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History > 2014 > USA > International > Afghanistan (I)




Doug Chayka


 Grabbing the Wolf's Tail

Keep Foreign Troops in Afghanistan


















After Losing Province in 2010,

Afghan Taliban Strike Back


JULY 27, 2014

The New York Times




KABUL, Afghanistan — A sudden Taliban offensive in the southern province of Kandahar in recent days has led to some of the heaviest protracted fighting there in years, officials said on Sunday. The militants overran a district center on the border with Pakistan, battled government forces near the provincial capital and staged a suicide-bomber attack on a home of the province’s powerful security chief.

Kandahar, a crucial base of Taliban power since the 1990s, had enjoyed much improved security since the surge of American troops pushed the Taliban out in 2010. American forces still maintain a base at the Kandahar airport, but Afghan forces have aggressively taken the lead in the province under the security chief, Gen. Abdul Raziq, whose brutal tactics in fighting the Taliban have raised criticism but have nonetheless been seen as effective.

In an annual public statement over the weekend for the holiday of Eid al-Fitr, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, reiterated his determination to re-establish an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan. The proof was borne out by a multifront offensive in Kandahar involving hundreds of Taliban fighters that was seemingly timed to take advantage of Eid al-Fitr, which closes the holy month of Ramadan.

Up to 100 Taliban, Pakistani and other foreign fighters attacked the district compound of Registan, the southernmost desert district of the province, on Saturday, Afghan officials said.

The battle raged for 10 hours as policemen fought for the compound, but their commander and five of his men were killed in the fighting as they ran out of ammunition, said Dawa Khan Minapal, a government spokesman in Kandahar. The area is remote, and army and police reinforcements were hours away across the red desert that gives the district its name.

General Raziq had set off leading security forces to the south to repel the Taliban and secure the border when news came of an attack by six suicide bombers on his home in Spinbaldak, which borders Pakistan in the east. The bombers occupied a school near his home and aimed rockets and gunfire on the guesthouse where his family was living. The border guards in charge of security of his house fought back, leading to an extended firefight in which one guard was killed and three others were wounded.

The bombers were shot dead or blew themselves up. A civilian boy was also killed, but there were no casualties in General Raziq’s family, his spokesman, Zia Durani, said.

Two days earlier, an estimated 250 Taliban fighters made a surprise attack on security outposts in Zhare District, to the west of the provincial capital. Afghan security forces repelled the attacks, but the clashes continued much of Friday. Twenty-four Taliban fighters were killed in the heavy fighting, Mr. Minapal said. One policeman and one army soldier were killed, and five police officers were wounded.

An elder from Zhare said the Taliban showed up in several villages Friday morning as people were attending prayers at their mosques. “People rushed to evacuate their homes,” said the elder, Hajji Abdullah Khan, who comes from the village of Pashmul. Some went to an adjoining district of Panjwai and some to Kandahar city, as he did, he said.

“If the fighting continues, we fear that we will lose the grape harvest, and that will really affect people economically because we have nothing except our vineyards, and we have invested all our efforts and wealth in them,” he said.

Mr. Khan said the area had found a kind of peace after the American troop surge, and a year and a half since a popular uprising repulsed the remnants of the Taliban and led the population to swing around to support the government and security forces. Insurgents continued with small actions, mostly laying mines, but villagers were able to return to their villages, he said.

“People returned from displacement and had resettled in Pashmul, and they had just started living again,” Mr. Khan said. “But suddenly the Taliban reappears, ready for fighting, and again we will be making an exodus. It is really hard for us living in this condition.”

Carlotta Gall reported from Kabul,

and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

A version of this article appears in print on July 28, 2014,

on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: After Losing Province in 2010, Afghan Taliban Strike Back.

    After Losing Province in 2010, Afghan Taliban Strike Back, NYT, 27.7.2014,






The Heavy Burden

of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder


JUNE 20, 2014
The New York Times
The Opinion Pages | Editorial


Post-traumatic stress disorder has reached staggering levels in the American military. An estimated 7 percent to 20 percent of all service members and veterans who have served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may have the disorder, and rising percentages of veterans from earlier conflicts are also afflicted.

The Departments of Defense and of Veterans Affairs have poured billions of dollars into treating the debilitating condition. Yet neither department really knows whether the treatments offered and applied are effective, according to a report issued Friday by the Institute of Medicine, a unit of the National Academy of Sciences, which had been asked by Congress to evaluate the programs.

The disorder is characterized by severe mental health problems — like repeatedly reliving a battlefield trauma, hiding from anything that might trigger those memories, and adverse swings in moods or thoughts — that persist for at least a month and impair functioning.

Such symptoms can occur soon after a traumatic event or not until years later. The disorder can last a lifetime, and it can impair physical and mental health, family and social relationships and the ability to perform a job.

Since October 2001, more than 2.6 million American military personnel have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. The proportion of service members who have PTSD increased from less than 1 percent in 2004 to more than 5 percent in 2012. In that year, some 500,000 veterans made at least two visits to veterans’ hospitals or clinics for outpatient care of the disorder; they made up 9 percent of all users of V.A. health services, up from 4 percent in 2002. The Defense Department spent some $294 million and Veterans Affairs some $3 billion on care for the disorder in 2012.

The agencies have combined to develop and disseminate clinical guidelines to help doctors choose the best treatments, such as various psychotherapies and pharmacotherapies that are backed by scientific evidence. Yet none of this knowledge is applied consistently. The Institute of Medicine said it was unclear what therapies most military members or veterans get and whether their symptoms improve as a result.

Although the departments have substantially increased their mental health staffing in recent years, the demand for services has increased even faster, causing yearslong waits for what V.A. doctors consider “minimally adequate mental health care.” Another impediment is lack of coordination between the two huge departments.

What is needed, the institute’s report says, is a better integrated approach and the collection of data to document which practices and treatments work best and how patients progress over the years. Those who have suffered mental trauma on the battlefield deserve the best care the nation can provide.

A version of this editorial appears in print on June 21, 2014,

on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline:

The Heavy Burden of Stress Disorder.

    The Heavy Burden of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, NYT, 20.6.2014,






‘Friendly Fire’ Strike

Kills 5 Special Operations Soldiers

in Afghanistan


JUNE 10, 2014
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — Five American Special Operations service members and at least one Afghan soldier were killed when a United States Air Force B-1 bomber unleashed an airstrike on their position in southern Afghanistan, in one of the deadliest instances of friendly fire in more than a decade of war, Afghan and American officials said Tuesday.

Investigators were looking into possible causes, including faulty coordinates, an errant bomb or other human errors.

The Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, said in a statement that five American soldiers had been killed “during a security operation in southern Afghanistan.” He added: “Investigators are looking into the likelihood that friendly fire was the cause. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these fallen.”

While the military had not identified the dead, relatives identified one as Aaron Toppen, 19, of Mokena, Ill., telling The Chicago Sun-Times he was deployed early this year, a month after his father died.

The deaths happened Monday night in the restive Arghandab district of Zabul Province, where troops were conducting security operations connected to the presidential runoff election on Saturday, said Ghulam Sakhi Roghliwanai, the province’s police chief.

As the mission drew to a close, Taliban militants ambushed the troops, Mr. Roghliwanai said. The troops called for air support, but were killed when the airstrike hit them.

Hajji Qudratullah Khan, a resident of the village of Giza, near where the airstrike hit, said the area is a Taliban stronghold, in a valley surrounded by mountains covered in bushes. He said the military had not been based in the area for some time, allowing the Taliban there to operate with impunity.

“Security is not good in the district,” he said. “We have only one school in the district center, it is for boys, and the rest of the area is controlled by Taliban.”

