Les anglonautes

About | Search | Vocapedia | Learning | Podcasts | Videos | History | Arts | Science | Translate

 Previous Home Up Next


History > 2012 > USA > War > Afghanistan (I)




Afghan demonstrators

show copies of the Koran allegedly set alight by US soldiers,

during a protest against Koran desecration at the gate of

Bagram airbase, Feb. 21, 2012 at Bagram, north of Kabul.


The copies of the burned Korans and Islamic religious texts were obtained

by Afghan workers contracted to work inside Bagram air base,

and presented to demonstrators gathered outside the military installation.



Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images


Boston Globe > Big Picture > Afghanistan: February 2012        March 14, 2012
















Violent Uproar in Afghanistan

Casts Shadow on U.S. Pullout


February 26, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — American officials sought to reassure both Afghanistan’s government and a domestic audience on Sunday that the United States remained committed to the war after the weekend killing of two American military officers inside the Afghan Interior Ministry and days of deadly anti-American protests.

But behind the public pronouncements, American officials described a growing concern, even at the highest levels of the Obama administration and Pentagon, about the challenges of pulling off a troop withdrawal in Afghanistan that hinges on the close mentoring and training of army and police forces.

Despite an American-led training effort that has spanned years and cost tens of billions of dollars, the Afghan security forces are still widely seen as riddled with dangerously unreliable soldiers and police officers. The distrust has only deepened as a pattern of attacks by Afghan security forces on American and NATO service members, beginning years ago, has drastically worsened over the past few days. A grenade attack on Sunday, apparently by a protester, wounded at least six American soldiers.

Nearly a week of violent unrest after American personnel threw Korans into a pit of burning trash has brought into sharp relief the growing American and Afghan frustration — and, at times, open hostility — and the risks of a strategy that calls for American soldiers and civilians to work closely with Afghans.

The United States now has what one senior American official said was “almost no margin of error” in trying to achieve even limited goals in Afghanistan after a series of crises that have stirred resentment.

The official said the unrest might complicate but was unlikely to significantly alter the overall plan: to keep pulling out troops and focus instead on using Special Operations forces to train the Afghans and go after insurgent and militant leaders in targeted raids while diplomats try opening talks with the Taliban.

At the same time, the administration plans to continue negotiations on a long-term framework to guide relations with Afghanistan after the NATO mission through the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ends in 2014. Officials from the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and other agencies are to begin meeting this week to hammer out details of the various efforts, and to work out the size of the next round of withdrawals, which President Obama is expected to announce at a NATO summit meeting planned for May in Chicago.

Those immediate talks, officials say, could be most affected. What only weeks ago was an undercurrent of anti-Americanism in Afghanistan is now a palpable fury, and if the situation continues to deteriorate at its current pace, plans could be altered, the official said. “There’s a certain impatience — I mean, there are people who don’t see how we succeed under the current conditions, and their case is getting stronger,” the official said.

Hundreds of American military and civilian advisers have already been pulled out of the Afghan ministries and government departments in Kabul, the capital. While that move has been described as temporary, the official declined to speculate about what kind of long-term changes could be envisioned. The official and others interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the crisis with Afghanistan.

Another administration official said the unrest was “going to have a really negative effect” on all the initiatives but added that much remained unclear and that the focus was on damage control.

Regardless of the challenges, and possible setbacks to vital negotiations, senior American officials said on Sunday that the mission had to go on. “This is not the time to decide that we’re done here,” the American ambassador in Kabul, Ryan C. Crocker, said in an interview on CNN. “We have got to redouble our efforts. We’ve got to create a situation in which Al Qaeda is not coming back.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed regret for the burning of the Korans but said it should not derail the American military and diplomatic effort in Afghanistan. “We are condemning it in the strongest possible terms,” she said in Rabat, Morocco, “but we also believe that the violence must stop, and the hard work of trying to build a more peaceful, prosperous and secure Afghanistan must continue.”

Another administration official said, however, that there was recognition that the commitment was most likely to carry a greater political cost. “There is no less a commitment to a long-term relationship with Afghanistan,” the official said. “But is there a concern now that many will question the need to stay? Yes — especially in an election year.”

A leading Republican candidate for president did appear to strike a more measured tone on Sunday in speaking about the crisis in Afghanistan while urging that the United States stay on its course.

Mitt Romney, speaking to Fox News, said: “It’s obviously very dangerous there, and the transition effort is not going as well as we’d like to see it go. But certainly the effort there is an important one, and we want to see the Afghan security troops finally able to secure their own country and bring our troops home when that job is done.”

He did, however, reiterate his opposition to the administration’s setting a public timetable for drawing down American forces in Afghanistan. And he and his main rival in the Republican field, Rick Santorum, on Sunday continued their harsh criticism of Mr. Obama’s apology for the Koran burnings.

On ABC News’s “This Week,” Mr. Santorum said the president’s apology showed weakness. “There was nothing deliberately done wrong here,” he said.

Even before this crisis, the Obama administration was scaling back American ambitions in Afghanistan, abandoning previous goals that focused on nation building, even if the result was just “Afghan good enough” — a pejorative phrase often used as shorthand for the low expectations many Westerners held for Afghanistan. Administration officials have described a current aim of leaving behind a relatively democratic government secure enough to keep Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for Al Qaeda and other militants who threaten the West.

But their often unhappy partner in that enterprise, President Hamid Karzai, has been the source of growing impatience for American officials. The Afghan leader is in a tight spot, needing to balance his domestic political considerations against his long-troubled relations with his Western backers, upon whose support his government survives.

Still, some officials have been complimentary of his repeated call for calm during the current crisis. In some past cases, Mr. Karzai was seen as trying to stoke his people’s anger against the Americans.

“So far, they’re saying the right things,” a senior defense official said. “Now it’s a matter of them doing the right things.”

The official and others said that in addition to policing the protests — which the Afghan security forces have, for the most part, done well — the Afghan government needed to do a better job of vetting its soldiers and police officers to help stem attacks on alliance troops by Afghans.

“The Afghans have to do their part as well,” the official said. “Our will to pursue the mission is strong but could ebb if the Afghans don’t follow through quickly on their end of the deal.”

One immediate fallout of the violence was a decision on Sunday by two senior Afghan national security officials — Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi — to delay a joint visit to Washington that had been set for this week.

George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, said efforts were under way to reschedule the visit, adding, “We believe that we can surmount recent challenges by working closely with our Afghan and ISAF partners to redouble our shared commitment to the sustained progress we’ve achieved together.”


Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington,

and Steven Lee Myers from Rabat, Morocco.

    Violent Uproar in Afghanistan Casts Shadow on U.S. Pullout, NYT, 26.2.2012,






Blast Wounds at Least 6 Americans

in Afghanistan


February 26, 2012
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — A nationwide manhunt was under way on Sunday for the chief suspect in the shooting of two American military officers working in the Interior Ministry, and a grenade thrown by protesters wounded at least six American service members in northern Afghanistan.

The continuing animosity over what American officials now say was the inadvertent burning of several Korans last week at the largest air base here underscored the new challenges to the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States, with no clear path toward the restoration of mutual trust.

Rioting was less pervasive on Sunday than it had been for the past several days but was still virulent in northern Afghanistan. At least one Afghan demonstrator was killed in clashes with the Afghan police, and several more were injured.

Early Monday morning, a large car bomb exploded at the entrance to Jalalabad Airbase killing at least nine Afghans, including a member of the Afghan security forces, according to Ebadullah Talwar, the chief of security for Nangahar Province. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing as revenge for the burning of the Korans, according to wire service reports.

A NATO spokesman said initial reports indicated that no NATO service members had been killed.

