- from the U.S. military and selling it to the Taliban. U.S. commanders can’t do much about it because the official American script calls for the ANA to take over responsibility for national defense.

NATO soldiers have complained all along about the ill-trained, uninterested troops of the ANA, but the animosity between them seems to have grown deadly in some quarters. American soldiers in Kandahar report that, for their own security, they don’t tell their ANA colleagues when and where they’re going on patrol. Back in the 1980s, in the anti-Soviet jihad we supported, we trained Afghan jihadists who have today become our worst enemies, and now we may be doing it again.

Factor in accounts of what General McChrystal did best: taking out bad guys. Reportedly, he was vigorously directing Special Forces’ assassinations of high and mid-level Taliban leaders in preparation for “peeling off” the “good” Taliban -- that is, those impoverished fighters only in it for the money. According to his thinking, they would later be won over to the government through internationally subsidized jobs. But assassinating the ideological leaders, the true believers and organizers -- or those we call the bad Taliban -- actually leaves behind leaderless, undisciplined gangs of armed rent-a-guns more interested in living off the population we’re supposed to protect than being peeled off into abject Afghan poverty. From the point of view of ordinary Afghans in the countryside, our “good Taliban” are the worst of all.

I could go on. If you spend time in Afghanistan, evidence of failure is all around you, including those millions of American taxpayer dollars that are paid to Afghan security contractors (and Karzai relatives) and then handed over to insurgents to buy protection for U.S. supply convoys traveling on U.S. built, but Taliban-controlled, roads. Strategy doesn’t get much worse than that: financing both sides, and every brigand in between, in hopes of a happier ending someday.

2. So why does Obama stick to this failed policy?

Go figure. Maybe he’s been persuaded by Pentagon hype. Replacing General McChrystal with Centcom commander General David Petraeus brought a media golden-oldies replay of Petraeus’s greatest hits: his authorship of the Army’s counterinsurgency manual, updated (some say plagiarized) from a Vietnam-era edition, and of Bush’s 2007 “surge” in Iraq, an exercise in sectarian cleansing now routinely called a “success.” If you can apply the word “success” to any operation in Iraq, you’re surely capable of clinging to the hope that Petreus can find it again in Afghanistan.

But like David McKiernan, the general he ousted, McChrystal has already misapplied the “lessons” of Iraq to the decidedly different circumstances of Afghanistan and so producing a striking set of failures. A deal to buy off the Shinwari Pashtuns, for instance, a tribe mistakenly thought to be the equivalent of the Anbar Sunnis in Iraq, ended in an uproar when they pocketed the money without firing a shot at a single Talib. Not so surprising, considering that the people they were paid to fight are not foreign invaders -- that would be us -- but their Pashtun cousins.

Moreover, the surge into the Afghan south seems only to have further alienated the folks who live there, while increasing violence against local residents. It has also come at the expense of American troops in the east, the ones I was recently embedded with, who face an onslaught of hostile fighters moving across the border from Pakistan.

3. What about the enemy strategy? How’s that working?

It seems the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and various hostile fighters in Afghanistan drew their own lessons from Petraeus’s surge in Iraq: they learned to deal with a surge not by fading away before it, but by meeting it with a surge of their own. An American commander defending the eastern front told me that hostile forces recently wiped out five border posts. “They opened the gate,” he said, but with the American high command focused on a future surge into Kandahar, who’s paying attention? In fact, as the battle heats up in the east, another official told me, they are running short of helicopters to medevac out American casualties. In this way, so-called strategy easily morphs into a shell game played largely for an American audience at the expense of American soldiers.

And all the while America’s “partner” in this strategy, the dubious President Karzai, consolidates his power, which is thoroughly grounded in the Pashtun south, the domain of his even more suspect half-brother, Ahmed Wali. In the process, he studiously ignores the parliament, which lately has been staging a silent stop-work protest, occasionally banging on the desks for emphasis. He now evidently bets his money (which used to be ours) on the failure of American forces, and extends feelers of reconciliation to Pakistan and the Taliban, the folks he now fondly calls his “angry brothers.” As for the Afghan people, even the most resilient citizens of Kabul who, like Obama, remain hopeful, say: “This is our big problem.” They’re talking, of course, about Karzai and his government that the Americans put in place, pay for, prop up, and pretend to be “partners” with.

In fact, America’s silent acceptance of President Karzai’s flagrantly fraudulent election last summer -- all those stuffed ballot boxes -- seems to have exploded whatever illusions many Afghans still had about an American commitment to democracy. They know now that matters will not be resolved at polling places or in jirga council tents. They probably won’t be resolved in Afghanistan at all, but in secret locations in Washington, Riyadh, Islamabad, and elsewhere. The American people, by the way, will have little more to say about the resolution of the war -- though it consumes our wealth and our soldiers, too -- than the Afghans.

Think of what’s happening in Afghanistan more generally as a creeping Talibanization, which Afghans say is working all too well. In Marja, in Kandahar, in the east, everywhere, the Taliban do what we can’t and roll out their own (shadow) governments-in-a-box, ready to solve disputes, administer rough justice, collect taxes, and enforce “virtue.” In Herat, the Ulema of the West issue a fatwa restricting the freedom of women to work and move about without a mahram, or male relative as escort. In Kabul, the police raid restaurants that serve alcohol, and the government shuts down reputable, secular international NGOs, charging them with proselytizing. Taliban influence creeps into parliament, into legislation restricting constitutional freedoms, into ministries and governmental contracts where corruption flourishes, and into the provisional peace jirga tent where delegates called for freedom for all imprisoned Taliban. Out of the jails, into the government, to sit side by side with warlords and war criminals, mujahideen brothers under the skin. Embraced by President Karzai. Perhaps even welcomed one day by American strategists and President Obama himself as a way out.

4. If it’s so bad, why can’t it be stopped?

The threatening gloom of American policy is never the whole story. There are young progressive men and women running for Parliament in the coming September elections. There are women organizing to keep hold of the modest gains they’ve made, though how they will do that when the men seem so intent on negotiating them away remains a mystery. There are the valiant efforts of thoroughly devout Muslims who wish to live in the twenty-first century. When they look outward to more developed Islamic countries, however, they see that their homeland is a Muslim country like no other -- and if the Taliban return, it will only be worse.

American development was supposed to have made it all so much better. But tales abound of small, successful projects in education or health care, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and then dropped without a single visit from USAID monitors afraid to leave their Embassy fortress in Kabul. Regularly, USAID now hands over huge hunks of “aid” money to big, impossibly ambitious, quick-fix projects run by the usual no-bid Beltway Bandit contractors whose incompetence, wastefulness, unconscionable profits, and outright fraud should be a national scandal.

This, too, is a process everyone knows but can’t speak about because it’s not part of the official script in which the U.S. must be seen as developing backward Afghanistan, instead of sending it reeling into the darkest of ages. Despairing humanitarians recall that Hillary Clinton promised as secretary of state to clean house at USAID, which, she said, had become nothing but “a contracting shop.” Well, here’s a flash from Afghanistan: it’s still a contracting shop, and the contracts are going to the same set of contractors who have been exposed again and again as venal, fraudulent, and criminal.

Just as Obama sends more troops and a new commander to fight a fraudulent war for a purpose that makes no sense to anyone -- except perhaps the so-called defense intellectuals who live in an alternative Washington-based Afghanaland of their own creation -- Clinton presides over a fraudulent aid program that functions chiefly to transfer American tax dollars from the national treasury to the pockets of already rich contractors and their congressional cronies. If you still believe, as I would like to, that Obama and Clinton actually meant to make change, then you have to ask: How does this state of affairs continue, and why do the members of the international community -- the U.N., all those international NGOs, and our fast-fading coalition allies -- sign off on it?

You have only to look around in Kabul and elsewhere, as I did this month, to see that the more American military there is, the more insurgents there are; the more insurgent attacks, the more private security contractors; the more barriers and razor wire, the more restrictions on freedom of movement in the capital for Afghans and internationals alike; and the more security, the higher the danger pay for members of the international community who choose to stay and spend their time complaining about the way security prevents them from doing their useful work.

And so it goes round and round, this ill-oiled war machine, generating ever more incentives for almost everyone involved -- except ordinary Afghans, of course -- to keep on keeping on. There’s a little something for quite a few: government officials in the U.S., Afghanistan, and Pakistan, for-profit contractors, defense intellectuals, generals, spies, soldiers behind the lines, international aid workers and their Afghan employees, diplomats, members of the Afghan National Army, and the police, and the Taliban, and their various pals, and the whole array of camp followers that service warfare everywhere.

It goes round and round, this inexorable machine, this elaborate construction of corporate capitalism at war, generating immense sums of money for relatively small numbers of people, immense debt for our nation, immense sacrifice from our combat soldiers, and for ordinary Afghans and those who have befriended them or been befriended by them, moments of promise and hope, moments of clarity and rage, and moments of dark laughter that sometimes cannot forestall the onset of despair.

Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Kabul in Winter. Her new book, War Is Not Over When It’s Over: Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War, about her work with women in post-conflict countries, is to be published by Metropolitan Books in September. She is at work on her next book about what happens when America’s wars come home. To visit her website, click here.

Copyright 2010 Ann Jones

June 27, 2010

Wars Fought and Wars Googled
By SCOTT SHANE of the New York Times.

WASHINGTON: THE country’s attention was riveted last week by the drama of the generals: Stanley McChrystal, whose indiscretions in Rolling Stone got him cashiered, and his boss, David Petraeus, who stepped in to take direct command of the troubled Afghanistan counterinsurgency effort.

But a startling scene in a Manhattan courtroom on Monday may have had more to say than the command shake-up about the larger fight to contain Al Qaeda and its allies, and the limits of any general’s ability to affect its outcome.

At a plea hearing, a defiant Faisal Shahzad admitted trying to blow up an S.U.V. in Times Square on May 1. Calling himself “a Muslim soldier,” he explained his motivation: “avenging” the war in Afghanistan and American interventions in Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia.

“I am part of the answer to the U.S. terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people,” Mr. Shahzad said.

His candid confession raised two questions: Has the military’s still-expanding fight against terrorism now become the fuel for terrorism, recruiting more militants than it kills?

And where exactly does the Afghan war fit into the overall campaign against terror, when the enemy’s cause can lure a man like Mr. Shahzad, a former financial analyst for the Elizabeth Arden cosmetics company in Stamford, Conn., and a naturalized American citizen? The questions take on particular urgency because Mr. Shahzad’s flubbed bombing was the latest of a dozen plots since last year aimed at American targets. And in case after case, nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks, plotters have cited America’s still-growing military entanglement in the Muslim world as proof that the United States is at war with Islam.

“One major reason for these plots is that the war on terrorism has been going on as long as it has,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. “After nine years, our enemies have become more adept and sophisticated at exploiting the sentiments and images of war.”

President Obama has defined the United States’ interest in Afghanistan in terms of protecting the American homeland. But General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency credo — “clear, hold, build” — is difficult enough to pull off in the hostile terrain of Kandahar Province. It is impossible on the infinite landscape of the Web, where Mr. Shahzad found the ideology that led him to terror.

“We’re still focused on the nation and not the network,” said John Arquilla, professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. “You can do brilliantly in Afghanistan and still not deal with the Faisal Shahzads of the world.”

The administration’s Afghan strategy still commands broad support from Democrats and Republicans and from outside specialists, who offer a familiar catechism.

Now that the Taliban have taken the initiative again, only a concentrated NATO effort can prevent their return to power, with a possible new base for Al Qaeda, officials say. True, the dwindling Qaeda core is over the border in Pakistan, but Mr. Obama has escalated drone strikes there to pick off some terrorist leaders and keep the rest on the run.

“Even in an age of virtual reality, Al Qaeda can’t do large-scale training and mobilization unless they control some terrain,” said Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who supports the current policy. If the terror network attracts young Muslims now, he said, imagine its appeal if NATO abandoned the field and the militants could claim victory.

“It would be a huge symbolic defeat for the United States, as it was for the Soviet Union,” said Mr. Boot, who is writing a history of guerrilla war and terrorism. “It would greatly embolden Al Qaeda.”

Proponents of the current escalation of troops and drones point out as well that even Mr. Shahzad was not turned into a terrorist solely by the Web. He met face-to-face with leaders and trainers of the Pakistani Taliban before crossing the line into violence. So allowing extremists more room to operate on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border would be a dangerous mistake, officials say.

Still, many scholars who study terror see the interplay of risks and benefits differently.

“The more deeply we’re involved in that region, the more likely it is that we’ll have terrorist attacks here,” said Scott Atran, an anthropologist who interviewed many young Muslim men about the lure of terrorism for his new book, “Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.”

“These lost, young guys see the resistance as heroic and glorious,” Mr. Atran said. “Don’t give them the thrill of fighting the greatest army in the world.”

The accused in recent plots aimed at the United States are a diverse group, including an Army psychiatrist of Palestinian ancestry spraying gunfire at Fort Hood, Tex.; a popular coffee vendor from Afghanistan planning to blow up the New York subway; the son of a prominent Nigerian banker trying to take down an airliner over Detroit; and Mr. Shahzad, a Pakistani-American who loaded his Nissan Pathfinder with fertilizer, propane and gasoline in fortunately ineffectual combination.

Yet they all appear to have imagined themselves as warriors against the enemies of their faith. Their national or ethnic loyalties had been supplanted by loyalty to their co-religionists, the global community of Muslims, known as the ummah.

Maj. Nidal Hasan, accused of killing 13 people in the Fort Hood shooting spree last November, had quoted the Koran in a 2007 PowerPoint demonstration to explain why some Muslim American soldiers might feel conflicted: “And whoever kills a believer intentionally, his punishment is hell.”

“If Muslim groups can convince Muslims that they are fighting for God against injustices of the ‘infidels,’ ” Major Hasan wrote, “then Muslims can become a potent adversary; i.e. suicide bombing.”

But the path to violence appears to involve less scripture than solidarity. “We Muslims are one community,” Mr. Shahzad told the judge at his plea hearing, explaining why he felt obliged to defend strangers in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Gaza — as well as the United States, where he suggested that Muslims were singled out for government scrutiny.