“I don’t think people will come out for election, because only the district center is secure,” he added.

Airstrikes have long been a point of contention between the Afghan government and the coalition forces, most often when they have caused civilian casualties.

Airstrikes that kill coalition soldiers have been less common. Since the war began, there have been more than a dozen cases in which airstrikes mistakenly killed allies, or gunfights erupted among coalition troops unaware they were firing on one another. Among the most highly publicized was the fatal shooting of the former National Football League player Pat Tillman, who was serving in an Army Ranger unit when he was killed by coalition fire in April 2004.

More recently, Afghan security forces have been the victims in such cases, including an airstrike in March that killed five Afghan soldiers in eastern Logar Province. That is in large part because there are fewer coalition soldiers fighting on the ground in Afghanistan other than Special Operations forces.

The Taliban also released a statement about the airstrike, confirming their role in the ambush and claiming that their troops also ambushed a joint patrol in the Mizan district of Zabul.

As in the first round of the presidential election in April, Afghan forces have stepped up security operations ahead of the runoff vote on Saturday. Zabul Province is an especially challenging place to hold an election, with an unforgiving landscape and a heavy insurgent presence. In Arghandab district, just 183 ballots were cast in the first round of voting, the second-smallest number of ballots of any district in the province, according to the National Democratic Institute, an American-financed pro-democracy organization.

With the exception of a recent attack in Kabul on the convoy of the presidential front-runner, Abdullah Abdullah, the insurgents seem to be focusing their efforts to disrupt elections on more rural areas, where security is lighter or absent.

“They know that our security forces are now very capable of controlling the security situation in the cities, so they are targeting areas where it is difficult for the security forces to reach and defeat them right away,” said Hajji Abdullah Barakzai, a member of the Afghan Parliament for Zabul Province.

Perhaps the most devastating example took place last month in a mountainous area of northern Badakhshan Province, where the Taliban overran the district center, capturing 27 police officers and holding the government compound for nearly three days.

In the Charchino District of Oruzgan Province, Afghan officials said the Taliban marshaled hundreds of fighters to mount a coordinated assault on as many as 20 police checkpoints two days ago. After a long firefight, the Afghan forces were reported to have lost five men, while the Taliban lost nearly two dozen, said Dust Mohammad Nayaab, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

In another audacious militant attack in southern Afghanistan, gunmen on Tuesday abducted a busload of 35 teachers and students from Kandahar University who were traveling to visit their families during a school holiday week. The bus was stopped in Ghazni Province, where officials are scrambling to secure the release of the captives.

“We have not yet been contacted by any group who claims the arrests or kidnapping of the teachers,” said Hazrat Mir Totakhail, the chancellor of Kandahar University. “However, whoever is involved, we are asking them to free them, because the teachers are not involved in politics and are not supporting any political group.”

The Taliban also appeared confused about the abduction, with the group’s spokesman saying he did not know about the detentions. “If our mujahedeen did it, we will investigate who they are and what they are doing,” said the Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid. “If they prove to be university students and teachers, then we have no problem with them.”

He added: “Afghanistan is full of teachers and students. It is not a crime.”


Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar,

Afghanistan, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.


A version of this article appears in print on June 11, 2014,

on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline:

‘Friendly Fire’ Strike Kills 5 Special Operations Soldiers

in Afghanistan.

    ‘Friendly Fire’ Strike Kills 5 Special Operations Soldiers in Afghanistan,
    NYT, 10.6.2014,






As Bowe Bergdahl Heals,

Details Emerge of His Captivity


JUNE 7, 2014
The New Yortk Times


WASHINGTON — Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has told medical officials that his captors locked him in a metal cage in total darkness for weeks at a time as punishment for trying to escape, and while military doctors say he now is physically able to travel he is not yet emotionally ready for the pressures of reuniting with his family, according to American officials who have been briefed on his condition.

Sergeant Bergdahl, who was released last Saturday to American commandos in Afghanistan in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, remains in a military hospital in Germany without access to news media — and thus is oblivious to the raging criticism from some in Congress about the prisoner swap and even from members of his former platoon who say he deserted them. He has received a letter from his sister but has not yet responded, and objects when hospital staff address him as sergeant instead of private first class, his rank when he was captured nearly five years ago after walking off a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan, the official said.

While medical officials are pressing him for details about his time in captivity to help begin repairing his medical and psychological wounds, these specialists have not yet focused on the critical questions about why he left his outpost and how he was captured by insurgents, the officials said — and there is no predetermined schedule for doing so.

“Physically, he could be put on a plane to the U.S. tomorrow, but there are still a couple of mental criteria to address: the family unification piece and the media exposure piece,” said one American official who has been briefed on the sergeant’s condition.

From the initial briefings given to senior military and civilian officials in the past week, Sergeant Bergdahl, 28, in some ways seems healthier than expected. He suffers from skin and gum disorders typical of poor hygiene and exposure, but otherwise is physically sound, one official said. He weighs about 160 pounds on a 5-foot-9 frame, and is sleeping about seven hours a night.

He shows few if any signs of the malnourishment and other ailments that Obama administration officials said he was suffering when they saw a video of him that the Taliban made in December and released a month later — a video so alarming, American officials have said, it made his release an urgent priority. As talks for Sergeant Bergdahl’s release proceeded after that, his captors may have fed him better, allowed him greater movement and even brought him medical care in preparation for his departure, American officials said.

But Sergeant Bergdahl’s relatively stable health may be cited by those who object to the prisoner swap and have said his condition should not have been grounds for the administration to move rapidly ahead with releasing the Guantánamo detainees without informing Congress.

Last week, he took a short walk just outside his private room at Landstuhl, an American official said. By midweek, he put on his Army uniform for the first time in five years, and was taking longer strolls through the hospital corridors, still conversing only with the team of specialists assigned to help him. The preliminary reports emerging from his doctors and other specialists in Germany offer the most detailed account so far of Sergeant Bergdahl’s physical and mental condition after a week in recovery from an ordeal whose ending has ignited angry reactions from soldiers in his former unit, members of Congress who accuse President Obama of failing to inform them of the secret talks to free the soldier, and other critics who say liberating the Taliban detainees amounts to bargaining with terrorists.

Two American officials, including one senior Defense Department official, who have been briefed on the reports spoke Saturday on the condition of anonymity because of restrictions on the public release of information about Sergeant Bergdahl’s health and an impending investigation into any possible misconduct surrounding the circumstance of his leaving the outpost.

A statement from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany on Friday said Sergeant Bergdahl was showing “signs of improvement,” was talking with the medical staff, and was “becoming more engaged in his treatment-care plan.” But the statement gave no hint when Sergeant Bergdahl would leave for the next destination in a multistep process: an evaluation at an Army medical center in Texas and a reunion with his family.

Late Saturday, the F.B.I. said the Bergdahl family in Idaho had received threats. Federal agents, working with state and local law enforcement authorities, were “taking each threat seriously,” an F.B.I. statement said. Officials declined to give other details.

This week, the doctors have been treating Sergeant Bergdahl for possible abuse at the hands of his captors, first the Taliban and later the Haqqani network, a Taliban-aligned militant group that held him at one or more locations in the mountainous tribal areas of neighboring Pakistan, American intelligence officials have said.

“He’s said that they kept him in a shark cage in total darkness for weeks, possibly months,” said one American official. CNN reported Friday that Sergeant Bergdahl said he was held in a metal box or cage, but the officials on Saturday offered new details. He was kept there apparently as punishment for one or possibly two attempted escapes, as first reported by the Daily Beast website last week and confirmed by an American official.