President Hamid Karzai called for calm during a televised news conference on Sunday, his first since the burning of the Korans. It was a time for self-restraint, he said, “so that it does not provide an opportunity for the enemy to take advantage.”

In his address, Mr. Karzai did not offer new details about the shooting of the two American officers, which happened on Saturday, but he said he understood NATO’s decision to withdraw its advisers from all Afghan ministries in the wake of the attack.

The advisers’ withdrawal cast doubt on one of the most critical parts of the international mission in Afghanistan: the mentoring and training of Afghan forces who are to assume responsibility for security and the war against the Taliban after the United States pulls out its combat troops.

The shooting occurred in the National Police Coordination Center, a high-security area of the Interior Ministry that only an elite group of Afghan officers had access to by entering a special code. The center handles information on security developments from across the country. Military officials said that until the investigation was completed, they could not be certain whether the two officers —Lt. Col. John D. Loftis, 44, of Paducah, Ky., of the Air Force, and a major not yet identified by the Defense Department — were armed, but that they would not have been expecting an attack.

According to three Afghan security officials who were familiar with the case but who asked not to be identified because of the matter’s political delicacy, the main suspect is an Afghan, Abdul Saboor, a driver for senior officials who had worked in the ministry for several years. Hired as a noncommissioned officer, he won the trust of his bosses and the ministry’s foreign advisers and had been granted access to the coordination center, they said. He is an ethnic Tajik from Parwan Province and is not believed to have any connection to the Taliban, according to people who knew him.

The two American officers were sitting in a small room that has no security cameras and is close to the coordination center. But Mr. Saboor was recorded by other cameras in the building, said Sediq Sediqi, the Interior Ministry spokesman. He apparently entered the room where the officers were sitting and shot them in the head; the pistol used to kill them was equipped with a silencer, two of the Afghan officials said.

After the shootings, Mr. Saboor was apparently able to leave the ministry without complications, the officials said, suggesting to some that he might have had help. He had behaved oddly in recent months, two officials said, and about five months ago he was fired after prolonged absences. But he was later reinstated for reasons that were not clear.

Afghan officials acknowledged that the killings were a serious breach of trust that could undermine the training mission, and they said they were working hard to find the killer.

“We have a search operation under way in every part of Afghanistan,” said Mr. Sediqi. Another senior ministry official said that the authorities were reasonably sure that Mr. Saboor had not left the country.

Within hours of the killings on Saturday, four Afghan security officials traveled to Mr. Saboor’s home in the area near the 9,000-foot-high Salang pass. They arrived at 10:30 p.m., roused the village elders and went to Mr. Saboor’s house, Maj. Noor Agha, the district police chief, said.

“When we knocked,” Major Agha said, “the mother and the wife opened the door, and they were very afraid and said, ‘We don’t have any man in our house. Why are you here?’ And I told them, ‘Abdul Saboor, your son, had a fight in the ministry and he fled,’ but when we saw the house, they were very poor people and we discussed among ourselves who will care for them for now.”

They searched the house and found nothing. Major Agha asked Mr. Saboor’s mother to call him on her phone, but he did not answer.

Violence by Afghan security personnel or sometimes by Taliban infiltrators wearing the uniforms of the security forces, against NATO troops had already been on the rise before the Koran burning set off nationwide protests and a wave of new attacks, but the fury over the Koran burning has bred a mood of impunity in the past week, with even more Afghans seeming to feel that American troops are fair game.

The injuries to the American service members on Sunday were inflicted after protesters threw a grenade at a camp in the northern city of Kunduz, where the American military has a mentoring program with the Afghan national police, Mohammad Ayub Haqyar, a district official, said.

NATO said that an explosion took place outside the base, wounding several military personnel, but that the base had not been breached.


Reporting was contributed by Sharifullah Sahak, Sangar Rahimi

and Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul

and employees of The New York Times from Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif.

    Blast Wounds at Least 6 Americans in Afghanistan, NYT, 26.2.2012,






2 U.S. Officers Slain; Advisers to Exit Kabul Ministries


February 25, 2012
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — Two American officers were shot dead inside the Interior Ministry building here on Saturday, and NATO responded by immediately pulling all its advisers out of Afghan ministries in Kabul, in a deepening of the crisis over the American military’s burning of Korans at a NATO military base.

The order by the NATO commander, Gen. John R. Allen, came on the fifth day of virulent anti-American demonstrations across the country, and it was a clear sign of concern that the fury had reached deeply into even the Afghan security forces and ministries working most closely with the coalition.

Although there was no official statement that the gunman was an Afghan, in an e-mail sent to Western officials here from NATO headquarters the episode was described as “green on blue,” which is the military term used here when Afghan security forces turn their weapons on Western troops.

The killings, which happened within one of the most tightly secured areas of the ministry, add to the drumbeat of concern about a deepening animosity between civilians and militaries on both sides that have led to American and coalition forces being killed in increasing numbers even before the Koran burning ignited nationwide rioting.

And the decision to withdraw from the Afghan ministries suddenly called into question the coalition’s entire strategy of joint operations with Afghan forces across the country, although General Allen said NATO was still committed to fighting the war in Afghanistan.

“I condemn today’s attack at the Afghan Ministry of Interior that killed two of our coalition officers,” General Allen said in a statement. The military had not yet found the person who carried out the shooting, he said, adding: “The perpetrator of this attack is a coward whose actions will not go unanswered. We are committed to our partnership with the government of Afghanistan to reach our common goal of a peaceful, stable and secure Afghanistan in the near future.”

An American defense official who served in Afghanistan said NATO forces around the country had been told in recent days to keep their distance from their Afghan counterparts on shared bases out of concern that there could be more attacks on them by Afghan soldiers.

The killings on Saturday are only the latest chapter in the deteriorating relations between the Afghans and NATO. Among the recent events that have heightened tensions are an Afghan soldier’s recent killing of French troops that led the French to move up their withdrawal date, and outrage over a video that showed four American Marines urinating on bodies that were said to be those of Taliban fighters.

The Koran burning, however, has taken the animosity to a new level, eroding further the weakened trust between the Afghans and Americans. On Thursday, two American soldiers were shot to death by a member of the Afghan Army at a base in eastern Afghanistan as protests about the Koran burning raged outside.

“We’ve got this happening at the highest level of the ministry and at the boots-on-the-ground level,” said John Nagl, a fellow at the United States Naval Academy and a former Army officer who served in Iraq. “The American strategy is to hand over responsibility as rapidly as we can to the Afghans, and this is going to require enormous trust between the Afghans and the Americans. And that’s now been violated on both sides, and we did it first.”

The intensifying enmity toward the American presence a decade into the war is casting doubt on a central plank of the Obama administration’s strategy to end the United States’ involvement in the war: a close working relationship between Afghan forces and advisers and trainers who are trying to make the Afghans ready to defend and police the country on their own.

It is also likely to have an immediate bearing on several critical negotiations with Afghan officials.

An American official in Washington said the unrest and shootings of American personnel by their Afghan counterparts would have a “huge” impact on discussions planned for the coming weeks among officials from the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and other agencies.

On the agenda of the various interagency meetings is the future of the main American prison in Afghanistan, the detention facility in Parwan, which President Hamid Karzai wants handed to Afghan control in less than a month; how to proceed with stalled negotiations over the Strategic Partnership Document that is intended to map out relations between the United States and Afghanistan after 2014; and how large a pullout President Obama will announce at a NATO meeting planned for May in Chicago.

The official cautioned that no one was “panicking,” but that the initial reaction to the growing hostility from Afghans was to convince more officials that the pace of the American withdrawal needed to quicken, and that the sooner the mission became one of training and counterterrorism, the better.