Even as the Obama administration smoothly handled the McChrystal flap and regrouped behind its Afghanistan policy, word came in a report in The New York Times on Friday of diplomatic maneuvering between Afghan and Pakistani leaders that could result in a separate peace, potentially leaving the American generals with 100,000 troops and no one to fight.

Managed deftly, such a deal conceivably might allow Mr. Obama to exit Afghanistan without fear of a Qaeda haven. But since the notion of an American-led war on Muslims has gone viral, the virus would take years or perhaps decades to burn out.

The trouble with terrorism is what the theorists call asymmetry. Hundreds of billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of troops, and the best generals on the planet can be undercut by a disgruntled accountant, commanding the world’s attention with a bomb that didn’t even explode.

June 25, 2010

Obama: Hostage To Petraeus
from The Atlantic Andrew Sullivan

Those of us who hoped for some kind of winding down of the longest war in US history will almost certainly be disappointed now. David Petraeus is the real Pope of counter-insurgency and if he decides that he needs more troops and more time and more resources in Afghanistan next year, who is going to be able to gainsay him? That's Thomas P. Barnett's shrewd assessment. Obama's pledge to start withdrawing troops in 2011 is now kaput. It won't happen. I doubt it will happen in a second term either. Once Washington has decided to occupy a country, it will occupy it forever. We are still, remember, in Germany. But Afghanistan?

Obama's gamble on somehow turning the vast expanse of that ungovernable "nation" into a stable polity dedicated to fighting Jihadist terror is now as big as Bush's in Iraq - and as quixotic. It is also, in my view, as irrational, a deployment of resources and young lives that America cannot afford and that cannot succeed. It really is Vietnam - along with the crazier and crazier rationales for continuing it. But it is now re-starting in earnest ten years in, dwarfing Vietnam in scope and longevity.

One suspects there is simply no stopping this war machine, just as there is no stopping the entitlement and spending machine. Perhaps McChrystal would have tried to wind things up by next year -- but his frustration was clearly fueled by the growing recognition that he could not do so unless he surrendered much of the country to the Taliban again. So now we have the real kool-aid drinker, Petraeus, who will refuse to concede the impossibility of success in Afghanistan just as he still retains the absurd notion that the surge in Iraq somehow worked in reconciling the sectarian divides that still prevent Iraq from having a working government. I find this doubling down in Afghanistan as Iraq itself threatens to spiral out of control the kind of reasoning that only Washington can approve of.

This much we also know: Obama will run for re-election with far more troops in Afghanistan than Bush ever had -- and a war and occupation stretching for ever into the future, with no realistic chance of success. Make no mistake: this is an imperialism of self-defense, a commitment to civilize even the least tractable culture on earth because Americans are too afraid of the consequences of withdrawal. And its deepest irony is that continuing this struggle will actually increase and multiply the terror threats we face -- as it becomes once again a recruitment tool for Jihadists the world over.

This is a war based on fear, premised on a contradiction, and doomed to carry on against reason and resources for the rest of our lives.

Maybe this is why you supported Obama -- to see the folly of nation-building extended indefinitely to the least promising wastelands on earth, as the US heads toward late-imperial bankruptcy. It is not a betrayal as such. But it is, in my view, a huge and metastasizing mistake.

June 24, 2010

Strafor analysis highlights the mess in Afghanistan

U.S. President Barack Obama on June 23 accepted the resignation of command from U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, following a controversial interview with Rolling Stone Magazine. McChrystal's resignation is a direct result of this interview and is not itself an indictment of the status of the war he commanded or the strategy behind it. But ultimately, the U.S. strategy is showing some potentially serious issues of its own.

The U.S.-led campaign was never expected to be an easy fight, and Helmand and Kandahar provinces are the Taliban's stronghold, so progress there is perhaps the most difficult in the entire country. But the heart of the strategy ultimately comes down to "Vietnamization." Though raw growth numbers officially remain on track for both the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, according to testimony which U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michelle Flournoy gave before the U.S. Congress last week, there are serious questions about the quality and effectiveness of those forces and their ability to begin taking on increasing responsibility in the country.

Meanwhile, a U.S. program to farm out more than 70 percent of logistics to Afghan trucking companies appears to be funding both warlord militias independent of the Afghan security forces and the Taliban itself. As STRATFOR has discussed, this may be a valuable expedient allowing U.S. combat forces to be massed for other purposes, but it also risks undermining the very attempts at establishing good governance and civil authority that are central to the ultimate success of the U.S. exit strategy — not to mention running counter to the effort to starve the Taliban of at least some of its resources and bases of support.

Intelligence is at the heart of the American challenge in Afghanistan, a fact that was clear from the beginning of the strategy. Special operations forces surged into the country (now roughly triple their number a year ago) and are reportedly having trouble identifying and tracking down the Taliban. Similarly, slower-than-expected progress in Marjah and the consequent delay of the Kandahar offensive have raised serious questions about whether the intelligence assumptions — particularly about the local populace — underlying the main effort of the American campaign were accurate. Security is proving elusive and the population does not appear to be as interested or as willing to break with the Taliban and join the side of the Afghan government as had been anticipated.

So while there have absolutely been tactical gains against the Taliban, and in some areas local commanders are feeling the pinch, the Taliban perceive themselves as winning the war and are very aware of the tight U.S. timetable. Though the Taliban is a diffuse and multifaceted phenomenon, it also appears to be maintaining a significant degree of internal discipline in terms of preventing the hiving off of "reconcilable" elements, as the Americans had originally hoped. Senior Pentagon officials including Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have admitted as much: It is simply too soon for meaningful negotiation with the Taliban. There has been some recent movement, but nothing decisive or irreversible — and certainly nothing that yet shows strong promise.

And with the frustrations and elusive progress in the Afghan south, it is increasingly clear that the political settlement that has always been a part of the long-term strategy is becoming an increasingly central component of the exit strategy. This is the U.S. State Department's main focus, and there appears to be considerable U.S. support behind Afghan President Hamid Karzai's reconciliation efforts. The Taliban appear to be holding together, so negotiation with the Taliban as an entity (rather than hiving it apart) may be necessary. And given the Taliban's position, this could come at a higher price than once anticipated — and then only if the Taliban can be compelled to enter into meaningful negotiations on some sort of co-dominion over Afghanistan.

June 11, 2010

Karzai Is Said to Doubt West Can Defeat Taliban
By DEXTER FILKINS, the New York Times.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Two senior Afghan officials were showing President Hamid Karzai the evidence of the spectacular rocket attack on a nationwide peace conference earlier this month when Mr. Karzai told them that he believed the Taliban were not responsible.

“The president did not show any interest in the evidence — none — he treated it like a piece of dirt,” said Amrullah Saleh, then the director of the Afghan intelligence service.

Mr. Saleh declined to discuss Mr. Karzai’s reasoning in more detail. But a prominent Afghan with knowledge of the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Mr. Karzai suggested in the meeting that it might have been the Americans who carried it out.

Minutes after the exchange, Mr. Saleh and the interior minister, Hanif Atmar, resigned — the most dramatic defection from Mr. Karzai’s government since he came to power nine years ago. Mr. Saleh and Mr. Atmar said they quit because Mr. Karzai made clear that he no longer considered them loyal.

But underlying the tensions, according to Mr. Saleh and Afghan and Western officials, was something more profound: That Mr. Karzai had lost faith in the Americans and NATO to prevail in Afghanistan.

For that reason, Mr. Saleh and other officials said, Mr. Karzai has been pressing to strike his own deal with the Taliban and the country’s archrival, Pakistan, the Taliban’s longtime supporter. According to a former senior Afghan official, Mr. Karzai’s maneuverings involve secret negotiations with the Taliban outside the purview of American and NATO officials.

“The president has lost his confidence in the capability of either the coalition or his own government to protect this country,” Mr. Saleh said in an interview at his home. “President Karzai has never announced that NATO will lose, but the way that he does not proudly own the campaign shows that he doesn’t trust it is working.”

People close to the president say he began to lose confidence in the Americans last summer, after national elections in which independent monitors determined that nearly one million ballots had been stolen on Mr. Karzai’s behalf. The rift worsened in December, when President Obama announced that he intended to begin reducing the number of American troops by the summer of 2011.

“Karzai told me that he can’t trust the Americans to fix the situation here,” said a Western diplomat in Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He believes they stole his legitimacy during the elections last year. And then they said publicly that they were going to leave.”

Mr. Karzai could not be reached for comment Friday.

If Mr. Karzai’s resolve to work closely with the United States and use his own army to fight the Taliban is weakening, that could present a problem for Mr. Obama. The American war strategy rests largely on clearing ground held by the Taliban so that Mr. Karzai’s army and government can move in, allowing the Americans to scale back their involvement in an increasingly unpopular and costly war.

Relations with Mr. Karzai have been rocky for some time, and international officials have expressed concern in the past that his decision making can be erratic. Last winter, Mr. Karzai accused NATO in a speech of ferrying Taliban fighters around northern Afghanistan in helicopters. Earlier this year, following criticism by the Obama administration, Mr. Karzai told a group of supporters that he might join the Taliban.

American officials tried to patch up their relationship with Mr. Karzai during his visit to the White House last month. Indeed, on many issues, like initiating contact with some Taliban leaders and persuading its fighters to change sides, Mr. Karzai and the Americans are on the same page.

But their motivations appear to differ starkly. The Americans and their NATO partners are pouring tens of thousands of additional troops into the country to weaken hard-core Taliban and force the group to the bargaining table. Mr. Karzai appears to believe that the American-led offensive cannot work.

At a news conference at the Presidential Palace this week, Mr. Karzai was asked about the Taliban’s role in the June 4 attack on the loya jirga and his faith in NATO. He declined to address either one.

“Who did it?” Mr. Karzai said of the attack. “It’s a question that our security organization can bring and prepare the answer.”

Asked if he had confidence in NATO, Mr. Karzai said he was grateful for the help and said the partnership was “working very, very well.” But he did not answer the question.

“We are continuing to work on improvements all around,” Mr. Karzai said, speaking in English and appearing next to David Cameron, the British prime minister.

A senior NATO official said the resignations of Mr. Atmar and Mr. Saleh, who had strong support from the NATO allies, were “extremely disruptive.”

The official said of Mr. Karzai, “My concern is, is he capable of being a wartime leader?”

The NATO official said that American commanders had given Mr. Karzai a dossier showing overwhelming evidence that the attack on the peace conference had been carried out by fighters loyal to Jalalhuddin Haqqani, one of the main leaders fighting under the Taliban’s umbrella.

“There was no doubt,” the official said.

The resignations of Mr. Saleh and Mr. Atmar revealed a deep fissure among Afghan leaders as to the best way to deal with the Taliban and with their patrons in Pakistan.

Mr. Saleh is a former aide to the late Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary commander who fought the Soviet Union and the Taliban. Many of Mr. Massoud’s former lieutenants, mostly ethnic Tajiks and now important leaders in northern Afghanistan, sat out the peace conference. Like Mr. Saleh, they favor a tough approach to negotiating with the Taliban and Pakistan.

Mr. Karzai, like the overwhelming majority of the Taliban, is an ethnic Pashtun. He appears now to favor a more conciliatory approach.

At the end of the loya jirga, Mr. Karzai announced the formation of a commission that would review the case of every Taliban fighter held in custody and release those who were not considered extremely dangerous. The commission, which would be led by several senior members of Mr. Karzai’s government, excluded the National Directorate of Security, the intelligence agency run by Mr. Saleh.

In the interview, Mr. Saleh said he took offense at the exclusion. His primary job is to understand the Taliban, he said; leaving his agency off the commission made him worry that Mr. Karzai might intend to release hardened Taliban fighters.

“His conclusion is — a lot of Taliban have been wrongly detained, they should be released,” Mr. Saleh said. “We are 10 years into the collapse of the Taliban — it means we don’t know who the enemy is. We wrongly detain people.”

Mr. Saleh also criticized the loya jirga. “Here is the meaning of the jirga,” Mr. Saleh said. “I don’t want to fight you. I even open the door to you. It was my mistake to push you into the mountains. The jirga was not a victory for the Afghan state, it was a victory for the Taliban.”

Mr. Karzai has been seeking to build bridges to the Taliban for months. Earlier this year, the president’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, held secret meetings with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s deputy commander, according to a former senior Afghan official.

According to Gen. Hilaluddin Hilal, the deputy interior minister in an earlier Karzai government, Ahmed Wali Karzai and Mr. Baradar met twice in January near Spin Boldak, a town on the border with Pakistan. The meeting was brokered by Mullah Essa Khakrezwal, the Taliban’s shadow governor of Kandahar Province, and Hafez Majid, a senior Taliban intelligence official, General Hilal said.

A Western analyst in Kabul confirmed General Hilal’s account. The senior NATO official said he was unaware of the meeting, as did Mr. Saleh. Ahmed Wali Karzai did not respond to e-mail queries on the meeting.

The resolution of that meeting was not clear, General Hilal said. Mr. Baradar was arrested in late January in a joint Pakistani-American raid in Karachi, Pakistan. But Mr. Karzai’s attempts to negotiate with the Taliban have continued, he said.

“He doesn’t think the Americans can afford to stay,” General Hilal said.

Mr. Saleh said that Mr. Karzai’s strategy also involved a more conciliatory line toward Pakistan. If true, this would amount to a sea change for Mr. Karzai, who has spent his nine years in office regularly accusing the Pakistanis of supporting the Taliban insurgency.

Mr. Saleh says he fears that Afghanistan will be forced into accepting what he called an “undignified deal” with Pakistan that will leave his country in a weakened state.

He said he considered Mr. Karzai a patriot. But he said the president was making a mistake if he planned to rely on Pakistani support. (Pakistani leaders have for years pressed Mr. Karzai to remove Mr. Saleh, whom they see as a hard-liner).

“They are weakening him under the disguise of respecting him. They will embrace a weak Afghan leader, but they will never respect him,” Mr. Saleh said.

June 7, 2010

Count another way we finance our own enemy

The Taliban and/or Karzai's corrupt family gets a cut of every ounce of heroin and opium we from them.