“It’s safe to assume” that Sergeant Bergdahl was “held in harsh conditions,” a senior Defense Department official said Saturday. “These are Taliban, not wet nurses.” Details of other mistreatment were not released.

When the medical specialists deem Sergeant Bergdahl ready, his next step will be longer-term therapy and counseling at a military medical center in San Antonio before a carefully managed homecoming in Hailey, Idaho. At some point, he will speak by phone with his family, and be reunited with them.

Officials would not disclose if Sergeant Bergdahl has made any special requests. One thing, however, that does rub him wrong is when hospital staff call him “sergeant,” the result of two automatic promotions while a captive.

“He says, ‘Don’t call me that,’ ” said one American official. “ ‘I didn’t go before the boards. I didn’t earn it.’ ”


Helene Cooper and Michael S. Schmidt contributed reporting.


A version of this article appears in print on June 8, 2014,

on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline

As Soldier Heals, Details Emerge of His Captivity.

    As Bowe Bergdahl Heals, Details Emerge of His Captivity,
    NYT, 7.6.2014,






Freedom for Sgt. Bergdahl,

at a Price


JUNE 2, 2014
The New York Times
The Opinion Pages | Editorial


It would be extremely coldhearted not to feel relief that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is back in American hands after being held captive by the Taliban for nearly five years. American soldiers need to know their government will not abandon them if they are taken prisoner, especially with the war in Afghanistan in its prolonged final stage.

Still, Sergeant Bergdahl’s release raises significant concerns, starting with President Obama’s decision to ignore a law that required him to notify Congress in advance about the bargain that secured the soldier’s freedom, and about how trading five high-value Taliban prisoners from the detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, could affect America’s antiterrorism policy.

Congress has long thwarted Mr. Obama’s pledge to close Guantánamo, which remains a blight on the nation’s reputation. As part of their effort, lawmakers used the 2014 defense bill to impose three conditions on the transfer of detainees: the defense secretary must certify that it is in the national interest to make the transfer; steps must be taken to reduce the chances a detainee could pose a future threat; and Congress must be notified of a planned transfer 30 days in advance.

While the public deserves more details, the administration has plausibly argued that the first condition was met. As officials said, the United States has a solemn responsibility not to leave a soldier on the battlefield, even one whose circumstances of capture and detention are unclear. As American forces withdraw, there would have been steadily fewer troops in Afghanistan to look for Sergeant Bergdahl. Susan Rice, the national security adviser, cited concerns that his health was deteriorating and said his life could have been at risk.

On the second condition, American officials said the five Taliban prisoners, handed over on Saturday to the Qatari authorities who negotiated the deal, would remain in Qatar for a year and that Qatar had given assurances they would not go back to the battlefield during that time. Skepticism on this point is healthy, and it will be up to the administration to make sure that the commitment is carried out.

Where Mr. Obama clearly crossed the line was his failure to notify Congress in advance, instead of on Saturday as the exchange was in progress. (Congress had known the deal was under discussion for more than two years.)

When he signed the 2014 bill that imposed the conditions, Mr. Obama attached a statement claiming he has the constitutional power to override them. This is no different from similar signing statements by President George W. Bush, although he far exceeded Mr. Obama’s actions by using a signing statement to a bad end: to justify torturing prisoners. But it still amounts to defying the law. Claims that Congress could not be trusted to keep the operation secret are no excuse.

In addition to returning Sergeant Bergdahl safely, the deal could have another positive effect if it helps smooth the way for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Even so, it is unsettling that five Taliban prisoners were freed in the process. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel distinguished between negotiating with terrorists and retrieving prisoners of war from enemy hands. Mr. Hagel has a point in a murky world where enemies are increasingly nonstate actors. Other countries, including Israel, exchange prisoners. But Mr. Obama’s decision is likely to make it harder for the United States to implore other countries not to negotiate with terrorists in the future.

A version of this editorial appears in print on June 3, 2014,

on page A22 of the New York edition with the headline:

Freedom for Sgt. Bergdahl, at a Price.

    Freedom for Sgt. Bergdahl, at a Price, NYT, 2.7.2014,






Lesson for P.O.W.’s Father:

Men Sometimes Do Come Back


MAY 31, 2014
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — For five years Robert Bergdahl waged a father’s war for the return of his soldier son.

He accused the Obama administration of stalling talks for his release. He made his own contact with the Taliban to try to find out more. He pressured the State Department and Pentagon during frequent trips to Washington, where in 2012 he spoke in anguish to a crowd of 100,000 on Memorial Day.

A father’s war came to an end on Saturday with the freeing of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, who had been America’s only known prisoner of war. But Sergeant Bergdahl, a skier, expert marksman and ballet dancer from rural Idaho, will remain one of the more unusual members of the American military — and the central character in a bizarre disappearance in Afghanistan that set off a frantic search with Predator drones, Apache attack helicopters and military tracking dogs.

On Saturday, in a statement from both of the sergeant’s parents, Mr. Bergdahl and his wife, Jani — written after President Obama telephoned to tell them of their son’s release — the tone had changed: “We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home!” they wrote. “We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son.”

Bowe Bergdahl grew up as an outdoorsy free spirit in Hailey, Idaho, a town of some 6,000 people that provided many of the self-described “worker bees” for the expensive resorts of Ketchum and Sun Valley to the north. His father, an anthropology major who had dropped out of college, drove a delivery truck for United Parcel Service. His mother home-schooled Bowe and his elder sister, Sky.

The family lived in a small cabin that had 5,000 books but no telephone, a close-to-nature existence that fed Sergeant Bergdahl’s wanderlust. After a series of odd jobs, including as a crew member on a large sailboat and dancing the role of the Nutcracker in the Sun Valley Ballet, he turned to the Army to try to find focus in his life, friends and family say. He was lured by the promises of Army recruiters that he would be helping people in other parts of the world, his father said in an interview two years ago, and had come to see the military as a Peace Corps with guns.

Those dreams were dashed soon after Bowe Bergdahl arrived in Afghanistan, in May 2009, when American forces were stretched thin. As a machine gunner with the First Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, Fourth Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, he was sent to a small combat outpost in Paktika Province, on the eastern border with Pakistan.

At first his emails home were cheerful, his father said, full of stories about “how beautiful it was, how wonderful the people were.” The tone of the emails quickly darkened, said Robert Bergdahl, who declined in the interview to say what specifically set off the change. But in an interview with Robert and Jani Bergdahl in Rolling Stone magazine in June 2012, the parents described morale and discipline problems in the unit and quoted from what they said was their son’s last email to them, three days before his capture.

“I am sorry for everything here,” Sergeant Bergdahl said in the email, according to Rolling Stone. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.” He then described what his parents believed may have been a formative, traumatic event: seeing an Afghan child run over by a heavy American military vehicle. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks,” Sergeant Bergdahl wrote.

Sergeant Bergdahl’s superiors first noticed he was missing on the morning of June 30, 2009, when he failed to show up for the unit’s 9 a.m. roll call. Initial military reports said Sergeant Bergdahl had simply walked off his post, but in a Taliban video released after his capture, Sergeant Bergdahl said he had lagged behind on a patrol.

His parents have not said publicly what they believe happened, but Robert Bergdahl has discounted accounts in classified Afghan war logs, made public by WikiLeaks, that suggest insurgents grabbed Sergeant Bergdahl while he was in a latrine.

However he disappeared, a furious hunt, described in cold military detail in the war logs, was quickly underway.

The military deployed unmanned Predator surveillance drones overhead, searched nearby villages with dogs, set up checkpoints and raided suspected enemy outposts.

The war logs also describe how the American military intercepted communications among members of the Taliban, who discussed their attempts to sabotage the search by lining the roads with homemade bombs.