“You look at this as clearly and objectively as you can; what you see is that we’re in a weaker position than we were maybe two or three or four weeks ago,” said the official, who asked not to be identified because he was discussing internal deliberations. “I’m not sure anyone knows the clear way forward. It’s gotten more and more complicated. It’s fraught.”

The shootings came on another violent day, as thousands of Afghans incensed by the American military’s burning of Korans once again took to the streets in running clashes with the police that claimed the lives of another five Afghan protesters, officials said, while many more were wounded.

Chanting anti-American slogans calling for an end to NATO’s presence, the protesters also vented broader fury, storming offices of the Afghan government and the United Nations, leading to violent standoffs.

Officials said that four protesters were shot by the Afghan police after a crowd of thousands attacked the United Nations headquarters in Kunduz Province in the north, wrecking public buildings and stores. Those shootings left 51 others wounded, hospital officials said.

In Kunduz Province, as in Herat on Friday, the crowds were reportedly stirred by provocateurs. Ghulam Mohammad Farhad, the deputy police chief of Kunduz, said he believed “there were some people who tried to sabotage the demonstration and turn it to violence.”

In the east, 2,000 protesters, mainly students from one of the main high schools, marched on the governor’s residence in Laghman Province, and 21 Afghans were wounded when the police opened fire.

The shooting of the two American officers took place in the Interior Ministry’s command and control center, a highly restricted area where officials monitor conditions around the country, according to an Afghan official in the ministry who was not authorized to comment publicly.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta condemned the “murder of two U.S. military officers,” and said that the Afghan defense minister had called to offer his condolences. He also said that the interior minister had apologized to General Allen and promised to cooperate fully in the investigation.

General Allen’s order to withdraw military advisers includes both those service members operating under the NATO flag, including members of the 49 coalition countries operating here, and other American military personnel who are separate from the NATO chain of command. There are at least several hundred advisers embedded in almost every department of the security ministries, but a NATO spokesman would not give a number. They work on everything from logistics and weapons training to strategic planning.

NATO is still investigating what led to the decision to burn Korans and other religious texts, an act that led President Obama to issue a public apology on Thursday.

Early reports said that the books had messages written in them from detained Taliban suspects. Most of the Korans that were rescued from the flames are still at Bagram Air Base in a locked container, kept as evidence.

The Taliban were quick to claim responsibility for the shooting, saying one of their members had infiltrated the ministry. The Taliban regularly claim responsibility for NATO deaths.

A Taliban spokesman also claimed the attacker was carrying a suicide vest, but that detail did not agree with any other reports.


Reporting was contributed by Matthew Rosenberg from Washington; Jawad Sukhanyar, Sharifullah Sahak and Sangar Rahimi from Kabul; and employees of The New York Times from Kunduz and Laghman Provinces.


This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 26, 2012

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that John Nagl, a fellow at the United States Naval Academy and a former Army officer, served in Afghanistan.

    2 U.S. Officers Slain; Advisers to Exit Kabul Ministries, NYT, 25.2.2012,






Beheadings Raise Doubts That Taliban Have Changed


February 23, 2012
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban took the four men to the main bazaar in a southern Afghanistan district at evening prayer on Sunday, regional government officials said, denounced them as government spies because they were carrying satellite phones, then beheaded them in front of local residents who had been summoned to watch.

Three days later, on Wednesday morning, the director of a relatively progressive radio station in eastern Afghanistan was found stabbed to death in his car. His back, stomach and chest had been slashed, and his throat slit, according to the man’s brother, who said his head had been nearly severed from his body.

The local police chief, Daulat Khan Zadran, said the victim, Sadeem Khan Bahader Zoi, had been totally beheaded. “We still don’t know the cause” of the killing, Mr. Zadran said, but the method was consistent with the Taliban.

A Taliban spokesman for eastern Afghanistan, Zabiullah Mujahid, strongly condemned Mr. Zoi’s killing and in a telephone interview denied that the Taliban had been involved. The Taliban spokesman responsible for southern Afghanistan could not be reached for comment on the beheadings there.

This quick spate of grisly killings occurred despite recent attempts by the Taliban leadership to project a softer, more accepting image, to win the support of ordinary Afghans and convince the United States that it is a reasonable negotiating partner.

Its efforts are helping to drive a campaign by the Afghan government and the international coalition to begin peace talks with the Taliban that could lead to a power-sharing arrangement.

Beheadings by the Taliban are not new, but they have not been seen for a while, and five such gruesome deaths in a few days suggest that the Taliban may be operating with increasing impunity in some regions.

To Afghans, they are a frightening reminder of the brutal extremes of Taliban law — an authority that may soon have greater official sway over the country — and they raise questions about the sincerity of the Taliban in the peace negotiations.

Dawood Ahmadi, a spokesman for the governor of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, where the four beheadings took place Sunday in the Washir district, and Mohammad Dawood Noorzai, Washir’s district governor, denied that any of the four men had ties to any level of government in Afghanistan.

Mr. Ahmadi and Mr. Noorzai said the men came from a rural area with poor telephone service where some people carry satellite phones, including those who make a business out of charging fees for other people to use the phones.

“I don’t have full information about these people, but I can say that they were innocent civilians and did not have any links with the government,” Mr. Noorzai said.

Mr. Ahmadi said that local residents interviewed by provincial officials said the Taliban had called on locals to gather in the bazaar to watch the beheadings. “The Taliban said that these people are spying for the government and carrying these satellite phones with them and they deserve to die, the locals told us,” he said.

Mr. Zoi, the director of Milma Radio in northern Paktika, an eastern province on the border with Pakistan, had received a telephone call from a man while he was visiting a brother on Monday night, said the brother, Noor Mohammad.

After the call, Mr. Zoi went out, and the next morning, Mr. Mohammad and another brother found Mr. Zoi’s body in his car. His hands were tied behind his back and a bloodied copy of the radio station’s magazine lay on his chest.

“I saw Sadeem Khan with his throat slit by a knife all the way down to his spinal cord, and he was also stabbed with knives on his back, belly and chest,” Mr. Mohammad said.

Mr. Zoi had worked at the station, which served the local Urgon district, for about a year. His deputy, Yaqub Khan, said that Mr. Zoi did not seem to have any enemies.

Mr. Khan said Milma offered entertainment, religious, political and other programs — including those in which young local villagers, male and female, called in with requests to play their favorite songs.


Farooq Jan Mangal contributed reporting from Khost, Afghanistan.

    Beheadings Raise Doubts That Taliban Have Changed, NYT, 23.2.2012,






Obama Sends Apology as Afghan Koran Protests Rage


February 23, 2012
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — The potential scope of the fallout from the burning of several copies of the Koran by American military personnel this week became chillingly clear on Thursday as a man in an Afghan Army uniform shot and killed two American soldiers, while a crowd nearby protested the desecration of the Muslim holy book.

In the third successive day of deadly violence over the Koran burning, seven Afghans were killed in three provinces on Thursday and many more were injured, most in skirmishes with Afghan security forces. The Afghan government, which had responded slowly on the first day of protests, was in high gear on Thursday as officials tried to tamp down emotions ahead of the Friday day of prayer. Western and Afghan authorities feared that there could be emotional demonstrations after the prayer that the Taliban and extremist elements would try to exploit.

Afghan officials quoted from a letter from President Obama in which he, among other things, apologized for the Koran burning. For President Hamid Karzai, the episode has fast become a political thicket. He and other government officials share with the Afghan populace a visceral disgust for the way American soldiers treated the holy book, but they recognize that violent protests could draw lethal responses from the police or soldiers, setting off a cycle of violence.

Complicating matters is that some of Mr. Karzai’s allies in Parliament and elsewhere, including former mujahedeen leaders, have openly encouraged people to take to the streets and attack NATO forces. Mr. Karzai has not spoken out against them publicly, but his government’s overall message on Thursday suggested that he did not want more violence.