We bribe them to allow our shipments through of guns, medicine and supplies through -- the supplies necessary to fight them.

All this makes zero sense. Read here.


June 7, 2010

Convoy Guards in Afghanistan Face an Investigation
By DEXTER FILKINS of the New York Times.

MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan — For months, reports have abounded here that the Afghan mercenaries who escort American and other NATO convoys through the badlands have been bribing Taliban insurgents to let them pass.

Then came a series of events last month that suggested all-out collusion with the insurgents.

After a pair of bloody confrontations with Afghan civilians, two of the biggest private security companies — Watan Risk Management and Compass Security — were banned from escorting NATO convoys on the highway between Kabul and Kandahar.

The ban took effect on May 14. At 10:30 a.m. that day, a NATO supply convoy rolling through the area came under attack. An Afghan driver and a soldier were killed, and a truck was overturned and burned. Within two weeks, with more than 1,000 trucks sitting stalled on the highway, the Afghan government granted Watan and Compass permission to resume.

Watan’s president, Rashid Popal, strongly denied any suggestion that his men either colluded with insurgents or orchestrated attacks to emphasize the need for their services. Executives with Compass Security did not respond to questions.

But the episode, and others like it, has raised the suspicions of investigators here and in Washington, who are trying to track the tens of millions in taxpayer dollars paid to private security companies to move supplies to American and other NATO bases.

Although the investigation is not complete, the officials suspect that at least some of these security companies — many of which have ties to top Afghan officials — are using American money to bribe the Taliban. The officials suspect that the security companies may also engage in fake fighting to increase the sense of risk on the roads, and that they may sometimes stage attacks against competitors.

The suspicions raise fundamental questions about the conduct of operations here, since the convoys, and the supplies they deliver, are the lifeblood of the war effort.

“We’re funding both sides of the war,” a NATO official in Kabul said. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was incomplete, said he believed millions of dollars were making their way to the Taliban.

The investigation is complicated by, among other things, the fact that some of the private security companies are owned by relatives of President Hamid Karzai and other senior Afghan officials. Mr. Popal, for instance, is a cousin of Mr. Karzai, and Western officials say that Watan Risk Management’s largest shareholder is Mr. Karzai’s brother Qayum.

The principal goal of the American-led campaign here is to prepare an Afghan state and army to fight the Taliban themselves. The possibility of collusion between the Taliban and Afghan officials suggests that, rather than fighting each another, the two Afghan sides may often cooperate under the noses of their wealthy benefactors.

“People think the insurgency and the government are separate, and that is just not always the case,” another NATO official in Kabul said. “What we are finding is that they are often bound up together.”

The security companies, which appear to operate under little supervision, have sometimes wreaked havoc on Afghan civilians. Some of the private security companies have been known to attack villages on routes where convoys have come under fire, Western officials here say.

Records show there are 52 government-registered security companies, with 24,000 gunmen, most of them Afghans. But many, if not most, of the security companies are not registered at all, do not advertise themselves and do not necessarily restrain their gunmen with training or rules of engagement. Some appear to be little more than gangs with guns.

In the city of Kandahar alone, at least 23 armed groups — ostensibly security companies not registered with the government — are operating under virtually no government control, Western and Afghan officials said. On Kandahar’s chaotic streets, armed men can often be seen roaming about without any uniforms or identification.

“There are thousands of people that have been paid by both civilian and military organizations to escort their convoys, and they all pose a problem,” said Hanif Atmar, the Afghan interior minister. (Mr. Atmar resigned under pressure from President Karzai on Sunday.) “The Afghan people are not ready to accept the private companies’ providing public security.”

Many of the gunmen are escorting convoys carrying supplies to American and NATO bases, under a $2.2 billion American contract called Host Nation Trucking. American officials award contracts to Afghan and American trucking companies to transport food and other supplies to their bases around the country. They leave it to the trucking companies to protect themselves.

As a result, the trucking companies typically hire one of the security companies that have sprung up to capture the extraordinarily lucrative market in escorting convoys. The security companies typically charge $800 to $2,500 per truck to escort a convoy on a long stretch of highway. The convoys often contain hundreds of trucks each.

In addition, many of the security companies also have contracts to guard American military bases.

The money is so good, in fact, that the families of some of Afghanistan’s most powerful people, many of them government officials, have set up their own security companies to get in on the action.

In addition to Watan Risk Management, there is NCL Holdings, founded by Hamid Wardak, the son of Rahim Wardak, the Afghan defense minister. Elite Security Services, another NATO convoy escort service, is owned by Siddiq Mujadeddi, the son of Sibghatullah Mujadeddi, the speaker of the Afghan Senate, officials said. Asia Security Group, another private security company, was, at least until recently, controlled by Hashmat Karzai, a cousin of the president.

The security companies’ methods are sometimes unorthodox. While at least some of the companies are believed to be bribing Taliban fighters, many have also been known to act with extreme harshness toward villagers or insurgents who have tried to interfere with their convoys.

One of the more notorious commanders of a private security outfit is an Afghan named Ruhullah, who, like many Afghans, goes by one name. Mr. Ruhullah controls a company called Commando Security, which escorts convoys between Kandahar and Helmand Province to the west. While he is suspected of striking deals with some Taliban fighters, Mr. Ruhullah is known to have dealt brutally with those — civilians or insurgents — who have impeded the flow of his trucks.

“He’s laid waste to entire villages,” said an official at the Interior Ministry who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Many of the private security companies, including the one owned by Mr. Ruhullah, appear to be under the influence of Ahmed Wali Karzai, a brother of President Karzai and the chairman of the Kandahar Provincial Council. Though nominally an American ally, Ahmed Wali Karzai has surfaced in numerous intelligence and law enforcement reports connecting him to Afghanistan’s booming opium trade.

He did not respond to questions for this article, but he has denied any involvement in Afghanistan’s narcotics trade.

The NATO official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Popals, the nominal owners of Watan Risk Management, cooperate with Ahmed Wali Karzai and Mr. Ruhullah. “They are very, very close,” he said.

Mr. Popal, in his interview, said he had no contact with anyone in President Karzai’s immediate family. “This is just politics,” he said of the accusations made against him.

American and Afghan officials said that Ahmed Wali Karzai was moving rapidly to bring the 23 unregistered security companies in Kandahar under his own control. With the government’s support, Ahmed Wali Karzai, together with Mr. Ruhullah, plan to form an umbrella company, called the Kandahar Security Force, that will broker business for the various individual companies, a senior NATO official said.

“He wants a cut of every contract,” the NATO official in Kabul said.

At least two groups of American investigators are focusing on potential bribes to the Taliban: the House national security subcommittee, whose chairman is Representative John F. Tierney, a Democrat from Massachusetts; and another group working for NATO in Kabul.

While the practice of buying off the enemy may seem extraordinary, it is neither unusual here nor unprecedented. Many Afghans, even those in the government, have relatives, even brothers and sons, in the Taliban.

Following the Dollar Trail

Western officials believe that Afghan officials have paid bribes to the Taliban before — for instance, so that they will refrain from attacking the transmission towers that make up the country’s cellphone network. Officials familiar with the investigations say that most, if not all, of the security companies actually do fight the Taliban.

The evidence, they say, suggests that the Afghan security companies sometimes make deals with insurgents when they feel they have to — that is, where the Taliban are too strong to be defeated.

“The rule seems to be, if the attack is small, then crush it,” the Interior Ministry official said. “But if the presence of Taliban is too big to crush, then make a deal.”

Mr. Popal, the Watan executive, said that his security teams regularly fought the Taliban, and died doing so. Last year, he said, his company lost 250 men. “We fight the Taliban,” Mr. Popal said.

Exact casualty figures are difficult to come by, because statistics are kept only for the Host Nation Trucking contract. American officials in Kabul say 27 security contractors were killed between April 2009 and May 2010, and 38 were wounded. Investigators say they are having a hard time putting a dollar figure on the amount the Taliban may be receiving, in part because the trucking companies are not required to report what they pay for security. Trucking contractors pay security companies, which sometimes award subcontractors to other companies, which sometimes do the same.

“I can’t tell you about the sub to the sub to the sub,” the senior NATO official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

As a result, much about the relationships between the security companies and the Taliban is shrouded in mystery. Afghan and NATO officials say that anecdotal evidence suggests that in order to keep their trucks moving — and to keep up their business — some companies may sometimes pay Taliban fighters not to attack, to sometimes mount attacks on competitors, or, as is suspected in the case in Maidan Shahr, to attack NATO forces.

“It would be my expectation that people might create their own demand,” said Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “It is essential that these highways move freely without extortion and racketeering.”

Officials say that they are not certain what happened last month in Maidan Shahr, but that some of the circumstances surrounding the case points to the possibility of some sort of collusion with insurgents or criminals.

Mohammed Halim Fedai, the governor of Wardak Province and the official who pushed for the ban on Watan and Compass, said he was not sure what happened either. But he noted that Watan Risk Management came under attack far less frequently than the other security companies did.

“Maybe they are just stronger, so the Taliban are afraid of them,” he said.

An Afghan official in Maidan Shahr, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that there were strong suspicions in the Afghan government that Watan pays the Taliban, and that the company acts brutally to deal with threats to its business.

“Watan’s people may have staged the attack themselves,” he said.

May 22, 2010

1,067 American service members have now been killed in Afghanistan.

For what?


April 14, 2010

Closing the War in Afghanistan Down
by Harry Newton

As ime drags on, more American soldiers die in Afghanistan. There's more corruption. There are more words written. Every week there's a new reason why we have to be there. The reason being that last week's reason is not longer valid. Al Qaeda (now in Pakistan and Yemen). A real democracy (Karzai stole the latest election). What now? No one has ever succeeded in conquering Afghanistan, or subduing it or giving it we want for it -- whatever that is.

I could publish on this web site a thousand articles from eminent politicans, diplomats, reporters and military officials. You'd read the endless words and ask yourself, "So what do I do now?" And the answer is? They don't tell you.

There is one solution. Declare victory. And come home. This is not a new strategy. We actually did it in Vietnam, except we were forced out. Here, sadly, there's no one to force us out. In fact everyone -- our friends and our enemies -- want us there. They all steal our money.

Here's the latest "think" piece on Afghanistan. Mr. Friedman is an eminent reporter for the New York Times. Normally he writes sentences you and I can udnerstand. See if you can figure what he's trying to say. Good luck.

April 14, 2010

Attention: Baby on Board

There are many differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, but they do resemble each other in one critical way. In both countries, the “bad guys,” the violent jihadists, are losing. And in both countries, it still is not clear if the “good guys” will really turn out to be good.

And the big question the Obama team is facing in both countries is: Should we care? Should we care if these countries are run by decent leaders or by drug-dealing, oil-stealing extras from “The Sopranos” — as long as we can just get out? At this stage, alas, we have to care — and here’s why.

I’ve read a lot of analyses lately criticizing President Obama and Vice President Biden for coming down so hard on Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s corruption. Karzai’s the best we’ve got, goes the argument. He’s helped us in our primary objective of degrading Al Qaeda and done good things, like opening schools for girls. Sure, he stole his election, but he is still more popular than anyone else in Afghanistan and would have won anyway. (Then why did he have to steal it? Never mind.)

This line echoes the realist arguments during the cold war as to why we had to support various tyrants. What mattered inside their countries was not important, the argument went. What mattered is where they lined up outside in our great struggle against Soviet Communism.

The Bush team took this kind of “neo-realist” approach to Afghanistan. It had no desire to do state-building there. Once Karzai was installed, President Bush ignored the corruption of Karzai and his cronies. All the Bush team wanted was for Karzai to hold the country together so the U.S. could use it as a base to go after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Frankly, this low-key approach made a lot of sense to me because I never thought Afghanistan was that important. But, unfortunately, the Karzai government became so rotten and incapable of delivering services that many Afghans turned back to the Taliban.

So the Obama team came with a new strategy: We have to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan if we are going to keep Al Qaeda in check there and in Pakistan — and the only way to do that is by clearing them out of the towns and installing decent Afghan police, judges and bureaucrats — i.e., good governance — in the Taliban’s wake. Obama’s view is that, to some degree, idealism is the new realism in Afghanistan: To protect our hard-core interests, to achieve even our limited goals of quashing Al Qaeda and its allies, we have to do something that looks very idealistic — deliver better governance for Afghans.

I still wish we had opted for a less intrusive alternative; I’m still skeptical about the whole thing. But I understand the logic of the Obama strategy and, given that logic, he was right to chastise Karzai — even publicly. If decent governance is the key to our strategy, it is important that Afghans see and hear where we stand on these issues. Otherwise, where will they find the courage to stand up for better governance? We need to bring along the whole society. Never forget, the Karzai regime’s misgovernance is the reason we’re having to surge anew in Afghanistan. Karzai is both the cause and the beneficiary of the surge. I’m sure the surge will beat the bad guys, but if the “good guys” are no better, it will all be for naught.

In the cold war all that mattered was whether a country was allied with us. What matters in Obama’s war in Afghanistan is whether the Afghan people are allied with their own government and each other. Only then can we get out and leave behind something stable, decent and self-sustaining.

Unlike Afghanistan, the war in Iraq was, at its core, always driven more by idealism than realism. It was sold as being about W.M.D. But, in truth, it was really a rare exercise in the revolutionary deployment of U.S. power. The immediate target was to topple Saddam’s genocidal dictatorship. But the bigger objective was to help Iraqis midwife a democratic model that could inspire reform across the Arab-Muslim world and give the youth there a chance at a better future. Again, the Iraq story is far from over, but one does have to take heart at the recent elections there and the degree to which Iraqi voters favored multiethnic, modernizing parties.

So, while Obama came to office looking at both Iraq and Afghanistan as places where we need to be focused more on protecting our interests than promoting our ideals, he’s finding himself, now in office, having to promote a more idealist approach to both. The world will be a better place if it works, but it will require constant vigilance. When Karzai tries to gut an independent election commission, that matters. When the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, refuses to accept a vote count certified by the U.N. that puts him in second place, that matters.

As I have said before, friends don’t let friends drive drunk — especially when we’re still in the back seat alongside an infant named Democracy.