“Yes we have a lot of I.E.D. on the road,” one of the members of the Taliban said in the intercepted communications, referring to improvised explosive devices.

Three hours after that communication was intercepted, military intelligence confirmed that “a U.S. soldier has been captured.”

The militants were overheard saying that they believed the Americans were using many resources to try to find the missing soldier. “I think he is a big shot, that is why they are looking for him,” one of them said.
Yellow ribbons adorn many of the trees along Main Street in Hailey, Idaho, the Bergdahl family’s hometown. Credit Bill Schaefer for The New York Times

The documents also describe how the military talked to local tribal elders who said they had been asked by the Taliban to arrange a prisoner swap with the Americans. The elders told the Americans that the Taliban wanted 15 of their “brothers in U.S. jail and some money in exchange” for Sergeant Bergdahl.

The military had numerous indications after Sergeant Bergdahl’s capture that he was still alive, mostly from videos released by the Taliban. (At the time of his disappearance, Sergeant Bergdahl had the rank of private. The military promoted him twice during his captivity.)

The first video surfaced in July 2009, another the following December. In that video, Sergeant Bergdahl criticized the United States and said that unlike prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay and in Abu Ghraib in Iraq, he had been fairly treated and was not tortured.

“One of the biggest illusions that the Army gives us coming over here as a soldier, as a private in their Army, is that we’re coming over here to fight a terrorist group of men,” he said in that video. In an April 2010 video, Sergeant Bergdahl was shown begging to be released, and appeared in additional videos in December 2010, February 2011 and this past January, when he seemed in declining health.

His future in the Army remains unclear. But if Sergeant Bergdahl did in fact walk off his post, there has been no indication from the military that he will be punished for doing so. Any penalty appeared even more unlikely on Saturday, when Robert and Jani Bergdahl appeared in the Rose Garden with Mr. Obama, who embraced them and welcomed their son home.

As he stood at the president’s side, Robert Bergdahl said that his son was having difficulty with English after spending so much time with the Taliban, then said “bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim,” a common Arabic phrase meaning “in the name of God, most gracious, most compassionate,” and then spoke a few words in Pashto, a language of Afghanistan.

Hours earlier on Saturday, while Sergeant Bergdahl was on an American military helicopter after his release, he wrote on a paper plate with a pen — because the noise was so loud — “S.F.?” for Special Forces, seeking to find out who was taking him away.

The men on the helicopter yelled back, “Yes, we’ve been looking for you a long time!”

At which point, according to a senior defense official, Sergeant Bergdahl broke down crying.



Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Singapore.

A version of this article appears in print on June 1, 2014,

on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline:

Lesson for a Prisoner’s Father: Men Sometimes

Do Come Back.

    Lesson for P.O.W.’s Father: Men Sometimes Do Come Back,
    NYT, 31.5.2014,





Bowe Bergdahl, American Soldier,

Freed by Taliban in Prisoner Trade


MAY 31, 2014
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The lone American prisoner of war from the Afghan conflict, captured by insurgents nearly five years ago, has been released to American forces in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Obama administration officials said Saturday.

The soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was handed over to American Special Operations troops inside Afghanistan near the Pakistan border about 10:30 a.m. Saturday in a tense but uneventful exchange with 18 Taliban officials, American officials said. Moments later, Sergeant Bergdahl was whisked away by the helicopter-borne commandos, American officials said. He was described in good physical condition.

The five Taliban detainees at Guantánamo, including two senior militant commanders said to be linked to operations that killed American and allied troops as well as implicated in murdering thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan, were flown from Cuba in the custody of officials from Qatar, who will accompany them back to that Persian Gulf state. They will be subject to security restrictions there, including a one-year travel ban.

Senior administration officials cautioned that the discussions over the prisoner swap, which were secretly restarted last fall after collapsing several months earlier, did not necessarily presage the resumption of the broader, on-again-off-again peace talks to end the 13-year war.

“This is the only issue we’ve discussed with the Taliban in recent months,” said one senior Obama administration official involved in the talks. “We do hope that having succeeded in this narrow but important step, it will create the possibility of expanding the dialogue to other issues. But we don’t have any promises to that effect.”

But word of renewed, secret negotiations with the Taliban brought immediate criticism from some lawmakers, including Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “I have little confidence in the security assurances regarding the movement and activities of the now-released Taliban leaders, and I have even less confidence in this administration’s willingness to ensure they are enforced,” he said. “I believe this decision will threaten the lives of American soldiers for years to come.”

A Western official in Kabul said the Afghan government was not told ahead of time that the Taliban were going to hand over Sergeant Bergdahl or that the release of prisoners from Guantánamo Bay was proceeding, though the Afghans were broadly aware that the talks had been rekindled. American officials feared leaks could scuttle the deal.

President Obama personally called the soldier’s parents on Saturday, shortly after Sergeant Bergdahl was transferred to the American military; the Bergdahl family was in Washington after a visit here for Memorial Day, officials said.

Later on Saturday in the White House Rose Garden, Mr. Obama, flanked by Robert and Jani Bergdahl, the sergeant’s parents, said, “Right now, our top priority is making sure that Bowe gets the care and support that he needs, and that he can be reunited with his family as soon as possible.”
Continue reading the main story

The Bergdahls, who have waged a tireless campaign for their son’s release, have sometimes criticized the Obama administration for lack of action. But at the impromptu Rose Garden appearance and in a statement released earlier in the day, they praised the American and Qatari governments for their help. “We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son,” they said in the statement. “Today, we are ecstatic!”

Family and friends in the Bergdahl family’s hometown, Hailey, Idaho, said they were planning a celebration on Sunday. A Pentagon official said Saturday evening that Sergeant Bergdahl was en route to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. He would then be transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio when doctors felt he was fit to travel.

Negotiations and internal deliberations over the potential for a swap have waxed and waned for years, but they intensified in the past several weeks as an agreement appeared within reach, according to an official familiar with the matter.

Among other complications, there was a potential legal obstacle: Congress has imposed statutory restrictions on the transfer of detainees from Guantánamo Bay. The statutes say the secretary of defense must determine that a transfer is in the interest of national security, that steps have been taken to substantially mitigate a future threat by a released detainee, and that the secretary notify Congress 30 days before any transfer of his determination.

In this case, the secretary, Chuck Hagel, acknowledged in a statement that he did not notify Congress ahead of time. When Mr. Obama signed a bill containing the latest version of the transfer restrictions into law, he issued a signing statement claiming that he could lawfully override them under his executive powers.

“The executive branch must have the flexibility, among other things, to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers,” he wrote in the signing statement, adding that if the restrictions “operate in a manner that violates constitutional separation of powers principles, my administration will implement them in a manner that avoids the constitutional conflict.”

An administration official said the circumstances of a fast-moving exchange deal made it appropriate to act outside the statutory framework for transfers.

The top Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Representative Howard McKeon of California and Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, said the release of the Taliban prisoners “clearly violated laws” governing the transfer of detainees from Guantánamo Bay. One senior administration official defended the decision, saying that “due to a near-term opportunity to save Sergeant Bergdahl’s life, we moved as quickly as possible,” requiring action outside the notice requirement of the statute.

In his comments Saturday afternoon, Mr. Obama said, “The Qatari government has given us assurances that it will put in place measures to protect our national security.”

Prisoner swaps have been more common in conventional wars between two nation-state armies than in the sort of insurgency conflict that characterized Afghanistan and Iraq, and American officials could not cite another instance in which an American soldier had been freed in these conflicts in a swap.