Mr. Karzai met with members of both houses of Parliament at the presidential palace and urged them to help to try to contain the protests.

“The president said that ‘according to our investigation we have found that American soldiers mistakenly insulted the Koran and we will accept their apology,’ ” said Fatima Aziz, a lawmaker from Kunduz who attended the meeting.

“He said, ‘Whoever did this should be punished, and they should avoid its repetition. Insulting holy books and religion is not acceptable at all.’ ”

Ms. Aziz, who said she wept when told of the Koran burning, also said Mr. Karzai told Parliament members that the protesters’ violent response was “‘not proper.’ ”

Ms. Aziz, along with many educated Afghans, some of whom registered their views on Facebook, said she was dismayed by the exploitation of the incident for political gain and accused Iran and Pakistan of behind-the-scenes manipulation. Both countries would like to see the American military under pressure, and the reaction to the Koran burning has accomplished that.

The Taliban released two statements on Thursday: one urged Afghans to attack foreign troops and installations as well as Afghan forces who are defending them, and the second urged Afghan security forces to turn their guns on their NATO colleagues.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan calls on all the youth present in the security apparatus of the Kabul regime to fulfill their religious and national duty,” the statement said, “to repent for their past sins and to record their names with gold in the history books of Islam and Afghanistan by turning their guns on the foreign infidel invaders instead of their own people.”

Mohammed Salih Suljoqi, a lawmaker from Herat, said the episode “has been used as a tool of propaganda.”

“The noble and pure emotions of our fellow countrymen are being misused by the intelligence agencies of neighboring countries,” he said, adding that some groups “are trying to destabilize the situation and lead the country into chaos.”

“All these tragic incidents can spread a dark shadow and negatively impact the relationship of Afghanistan and the United States,” Mr. Suljoqi said.

President Karzai’s office quoted from what it called a letter of apology from Mr. Obama that was delivered Thursday by Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to signal to the Afghan public that the United States understood the distress the episode had caused.

In the letter, according to Mr. Karzai’s press office, Mr. Obama wrote: “I wish to express my deep regret for the reported incident. I extend to you and the Afghan people my sincere apologies.” Mr. Obama’s office would not release the text of what it called a three-page letter on a “host of issues” between the two countries, “several sentences of which relate to this issue.”

One of the Republican candidates for president, Newt Gingrich, issued a statement that harshly criticized Mr. Obama for his apology, calling it an “outrage.”

“It is Hamid Karzai who owes the American people an apology, not the other way around,” the statement said.

Four Afghans were killed in confrontations with the police in Oruzgan Province and one in Baghlan Province. In Nangarhar Province, two Afghans protesting the Koran burning were shot to death outside an American base in Khogyani District, said Mujib Rahman, the doctor on duty at the hospital in the district center.

It was unclear whether they were shot by Afghan soldiers or NATO troops, but a NATO spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. James Williams, said NATO troops would shoot only if they were in mortal danger, and the protesters did not constitute mortal danger.

About the same time as the protest and the shootings outside the base, an Afghan Army soldier turned his gun on NATO soldiers at the base, according to other protesters and elders. Two American soldiers were killed. Mr. Karzai and the religious leaders and elders he had assigned to investigate how the Koran burning came about released a statement calling for restraint by the Afghan people and demanding that those responsible be tried swiftly.

“In view of the particular security situation in the country, we call on all our Muslim citizens of Afghanistan to exercise self-restraint and extra vigilance in dealing with the issue and avoid resorting to protests and demonstrations” that could be used by extremist groups to incite violence, the statement said, adding that NATO officials had “agreed that the perpetrators of the crime be brought to justice as soon as possible” in an open trial.

A NATO inquiry into the burning continues, a spokesman said, adding that the United States would take disciplinary action if “warranted.”


Reporting was contributed by Sangar Rahimi, Sharifullah Sahak

and Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul, and an employee of The New York Times

from Nangarhar Province.

    Obama Sends Apology as Afghan Koran Protests Rage, NYT, 23.2.2012,






Beginning of the End


February 18, 2012
The New York Times


Like most Americans, we are eager to see an end to the war in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announcement that American forces would step back from a combat role as early as mid-2013 was welcome.

The Pentagon’s intention is to try to shift more responsibility to the Afghan security forces while the Americans are still in the country to provide help with planning, transport and intelligence, and to bail the Afghans out in a crisis. That shift is already happening in less volatile regions. And with the United States and NATO committed to bringing nearly all of their troops home by the end of 2014, the Afghans need to learn to take the lead.

If there is any chance of pulling this off, the United States must improve the quality of the Afghan army and police and strengthen central and local governments. We have yet to see a comprehensive plan for an orderly transition.

More than 1,700 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan over the last decade, and the financial cost for this country, more than $450 billion, is staggering. It did not have to be this way. In order to pursue his misguided war in Iraq, President George W. Bush denied his commanders in Afghanistan the necessary troops and support.

President Obama has done better. He poured more resources into training the Afghan army and police, and a “surge” of an additional 50,000 American troops has weakened the Taliban’s fighting forces. Stepped-up intelligence efforts have led to the deaths of Osama bin Laden and scores of Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. The Taliban have recently said they want to talk.

Whether these gains can be maintained is far from clear. What is certain is that there is little time and a huge amount to be done to increase the chances that Afghanistan will not implode once most of the American troops are gone. Here are some areas that must be addressed:

GOVERNANCE There have been some improvements at the federal and regional levels, but the country — hampered by illiteracy and corruption — still lacks a fully functioning government and banking system. After spending huge sums on failed development projects, the State Department is working to better focus and design how it spends these critical dollars. It needs to move quickly.

Since Mr. Obama put in a new diplomatic and military team, public clashes with President Hamid Karzai have declined. But serious frictions remain. Washington and its allies must work harder to get Mr. Karzai to carry out reforms that will encourage credible candidates to run in 2014, when he is supposed to step aside. He must be pressed to take on high-profile corruption cases. He and his ministers need to focus a lot more attention on improving basic services, including the delivery of electricity. To attract foreign investors, Parliament needs to approve a solid legal framework for commercial relations.


TRAINING AND FINANCING AFGHAN FORCES The United States and its allies have spent tens of billions of dollars building an Afghan army and police force from the ground up. They have turned out 330,000 troops, but because of illiteracy, conflicting political loyalties and other problems, there are far too few reliable units.


NATO and the Pentagon are now talking about reducing the Afghan force to 230,000. We don’t know if that is a sound assessment of what is needed or an acknowledgement that Afghanistan and its backers cannot afford to maintain such a large force. The United States will spend $11 billion this year on the 330,000 troops; the cost is expected to drop to around $4 billion annually if the number of troops is reduced and American involvement lessens.

Weeding out less competent soldiers, or corrupt ones, makes sense. But putting tens of thousands of fighters back on the streets could be disastrous. One possible solution would be to shift them to a less costly reserve force.

Afghanistan will not be able to foot the bill for even a smaller force, and Washington will very likely bear most of the cost for years to come. It should not have to do that alone. The Obama administration should use the NATO summit meeting in Chicago in May to press allies to make concrete commitments now. And then hold them to it.


TALKING TO THE TALIBAN Most of the Republican presidential candidates insist the United States must “beat” the Taliban. That sounds good on the stump, but American military commanders say it is impossible now: it would take too many troops, too many years. The best hope is for some kind of political solution.

The Taliban have signaled what they say is a serious interest in negotiations; whether they mean it is anyone’s guess. Still, the administration is right to try. At a minimum, the fact that the Taliban leadership is talking will make more fighters on the ground — and those tempted to join them — question whether the battle is worth it.