February 23, 2010

NATO Airstrike Is Said to Have Killed Afghan Civilians
By ROD NORDLAND of the New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — A NATO helicopter airstrike on Sunday against what international troops believed to be a group of insurgents ended up killing as many as 27 civilians in the worst such case since at least September, Afghan officials said Monday.

“The repeated killing of civilians by NATO forces is unjustifiable,” President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet said in a statement. “We strongly condemn it.”

The attack was carried out by United States Special Forces helicopters that were patrolling the area hunting for insurgents who had escaped the NATO offensive in the Marja area, about 150 miles away, according to Gen. Abdul Hameed, an Afghan National Army commander in Dehrawood, which is part of Oruzgan Province. General Hameed, interviewed by telephone, said there had been no request from any ground forces to carry out an attack.

The airstrike took place in an area under Dutch military control, and if Dutch forces were involved in the incident it could have serious political repercussions in the Netherlands, where the government collapsed Saturday over an effort to extend the stay of 2,000 Dutch troops in Afghanistan.

But a Dutch defense ministry spokesman in The Hague said Dutch forces were not involved in calling the airstrike. The spokesman, who spoke in return for customary anonymity, did not say who had called for air support.

NATO officials did not immediately identify the nationality of the forces involved in the incident.

“Yesterday a group of suspected insurgents, believed to be en route to attack a joint Afghan-ISAF unit, was engaged by an airborne weapons team resulting in a number of individuals killed and wounded,” the American-led international force, also known as ISAF, said in a statement released Monday. “After the joint ground force arrived at the scene and found women and children, they transported the wounded to medical treatment facilities.”The phrase “airborne weapons team” apparently referred to helicopters rather than to fixed-wing aircraft.

Zemarai Bashary, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the victims were all civilians who were attacked by air while traveling in two Land Cruisers and a pickup truck, which carried 42 people in all, near Khotal Chowzar, a mountain pass that connects Daikondi Province with Oruzgan Province in central Afghanistan.

Mr. Bashary said there were no Afghan forces known to be operating in the area where the airstrike took place, but an investigation was under way to determine who was involved.The cabinet statement, posted on the president’s Web site in English and Dari, said there were 27 dead, including 4 women and a child. Twelve people also were wounded. Mr. Bashary said only 21 dead had been confirmed so far, with 14 wounded and 2 missing, but he said those were preliminary figures.

The commander of the International Security Assistance Force, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, apologized to Mr. Karzai on Sunday night and ordered an investigation into what had happened, the international force said. Mr. Karzai’s office said in a statement that the president “reminded the NATO commander that the issue of civilian casualties was a major hurdle against an effective war on terror and it must stop.”

“We are extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives,” General McChrystal said. “I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people, and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission. We will redouble our efforts to regain that trust.”

Last June, General McChrystal announced a shift in policy greatly restricting the use of airstrikes to reduce civilian casualties. The change meant airstrikes would normally be used only to save the lives of coalition forces when under attack, and would be carefully reviewed in advance. ...

February 18, 2010

The Taliban are not stupid
by Harry Newton

They have adopted new ideas:

1. IEDs. Roadside bombs.

2. Suicide bombers.

3. Long-range snipers to kill American ground troops.

4. Propoganda saying that American airpower is killing innocent Afgan civilians -- effectively grounding American airpower, our overwhelming strength.

It's very hard to fight these "weapons."

We have no idea what "winning" this war means. Hence, we have no idea what "victory" will look like.

The Taliban are effectively funded by our (U.S.) money. The U.S. buys oil from our "ally" Saudi Arabia. In turn, Saudi uses our money to fund Madrassah -- schools the Taliban recruits from. These schools teach no modern marketable business skills. The only employer is the Taliban, which pays salaries, provides healthcare and security. Meantime, rich Saudis are expected also to contribute personal monies to the Taliban -- which they do in vast sums.

The Taliban also gets money from poppy growing and cocaine and heroin production -- for which the U.S. and Europe are the main customers. Prices are kept artificially high because we have made these drugs illegal.

All great empires -- from the Romans to the British, to the Russians -- were ultimately toppled from their number one place by the financial burdens of maintaining armies in remote places.

There is no future or benefit for the U.S. in this "War."

January 17, 2010

What’s Our Sputnik?

Taipei, Taiwan: Dick Cheney says President Obama is “trying to pretend that we are not at war” with terrorists. There is only one thing I have to say about that: I sure hope so.

Frankly, if I had my wish, we would be on our way out of Afghanistan not in, we would be letting Pakistan figure out which Taliban they want to conspire with and which ones they want to fight, we would be letting Israelis and Palestinians figure out on their own how to make peace, we would be taking $100 billion out of the Pentagon budget to make us independent of imported oil — nothing would make us more secure — and we would be reducing the reward for killing or capturing Osama bin Laden to exactly what he’s worth: 10 cents and an autographed picture of Dick Cheney.

Am I going isolationist? No, but visiting the greater China region always leaves me envious of the leaders of Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, who surely get to spend more of their time focusing on how to build their nations than my president, whose agenda can be derailed at any moment by a jihadist death cult using exploding underpants.

Could we just walk away? No, but we must change our emphasis. The “war on terrorists” has to begin by our challenging the people and leaders over there. If they’re not ready to take the lead, to speak out and fight the madness in their midst, for the future of their own societies, there is no way we can succeed. We’ll exhaust ourselves trying. We’d be better off just building a higher wall.

As the terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman noted in an essay in The Washington Post: “In the wake of the global financial crisis, Al Qaeda has stepped up a strategy of economic warfare. ‘We will bury you,’ Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev promised Americans 50 years ago. Today, Al Qaeda threatens: ‘We will bankrupt you.’ ” And they will.

Our presence, our oil dependence, our endless foreign aid in the Middle East have become huge enablers of bad governance there and massive escapes from responsibility and accountability by people who want to blame all their troubles on us. Let’s get out of the way and let the moderate majorities there, if they really exist, face their own enemies on their own. It is the only way they will move. We can be the wind at their backs, but we can’t be their sails. There is some hope for Iraq and Iran today because their moderates are fighting for themselves.

Has anyone noticed the most important peace breakthrough on the planet in the last two years? It’s right here: the new calm in the Strait of Taiwan. For decades, this was considered the most dangerous place on earth, with Taiwan and China pointing missiles at each other on hair triggers. Well, over the past two years, China and Taiwan have reached a quiet rapprochement — on their own. No special envoys or shuttling secretaries of state. Yes, our Navy was a critical stabilizer. But they worked it out. They realized their own interdependence. The result: a new web of economic ties, direct flights and student exchanges.

A key reason is that Taiwan has no oil, no natural resources. It’s a barren rock with 23 million people who, through hard work, have amassed the fourth-largest foreign currency reserves in the world. They got rich digging inside themselves, unlocking their entrepreneurs, not digging for oil. They took responsibility. They got rich by asking: “How do I improve myself?” Not by declaring: “It’s all somebody else’s fault. Give me a handout.”

When I look at America from here, I worry. China is now our main economic partner and competitor. Sure, China has big problems. Nevertheless, I hope Americans see China’s rise as the 21st-century equivalent of Russia launching the Sputnik satellite — a challenge to which we responded with a huge national effort that revived our education, infrastructure and science and propelled us for 50 years. Unfortunately, the Cheneyites want to make fighting Al Qaeda our Sputnik. Others want us to worry about some loopy remark Senator Harry Reid made about the shade of Obama’s skin.

Well, what is our national project going to be? Racing China, chasing Al Qaeda or parsing Harry? Of course, to a degree, we need to both race China and confront Al Qaeda — but which will define us?

“Our response to Sputnik made us better educated, more productive, more technologically advanced and more ingenious,” said the Johns Hopkins foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum. “Our investments in science and education spread throughout American society, producing the Internet, more students studying math and people genuinely wanting to build the nation.”

And what does the war on terror give us? Better drones, body scanners and a lot of desultory T.S.A. security jobs at airports. “Sputnik spurred us to build a highway to the future,” added Mandelbaum. “The war on terror is prompting us to build bridges to nowhere.”

We just keep thinking we can do it all — be focused, frightened and frivolous. We can’t. We don’t have the money. We don’t have the time.

January 10, 2010

How to get out of Afghanistan
by Harry Newton

We went into Afghanistan to stop Al Qaeda. But it moved to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Spain, Germany, Britain, and most recently the U.S. The terrorism threat is now global. It is no longer a conventional land war. It is an intelligence war -- protecting us from the next shoe, underwear or what-have-you suicide bomber.

Afghanistan is increasingly irrelevant and increasingly expensive. It is unaffordable for a country suffering its worst economic recession in 70 years since the Great Depression.

My preference is to declare victory and bring the troops homes within weeks. But too many people in Washington have their careers (and income) tied into this war. Hence getting out fast (and cheaply) is not acceptable to them. They want to be paid more money to experiment with more American lives -- so long as those lives are not theirs or their children's.

For a more moderate course, I turn to The Nation, a magazine not known for its conservative views. This piece make sense:

How to Exit Afghanistan
by SELIG S. HARRISON, The Nation

With the Taliban growing steadily stronger, 30,000 more US troops will not lead to the early disengagement from the Afghan quagmire envisaged by President Obama, even in the improbable event that Hamid Karzai delivers on his promises of better governance. What is needed is a major United Nations diplomatic initiative designed to get Afghanistan's regional neighbors to join in setting a disengagement timetable and to share responsibility for preventing a Taliban return to power in Kabul.

The timetable should provide not only for the early withdrawal of all US combat forces within, say, three years but also for the termination of US military access to air bases in Afghanistan within five years. It should set the stage, in short, for the military neutralization of Afghanistan.

A commitment to categorical disengagement has long been demanded by Taliban leaders as the condition for negotiations. It would test whether they are ready for the local peace deals that the Obama administration appears prepared to accept, or will insist on power-sharing in Kabul as the price of peace.

Even without a regional diplomatic framework, such a withdrawal timetable would be desirable and will become increasingly inescapable; but its political risks can be minimized by mobilizing regional support for the political containment of the Taliban.

Russia, India, Iran and Tajikistan all helped the United States to dislodge the Taliban in 2001. All of them, together with China, fear that a resurrected Taliban regime would pose a terrorist threat and would foment domestic Islamist insurgencies within their borders.

Russia faces nascent Islamist forces in its Muslim south. India worries that Taliban control in Kabul would lead to more Pakistan-based attacks like the 2008 one in Mumbai. The Shiite theocracy ruling Iran fears that a Sunni Taliban regime would help the Sunni Jundullah separatist movement in the Iranian part of Baluchistan and Salafi extremists in other non-Persian ethnic minority regions. Tajikistan faces Sunni extremist groups led by Hizb ut-Tahrir and is increasingly unsettled by an influx of Afghan refugees, which could grow if the Taliban return to power. China is beset by Islamist Uighur separatists in Xinjiang.

It is significant that all these neighboring countries are disturbed in varying degree by the expansion of US air bases near their borders; they recognize that no Taliban faction is likely to negotiate peace until the United States and NATO set a timetable that covers both withdrawal of their forces and closure of US bases. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's March 2009 proposal for a regional conference, revived recently by Henry Kissinger, has been ignored by potential participants because it assumes the indefinite continuance of a US military presence.
Iran and India are already giving large-scale economic aid to Kabul. Both might well increase it if US-NATO aid diminishes. New Delhi is helping to train the Afghan police and is prepared to join the United States and NATO in their faltering efforts to train the army.

China might well step up economic aid once the United States departs, as Li Qinggong, deputy secretary general of the China Institute for National Security Studies, hinted in a September 29 statement that also envisioned talks on "how to dispose of the forces of al-Qaeda" if and when the United States disengages and the possible establishment of "an international peacekeeping mission." Beijing is investing $3 billion in Afghanistan's Aynak copper mine and is "considering" a US request for help in police training. As members of a regional grouping known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, all of Afghanistan's neighbors signed a March 27 statement spelling out detailed action plans for counterterrorism and narcotics control.

The culmination of a UN-led regional diplomatic initiative would be an agreement that would not only set a timetable for military disengagement but would also bar the use of Afghanistan as a base for terrorism and seek to neutralize it as a focus of regional and major power rivalries. The agreement would be signed by the regional neighbors, the United States, NATO and others, like Saudi Arabia, that are playing a role in Afghanistan. Signatories would pledge to respect the country's neutrality, not to provide arms to warring factions and to cooperate in UN enforcement of an arms aid ban.

Neutrality was Afghanistan's traditional posture during the decades of the monarchy, until Soviet intervention dragged it into global power rivalries. "The best and most fruitful policy that one can imagine for Afghanistan," said King Nadir Shah in 1931, "is a policy of neutrality." The late Zahir Shah continued this policy and expressed his dismay to me when the Bonn Agreement of December 2001, following the ouster of the Taliban, spoke only of "non-interference" and studiously avoided references to "neutrality" and "nonalignment."

To be sure, one of Afghanistan's neighbors, its historic adversary Pakistan, created the Taliban and has continued to support it in the hope of establishing an anti-Indian client state in Kabul. But Islamabad would have two powerful reasons for joining in the accord and for stopping its aid. First, India, like other signatories, would be barred from operating out of Afghanistan militarily in the event of an India-Pakistan conflict and from using Afghanistan as a base for supporting Baluch and other ethnic insurgents in Pakistan. Second, the accord would be designed only to prevent the Taliban from re-establishing control in Kabul and using its local strongholds as a base for terrorist operations elsewhere, not to remove all Taliban influence in Afghanistan itself. Thus, Pakistan would still have political allies in future Afghan power struggles.

At present, the United States is dependent on Pakistan as a conduit for shipping supplies to its forces in Afghanistan. Thus, even though Washington gives more than $1 billion a year in military hardware and cash subsidies to the Pakistani army, it has been unable to use the threat of an aid cutoff to curb Pakistan's aid to the Taliban. Disengagement would free the United States to use its aid leverage. Pressure from China, which provides Islamabad with fighter aircraft, would also help assure Pakistani participation in a regional accord. No UN monitoring system could completely seal off arms aid to the rival Afghan factions or bring an end to the competition between India and Pakistan for influence in Kabul; but a framework for regional cooperation could prevent a return to anarchy and civil war.