The transfer reduces the detainee population at Guantánamo to 149. They include 12 Afghan citizens — each of whom was deemed far less important and dangerous than the five who were included in the swap.

Sergeant Bergdahl was believed to have been held by the militant Haqqani network in the tribal area of Pakistan’s northwest frontier, on the Afghan border. He was captured in Paktika Province in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. The circumstances of how he was separated from his unit and captured have remained a mystery.

Hopes for Sergeant Bergdahl’s release were lifted last November when the Taliban signaled it was prepared to engage the United States on the limited issue of a prisoner swap, but not on wider issues including reconciliation with the government of Afghanistan, a senior administration official said Saturday.

The discussions resumed with the Qatari government acting as an intermediary for messages between the two sides, the official said. Previous talks faltered over issues including restrictions on any released detainees; it was unclear whether the one-year travel prohibition was a breakthrough compromise. While it was described by American officials, it was not mentioned in a Taliban statement on the swap.

The latest evidence indicating that Sergeant Bergdahl, who was promoted twice while being held as a prisoner, was still alive came in January, when the American military obtained a video showing him alert but also apparently in declining health.

In the past week, detailed negotiations culminated in an agreement for a Taliban delegation to bring Sergeant Bergdahl to Afghanistan, where he would be retrieved by American Special Operations troops.

Mr. Obama called the emir of Qatar on Tuesday, and they gave each other assurances about the proposed transfers, an administration official said Saturday.

Sergeant Bergdahl was handed over about 7 p.m. local time without incident with the several dozen Special Operations troops spending only a few minutes on the ground, said American officials, who did not disclose the swap’s location in Afghanistan. Taliban officials, though, said the exchange was carried out in Khost Province.
In Sergeant Bergdahl’s hometown, Hailey, Idaho, a poster at Zaney’s River Street Coffee House contains messages for the prisoner of war. He was exchanged for five Taliban detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Credit Bill Schaefer for The New York Times

The Taliban statement said that the swap was “a result of nonstraightforward negotiations” with the United States, with mediation by Qatar, and that the released detainees “will reside in Qatar with their families.”

The details of what the government believes it knows about the five former Taliban leaders were made public in classified military files given to WikiLeaks by Pfc. Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning.

Mohammad Nabi Omari is described in the files as “one of the most significant former Taliban leaders detained” at Guantánamo. He is said to have strong operational ties to anticoalition militia groups, including Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

A former Taliban provincial governor, Mullah Norullah Noori, is also “considered one of the most significant former Taliban officials” at the prison, according to the documents.

Both Mr. Noori and a third detainee being exchanged, Mullah Mohammad Fazl, a former Taliban deputy defense minister, are accused of having commanded forces that killed thousands of Shiite Muslims, a minority in Afghanistan, before the Taliban were toppled in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The fourth detainee is Abdul Haq Wasiq, a former top Taliban intelligence official. The fifth, Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, is a former minister of the interior and provincial governor.

The Western official in Kabul said the Afghan government was not told about the deal beforehand because there had been a number of false starts since the exchange negotiations had picked up in the past few weeks.

One of the Americans’ chief concerns was that word of the plan would leak, and the Taliban would get cold feet or face pressure from harder line elements not to release Sergeant Bergdahl.

The Americans also feared the possibility of the exchange being upended by an outburst from the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who might see the prisoner swap as an attempt to open peace talks with the Taliban behind his back.

He has previously claimed that the United States aimed to weaken the Afghan government by cutting a separate peace agreement with the Taliban and its backers in Pakistan, and “no one wanted to deal with that kind of stuff right now,” the Western official said.


Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Singapore,

and Matthew Rosenberg from Kabul, Afghanistan.



A version of this article appears in print on June 1, 2014,

on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline:

American Soldier Freed by Taliban in Prisoner Trade.

    Bowe Bergdahl, American Soldier, Freed by Taliban in Prisoner Trade,
    NYT, 31.5.2014,






Trapped in Afghanistan


MAY 27, 2014
The Opinion Pages | Editorial


For years, the American people have been asking when the war in Afghanistan will end. On Tuesday, President Obama said not for at least two and a half more years.

Mr. Obama reaffirmed that he would meet his commitment to remove the last 32,000 combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of the year, a pace that was too slow from the start. But don’t think this is the end of the American military involvement in the Afghan quagmire.

After months of hemming and hawing, Mr. Obama also announced that he intends to retain a residual force beyond 2014. According to this plan, 9,800 troops would remain in Afghanistan after 2014, and the number would be cut by half by the end of 2015. By the end of 2016, the force will be cut further, enough to protect the embassy in Kabul and help the Afghans with outfitting their military and other security matters.

It is reasonable to ask how two more years of a sizable American troop presence — which one official said could cost $20 billion in 2015 — will advance a stable Afghanistan in a way that 13 years of war and the 100,000 troops deployed there at the peak were unable to guarantee. Mr. Obama insists the objectives will be limited to using Special Operations forces to disrupt threats posed by Al Qaeda and to train and advise Afghan security personnel, pursuits American troops have been deeply engaged in throughout the war.

He does not claim that the residual force will ensure Afghanistan’s success. But administration officials say — and this is the only argument that makes some sense — that a continued, albeit much smaller, American military role would provide a stabilizing bridge at a sensitive time when Afghanistan is choosing a new leader to succeed President Hamid Karzai. There also are doubts about how much Congress and the international community will be willing to invest in Afghanistan if American troops, along with a much smaller contingent of NATO forces, are not in the country.

The election is a cause for some optimism about Afghanistan, which has been burdened by inept and corrupt governance. The top two candidates to succeed Mr. Karzai — Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official — are viewed as competent, pro-Western and stable, unlike Mr. Karzai. Both Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani have also said they would sign a bilateral security agreement that Mr. Karzai refused to sign and that Mr. Obama insists is a prerequisite for a continued troop presence.

The administration says it has also been encouraged by improvements in the Afghan security forces, which the United States and NATO built and trained over the past decade. Initial news reports suggested the forces contributed to the reasonably peaceful outcome of the first round of presidential voting in April. More than 350,000 military and police units were deployed for the vote. But it was later reported that Afghan news media played down the incidence of violence and many experts still have serious questions about the competency of most Afghan units.

The country’s gross domestic product has grown an average of 9.4 percent annually from 2003 to 2012, and life expectancy has increased by more than 20 years to 62 years. Yet the United States remains trapped there, putting its young men and women in harm’s way.

Mr. Obama has dragged out the biggest part of the withdrawal from Afghanistan for two years and now wants to leave more troops there until the end of 2016. His promise to end the war, made years ago, won’t be honored until he’s practically out of office.

A version of this editorial appears in print on May 28, 2014,

on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline:

Trapped in Afghanistan.

    Trapped in Afghanistan, NYT, 27.5.2014,






Taliban Attack Kills 19 Afghan Soldiers

in Eastern Afghanistan


FEB. 23, 2014
1:54 A.M. E.S.T.


KABUL — The Afghan Taliban attacked an army outpost in eastern Kunar province early on Sunday, the Afghan government said, killing 19 soldiers in what appeared to be the most deadly assault on security forces in months.

Defence Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi, in a posting on his Twitter feed, said 19 soldiers were killed, and two wounded, in Kunar's Ghaziabad district.

Abdul Ghani Musamem, spokesman for the provincial governor, said seven soldiers were captured by the Taliban in the attack in a remote, mountainous area near the border with Pakistan.

He said Afghan forces had launched an operation to try to free the captured soldiers. The Defence Ministry did not immediately confirm the report of captured soldiers.

In a statement provided to media organizations, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.