The United States has laid down several principles for a settlement: The Taliban must renounce terrorism, cut all ties with Al Qaeda and eventually lay down their weapons and accept the Afghan Constitution — including rights for women. Both Washington and the Afghan government must stick to those principles.

American officials say they are open to a Taliban request for some “confidence-building measures,” including transferring a small number of prisoners from Guantánamo to house arrest in Qatar and lifting some sanctions on individual Taliban negotiators. In return, the Americans must, at a minimum, get assurances that the prisoners will not return to the battlefield, and that the Taliban will renounce terrorism and seriously engage in peace talks.


ECONOMIC SUPPORT Paying for the army is not the only financial problem. Afghanistan faces a potentially devastating economic slowdown when American and coalition troops and aid workers depart. The World Bank estimates that an extraordinary 97 percent of the country’s $28 billion gross domestic product comes from military and development aid and the in-country spending of foreign troops.

At a conference in Bonn, Germany, last year, President Karzai requested $10 billion a year in foreign support through 2025. The United States and its partners promised to help. Vague promises are not enough. Housing prices, salaries, store sales and factory orders are already dropping as coalition troops and aid workers prepare to withdraw. The allies need to have a concrete plan — a mix of aid and investment in the minerals industry and other private projects — in place in time for the NATO meeting.


RESIDUAL AMERICAN FORCE Defense Secretary Panetta told Congress last week that the United States was close to signing an agreement with Mr. Karzai to allow an undefined number (perhaps 15,000) Special Operations soldiers to remain after 2014. These forces would hunt down militants, and would provide air cover, intelligence, logistical support and training for Afghan forces.

We would like to see all American troops gone. But continuing to pound Al Qaeda, and increasing the odds that the Taliban do not again seize power, are in Washington’s strategic interest. The agreement would also send a message to the region that this time the United States plans to stay engaged. Two issues are blocking the deal: Mr. Karzai’s demand to immediately take control of American-run detention facilities and of nighttime raids that he says have killed too many civilians. The United States should keep insisting that Afghans can take over the raids only when they are capable. The detention facilities should be shut down.


DEALING WITH PAKISTAN Islamabad’s continued collusion with the Taliban and other extremist groups is the biggest threat to Afghanistan’s long-term stability. A decade after the Bush administration ordered them to pick sides, the Pakistanis are still cynically playing all sides.

Billions in aid have not changed their thinking. Nor has the recent suspension of some of that aid. Nor has the fact that the extremists seem nearly as eager to bring down Pakistan’s government. The Army and intelligence services are still determined to use the extremists as proxies in their endless competition with India.

The fact that Pakistan did not stop the Taliban from agreeing to negotiations with Washington may be a rare positive sign. But with Islamabad there are never any guarantees. As frustrating as it is, the administration must keep trying to cajole and pressure Pakistan into cooperating. The United States really has no choice, not least because a collapse in Pakistan — with 100 plus nuclear weapons — would be even more disastrous than a collapse in Kabul.

    Beginning of the End, NYT, 18.2.2012,






For Punishment of Elder’s Misdeeds,

Afghan Girl Pays the Price


February 16, 2012
The New York Times


ASADABAD, Afghanistan — Shakila, 8 at the time, was drifting off to sleep when a group of men carrying AK-47s barged in through the door. She recalls that they complained, as they dragged her off into the darkness, about how their family had been dishonored and about how they had not been paid.

It turns out that Shakila, who was abducted along with her cousin as part of a traditional Afghan form of justice known as “baad,” was the payment.

Although baad (also known as baadi) is illegal under Afghan and, most religious scholars say, Islamic law, the taking of girls as payment for misdeeds committed by their elders still appears to be flourishing. Shakila, because one of her uncles had run away with the wife of a district strongman, was taken and held for about a year. It was the district leader, furious at the dishonor that had been done to him, who sent his men to abduct her.

Shakila’s case is unusual both because she managed to escape and because she and her family agreed to share their plight with an outsider. The reaction of the girl’s father to the abduction also illustrates the difficulty in trying to change such a deeply rooted cultural practice: he expressed fury that she was abducted because, he said, he had already promised her in marriage to someone else.

“We did not know what was happening,” said Shakila, now about 10, who spoke softly as she repeated over and over her memory of being dragged from her family home. “They put us in a dark room with stone walls; it was dirty and they kept beating us with sticks and saying, ‘Your uncle ran away with our wife and dishonored us, and we will beat you in retaliation.’ ”

Despite being denounced by the United Nations as a “harmful traditional practice,” baad is pervasive in rural southern and eastern Afghanistan, areas that are heavily Pashtun, according to human rights workers, women’s advocates and aid experts. Baad involves giving away a young woman, often a child, into slavery and forced marriage. It is largely hidden because the girls are given to compensate for “shameful” crimes like murder and adultery and acts forbidden by custom, like elopement, say elders and women’s rights advocates.

The strength of the traditional justice system and the continuing use of baad is a sign both of Afghans’ lack of faith in the government’s justice system, which they say is corrupt, and their extreme sense of insecurity. Baad is most common in areas where it is dangerous for people to seek out government institutions. Instead of turning to the courts, they go to jirgas, assemblies of tribal elders, that use tribal law, which allows the exchange of women.

“There are two reasons people refuse the courts — first, the corrupt administration, which openly demands money for every single case, and second, instability,” said Hajji Mohammed Nader Khan, an elder from Helmand Province who often participates in judging cases that involve baad. “Also, in places where there are Taliban, they won’t allow people to go to courts and solve their problems.”

Advocates for women fear that progress made recently against baad will fade as NATO troops pull out and money for public awareness programs dwindles.

“Baad has decreased in Oruzgan over the last two years due to a strong public relations campaign that we conducted throughout the province,” said Marjana Kochai, the only woman on Oruzgan’s provincial council. “And we have been holding meetings with elders and strictly alerting them not to make such illegal and un-Islamic rulings.”


A Custom’s Deep Roots

The practice of trading women dates to before Islam, when nomadic tribes traveled Afghanistan’s mountains and deserts. Even today, outside Afghanistan’s few urban areas, many of these traditions have deep roots, experts on tribal justice systems said.

“For the nomads, there were no police, there was no court of law, no judge to organize the affairs of humans, so they resorted to the only things they had, which were violence and killing,” said Nasrine Gross, an Afghan-American sociologist who has studied the status of Afghan women.

“Then when a problem doesn’t get resolved,” Ms. Gross said, “you offer the only things you have: livestock is more precious than a girl because the livestock you can sell, so you give two rifles, one camel, five sheep and then the girls they can sell this way.”

The idea is that the giving of a girl to the aggrieved family as a de facto slave and having her marry a member of that family ties the two warring families together, so they are less likely to continue a blood feud. The practice also helps compensate the family for the labor of a lost relative.

And when the girl gives birth to children, the offspring are at least a symbolic replacement for the relative who has been lost.

However, that is little comfort for the girl, who symbolizes the family’s enemy and is completely unprepared both for the brutality she will encounter because of it and for the sexual relations often demanded of her at a young age.

“The problem with baad is it doesn’t normally appease the people,” Ms Gross said. “It appeases them to the extent that they don’t kill someone from the other side, but not enough to treat the girl right.”

There is no official count of the number of girls given each year in baad, but in Kunar Province, where Shakila’s case took place, the director of the women’s office and a female member of Kunar’s provincial council said that they were aware of one or two cases every month from the province and that many cases never came to light. They had not heard of Shakila’s situation.


A Heavy Toll on Women

A 2010 United Nations report on harmful traditional practices described baad as “still pervasive” in rural areas.