The principal obstacle to a regional neutralization accord is likely to be the Pentagon's desire to have "permanent access" to its network of Afghan bases near the borders of Russia, China, Iran and Central Asia to facilitate intelligence surveillance as well as any future military operations. Some of the seventy-four US bases in Afghanistan have been developed for counterinsurgency operations and might be expendable. But the big airfields at Bagram and Kandahar, which accounted for $425.7 million in the fiscal 2008 Pentagon military construction budget alone, are expected to expand steadily in the years ahead.

President Obama has yet to address the future of the air bases, and until he does, no diplomatic cover for US disengagement will be possible. The underlying issue that he confronts is what an "exit strategy" means and whether the United States will be using Afghanistan to further its global power projection long after he has left office and long after the Taliban and Al Qaeda are forgotten.

January 5, 2010

Read this New York Times piece and ask yourself. How can we ever win this war -- even if we knew what "winning" actually was? -- Harry Newton

Behind Afghan Bombing, an Agent With Many Loyalties

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The suicide bomber who killed seven C.I.A. officers and a Jordanian spy last week was a double agent who was taken onto the base in Afghanistan because the Americans hoped he might be able to deliver top members of Al Qaeda’s network, according to Western government officials.

The bomber had been recruited by the Jordanian intelligence service and taken to Afghanistan to infiltrate Al Qaeda by posing as a foreign jihadi, the officials said.

But in a deadly turnabout, the supposed informant strapped explosives to his body and blew himself up at a meeting Wednesday at the C.I.A.’s Forward Operating Base Chapman in the southeastern province of Khost.

The attack at the C.I.A. base dealt a devastating blow to the spy agency’s operations against militants in the remote mountains of Afghanistan, eliminating an elite team using an informant with strong jihadi credentials. The attack further delayed hope of penetrating Al Qaeda’s upper ranks, and also seemed potent evidence of militants’ ability to strike back against their American pursuers.

It could also jeopardize relations between the C.I.A. and the Jordanian spy service, which officials said had vouched for the would-be informant.

The Jordanian service, called the General Intelligence Directorate, for years has been one of the C.I.A.’s closest and most useful allies in the Middle East.

In a telephone interview, a person associated with the Pakistani Taliban identified the bomber as Humam Khalil Mohammed, a Jordanian physician. Western officials said that Mr. Mohammed had been in a Jordanian prison and that he was recruited by the Jordanian spy service.

The bomber was not closely searched because of his perceived value as someone who could lead American forces to senior Qaeda leaders, and because the Jordanian intelligence officer had identified him as a potentially valuable informant, the Western officials said.

The Western officials and others who were interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.

Current and former American officials said Monday that because of Mr. Mohammed’s medical background, he might have been recruited to find the whereabouts of Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian doctor who is Al Qaeda’s second in command.

Agency officers had traveled from Kabul, the Afghan capital, to Khost for a meeting with the informant, a sign that the C.I.A. had come to trust the informant and that it was eager to learn what he might have gleaned from operations in the field, according to a former C.I.A. official with experience in Afghanistan.

The former official said that the fact that militants could carry out a successful attack using a double agent showed their strength even after a steady barrage of missile strikes fired by C.I.A. drone aircraft.

“Double agent operations are really complex,” he said. “The fact that they can pull this off shows that they are not really on the run. They have the ability to kick back and think about these things.”

The death of the Jordanian intelligence officer, Capt. Sharif Ali bin Zeid, was reported in recent days by Jordanian officials, but they did not confirm exactly where he was killed or what he was doing in Afghanistan.

Jordanian intelligence officials were deeply embarrassed by the attacks because they had taken the informant to the Americans, said one American government official briefed on the events.

The official said that the Jordanians had such a good reputation with American intelligence officials that the informant was not screened before entering the compound.

Jarret Brachman, author of “Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice” and a consultant to the United States government about terrorism, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Mohammed had used the online persona Abu Dujana al-Khorasani and was an influential jihadi voice on the Web.

“He’s one of the most revered authors on the jihadists’ forums,” Mr. Brachman said.

“He’s in the top five jihadists. He’s one of the biggest guns out there.”

In many of the posts under his online persona, Mr. Mohammed used elusive language filled with references to literature and the Koran to describe his support for violent opposition to the United States-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“When a fighter for God kills a U.S. soldier on the corner of a tank, the supporters of Jihad have killed tens of thousands of Americans through their connection” to the opposition, he wrote in one posting.

Mr. Brachman said that Al Fajr Media, which is Al Qaeda’s official media distribution network, conducted an interview with Abu Dujana al-Khorasani published in Al Qaeda’s online magazine, called Vanguards of Khorasan.

The name of the bomber was first reported by Al Jazeera, which identified him as Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi. The television network reported that Mr. Balawi was taken to Afghanistan to help track down Mr. Zawahri.

The attack was also embarrassing for Jordan’s government, which did not want the depths of its cooperation with the C.I.A. revealed to its own citizens or other Arabs in the region.

A statement by the official Jordanian news agency said Captain Zeid was killed in Afghanistan on Wednesday “as he performed his humanitarian duty with the Jordanian contingent of the U.N. peacekeeping forces.”

The United States, and the C.I.A. in particular, are deeply unpopular in Jordan, where at least half the population is of Palestinian origin and where Washington’s support for Israel is roundly condemned.

King Abdullah II and his government, while working closely with Washington in counterterrorism operations and providing strategic support for operations in Iraq, try to keep that work secret.

The Pakistani Taliban had previously said the bomber was someone the C.I.A. had recruited to work with them, who then offered the militants his services as a double agent.

The General Intelligence Directorate has received millions of dollars from the C.I.A. since the American invasion of Iraq, where the Jordanian spy agency played a central role in the campaign against Iraqi insurgents.

In the past, Jordanian officials have privately criticized American intelligence services, saying they relied too heavily on technology and not enough on agents capable of infiltrating operations. In 2006, the Jordanians were credited with helping to locate and kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

The C.I.A. declined to comment about the circumstances of the bombing in Afghanistan.

Current and former American intelligence officials said the C.I.A. base in Khost was used to collect intelligence about militant networks in the border region.

The C.I.A. officers on the base used the information to plan strikes against Qaeda and Taliban leaders, along with top operatives of the Haqqani network.

United States officials have been applying pressure to the government of Pakistan to drive out the Haqqani network, whose fighters hold sway over parts of Afghanistan, including Paktika, Paktia and Khost Provinces, and are a serious threat to American forces.

A second former C.I.A. official said that Mr. Zeid’s presence on the Khost base was a sign that the Jordanian intelligence agency was using a spy to infiltrate militant networks in the region, and most likely to penetrate cells of Arab Qaeda militants.

“If the Jordanian intelligence officer had been vouching for this guy, the C.I.A. would definitely have wanted him on the base,” said the former officer.

The remains of the seven C.I.A. officers killed in the attack arrived in a military plane on Monday at Dover Air Force Base, where a private ceremony was held. The event was attended by Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director, as well as by family members of the slain officers.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

We failed. Obama commits another 30,000 of our finest young men and women.
by Harry Newton

Sadly, Obama is committing 30,000 more troops to support:

1. The dysfunctional and massively corrupt government of President Hamid Karzai, which focuses on enriching themselves (on our aid monies). It has no interest in governing or securing the safety of the Afghan population. The Taliban offers security, hence it popularity with many Afghans.

2. The Afghan Army whose soldiers are illiterate, under-nourished and dirt poor. Many are motivated by cash sign-up bonuses and substantial meals. Many desert the army once paid and fattened up. Attrition rates are huge.

Obama's speech failed to produce one new reason for staying in Afghanistan, let alone adding another 30,000 American boys and girls in the prime of their lives -- all of whom are now in harm's way. Many will return in a body bag. Many will return missing a limb. Many will return with serious long-term psychological problems.

The safety of the American people is not an issue. On our own military's estimate, there are only 100 members of Al Qaeda. And all have moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and perhaps Sudan. It's not hard to hide 100 people. There are better ways of catching them than a massive troop increase into the wrong country. For example, the Israelis traced and caught the murderers of their athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

There are two fundamental grounds for our not being in Afghanistan:

1. The moral ground. We're meddling in someone else's country. No one likes foreign occupiers. Remember our own history: we kicked out the British.

2. We cannot succeed in achieving whatever our goal is -- however it's defined. Obama's speech did not define a goal.

Want to read more on Afghanistan? Click on the articles in the left column. I picked different writers and different publications. Read the material below.

Want to do something? Send the White House an email Go here. Send your congressperson or senator an email. Ultimately we'll have to vote Barack Obama out of office.

What is Afghanistan? Some facts: Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest and least developed countries. Two-thirds of the population lives on fewer than $2 dollars a day. The biggest business is dealing with "aid" money flowing in from the U.S. and other countries, but mostly the U.S. The second biggest business is growing poppy for opium, morphine and heroin. Some 3.3 million Afghans are involved in producing opium. Poppy production and transport is taxed by, and funds the Taliban.

Afghanistan has no oil. We don't know whether it has other significant minerals, except one: copper. China is sinking $3.5 billion into Afghanistan to exploit one of the last remaining copper reserves on the planet. China has no troops in Afghanistan and is not supporting the U.S.


December 3, 2009

Our Timeline, and the Taliban’s

IT is hard to be optimistic about the outcome of President Obama’s troop “surge” in Afghanistan. The additional forces sound large in headlines, but shrink small in the mountains. The commitment is intended as an earnest indication of America’s will. But neither the number of troops nor the timeline that mandates a drawdown in less than two years is likely to impress the Taliban, who think in decades, or for that matter the Afghan people.

Most decision-makers on both sides of the Atlantic now privately believe we are in the business of managing failure, and that is how the surge looks. The president allowed himself to be convinced that a refusal to reinforce NATO’s mission in Afghanistan would fatally weaken the resolve of Pakistan in resisting Islamic militancy. Meanwhile at home, refusal to meet the American generals’ demands threatened to brand him as the man who lost the Afghan war. Thus the surge lies in the realm of politics, not warfare.

As the president said, the usual comparisons with Vietnam are mistaken. Today’s United States Army and Marine Corps are skilled counterinsurgency fighters. Their commanders, especially Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, are officers of the highest gifts. Combat and casualties are on a much smaller scale than in Southeast Asia four decades ago.

The critical fact, however, is that military operations are meaningless unless in support of a sustainable political system. One Indochina parallel seems valid: that war was lost chiefly because America’s Vietnamese allies were unviable.

If we lose in Afghanistan, it will not be because American soldiers are defeated, but because “our” Afghans — the regime of Hamid Karzai — cannot deliver to the people honest policing, acceptable administration and visible quality of life improvements. I’m hardly the first to say this. Yet the yawning hole in Mr. Obama’s speech at West Point, and in American policy, is the absence of a credible Afghan domestic and regional strategy.

It would be hard to overstate the cultural chasm separating Afghans from their foreign allies and expatriate returnees. Scarcely a single Western soldier speaks their languages. In the entire country there are only a few hundred competent administrators, and most of them are corrupt. Last year, I met an Afghan minister who had spent more than half his young life as an exile. He spoke and acted like a Californian. To Pashtun tribesmen, he must seem like a Martian.

“Democracy has been a disaster for our country,” an Afghan businessman once told me, in tones of withering scorn. Like most of his kind, he may live in Kabul, but he has one eye on the airport.

In Pakistan, there is great uncertainty about the impact of the surge. The West’s purpose is not to remake Afghanistan, an impossible task, but to promote regional stability and encourage the Pakistanis in their struggle against militants.

The strategic importance of these objectives is not in doubt. The question is whether they are attainable, and whether an increased troop commitment in Afghanistan will do much to advance them. The Islamabad government sincerely, even passionately, wants the United States and its allies to continue their Afghan campaign. But among Pakistan’s vast population, the West is much more unpopular — indeed, hated — than it was in 2006 or, for that matter, 2001. There is a danger that the surge will intensify that popular alienation, further fueling Islamic extremism and thus terrorism.

Little progress can be made toward regional stability without reducing tensions between Pakistan and India. India’s dalliance with the Afghan government, which has been given hundreds of millions of dollars in Indian aid, has increased the deep paranoia of the Pakistani Army and intelligence service. The status quo will only lead powerful elements of Pakistan’s security forces to continue to support Islamic militants as proxies against India.

Few responsible participants in the Afghan drama, even the most pessimistic, urge a precipitate withdrawal. We are too deeply committed for that. What seems important is to recognize that politics and diplomacy are the fundamentals, though they cannot progress unless security improves. Even the most limited stabilization program will founder unless all the regional powers, including Iran, become parties to it. It is difficult to imagine that the Karzai administration can raise its game sufficiently to gain a popular mandate strong enough to stop the Taliban.

President Obama said on Tuesday, “Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency.” Yes, the Taliban command limited support, and have relatively few hard-core fighters. But many Afghans, especially Pashtuns, unite in dislike both for the Western “occupiers” and the Kabul regime.

Progress depends, as General McChrystal seems to recognize, on reaching accommodations with the tribes from the bottom up, not the top down. The smartest surge will be one of cash payments to local leaders. You can buy a lot of Afghans for a small fraction of the cost of deploying a Marine company.

Perhaps the greatest problem for Western policymakers is that Taliban leaders watch CNN and Al Jazeera. They know that the British public has turned against the war, probably irrevocably, and that American opinion is deeply divided. They believe they have more patience than us, and they may be right.

The president’s troop surge was perhaps politically inescapable. But any chance of salvaging a minimally acceptable outcome hinges not on what American and allied soldiers can do on the battlefield, but on putting together a coherent political strategy. Mr. Obama’s speech represented a gesture to his generals rather than a convincing path to success in Afghanistan.

Max Hastings is a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and the author of the forthcoming “Winston’s War.”


November 24, 2009

The good news is that more and more magazines and newspapers are coming out against the Afghanistan War. The basic argument that everyone agrees on is that the War is simply not worth the American lives we are losing and the treasure we are spending -- far more each year than Afghanistan's own GDP.