(Reporting By Mohammad Anwar, Mirwais Harooni

and Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Missy Ryan;

Editing by Robert Birsel and Ron Popeski)

    Taliban Attack Kills 19 Afghan Soldiers in Eastern Afghanistan,
    NYT, 23.2.2014,







Releases Prisoners Over U.S. Objections


FEB. 13, 2014
The New York Times


BAGRAM, Afghanistan — The Afghan government began releasing prisoners Thursday over the objections of the American military, which said they were dangerous insurgents responsible for killing its soldiers.

The 65 detainees began emerging from the Bagram Prison in small groups Thursday morning, and were taken away in vehicles belonging to the Afghan National Army military police, who are in charge of the facility. American military guards are also present at the prison but were not in evidence.

American military officials have been publicly scathing in their criticism of the releases, which have brought relations between the two allies to a low point at a time when talks on a long-term Western military presence have stalled.

In a statement, the American military expressed “strong concern about the potential threats these detainees pose to coalition forces and Afghan security forces and civilians.”

“Detainees from this group of 65 are directly linked to attacks killing or wounding 32 U.S. or coalition personnel and 23 Afghan security personnel or civilians,” the statement added. “Violent criminals who harm Afghans and threaten the peace and security of Afghanistan should face justice in the Afghan courts, where a fair and transparent trial would determine their guilt or innocence.”

The 65 were ordered released without such trials by an Afghan review board, which determined there was not enough evidence to try them. The Afghan judge who heads the review board, Abdul Shakor Dadras, confirmed that the releases would be carried out Thursday at a pace determined by the Afghan prison authorities.

The 65 being released are among the last 88 Afghan prisoners being held at Bagram, and the Afghan board has previously ordered releases in 560 of the 760 Bagram detainee cases it reviewed, sending only 112 to trial. Many of those prisoners have been held there for years without judicial review, and President Hamid Karzai, who has called the prison a Taliban-making factory, has said repeatedly that he wants to see it closed. The only prisoners apparently still in American custody at the facility are foreign prisoners captured in Afghanistan, mostly Pakistanis.

In January, 37 of the last prisoners were ordered released but that was delayed after the American military publicly complained that the releases violated an agreement between the two countries that the Americans felt gave them a veto power over releases of prisoners they regarded as dangerous.

On Tuesday, the American military issued a statement criticizing what by then had become 65 planned releases in unusually harsh terms. Coalition military officials also released a dossier detailing what they said was convincing evidence of how dangerous some of the remaining detainees were.

Mr. Dadras said he had the support of the Afghan attorney general’s office, and that Afghanistan was determined to release the prisoners despite American criticism that seemed to stall it last month.

“The delay was not because we were scared of the Americans,” he said. “These prisoners’ release was delayed because we wanted to thoroughly re-review the files of these prisoners so that the Americans do not have a chance to complain again,” he added.

    Afghanistan Releases Prisoners Over U.S. Objections,
    NYT, 13.2.2014,






After Years at War,

the Army Adapts to Garrison Life


JAN. 18, 2014
The New York Times


FORT DRUM, N.Y. — Spec. Perez Brown Jr. spent three years in the Army and two tours in Afghanistan, where on his 23rd birthday a homemade bomb blew up a vehicle in his convoy and he came close to driving over another one just down the road. “That second one might have been for me,” he said.

Now Specialist Brown is safely home with the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, where he goes on field marches in the frosty forests near Lake Ontario. He will not be sent again to Afghanistan, where American involvement is winding down, so he is part of an Army that is no longer carrying out war plans, only training for them.

Although he is glad to be back, Specialist Brown misses the intensity and purpose that deployments brought to his life. Here in upstate New York, he said, it is peaceful but a little boring. “There are too many slow days,” he said.

A dozen years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, most of the two million American men and women who went to war are home, adjusting to new lives. Slightly more than half remain in the armed services, where many are struggling — like America’s ground forces over all — to find relevance in the face of an uncertain future.

Their restlessness is a particular challenge for the Army, which sent 1.3 million troops to war after 9/11 and created the most combat-tested force in the nation’s history. But now it must sustain the morale of soldiers who have returned to American bases and are living what the military calls garrison life.

“You have to ask yourself if you want to be that leader who is relegated to navigating garrison bureaucracy — submitting ammo requests, coordinating weapons ranges and conducting inventories,” said Capt. Brandon Archuleta, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who returned to Hunter Army Airfield, Ga. “I know those processes are in place for a reason, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.”

Lt. Andrew Mayville, who commanded an artillery platoon of 20 soldiers in Afghanistan and is back home at Fort Drum, misses the urgency of his deployment and so is applying to the Special Forces, a branch of the Army that trains allied militaries overseas and is sent to hot spots. “You can compare it to a football player who trains for years,” he said, “and doesn’t want to sit on the bench for the Super Bowl.”

The problems soldiers face in adjusting to ordinary Army life after the adrenaline of combat weighs on commanders.

“It takes a bit of audacity to fall out of a perfectly good airplane in the dark of night,” said the 82d Airborne Division’s command sergeant major, LaMarquis Knowles, based at Fort Bragg, N.C. “So there are some challenges when we integrate back into civilization. You transition from one mind-set — you roll out of your cot and you seek and destroy the enemy — to coming back to the States, where we want you to drive safely.”

Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, acknowledged that the Army and its soldiers were at “a very important inflection point.” The numbers tell part of the story: The Army is reducing to 490,000 troops from a post-9/11 peak of 570,000, and some at the Pentagon already are suggesting that budget cuts might force the Army down to as low as 420,000 in years to come.

But General Odierno, who served multiple command tours in Iraq, insisted that the Army would not be confined to garrison life. Instead, he said, his soldiers will be “globally responsive and regionally engaged” in overseas war games, exercises with foreign militaries and, if needed, deployments to hot spots. He also wants to restore a schedule of academic training, which was pushed aside by combat.

Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of the 10th Mountain Division, is carrying out that mission with his soldiers. “We are not going to sit in our garrisons,” he said. “That’s not what the Army did before the wars. We trained here. We deployed for training all over the world. And we will find our way back to that.”

But the reality is indisputable. The 10th Mountain was the first division sent off to fight the war in Afghanistan, and now it will be the last. General Townsend is headed to eastern Afghanistan in a final deployment that will close the official NATO combat mission by the end of the year.


A More Experienced Field

Captain Archuleta, 30, is the face of today’s Army, the kind of young officer who had experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan far beyond his rank. President of his 2006 class at West Point, he deployed a year later as a platoon leader to Babil Province, south of Baghdad. One day, his battery commander approached him with an unusual offer.

“He said, ‘I’m having trouble with the town council,’ ” Captain Archuleta recalled. “ ‘I know you are a wonky poli-sci kind of guy. I’m at a standstill. Can you contribute to this?’ ”

Captain Archuleta joined a team of military representatives to the town council of Al Haq, where he helped oversee public services — water, roads, electricity — assisted in reconciliation talks with tribal elders and worked as a payroll officer to Iraqi security forces.

“My battery commander and my battalion commander realized they had a big challenge with governance,” he said. “They knew they couldn’t be everywhere at once. It was quite empowering for them to delegate those authorities to me.”

Over two wars, experiences like Captain Archuleta’s were repeated up the chain of command.

Commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan never had as many forces as called for under the military’s troop-heavy counterinsurgency strategy, so officers had to secure far larger expanses of territory than in past wars as a range of unexpected responsibilities, particularly governance and economic development, fell to them. Captains had responsibilities held by colonels a generation before, colonels shouldered the challenges of past generals, and generals had resources larger than many nations’ defense ministries.