Interviews in nine Pashtun-majority provinces with government representatives, women on provincial councils, male elders and other prominent women produced a stream of stories of abuse, suicide and rape. They found that virtually everyone knew about the practice, many were ashamed of it and most people knew someone personally who had been affected by it. Afghanistan outlawed baad in 2009 when it enacted the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act, but enforcement has been spotty, especially in southern and eastern Afghanistan, according to the United Nations.

Shakila’s family, like many in rural Kunar Province, did not oppose baad, but objected that the jirga adjudicating her case had not yet issued its ruling and that Shakila had been betrothed as an infant to a cousin in Pakistan. Under the Pashtun code, the family said, she was not available to be given because she was the property of another man. (Such betrothals are illegal but common in rural Pashtun areas.)

“We did not mind giving girls,” said her father, Gul Zareen. “But she was not mine to give.”

Views of baad differ sharply between men and women, with more men seeing it as a way of preserving families and stopping blood feuds, and women seeing it in terms of the suffering of the young girl asked to pay for another’s wrongs.

“Giving baad has good and bad aspects,” said Fraidoon Mohmand, a member of Parliament from Nangarhar Province, who has led a number of jirgas. “The bad aspect is that you punish an innocent human for someone else’s wrongdoings, and the good aspect is that you rescue two families, two clans, from more bloodshed, death and misery.”

He also said he believed that a woman given in baad suffered only briefly.

“When you give a girl in baad, they are beaten maybe, maybe she will be in trouble for a year or two, but when she brings one or two babies into the world, everything will be forgotten and she will live as a normal member of the family,” he said.

Not so, said the Afghan women interviewed, especially if she is unlucky enough to give birth to a girl.

“The woman given to a family in baad will always be the miserable one,” said Nasima Shafiqzada, who is in charge of women’s affairs for Kunar Province. “She has to work a lot. She will be beaten. She has to listen to lots of bad language from the other females in the family.”

Shakila’s relatives were poor laborers who lived in the rural Naray district in Kunar Province near a small river not far from the border with Pakistan.

Shakila went to school and played with her brothers and was a healthy child, her relatives said. That changed after she was taken by Fazal Nabi’s family, part of the Gujar clan, a tribe in Kunar with a larger presence in Naray than the tribe Shakila was from.


‘They Tortured Us’

During her de facto imprisonment, Shakila and her cousin were allowed out of their dark room after three months and then only so that they could haul firewood from the mountains and lug pails of water from the river.

For the entire year or so that they were kept, neither girl was given a fresh set of clothes. For the first six months they were not even allowed to wash the ones they arrived in, turning the children into dirty-looking urchins who were that much easier for the family to hate. They were fed bread and water every other day.

“They tortured us in a way that no human being would treat another,” Shakila said.

She spoke softly and hid her face when a reporter asked her about the white scars on her forehead. “When they threw me against the stone wall,” she explained.

Her cousin escaped first, resulting in even more brutal treatment for Shakila, who was tethered inside again and beaten.

Allowed out only for her prayers, she managed to slip through the gate one day. To avoid detection, she made her way through underbrush to the village where her sister lived. When Shakila appeared at her sister’s door, she was so emaciated and dirty that her sister barely recognized her.

“She was almost finished,” Gul Zareen, her father, said. “She was so thin, she was like this,” he said, holding up an index finger and shaking his head. “She cried all the time, and now we are trying to feed her and she is slowly getting better.”

Within hours, the strongman and his guards began looking for Shakila. They searched her father’s compound, accused him of organizing her escape and threatened to kill every man in the family.

Terrified, Shakila’s father and the other relatives said they waited until dusk and then, taking almost nothing but the clothes on their backs, escaped over the mountains, walking by night along footpaths because the strongman’s guards were watching the only road.

Now living in Asadabad, the provincial capital, because they feel safer here, Shakila’s relatives said they were struggling. They left behind their few possessions, including their only cow and two goats.

Shakila’s father and uncle work as daily laborers, earning $4 a day when there is a job. The family’s small mud house has neither heat nor electricity, and cooking is done in a single stew pot over coals in the yard.

Longing to return to their village in Naray, the family members went to the courts to see if the prosecutor or judge could protect them from the Gujar clan if they returned. But the order they received from the police chief instructed them to turn to the local police in Naray for help.

Gul Zareen shook his head. The police chief is a kinsman of Fazal Nabi, the strongman who took Shakila, he said. “We cannot go back,” he said.

Shakila looked out the window into the squalid yard. “I don’t know about my future,” she said. “Whether it will be good or bad.”


Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan,

Farooq Jan Mangal from Khost, and an employee of The New York Times

from Kunar Province.

    For Punishment of Elder’s Misdeeds, Afghan Girl Pays the Price, NYT, 16.2.2012,






This War Is Not Over Yet


February 15, 2012
The New York Times


Los Angeles

THE defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta, recently announced that America hoped to end its combat mission in Afghanistan in 2013 as it did in Iraq last year. Yet at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere, the United States continues to hold enemy detainees “for the duration of hostilities.”

Indeed, the “ending” of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq appears to have no consequences for the ending of detention. Because the end of a war is traditionally thought to be the moment when a president’s war powers begin to ebb, bringing combat to a close in Afghanistan and Iraq should lead to a reduction in executive power — including the legitimate basis for detaining the enemy.

But there is a disconnect today between the wars that are ending and the “war” that is used to justify ongoing detention of prisoners. Originally, the war in Afghanistan was part of the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” This framing had rhetorical power, but it quickly drew criticism because a war on terror has no boundaries in space or time, and no prospect of ever ending.

When he took office, President Obama abandoned the “war on terror” rhetoric, focusing instead on Iraq and Afghanistan. American war now seemed more manageable and traditional. A confined war in a specific war zone was a war that presumably could end once the enemy was defeated within that territory. But it was not so simple: Qaeda fighters slipped over the Afghan border to Pakistan, extending the zone of conflict.

Ending wars has never been easy, of course. On the Korean Peninsula, fighting came to a halt with an armistice agreement in 1953, but a peace treaty has never been signed, so there has been no formal end to that war. Faced with continuing threats from North Korea, American troops continue to maintain a presence in South Korea. Had today’s logic been applied there, Korean prisoners of war might still be serving the rest of their years in detention.

During the Vietnam War, North Vietnamese soldiers also crossed a border, into Cambodia. But once that war came to an end, the basis for ongoing detention of North Vietnamese enemy soldiers ended, even if a cold war against communism continued.

America’s recent wars have been hard to end, but our presidents have done their best to argue that our goals have been accomplished. President George W. Bush did this memorably when he declared victory in Iraq in May 2003 on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln under the banner “Mission Accomplished” — and yet that conflict was far from over.

President Obama had his own “Mission Accomplished” moment, when he declared the “end of combat in Iraq” in August 2010. Like Mr. Bush’s episode, Mr. Obama’s was principally a media event, as reporters spoke with excitement about the historic moment, as American combat troops crossed the border into Kuwait. Yet at the time, 50,000 United States troops remained in Iraq, and the Army quickly reassured them that, even though “conflict” had ended, “conflict conditions” persisted, and hence soldiers would still receive additional pay for serving in a hostile zone. That first “ending” of the Iraq war has now been largely forgotten, eclipsed by the December 2011 withdrawal — a much more extensive drawdown than initially planned.

The “end of combat” in Afghanistan, slated for 2013, could become yet another made-for-media event. But at the very least it should force Americans to confront the contradiction of ending two wars while invoking a nebulous and never-ending third one to justify the continued detention of prisoners.

Administration lawyers have an answer for this: the original post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force gave the president authority to act against Al Qaeda and its supporters.