The difficulty for me is figuring which of the many articles to drop onto this web site. My goal is to portray the broadest spectrum of views on the War. If you have items you'd like posted, please email me . For now let's start with the lead article in the November 30 issue of The New Yorker:

The Fifth War
by Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker

In the sixty-four years since V-J Day, the United States has fought five wars big enough to be styled “major.” Two of these, Vietnam (1962-75, by the most common reckoning) and Iraq (2003-11, with any luck), were conceived in sin. Their beginnings were fatally compromised by deceptions that congealed into lies, abetted by profound geostrategic misjudgments. In Vietnam, illusions piled on illusions. The Tonkin Gulf incident was not even an incident, since an incident, to be an incident, has to occur. The fear that Communism would spread throughout Asia and beyond if it was not stopped in Vietnam turned out to be groundless; so did the belief that the other side was motivated more by totalitarian ideology than by national feeling. The Iraq War, too, was midwifed by falsehoods and follies: the falsehoods that the Baghdad regime possessed “weapons of mass destruction” and that Saddam Hussein’s was a hidden hand behind Al Qaeda and the attacks of September 11, 2001; the follies that the war would be a “cakewalk” and, most seductively, that it would “transform” the Middle East. In both wars, our enemy was only sometimes a conventional army; as often, if not more so, it was an elusive guerrilla force that was frequently indistinguishable from the civilian population.

Another two of our five big-scale wars, Korea (1950-53) and the Gulf War (1991), were legitimate in their origins and (by the standards of mechanized slaughter) scrupulous in their execution. The Korean “police action”—a euphemism, but one that carried real meaning at a time when hopes for a global order of international law were fresh and high—was fought with the sanction (and partly under the flag) of the United Nations. The Gulf War, too, had the sanction of the U.N. and its Security Council. Four decades apart, the two wars shared many features, starting with the moral and temporal clarity of their beginnings. Both were fought in response to armed aggression across international borders. In both, the American Administration resisted powerful political pressures to expand its objective to include the destruction and conquest of the regime responsible for the original aggression. And, after both, the cessation of hostilities along the restored borders has held, even if its form does not quite deserve the name of peace.

The war in Afghanistan scrambles the familiar categories so thoroughly that the customary rubrics for making judgments don’t fit. As in Korea and the Gulf, we went to war to punish an unmistakable act of aggression—this time on our own soil. But the aggressor was not a state; it was a band of freelance fanatics protected by a state. The goals of our response were as clear as the morning of September 11th: to call to account those who sent the murderers and the government that harbored them. Our action had the backing of NATO, which, for the first time in its history, activated the provision of its charter that declares an attack against one an attack against all. The support of the “international community” was nearly unanimous. Even Iran lent a hand.

During the election campaign, Barack Obama and the Democrats put forth a story—a “narrative,” as political reporters now like to say—about two wars. According to the story, the “good” war was the war in Afghanistan. But it failed to fully achieve its principal goal because at the crucial moment the Bush Administration, in its obsession with Saddam, diverted resources and attention to Iraq—a “bad” war. The diversion allowed Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban leadership to slip the noose at Tora Bora—a guerrilla Dunkirk. “I don’t oppose all wars,” an Illinois state senator had famously told a rally on the very afternoon in October, 2002, that the Iraq War Resolution was introduced in Congress. “I’m opposed to dumb wars.” Iraq was a dumb war; Afghanistan was, or could be, a smart one.

There was considerable truth in the narrative. But it contained an almost subliminal suggestion that somehow the clock could be turned back—that the events of the Afghanistan war’s first months could be replayed, this time with a better outcome. When Obama moved into the White House, he brought the narrative with him. In August, at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, he said of the conflict, “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity.” By October, he had ordered in thirty-four thousand more troops, doubling the overall American deployment in Afghanistan. But he had also begun an intensive review of the entire policy.

On Armistice Day, at a full-scale meeting of his national-security team, Obama was presented with four options. According to what little has leaked out from under the closed doors, all four options called for more American troops, from ten thousand at the lower end to forty thousand at the upper. Though some in the Administration favor a smaller military footprint instead of a larger one, that was not among the choices offered to the President. For this fifth war, there was no fifth option.

The President rejected all four. He has apparently decided against anything like a quick drawdown, but he wants a map that plots an eventual way out, not just an abundance of ways further in. As he told an interviewer, there can be no “indefinite stay,” no “permanent protectorate.” And he has questions he would like answered.

So do the rest of us. Does it make sense, for example, to spend lives and treasure trying to eradicate “safe havens” in Afghanistan when Al Qaeda has so many other—well, options, from Sudan to Hamburg? Will a bigger, longer, and presumably bloodier occupation advance or retard the ultimate aim of discouraging Islamist terrorism? Will adding American troops—at a million dollars a year per soldier—encourage Afghans to fight for themselves or prompt them to leave the fighting to us? Can Afghanistan’s nominal government, with its President elected by fraud and its recent rating as the second most corrupt on earth, be finessed or somehow remade?

The sum we are already spending annually on Afghanistan is greater than its gross domestic product. Are there nonmilitary ways we could deploy that sum which would advance our goals as efficaciously? Would even forty thousand additional troops suffice for anything resembling the ambitious nation-building program that General Stanley McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan, has proposed? (Counterinsurgency theory suggests that it would take more than ten times that many; would forty—or ten, or twenty—thousand be only a first installment?) Any counterinsurgency campaign, we’re told, requires a very long commitment. Is the voluntary association of democracies called NATO, organized to deter war more than to wage it, capable of sustaining a twenty or thirty years’ war? For that matter, does the United States—a decentralized populist democracy struggling with economic decline and political gridlock—have that capacity? And what about Pakistan?

The President has come under heavy criticism for taking the time to ponder the imponderables. “The urgent necessity,” a respected Washington columnist wrote the other day, “is to make a decision—whether or not it is right.” Really? Does the columnist suppose that a country unable to find the patience for weeks (even months) of thinking could summon the stamina for years (even decades) of killing and dying? What Obama seems to have discovered is that this is no longer the war that began eight years ago. That war was an act of retribution and prevention. But now who are we punishing? What are we preventing? The old narrative is broken. The fifth war is becoming a sixth.

November 23, 2009

Why Afghanistan is known as The Country of a Thousand Valleys

The mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Photo by Moises Saman for The New York Times

Afghanistan's GDP in 2008 is estimated at $21.4 million.
There are 28.1 million Afghans.
Their per capita GDP is $760 -- the 172nd lowest in the world.
Two-thirds of the population lives on fewer than 2 US dollars a day.
The last election was rigged. Corruption is rampant.
What could American possibly want with or benefit from this country?


November 12, 2009

U.S. Envoy Urges Caution on Forces for Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — The United States ambassador to Afghanistan, who once served as the top American military commander there, has expressed in writing his reservations about deploying additional troops to the country, three senior American officials said Wednesday.

The position of the ambassador, Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general, puts him in stark opposition to the current American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who has asked for 40,000 more troops.

General Eikenberry sent his reservations to Washington in a cable last week, the officials said. In that same period, President Obama and his national security advisers have begun examining an option that would send relatively few troops to Afghanistan, about 10,000 to 15,000, with most designated as trainers for the Afghan security forces.

This low-end option was one of four alternatives under consideration by Mr. Obama and his war council at a meeting in the White House Situation Room on Wednesday afternoon. The other three options call for troop levels of around 20,000, 30,000 and 40,000, the three officials said.

Mr. Obama asked General Eikenberry about his concerns during the meeting on Wednesday, officials said, and raised questions about each of the four military options and how they might be tinkered with or changed. A central focus of Mr. Obama’s questions, officials said, was how long it would take to see results and be able to withdraw.

“He wants to know where the off-ramps are,” one official said.

The president pushed for revisions in the options to clarify how — and when — American troops would turn over responsibility to the Afghan government. He raised questions, officials said, about the exit strategy for American troops and sought to make clear that the commitment by the United States would not be open-ended.

One of the biggest obstacles in reaching a decision, an official said, is uncertainty surrounding the credibility of the Afghan government.

The officials, who requested anonymity in order to discuss delicate White House deliberations, did not describe General Eikenberry’s reasons for opposing additional American forces, although he has recently expressed strong concerns about President Hamid Karzai’s reliability as a partner and corruption in his government. Mr. Obama appointed General Eikenberry as ambassador in January.

During two tours in Afghanistan — from 2005 to 2007, when he served as the top American commander, and from 2002 to 2003, when he was responsible for building and training the Afghan security forces — General Eikenberry encountered what he later described as the Afghan government’s dependence on Americans to do the job that then-President George W. Bush was urging the Afghans to begin doing themselves.

Pentagon officials said the low-end option of 10,000 to 15,000 more troops would mean little or no significant increase in American combat forces in Afghanistan. The bulk of the additional forces would go to train the Afghan Army, with a smaller number focused on hunting and killing terrorists, the officials said.

The low-end option would essentially reject the more ambitious counterinsurgency strategy envisioned by General McChrystal, which calls for a large number of forces to protect the Afghan population, work on development projects and build up the country’s civil institutions.

It would largely deprive General McChrystal of the ability to send large numbers of American forces to the southern provinces in Afghanistan where the Taliban control broad areas of territory. And it would limit the number of population centers the United States could secure, officials said.

General Eikenberry crossed paths with General McChrystal during his second tour in Afghanistan, when General McChrystal led the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which conducted clandestine operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their relationship, a senior military official said last year, was occasionally tense as General McChrystal pushed for approval for commando missions, and General Eikenberry was resistant because of concerns that the missions were too risky and could lead to civilian casualties.

It was unclear whether General Eikenberry, who participated in the Afghanistan policy meeting on Wednesday by video link from Kabul, the Afghan capital, had been asked by the White House to put his views in writing. It was also unclear how persuasive they will be with Mr. Obama.

A spokesman for the State Department declined to comment, while a spokesman for General Eikenberry in Kabul could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

Administration officials say that in recent meetings on Afghanistan at the White House, the president has repeatedly asked whether a large American force might undercut the urgency of training the Afghan security forces and persuading them to fight more on their own.

As Mr. Obama nears a decision, the White House is sending officials to brief allies and other countries on an almost weekly basis. The administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, is heading to Paris, Berlin and Moscow. Other officials in his office are meeting with Chinese officials in Beijing.

Mr. Obama is expected to mull over his options during a trip to Asia that begins Thursday. He is due back in Washington on Nov. 19 and could announce the policy before Thanksgiving, officials said, but is more likely to wait until early December.

General Eikenberry has been an energetic envoy, traveling widely around Afghanistan to meet with tribal leaders and to inspect American development projects.

He has been pushing the State Department for additional civilian personnel in the country, including in areas like agriculture, where the United States wants to help wean farmers off cultivating poppies. The State Department has tried to accommodate his requests, according to a senior official, but has turned down some because of budget constraints and its desire to cap the overall number of civilians in Afghanistan at roughly 1,000.

He played a significant role, along with Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, in persuading Mr. Karzai last month to accept the results of an election commission, which called for a runoff presidential ballot.

That vote never took place because Mr. Karzai’s main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, subsequently withdrew from the contest.

But General Eikenberry also angered Mr. Karzai early in the campaign when he appeared at news conferences called by three of Mr. Karzai’s opponents. American officials said Mr. Karzai viewed that as an inappropriate intrusion into Afghanistan’s domestic politics.

The White House Afghanistan meeting lasted from 2:30 p.m. to 4:50 p.m., and was Mr. Obama’s eighth session in two months on the subject.

A few hours before the meeting began, the president walked through the rain-soaked grass at Arlington National Cemetery, stopping by Section 60, where troops from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried.

It was Mr. Obama’s first Veterans Day since taking office, and in an address at the cemetery he hailed the sacrifice and determination of the nation’s military.

“In this time of war, we gather here, mindful that the generation serving today already deserves a place alongside previous generations for the courage they have shown and the sacrifices that they have made,” Mr. Obama said.

Mark Mazzetti, David E. Sanger, Jeff Zeleny and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.


UN Mission to withdraw 600 of its foreign employees

The United Nations' mission in Afghanistan announced Nov. 5 that it is withdrawing 600 of its foreign employees from the war-torn country due to security concerns. The decision appears to have been prompted by an Oct. 28 armed assault by Taliban militants on a private guesthouse housing 40 U.N. election workers in Kabul that killed six U.N. employees.

U.N. officials said the move is temporary, and that these 600 employees will relocate to offices in Central Asia and Dubai until the United Nations is able to build a more secure compound to house all its employees. The bulk of U.N. workers were residing in some 90 guesthouses spread throughout Kabul, offering an array of soft targets for militant attacks. After the Oct. 28 attack, those U.N. employees remaining in country will reside in an EU-run police training facility.

Considering that 5,600 of the 6,700 U.N. employees in Afghanistan are local Afghans, the outflow of foreign U.N. employees may not have an immediate or dramatic effect on U.N. operations in the country. Afghan nationals carry the bulk of the load in operations in the field. However, this withdrawal comes at a critical time in the U.S. debate over Afghanistan. The U.N. mission in Afghanistan covers a range of activities, from election organization to food distribution to lessons in local governance. Any time- and resource-intensive counterinsurgency approach, like the one currently being advocated by U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, requires personnel on the ground that are able and willing to venture away from base and interact with the people. Even though the foreign contingent of U.N. employees is only about 16 percent of the total U.N. presence in Afghanistan, a hearts and minds campaign necessitates a more robust U.N. presence. Instead, the U.N. contingent is making significant cuts at a crucial juncture of the war with no guarantee of return.

The Taliban has learned a valuable lesson from this experience. As STRATFOR noted at the time of the attack, the Taliban has recognized the utility of targeting aid workers. If the U.S. strategy is built on winning hearts and minds, the Taliban counterstrategy is to do whatever it can to keep those aid workers from reaching the population. The Taliban has strategically pursued softer targets, such as dispersed U.N. guesthouses, focusing in on a traditionally risk- and casualty-averse Western aid agency. This follows a pattern seen previously in Iraq, where the U.N. withdrew its personnel following the 2003 bombing of its office at the Canal Hotel, which killed U.N. Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello. The psychological impact of the attack on U.N. workers in Kabul was evidently severe enough to elicit a withdrawal, a lesson that will not be lost on the Taliban in pursuing additional soft targets.