But when Captain Archuleta returned home to Hunter Army Airfield in 2010, after he commanded a company of 110 soldiers in Afghanistan’s volatile Khost Province, he missed the responsibilities that his commanders had given him in war.

“My peers who felt similarly either pursued broadening assignments within the military, like me, or simply left active duty for business school and the private sector,” he said.

The Army, seeking to retain Captain Archuleta, selected him to join the West Point faculty to teach American politics. The Army is now paying for him to earn a master’s degree in public affairs at the University of Texas en route to a doctorate in government. Under his agreement with the Army, he will leave the West Point faculty and return to the fighting force in 2017.

“Such a positive option was not the experience of all of my contemporaries,” Captain Archuleta said.


Transition to Peacetime

That challenge of transitioning to a peacetime Army is felt in a different way across the enlisted ranks, as commanders say they typically face more challenges disciplining troops at home.

“We all struggle with the fact that leadership in garrison is much tougher than leadership in combat,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Larry D. Farmer, who served as the senior noncommissioned officer for the 82nd Airborne’s Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Bragg.

Young soldiers may have survived multiple combat tours and countless brushes with death, which commanders say can lead to a sense of invincibility and the need to seek out the rush of war from thrills like reckless driving and drug and alcohol abuse.

Although there is typically an initial honeymoon period when soldiers return to their families, the frictions of daily life start to spark by the six-month mark, and Army leaders know they have to pay special attention as problems may emerge.

Stepping up the training schedule can help. Last summer, in a military exercise, more than a thousand paratroopers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division floated down from the dark bowl of sky over Fort Bragg, visible through night-vision goggles as umbrella-shaped shadows against a pale green backdrop.

Their mission, the centerpiece of an eight-day war game for 7,500 troops, was to evacuate civilians endangered by a foreign political crisis and secure a chemical weapons depot in a chaotic, unnamed nation.

The 82nd Airborne, back home after years of nonstop deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, continues to prepare for conflict, although not the full-scale land wars of the last 12 years. As Robert M. Gates said in 2011, when he was the defense secretary, “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”

Instead, commanders say the Army’s future lies in creating leaner, faster units that can provide disaster relief, secure embassies, seize airfields and deploy for other emergencies large and small — all while continuing to deter potential adversaries from aggressive actions.

“Our recent combat experience is not necessarily analogous to what we are going to have to do in the future,” said Maj. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne. The division has again been designated the military’s Global Response Force — ready to deploy a battalion of about 750 troops overseas within 18 hours, and a full brigade of about 3,500 troops in as little as two days.

To meet that renewed purpose, General Nicholson also put his paratroopers through a separate “no-notice alert” last year to rehearse going from a status quo daily schedule to a rapid combat deployment. More than 1,000 soldiers swapped out their distinctive maroon berets for camouflage helmets as they shrugged into parachutes and loaded their combat equipment onto transport aircraft as if for immediate dispatch to an overseas crisis.

These drills, General Nicholson said, reflect the most significant change for paratroopers here, one that will return the division to its historic rapid-reaction role. They also serve to keep impatient troops who experienced real combat in Iraq and Afghanistan occupied at home.

When it comes to money for training, his division is one of the fortunate ones. For almost a year, tight budgets have meant that only those units next in line for deployments have been allowed to conduct large-scale training exercises — the sort of event that focuses the energy of soldiers and boosts morale.

“What keeps me up at night,” General Odierno said, “is if I’m asked to deploy 20,000 soldiers somewhere, I’m not sure I can guarantee you that they’re trained to the level that I think they should be.”

As for Specialist Brown, he has decided that his future and the Army’s are intertwined. With hopes for advanced training in electrical engineering, and at least the prospect of another tour overseas — perhaps to Africa, Europe or Asia — he has re-enlisted for another three years.

“I haven’t decided whether I’ll stay in for the whole 20 years,” he said. “But I’m willing to take it a couple of years at a time.”


A version of this article appears in print on January 19, 2014,

on page A18 of the New York edition with the headline

After Years at War, the Army Adapts to Garrison Life.

    After Years at War, the Army Adapts to Garrison Life, NYT, 18.1.2014,






Taliban Attack Kills 16

at Restaurant Favored by Westerners


JAN. 17, 2014
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban struck a restaurant popular with Westerners in downtown Kabul on Friday in what appeared to be a well-coordinated assault, with a suicide bomber clearing a path for two gunmen, who rushed in and fired on diners, the police said. At least 16 people were killed, most of them foreigners.

The attack appeared to be one of the deadliest against Western civilians in Kabul since 2001, with Afghan and Western officials saying as many as 13 of the dead were expatriates.

Initially, there was no word about the nationalities of those killed or which organizations they worked for, but later Friday, a statement from the office of Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, said, “Four United Nations personnel, along with a number of those from other international organizations, are now confirmed dead.”

On Friday evening, the International Monetary Fund said its representative in Afghanistan, Wabel Abdallah, was among those killed.

The choice of a lightly guarded restaurant was a departure for the Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the attack. The insurgents have more often sought to strike fortified government buildings and high-profile symbols of the Western presence in Afghanistan, like the American Embassy and a building believed to house the C.I.A. station in Kabul.

Those attacks have succeeded in generating headlines but have inflicted relatively few casualties in the past few years. A Taliban bombing this month at the entrance to Camp Eggers, a large base for the American-led military coalition in the center of Kabul, did not inflict any casualties, for instance. The base is less than a mile from the restaurant, Taverna du Liban.

The restaurant, which serves Lebanese food and has a clientele made up largely of expatriates, had almost none of the security enjoyed by official installations, like concrete blast walls or checkpoints blocking off the street it is on.

The initial blast appeared to have been powerful. It was heard miles away and shook windows in the immediate neighborhood, which is home to numerous embassies and shops that serve Western aid workers, journalists and other foreign civilians who live in the city.

The Taliban claimed to have inflicted heavy casualties and said they had killed a high-ranking German official.

The German Foreign Ministry in Berlin, reached by phone, would say only that it was “dealing with the incident and is working hard to clarify the facts.”

Gen. Zaher Zaher, the police chief of Kabul, said at least 16 people had been killed in the attack. He said that a number of other people had been seriously wounded and that the death toll was likely to rise.

Most, if not all, of those killed or wounded were likely to have been civilians; coalition service members are rarely allowed to go to restaurants or socialize outside their bases.

The American Embassy said all United States diplomats, development workers and other officials based in Kabul were accounted for. It had no information on whether other American citizens might be among the dead.

Police officers swarmed through the neighborhood, Wazir Akbar Khan, after the blast, blocking off streets. They were soon joined by smaller groups of coalition soldiers, along with Afghan Army troops and operatives from the National Directorate of Security, the country’s main intelligence agency.

A tight cordon kept most people from going near the restaurant. Late into the night, relatives of the Afghans who worked there waited nervously behind the police lines in near-freezing temperatures for word of those they had been unable to reach.

A tearful teenage boy, who gave his name only as Muhammad, said his older brother was a guard at the restaurant. A few police officers tried to comfort him, but he could not stop crying and repeating, “My brother, my brother.”

The Twitter account of a woman named Mona Hamade said her father owned the restaurant and was inside at the time of the attack. She could not reach him and was asking for help in finding him.

According to Afghan and Western officials, the attackers appear to have approached the restaurant on foot. The suicide bomb killed three Afghans guarding the entrance to the restaurant and blew through a thin steel door that is usually bolted from the inside and opened only after patrons are patted down.

The gunmen then rushed in and began shooting diners until police officers arrived a few minutes later and killed the assailants, said a Kabul police official, who asked not to be identified because the authorities were still trying to determine precisely what had happened.