Mr. Obama brought his definition of war into line with this more expansive view in January 2010 by declaring that the United States is “at war against Al Qaeda.” This broadened the scope of Mr. Obama’s rhetoric on war by divorcing it from geography. And it provided a way of bringing into the ambit of American war terrorists outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric tied to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who was killed by an American drone strike in Yemen last September.

Like the Bush administration’s version of the war on terror, this war with Al Qaeda allows us to follow our enemies wherever they may go. It also enables us to continue framing terrorists as warriors, subject to detention without charges as long as threats related to Al Qaeda exist.

Mr. Obama is trying to have it both ways. Ending major conflicts in two countries helps him deliver on campaign promises. But his expansive definition of war leaves in place the executive power to detain without charges, and to exercise war powers in any region where Al Qaeda has a presence.

By asserting, for political purposes, that the nation’s two wars are ending while planning behind the scenes for a longer-term war against Al Qaeda terrorists, the man who pledged to bring America’s wars to an end has instead laid the basis for an endless battle.


Mary L. Dudziak, a professor of law, history and political science

at the University of Southern California,

is the author of “War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences.”

    This War Is Not Over Yet, NYT, 15.2.2011,






In Grip of Cold, Afghan Family Buries 8th Child


February 8, 2012
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — The war refugee Sayid Mohammad lost his last son on Wednesday, 3-month-old Khan, who became the 24th child to die of exposure in camps here in the past month.

“After we had dinner he was crying all night of the cold,” Mr. Mohammad said. The family had no wood and was husbanding a small portion of paper and plastic that his daughter had scavenged that day. He said the boy had seemed healthy and was breast-feeding normally, though the family’s dinner consisted only of tea and bread. But he kept crying. “Finally we started a fire, but it wasn’t enough,” Mr. Mohammad said. By 1 a.m. the boy was stiff and lifeless, he said.

Even by the standards of destitution in these camps, Mr. Mohammad’s story is a hard-luck one; Khan was the eighth of his nine children to die. Back home in the Gereshk district of Helmand Province, six died of disease, he said. Three years ago they fled the fighting in that area for the Nasaji Bagrami Camp here, where a 3-year-old son froze to death last winter, he said. Like most of Kabul’s 35,000 internal refugees, he fled the country’s war zones only to find a life of squalor sometimes as deadly, even in the capital of a country that has received more than $60 billion in nonmilitary aid over 10 years.

Later Wednesday morning, Mr. Mohammad’s sole surviving child, his daughter, Feroza, 10, stared saucer-eyed at her brother’s tiny body as it lay in the middle of the family’s hybrid dwelling, part mud hut, part tent, with United Nations-branded canvas for a roof.

Leaders of this camp say that 16 children aged 5 or younger have died here in the unseasonably cold weather and heavy snow that set in about a month ago, keeping nighttime temperatures in the mid-teens. Eight other children have died similarly in another Kabul camp, Charahi Qambar, according to camp representatives, religious leaders and families.

Government officials have expressed skepticism that the children could all have died of cold, saying the deaths were unregistered and not reviewed by medical personnel, while at the same time blaming the international aid providers for not sending more supplies.

Private Afghan companies and businessmen and some charitable groups have begun to distribute food, fuel, winter clothing, blankets, tents and cash support in the camps, but so far the effort has been sporadic and incomplete.

Other relief groups and Afghan government ministries are still in the process of surveying needs in the camp. As one relief worker said, “Starting an aid program even in a month would be fast work, and by then winter will be mostly over.”

The Nasaji Bagrami camp counts 315 families who fled from war-torn southern provinces like Kandahar and Helmand. Some of their rough shelters had wood to burn in stoves, while others, like Mr. Mohammad’s, had no substantial heat sources at all.

Mohammad Ibrahim, chosen by camp residents as their representative, held up his hand in a visual parable of the realities of inequitable resources. “See my fingers?” he said. “They are five, but none are equal.”

The Mohammad family had two large blankets to share, plus the baby boy’s blanket, a velveteen comforter with designs of teddy bears and bunny rabbits on it. “We didn’t even have enough wood to make breakfast today,” Mr. Mohammad said. A neighbor gave a small packet of potato chips to Feroza, whose name means turquoise, the gemstone.

In the bitter cold, relatives and friends gathered and meticulously followed the prescribed rituals for the dead. Hot water was brought in pitchers from neighbors’ huts. The boy’s body was laid on a plank in the hut’s mud-walled yard, and washed five times with the hot water and soap, a pink bar of Safeguard. A ditch was dug so that the wash water would drain away and no one would step in it accidentally, which they viewed as potential sacrilege. Khan was so small that the hand of the man who washed him covered half of his body.

His mother, Lailuma, peeked from the door of the hut to watch, but otherwise the women stayed inside and apart. But Feroza, in a purple head scarf, slipped unnoticed past the men close to Khan’s washing place, pressed into a crevice in the wall and watched wordlessly.

A clean white cotton sheet served as his burial shroud. The available scissors were too dull to cut it, so the men ripped it into pieces with their gloveless hands. After tying the sheet around Khan, they sprayed his shrouded form with perfume, and then they wrapped him again in his teddy and bunny blanket.

For prayers, performed on mats outside, the men removed their shoes; many had no socks. Then they carried Khan, bundled in one man’s arms, in a silent procession to a graveyard.

The camp mullah, Walid Khan, pronounced the final prayers. Khan was laid in the grave with his face toward Mecca, and each of the mourners dropped in three handfuls of the hard earth.

Mr. Mohammad had not slept. His eyes were bloodshot. The septum of his nose had cracked from the cold, bleeding a little, and leaving a small red icicle. Feroza stood just to his side and behind him a little, clutching his coat. She coughed deeply and her father started. “Now she is sick, too,” he said.

    In Grip of Cold, Afghan Family Buries 8th Child, NYT, 8.2.2012,






In Afghan War, Officer Becomes a Whistle-Blower


February 5, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — On his second yearlong deployment to Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis traveled 9,000 miles, patrolled with American troops in eight provinces and returned in October of last year with a fervent conviction that the war was going disastrously and that senior military leaders had not leveled with the American public.

Since enlisting in the Army in 1985, he said, he had repeatedly seen top commanders falsely dress up a dismal situation. But this time, he would not let it rest. So he consulted with his pastor at McLean Bible Church in Virginia, where he sings in the choir. He watched his favorite movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” one more time, drawing inspiration from Jimmy Stewart’s role as the extraordinary ordinary man who takes on a corrupt establishment.

And then, late last month, Colonel Davis, 48, began an unusual one-man campaign of military truth-telling. He wrote two reports, one unclassified and the other classified, summarizing his observations on the candor gap with respect to Afghanistan. He briefed four members of Congress and a dozen staff members, spoke with a reporter for The New York Times, sent his reports to the Defense Department’s inspector general — and only then informed his chain of command that he had done so.

“How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding?“ Colonel Davis asks in an article summarizing his views titled “Truth, Lies and Afghanistan: How Military Leaders Have Let Us Down.” It was published online Sunday in The Armed Forces Journal, the nation’s oldest independent periodical on military affairs. “No one expects our leaders to always have a successful plan,” he says in the article. “But we do expect — and the men who do the living, fighting and dying deserve — to have our leaders tell us the truth about what’s going on.”

Colonel Davis says his experience has caused him to doubt reports of progress in the war from numerous military leaders, including David H. Petraeus, who commanded the troops in Afghanistan before becoming the director of the Central Intelligence Agency in June.

Last March, for example, Mr. Petraeus, then an Army general, testified before the Senate that the Taliban’s momentum had been “arrested in much of the country” and that progress was “significant,” though fragile, and “on the right azimuth” to allow Afghan forces to take the lead in combat by the end of 2014.

Colonel Davis fiercely disputes such assertions and says few of the troops believe them. At the same time, he is acutely aware of the chasm in stature that separates him from those he is criticizing, and he has no illusions about the impact his public stance may have on his career.