All the arguments in one short comment
From the Poet Mc Teagle, California,

The Romans were able to pacify and hold new territory by ruthlessly slaughtering anyone who objected, and then colonizing the area with their own chosen people. These elite colonists lead the way in creating a new and stable society, loyal to Rome. China is doing this with Tibet.

Unless we are willing to do the same, with the same bloody ruthlessness, we will fail. And there is no reason to do such a thing in this modern age.

Why we need to throw away billions of dollars and thousands of lives to interfere in an impoverished country containing nothing, absolutely nothing of value is baffling. It is folly beyond belief.

If those in our government were clever, they would know enough to leave Afghanistan, making that forsaken place Russia, Iran and Pakistan's problem, tying up their people and their money. Why is our government so stupid?

U.S. official resigns over Afghan war
Foreign Service officer and former Marine captain says he no longer knows why his nation is fighting
By Karen DeYoung Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 When Matthew Hoh joined the Foreign Service early this year, he was exactly the kind of smart civil-military hybrid the administration was looking for to help expand its development efforts in Afghanistan.

A former Marine Corps captain with combat experience in Iraq, Hoh had also served in uniform at the Pentagon, and as a civilian in Iraq and at the State Department. By July, he was the senior U.S. civilian in Zabul province, a Taliban hotbed.

But last month, in a move that has sent ripples all the way to the White House, Hoh, 36, became the first U.S. official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war, which he had come to believe simply fueled the insurgency.

Matthew Hoh. Photo Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post

"I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan," he wrote Sept. 10 in a four-page letter to the department's head of personnel. "I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end."

The reaction to Hoh's letter was immediate. Senior U.S. officials, concerned that they would lose an outstanding officer and perhaps gain a prominent critic, appealed to him to stay.

U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry brought him to Kabul and offered him a job on his senior embassy staff. Hoh declined. From there, he was flown home for a face-to-face meeting with Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"We took his letter very seriously, because he was a good officer," Holbrooke said in an interview. "We all thought that given how serious his letter was, how much commitment there was, and his prior track record, we should pay close attention to him."

While he did not share Hoh's view that the war "wasn't worth the fight," Holbrooke said, "I agreed with much of his analysis." He asked Hoh to join his team in Washington, saying that "if he really wanted to affect policy and help reduce the cost of the war on lives and treasure," why not be "inside the building, rather than outside, where you can get a lot of attention but you won't have the same political impact?"

Hoh accepted the argument and the job, but changed his mind a week later. "I recognize the career implications, but it wasn't the right thing to do," he said in an interview Friday, two days after his resignation became final.

"I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love," Hoh said. Although he said his time in Zabul was the "second-best job I've ever had," his dominant experience is from the Marines, where many of his closest friends still serve.

"There are plenty of dudes who need to be killed," he said of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys."

But many Afghans, he wrote in his resignation letter, are fighting the United States largely because its troops are there -- a growing military presence in villages and valleys where outsiders, including other Afghans, are not welcome and where the corrupt, U.S.-backed national government is rejected. While the Taliban is a malign presence, and Pakistan-based al-Qaeda needs to be confronted, he said, the United States is asking its troops to die in Afghanistan for what is essentially a far-off civil war.

As the White House deliberates over whether to deploy more troops, Hoh said he decided to speak out publicly because "I want people in Iowa, people in Arkansas, people in Arizona, to call their congressman and say, 'Listen, I don't think this is right.' "

"I realize what I'm getting into . . . what people are going to say about me," he said. "I never thought I would be doing this."

'Uncommon bravery'

Hoh's journey -- from Marine, reconstruction expert and diplomat to war protester -- was not an easy one. Over the weeks he spent thinking about and drafting his resignation letter, he said, "I felt physically nauseous at times."

His first ambition in life was to become a firefighter, like his father. Instead, after graduation from Tufts University and a desk job at a publishing firm, he joined the Marines in 1998. After five years in Japan and at the Pentagon -- and at a point early in the Iraq war when it appeared to many in the military that the conflict was all but over -- he left the Marines to join the private sector, only to be recruited as a Defense Department civilian in Iraq. A trained combat engineer, he was sent to manage reconstruction efforts in Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit.

"At one point," Hoh said, "I employed up to 5,000 Iraqis" handing out tens of millions of dollars in cash to construct roads and mosques. His program was one of the few later praised as a success by the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.

In 2005, Hoh took a job with BearingPoint, a major technology and management contractor at the State Department, and was sent to the Iraq desk in Foggy Bottom. When the U.S. effort in Iraq began to turn south in early 2006, he was recalled to active duty from the reserves. He assumed command of a company in Anbar province, where Marines were dying by the dozens.

Hoh came home in the spring of 2007 with citations for what one Marine evaluator called "uncommon bravery," a recommendation for promotion, and what he later recognized was post-traumatic stress disorder. Of all the deaths he witnessed, the one that weighed most heavily on him happened in a helicopter crash in Anbar in December 2006. He and a friend, Maj. Joseph T. McCloud, were aboard when the aircraft fell into the rushing waters below Haditha dam. Hoh swam to shore, dropped his 90 pounds of gear and dived back in to try to save McCloud and three others he could hear calling for help.

He was a strong swimmer, he said, but by the time he reached them, "they were gone."

'You can't sleep'

It wasn't until his third month home, in an apartment in Arlington, that it hit him like a wave. "All the things you hear about how it comes over you, it really did. . . . You have dreams, you can't sleep. You're just, 'Why did I fail? Why didn't I save that man? Why are his kids growing up without a father?' "

Like many Marines in similar situations, he didn't seek help. "The only thing I did," Hoh said, "was drink myself blind."

What finally began to bring him back, he said, was a television show -- "Rescue Me" on the FX cable network -- about a fictional New York firefighter who descended into "survivor guilt" and alcoholism after losing his best friend in the World Trade Center attacks.

He began talking to friends and researching the subject online. He visited McCloud's family and "apologized to his wife . . . because I didn't do enough to save them," even though his rational side knew he had done everything he could.

Hoh represented the service at the funeral of a Marine from his company who committed suicide after returning from Iraq. "My God, I was so afraid they were going to be angry," he said of the man's family. "But they weren't. All they did was tell me how much he loved the Marine Corps."

"It's something I'll carry for the rest of my life," he said of his Iraq experiences. "But it's something I've settled, I've reconciled with."

Late last year, a friend told Hoh that the State Department was offering year-long renewable hires for Foreign Service officers in Afghanistan. It was a chance, he thought, to use the development skills he had learned in Tikrit under a fresh administration that promised a new strategy.


In photographs he brought home from Afghanistan, Hoh appears as a tall young man in civilian clothes, with a neatly trimmed beard and a pristine flak jacket. He stands with Eikenberry, the ambassador, on visits to northern Kunar province and Zabul, in the south. He walks with Zabul Gov. Mohammed Ashraf Naseri, confers with U.S. military officers and sits at food-laden meeting tables with Afghan tribal leaders. In one picture, taken on a desolate stretch of desert on the Pakistani border, he poses next to a hand-painted sign in Pashto marking the frontier.

The border picture was taken in early summer, after he arrived in Zabul following two months in a civilian staff job at the military brigade headquarters in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. It was in Jalalabad that his doubts started to form.

Hoh was assigned to research the response to a question asked by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an April visit. Mullen wanted to know why the U.S. military had been operating for years in the Korengal Valley, an isolated spot near Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan where a number of Americans had been killed. Hoh concluded that there was no good reason. The people of Korengal didn't want them; the insurgency appeared to have arrived in strength only after the Americans did, and the battle between the two forces had achieved only a bloody stalemate.

Korengal and other areas, he said, taught him "how localized the insurgency was. I didn't realize that a group in this valley here has no connection with an insurgent group two kilometers away." Hundreds, maybe thousands, of groups across Afghanistan, he decided, had few ideological ties to the Taliban but took its money to fight the foreign intruders and maintain their own local power bases.

"That's really what kind of shook me," he said. "I thought it was more nationalistic. But it's localism. I would call it valley-ism."

'Continued . . . assault'

Zabul is "one of the five or six provinces always vying for the most difficult and neglected," a State Department official said. Kandahar, the Taliban homeland, is to the southwest and Pakistan to the south. Highway 1, the main link between Kandahar and Kabul and the only paved road in Zabul, bisects the province. Over the past year, the official said, security has become increasingly difficult.

By the time Hoh arrived at the U.S. military-run provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in the Zabul capital of Qalat, he said, "I already had a lot of frustration. But I knew at that point, the new administration was . . . going to do things differently. So I thought I'd give it another chance." He read all the books he could get his hands on, from ancient Afghan history, to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, through Taliban rule in the 1990s and the eight years of U.S. military involvement.

Frank Ruggiero, the Kandahar-based regional head of the U.S. PRTs in the south, considered Hoh "very capable" and appointed him the senior official among the three U.S. civilians in the province. "I always thought very highly of Matt," he said in a telephone interview.

In accordance with administration policy of decentralizing power in Afghanistan, Hoh worked to increase the political capabilities and clout of Naseri, the provincial governor, and other local officials. "Materially, I don't think we accomplished much," he said in retrospect, but "I think I did represent our government well."

Naseri told him that at least 190 local insurgent groups were fighting in the largely rural province, Hoh said. "It was probably exaggerated," he said, "but the truth is that the majority" are residents with "loyalties to their families, villages, valleys and to their financial supporters."

Hoh's doubts increased with Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election, marked by low turnout and widespread fraud. He concluded, he said in his resignation letter, that the war "has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional. It is this latter group that composes and supports the Pashtun insurgency."

With "multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups," he wrote, the insurgency "is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and Nato presence in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified."

American families, he said at the end of the letter, "must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can be made any more."

'Their problem to solve'

Ruggiero said that he was taken aback by Hoh's resignation but that he made no effort to dissuade him. "It's Matt's decision, and I honored, I respected" it, he said. "I didn't agree with his assessment, but it was his decision."

Eikenberry expressed similar respect, but declined through an aide to discuss "individual personnel matters."

Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., Eikenberry's deputy, said he met with Hoh in Kabul but spoke to him "in confidence. I respect him as a thoughtful man who has rendered selfless service to our country, and I expect most of Matt's colleagues would share this positive estimation of him, whatever may be our differences of policy or program perspectives."

This week, Hoh is scheduled to meet with Vice President Biden's foreign policy adviser, Antony Blinken, at Blinken's invitation.

If the United States is to remain in Afghanistan, Hoh said, he would advise a reduction in combat forces.

He also would suggest providing more support for Pakistan, better U.S. communication and propaganda skills to match those of al-Qaeda, and more pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to clean up government corruption -- all options being discussed in White House deliberations.

"We want to have some kind of governance there, and we have some obligation for it not to be a bloodbath," Hoh said. "But you have to draw the line somewhere, and say this is their problem to solve."

The above is the full Washington Post story. It's available at the Post's website -- Washington Post.

Dumb. Dumb. And Dumber.
Another reason to close this useless war down.

14 Americans Die in Afghan Helicopter Crashes

KABUL (Oct 27, 2009)— Fourteen Americans were killed in Afghanistan on Monday in two separate incidents involving helicopters.

Seven soldiers and three civilian employees of the U.S. embassy — all of them Americans — were killed in a helicopter crash in western Afghanistan, military officials said, and in southern Afghanistan, the midair collision of two coalition helicopters resulted in the deaths of four American soldiers. A spokeswoman said gunfire from insurgents was not to blame for the collision.

The deaths bring to 55 the total number of American troops killed in October in Afghanistan. The previous high occurred in August, when 51 U.S. soldiers died and the troubled nation held the first round of its presidential elections amid a wave of Taliban insurgent attacks.

The deadliest month of the Iraq conflict for U.S. forces was November 2004, when 137 Americans were killed during the assault to clear insurgents from the city of Fallujah.

"A loss like this is extremely difficult for the families as well as for those who served alongside these brave service members," said Navy Capt. Jane Campbell, a military spokeswoman. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends who mourn their loss."

The loss of life followed one of the worst days of the war for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since they launched air strikes in 2001 to oust the Taliban from power.

The U.S. military helicopter which crashed was returning from the scene of a firefight with suspected Taliban drug traffickers in western Afghanistan, killing 10 Americans including three Drug Enforcement Administration agents. In a separate crash the same day, four more U.S. troops were killed when two helicopters collided over southern Afghanistan.

Those casualties marked the DEA's first deaths since it began operations here in 2005. Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium -- the raw ingredient in heroin -- and the illicit drug trade is a major source of funding for insurgent groups.

His long War
excerpts from the New York Times Magazine, October 18, 2009

Worse yet, for all of America’s time in Afghanistan — for all the money and all the blood — the lack of accomplishment is manifest wherever you go. In Garmsir, there is nothing remotely resembling a modern state that could take over if America and its NATO allies left. Tour the country with a general, and you will see very quickly how vast and forbidding this country is and how paltry the effort has been.

And finally, there is the government in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai, once the darling of the West, rose to the top of nationwide elections in August on what appears to be a tide of fraud. The Americans and their NATO allies are confronting the possibility that the government they are supporting, building and defending is a rotten shell.

In his initial assessment of the country, sent to President Obama early last month, McChrystal described an Afghanistan on the brink of collapse and an America at the edge of defeat. To reverse the course of the war, McChrystal presented President Obama with what could be the most momentous foreign-policy decision of his presidency: escalate or fail. McChrystal has reportedly asked for 40,000 additional American troops — there are 65,000 already here — and an accelerated effort to train Afghan troops and police and build an Afghan state. If President Obama can’t bring himself to step up the fight, McChrystal suggested, then he might as well give up.

Cover of the New York Times Magazine, October 18, 2009

“Inadequate resources,” McChrystal wrote, “will likely result in failure.”