“A majority of those killed were foreigners,” the official said. “They were all shot dead after the suicide bombing.”

According to a statement on the I.M.F. website, Mr. Abdallah, 60, had been the bank’s resident representative in the country since 2008. Mr. Abdallah, who was Lebanese, had previously worked at Lebanon’s central bank.

Though the Taliban have mounted numerous attacks in Kabul, they have rarely sought to directly target the thousands of Western civilians who live in the city unattached to any embassy.

In January 2011, a suicide attack on a supermarket popular with foreigners killed 14 people, including five foreigners and an Afghan family. The supermarket was only blocks from the scene of Friday’s attack.

In September 2012, a suicide bomber struck a minibus that was carrying flight crew members under contract with the United States government, killing 14 people, including 10 foreigners. Hezb-i-Islami, a separate insurgent group, took responsibility for the attack.

But for the most part, the thousands of Western civilians who live in Kabul have felt very little of the threat posed by the insurgents. Outside of embassies and other official missions, few expatriates have altered what is a fairly vulnerable existence, even as security in other parts of Afghanistan continues to deteriorate.

Many expatriates still live in houses guarded only by the high walls that usually surround Afghan homes. They frequent a handful of well-established restaurants, many of which serve alcohol, and loud parties at private homes are still weekly occurrences.


Azam Ahmed, Jawad Sukhanyar, Habib Zahori

and Haris Kakar contributed reporting.



A version of this article appears in print on January 18, 2014,

on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline:

Taliban Attack Restaurant Favored by Westerners.

    Taliban Attack Kills 16 at Restaurant Favored by Westerners,
    NYT, 17.1.2014,






Grabbing the Wolf's Tail

Keep Foreign Troops in Afghanistan


JAN. 16, 2014
The New York Times
The Opinion Pages|Op-Ed Contributor


GARDEZ, Afghanistan — “The Taliban are still here,” a pharmacist who sells medicine to remote villages in the southeast told me last month in this shabby frontier town. “People are anxious about 2014 because the troops are leaving.”

After his customers started to understand recently that the United States and its allies will pull out most of their forces this year, he said, his sales of medication for anxiety, depression and insomnia increased 30-fold. Fear of a Taliban resurgence is so widespread that it is hurting property prices and the value of Afghanistan’s currency, scaring investors away and impelling Afghans to seek foreign asylum. Worries about the year ahead are a kind of pathology here.

Yet if Afghans are too scared about the withdrawal of American troops, the United States government may not be scared enough. In its latest report to Congress, the Pentagon said that fighting had eased in 2013, reporting a 12 percent drop in security incidents over the previous summer.

The United Nations, by contrast, found an 11 percent increase between May to August 2013, compared with the same period in 2012. During my visits to seven Afghan provinces over the last year, I saw no sign of the war cooling down.

In the short term, the Taliban are very unlikely to take over the country, or even march on major cities, but trouble should be expected in smaller outposts. Peace negotiations with the Taliban have stalled. This, combined with the imminent pullout of foreign forces, has given insurgents renewed confidence that the military balance of power will shift in their favor. In Kandahar last summer, one Taliban supporter (and sometime participant) confidently predicted that the insurgents would soon capture Kabul, repeating the northward sweep that brought them to power in 1996.

He didn’t seem to grasp the obstacles: Even if international forces are reduced, as anticipated, to less than one-fifth of the 84,000 troops now deployed, Afghan security forces still number roughly 350,000. That’s a lot of firepower standing on the road to Kabul. The capital itself, despite a few spectacular attacks, has enjoyed some respite.

The provincial capitals I visited — Kandahar, Asadabad, Gardez, Jalalabad, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Maimana — also seemed well-defended. According to Western analysts, in Kandahar, the largest city in the south, insurgent attacks have dropped by half since 2011, the violent peak of American troop surges.

It’s a different story among the few hundred small outposts in the outlying districts. In places where international troops are pulling back, Afghan officials reported a rising number of attacks by the Taliban and told me they were worried about administrative centers being overrun in coming years. Some of these are strategically inconsequential desert towns or mountain hideouts, but losing others could enable the Taliban to choke off major roads.

The insurgents have already resorted to medieval siege tactics, surrounding some towns and cutting off food supplies. (As a result, the price of wheat in Azra district of Logar Province last summer was six times the usual.) They put up roadblocks to prevent wounded Afghan police and soldiers from reaching medical help, leaving them to die of minor injuries as they screamed into their phones, begging for scarce helicopters. Some Afghan cities risk becoming lonely archipelagos of government influence.

Local security forces have responded with desperate measures. Afghan commanders in Faryab Province described to me in September a risky summer offensive to smash a Taliban outpost. The insurgents were flying a white Taliban flag over their shadow office, displaying their rising presence even hundreds of miles northwest of their heartland. In the absence of American air support, the government troops deployed a cavalry charge, sending out dozens of men firing automatic weapons on horseback. (The operation was successful.)

Fraying government control at the edges should serve as a warning. An unraveling of the Afghan state can be avoided, but it will require the international community to stay involved. The mission has not been accomplished, despite what Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, has claimed. Afghan forces stand a fighting chance, but they need help.

Afghan and American leaders must sign a bilateral security agreement to allow a modest number of NATO troops to stay. Afghan forces need more helicopters, as well as logistics, intelligence and medical support. They will need, at a minimum, the $4.1 billion in annual funding promised by participants at the NATO summit in Chicago in 2012.

There is no other option, according to a local journalist in Gardez. “Fighting in Afghanistan is like grabbing a wolf’s tail,” he said. “While you hold on, you’re worried it will bite you. But if you let go, you are sure it will bite you.”


Graeme Smith is a senior analyst

for the International Crisis Group and the author

of “The Dogs Are Eating Them Now:

Our War in Afghanistan.”


A version of this op-ed appears in print on January 17, 2014,

on page A25 of the New York edition with the headline:

Grabbing the Wolf's Tail.


    Grabbing the Wolf's Tail
    Keep Foreign Troops in Afghanistan
    NYT, 16.1.2014,






Video Shows

U.S. Soldier Long Held by Afghans


JAN. 15, 2014
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — A video of an American soldier held captive by Afghan insurgents for the past four and a half years is in the possession of the United States government, and officials said Wednesday that it showed the soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, alive but in declining health.

Few details were available on the video, which was obtained in recent days by the American military. It was not a propaganda release to journalists, a communications technique used by insurgent groups in the past, making it likely that it was seized in an operation by Americans or allies.

The video, which is now in the hands of American intelligence officials, refers to current events, prompting officials to believe that it is proof that Sergeant Bergdahl, the only American being held by insurgents, is still alive.

After the existence of the video was reported by CNN, the Pentagon issued a brief statement.

“We cannot discuss all the details of our efforts, but there should be no doubt that on a daily basis — using our military, intelligence and diplomatic tools — we try to see Sergeant Bergdahl returned home safely,” said Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “Our hearts are with the Bergdahl family.”

Sergeant Bergdahl is believed to be held by the militant Haqqani network in the tribal area of Pakistan’s northwest frontier, on the Afghan border. He was captured in Paktika Province in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009.

He has been the subject of negotiations, currently stalled, that focused on securing his release through a trade of five Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The Bergdahl family released a statement through the Idaho National Guard asking “his captors to release him safely so that our only son can be reunited with his mother and father.”

To the sergeant, the family said: “If you see this, continue to remain strong through patience. Your endurance will carry you to the finish line. Breathe!”


A version of this article appears in print on January 16, 2014,

on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline:

Video Shows U.S. Soldier Long Held by Afghans.

    Video Shows U.S. Soldier Long Held by Afghans, NYT, 15.1.2014,