The magnitude of the choice presented by McChrystal, and now facing President Obama, is difficult to overstate. For what McChrystal is proposing is not a temporary, Iraq-style surge — a rapid influx of American troops followed by a withdrawal. McChrystal’s plan is a blueprint for an extensive American commitment to build a modern state in Afghanistan, where one has never existed, and to bring order to a place famous for the empires it has exhausted. Even under the best of circumstances, this effort would most likely last many more years, cost hundreds of billions of dollars and entail the deaths of many more American women and men.

And that’s if it succeeds. ...

So many things could scuttle McChrystal’s plans: a Taliban more intractable than imagined, the fractured nature of Afghan society and, no matter what President Obama does, a lack of soldiers and time. But there is something even worse, over which neither McChrystal nor his civilian comrades in the American government exercise much control: the government of Hamid Karzai, already among the most corrupt in the world, appears to have secured its large victory in nationwide elections in August by orchestrating the stealing of votes. A United Nations-backed group is trying to sort through the fraud allegations, and American diplomats are trying to broker some sort of power-sharing agreement with Karzai and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

But increasingly, McChrystal, as well as President Obama and the American people, are being forced to confront the possibility that they will be stuck fighting and dying and paying for a government that is widely viewed as illegitimate.

When I asked McChrystal about this, it was the one issue that he seemed not to have thought through. What if the Afghan people see their own government as illegitimate? How would you fight for something like that?

“Then we are going to have to avoid looking like we are part of the illegitimacy,” the general said. “That is the key thing.” ...

Last month, I visited Richard Haass, one of the idea’s chief proponents, at his office in New York, where he is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. (Before that, through June 2003, Haass was director of policy planning at the State Department under President George W. Bush.)

Haass is particularly persuasive, in part because he does not pretend to have easy answers. After eight years of mismanagement and neglect, Haass says, every choice the United States faces in Afghanistan is dreadful. The weight of the evidence, he says, suggests that curtailing our ambitions is the option least dreadful.

How do I feel about Afghanistan?

Ambushed Marines' Aid Call 'Rejected'. Result: four more Marines DEAD. For WHAT?

Ambushed Marines' Aid Call 'Rejected'

As a young Marine, I fought my war long ago in another far away little country, but these guys are still my brothers. Young Marines flew out in a medevac helo to pick up their comrades' bodies, just as I did so many times, so many years ago.. The dead Marines were placed on the deck of the helicopter at the feet of the crew for the long ride back to a temporary morgue.

The bodies weren't bagged yet, so the image of their dead buddies' faces would be etched into memory for the rest of their lives. They'd know the families back in the States weren't yet unaware their kids had just been sacrificed for political expediency. It's a surrealistic feeling that never goes away.

We're up to our eyeballs in another fucking war, in another country that is NOT a threat to our Nation. When are we going to learn our troops are not disposable pawns to be squandered in practice wars?

How do I feel? I'd like to bash somebody.

Jim Freemon

Freemon retired from the Air Force as a Major in ’96.

Writes Freemon, "This pic was emailed to me a few years ago by one of my squadron mates from Vietnam. It was taken at Marble Mountain Air Facility, near Danang in '67. At that time I was a helicopter mechanic / gunner. My crew was flying medical evacuation missions that day, and I was waiting outside our operations shack for orders to launch."

The followking Op-Ed piece was published in the New York Times on October 11, 2009.

Two Wrongs Make Another Fiasco

THOSE of us who love F. Scott Fitzgerald must acknowledge that he did get one big thing wrong. There are second acts in American lives. (Just ask Marion Barry, or William Shatner.) The real question is whether everyone deserves a second act. Perhaps the most surreal aspect of our great Afghanistan debate is the Beltway credence given to the ravings of the unrepentant blunderers who dug us into this hole in the first place.

Let’s be clear: Those who demanded that America divert its troops and treasure from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2002 and 2003 — when there was no Qaeda presence in Iraq — bear responsibility for the chaos in Afghanistan that ensued. Now they have the nerve to imperiously and tardily demand that America increase its 68,000-strong presence in Afghanistan to clean up their mess — even though the number of Qaeda insurgents there has dwindled to fewer than 100, according to the president’s national security adviser, Gen. James Jones.

But why let facts get in the way? Just as these hawks insisted that Iraq was “the central front in the war on terror” when the central front was Afghanistan, so they insist that Afghanistan is the central front now that it has migrated to Pakistan. When the day comes for them to anoint Pakistan as the central front, it will be proof positive that Al Qaeda has consolidated its hold on Somalia and Yemen.

To appreciate this crowd’s spotless record of failure, consider its noisiest standard-bearer, John McCain. He made every wrong judgment call that could be made after 9/11. It’s not just that he echoed the Bush administration’s constant innuendos that Iraq collaborated with Al Qaeda’s attack on America. Or that he hyped the faulty W.M.D. evidence to the hysterical extreme of fingering Iraq for the anthrax attacks in Washington. Or that he promised we would win the Iraq war “easily.” Or that he predicted that the Sunnis and the Shiites would “probably get along” in post-Saddam Iraq because there was “not a history of clashes” between them.

What’s more mortifying still is that McCain was just as wrong about Afghanistan and Pakistan. He routinely minimized or dismissed the growing threats in both countries over the past six years, lest they draw American resources away from his pet crusade in Iraq.

Two years after 9/11 he was claiming that we could “in the long term” somehow “muddle through” in Afghanistan. (He now has the chutzpah to accuse President Obama of wanting to “muddle through” there.) Even after the insurgency accelerated in Afghanistan in 2005, McCain was still bragging about the “remarkable success” of that prematurely abandoned war. In 2007, some 15 months after the Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf signed a phony “truce” ceding territory on the Afghanistan border to terrorists, McCain gave Musharraf a thumb’s up. As a presidential candidate in the summer of 2008, McCain cared so little about Afghanistan it didn’t even merit a mention among the national security planks on his campaign Web site.

He takes no responsibility for any of this. Asked by Katie Couric last week about our failures in Afghanistan, McCain spoke as if he were an innocent bystander: “I think the reason why we didn’t do a better job on Afghanistan is our attention — either rightly or wrongly — was on Iraq.” As Tonto says to the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”

Along with his tribunes in Congress and the punditocracy, Wrong-Way McCain still presumes to give America its marching orders. With his Senate brethren in the Three Amigos, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, he took to The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page to assert that “we have no choice” but to go all-in on Afghanistan — rightly or wrongly, presumably — just as we had in Iraq. Why? “The U.S. walked away from Afghanistan once before, following the Soviet collapse,” they wrote. “The result was 9/11. We must not make that mistake again.”

This shameless argument assumes — perhaps correctly — that no one in this country remembers anything. So let me provide a reminder: We already did make that mistake again when we walked away from Afghanistan to invade Iraq in 2003 — and we did so at the Three Amigos’ urging. Then, too, they promoted their strategy as a way of preventing another 9/11 — even though no one culpable for 9/11 was in Iraq. Now we’re being asked to pay for their mistake by squandering stretched American resources in yet another country where Al Qaeda has largely vanished.

To make the case, the Amigos and their fellow travelers conflate the Taliban with Al Qaeda much as they long conflated Saddam’s regime with Al Qaeda. But as Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post reported on Thursday, American intelligence officials now say that “there are few, if any, links between Taliban commanders in Afghanistan today and senior Al Qaeda members” — a far cry from the tight Taliban-bin Laden alliance of 2001.

The rhetorical sleights of hand in the hawks’ arguments don’t end there. If you listen carefully to McCain and his neocon echo chamber, you’ll notice certain tics. President Obama better make his decision by tomorrow, or Armageddon (if not mushroom clouds) will arrive. We must “win” in Afghanistan — but victory is left vaguely defined. That’s because we will never build a functioning state in a country where there has never been one. Nor can we score a victory against the world’s dispersed, stateless terrorists by getting bogged down in a hellish landscape that contains few of them.

Most tellingly, perhaps, those clamoring for an escalation in Afghanistan avoid mentioning the name of the country’s president, Hamid Karzai, or the fraud-filled August election that conclusively delegitimized his government. To do so would require explaining why America should place its troops in alliance with a corrupt partner knee-deep in the narcotics trade. As long as Karzai and the election are airbrushed out of history, it can be disingenuously argued that nothing has changed on the ground since Obama’s inauguration and that he has no right to revise his earlier judgment that Afghanistan is a “war of necessity.”

Those demanding more combat troops for Afghanistan also avoid defining the real costs. The Congressional Research Service estimates that the war was running $2.6 billion a month in Pentagon expenses alone even before Obama added 20,000 troops this year. Surely fiscal conservatives like McCain and Graham who rant about deficits being “generational theft” have an obligation to explain what the added bill will be on an Afghanistan escalation and where the additional money will come from. But that would require them to use the dread words “sacrifice” and “higher taxes” when they want us to believe that this war, like Iraq, would be cost-free.

The real troop numbers are similarly elusive. Pre-emptively railing against the prospect of “half measures” by Obama, Lieberman asked MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell rhetorically last week whether it would be “real counterinsurgency” or “counterinsurgency light.” But the measure Lieberman endorses — Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s reported recommendation of 40,000 additional troops — is itself counterinsurgency light. In his definitive recent field manual on the subject, Gen. David Petraeus stipulates that real counterinsurgency requires 20 to 25 troops for each thousand residents. That comes out, conservatively, to 640,000 troops for Afghanistan (population, 32 million). Some 535,000 American troops couldn’t achieve a successful counterinsurgency in South Vietnam, which had half Afghanistan’s population and just over a quarter of its land area.

Lieberman suggested to Mitchell that we could train an enhanced, centralized Afghan army to fill any gaps. In how many decades? The existing Afghan “army” is small, illiterate, impoverished and as factionalized as the government. For his part, McCain likes to justify McChrystal’s number of 40,000 by imbuing it with the supposedly magical powers of the “surge” in Iraq. But it’s rewriting history to say that the “surge” brought “victory” to Iraq. What it did was stanch the catastrophic bleeding in an unnecessary war McCain had helped gin up. Lest anyone forget, we still don’t know who has “won” in Iraq.

Afghanistan is not Iraq. It is poorer, even larger and more populous, more fragmented and less historically susceptible to foreign intervention. Even if the countries were interchangeable, the wars are not. No one-size surge fits all. President Bush sent the additional troops to Iraq only after Sunni leaders in Anbar Province soured on Al Qaeda and reached out for American support. There is no equivalent “Anbar Awakening” in Afghanistan. Most Afghans “don’t feel threatened by the Taliban in their daily lives” and “aren’t asking for American protection,” reported Richard Engel of NBC News last week. After eight years of war, many see Americans as occupiers.

Americans, meanwhile, want to see the fine print after eight years of fiasco with little accounting. While McCain and company remain frozen where they were in 2001, many of their fellow citizens have learned from the Iraq tragedy. Polls persistently find that the country is skeptical about what should and can be accomplished in Afghanistan. They voted for Obama not least because they wanted a new post-9/11 vision of national security, and they will not again be so easily bullied by the blustering hawks’ doomsday scenarios. That gives our deliberating president both the time and the political space to get this long war’s second act right.

Why I started this site
And what I hope to accomplish

September 22, 2009: My name is Harry Newton. I am 67. I am a successful businessman. With this new site, I want to help bring America's War in Afghanistan to an early end. I want our troops out ASAP. I believe there are ten basic arguments against the War in Afghanistan:

 1. The U.S. has no strategic interest in Afghanistan. There is no oil. Afghanistan has no natural resources (beyond poppies and pomegranates).

 2. Osama and Al Qaeda are no longer in Afghanistan. They long ago moved to Pakistan.

 3. Bringing “democracy” to Afghanistan will never work. The country is tribal, with no history of democracy.

 4. No country and no army from Alexander the Great on has ever succeeded in conquering and/or subduing Afghanistan. Britain invaded Afghanistan three times. Once it sent an army of 22,000. Only one soldier returned.

 5. The Taliban, though nasty, pose no threat to the United States.

 6. Afghanistan is a sinkhole. Corruption is rampant. Most of our aid money disappears. We support the Karzai government with our money. Without our money, the Karzai Government would collapse overnight.

 7. America begun the War in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. The stated aim of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was to find Osama bin Laden. Despite eight years, the U.S. has not found bin Laden. Presently, the U.S. has no clear objective in Afghanistan.

 8. The War in Afghanistan is a waste of precious American lives and precious American dollars. At present we spend over $65 billion a year in Afghanistan. That's actually three times Afghanistan's entire GDP.

 9. Despite our best efforts, our military activities kill innocent Afghanis regularly. This does not endear us.

10. America itself was founded by Americans who didn't like an outside power -- the British -- meddling. Why would the Afghans feel any different?

The Washington Post's Bob Woodward recently reported:

General Stanley A. McChrystal, USA

The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan warns in an urgent, confidential assessment of the war that he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict “will likely result in failure,” according to a copy of the 66-page document obtained by The Washington Post.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal says emphatically: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

His assessment was sent to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Aug. 30 and is now being reviewed by President Obama and his national security team.

Afghanistan is an "industry" in Washington. If it were closed down and our troops withdrawn, hundreds of thousands of military, of consultants, of suppliers would find their jobs threatened, their incomes disappearing and their egos shattered. But this War must be ended as quickly as possible.

The major predicted "consequences" of ending the War are that the Taliban will take over and allow Al Qaeda to re-establish terrorist training camps -- which will be used to launch attacks on the west. The Taliban has been in control of vast areas of Northern Pakistan for years. And Al Qaeda is based up there, and presumably has re-established training camps there. Despite that, and because of superior homeland security and intelligent police and intelligence work, the U.S. has not sustained a terrorist event in over 8 years.

Further, I do not believe our pulling out of Afghanistan will prove as disastrous to the Afghans and to stability in the region as the self-interested Afghan-careerists are predicting.

Please contact our President and tell him how you feel. To email, For a letter, write here:

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Harry Newton

This site contains the latest news from, and opinions about Afghanistan. I do not believe in this War. I believe the U.S. and its partners have nothing to gain from this endless war and should withraw immediately. I have no ideas as to how to convince the U.S. and its partners to leave -- other than publishing this web site as a public service. Harry Newton