“I’m going to get nuked,” he said in an interview last month.

But his bosses’ initial response has been restrained. They told him that while they disagreed with him, he would not face “adverse action,” he said.

Col. James E. Hutton, chief of media relations for the Army, declined to comment specifically about Colonel Davis, but he rejected the idea that military leaders had been anything but truthful about Afghanistan.

“We are a values-based organization, and the integrity of what we publish and what we say is something we take very seriously,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Petraeus, Jennifer Youngblood of the C.I.A., said he “has demonstrated that he speaks truth to power in each of his leadership positions over the past several years. His record should stand on its own, as should LTC Davis’ analysis.”

If the official reaction to Colonel Davis’s campaign has been subdued, it may be partly because he has recruited a few supporters among the war skeptics on Capitol Hill.

“For Colonel Davis to go out on a limb and help us to understand what’s happening on the ground, I have the greatest admiration for him,” said Representative Walter B. Jones, Republican of North Carolina, who has met with Colonel Davis twice and read his reports.

Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, one of four senators who met with Colonel Davis despite what he called “a lot of resistance from the Pentagon,” said the colonel was a valuable witness because his extensive travels and midlevel rank gave him access to a wide range of soldiers.

Moreover, Colonel Davis’s doubts about reports of progress in the war are widely shared, if not usually voiced in public by officers on duty. Just last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said at a hearing that she was “concerned by what appears to be a disparity” between public testimony about progress in Afghanistan and “the bleaker description” in a classified National Intelligence Estimate produced in December, which was described in news reports as “sobering” and “dire.”

Those words would also describe Colonel Davis’s account of what he saw in Afghanistan, the latest assignment in a military career that has included clashes with some commanders, but glowing evaluations from others. (“His maturity, tenacity and judgment can be counted on in even the hardest of situations, and his devotion to mission accomplishment is unmatched by his peers,” says an evaluation from May that concludes that he has “unlimited potential.”)

Colonel Davis, a son of a high school football coach in Dallas and who is known as Danny, served two years as an Army private before returning to Texas Tech and completing the Reserve Officer Training Corps program. He served in Germany and fought in the first Iraq war before joining the Reserve and working civilian jobs, including a year as a member of the Senate staff.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, he returned to active duty, serving a tour in Iraq as well as the two in Afghanistan and spending 15 months working on Future Combat Systems, an ambitious Army program to produce high-tech vehicles linked to drones and sensors. On that program, too, he said, commanders kept promising success despite ample evidence of trouble. The program was shut down in 2009 after an investment of billions of dollars.

In his recent tour in Afghanistan, Colonel Davis represented the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, created to bypass a cumbersome bureaucracy to make sure the troops quickly get the gear they need.

He spoke with about 250 soldiers, from 19-year-old privates to division commanders, as well as Afghan security officials and civilians, he said. From the Americans, he heard contempt for the perceived cowardice and double-dealing of their Afghan counterparts. From Afghans, he learned of unofficial nonaggression pacts between Afghanistan’s security forces and Taliban fighters.

When he was in rugged Kunar Province, an Afghan police officer visiting his parents was kidnapped by the Taliban and killed. “That was in visual range of an American base,” he said. “Their influence didn’t even reach as far as they could see.”

Some of the soldiers he interviewed were later killed, a fact that shook him and that he mentions in videos he shot in Afghanistan and later posted on YouTube. At home, he pored over the statements of military leaders, including General Petraeus. He found them at odds with what he had seen, with classified intelligence reports and with casualty statistics.

“You can spin all kinds of stuff,” Colonel Davis said. “But you can’t spin the fact that more men are getting blown up every year.”

Colonel Davis can come across as strident, labeling as lies what others might call wishful thinking. Matthew M. Aid, a historian who examines Afghanistan in his new book “Intel Wars,” says that while there is a “yawning gap” between Pentagon statements and intelligence assessments, “it’s oversimplified to say the top brass are out-and-out lying. They are just too close to the subject.”

But Martin L. Cook, who teaches military ethics at the Naval War College, says Colonel Davis has identified a hazard that is intrinsic to military culture, in which a can-do optimism can be at odds with the strictest candor when a mission is failing.

“You’ve trained people to try to be successful even when half their buddies are dead and they’re almost out of ammo,” he said. “It’s very hard for them to say, ‘can’t do.’ ”

Mr. Cook said it was rare for an officer of Colonel Davis’s modest rank to “decide that he knows better” and to go to Congress and the news media.

“It may be an act of moral courage,” he said. “But he’s gone outside channels, and he’s taking his chances on what happens to him.”

    In Afghan War, Officer Becomes a Whistle-Blower, NYT, 5.2.2012,






Driven Away by a War, Now Stalked by Winter’s Cold


February 3, 2012
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — The following children froze to death in Kabul over the past three weeks after their families had fled war zones in Afghanistan for refugee camps here:

¶ Mirwais, son of Hayatullah Haideri. He was 1 ½ years old and had just started to learn how to walk, holding unsteadily to the poles of the family tent before flopping onto the frozen razorbacks of the muddy floor.

¶ Abdul Hadi, son of Abdul Ghani. He was not even a year old and was already trying to stand, although his father said that during those last few days he seemed more shaky than normal.

¶ Naghma and Nazia, the twin daughters of Musa Jan. They were only 3 months old and just starting to roll over.

¶ Ismail, the son of Juma Gul. “He was never warm in his entire life,” Mr. Gul said. “Not once.”

It was a short life, 30 days long.

These children are among at least 22 who have died in the past month, a time of unseasonably fierce cold and snowstorms. The latest two victims died on Thursday.

The deaths, which government officials have sought to suppress or play down, have prompted some soul-searching among aid workers here.

After 10 years of a large international presence, comprising about 2,000 aid groups, at least $3.5 billion of humanitarian aid and $58 billion of development assistance, how could children be dying of something as predictable — and manageable — as the cold?

“The fact that every year there’s winter shouldn’t come as a surprise,” said Federico Motka, whose German aid group, Welthungerhilfe, is one of the few at work in these camps, which aid workers call the Kabul informal settlements — since describing what they actually are, camps for displaced persons or war refugees, is politically sensitive. The Afghan government insists that the residents should and could return to their original homes; the residents say it is too dangerous for them to do so.

The deaths occurred at two of the largest camps, Charahi Qambar (8 cold-related deaths), and Nasaji Bagrami (14 such deaths). Both camps are populated largely with refugees who fled the fighting in areas like Helmand Province in the south. Some people have been in the camps for as long as seven years; others arrived in the past year.

“There are 35,000 people in those camps in the middle of Kabul, with no heat or electricity in the middle of winter; that’s a humanitarian crisis,” said Michael Keating, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan. “I just don’t think the humanitarian story is sufficiently understood here. You’ve got a lot of people who really are in dire straits.”

The United Nations and major relief groups last Saturday started what is called the Consolidated Humanitarian Appeal, asking donor groups and governments for $452 million in aid for the coming year, a 22 percent decrease from last year’s appeal of $582 million.

Far larger funds are separately available for development aid — nonemergency assistance to do things like build schools and infrastructure.

For many of the displaced people in Kabul’s camps, however, international humanitarian policy subjects them to a pitiless Catch-22.

The camps do not qualify for development aid because they are viewed as temporary facilities — and many Afghan officials oppose their presence. On a practical level, pouring aid into the camps would encourage people to stay in them, and perhaps draw more people there as well.

On the other hand, because the camps have been in a state of “chronic emergency,” most aid donors view that as, by definition, no longer a humanitarian crisis. “People seem to think you can’t call it an emergency if it’s going on for 10 years,” said Julie Bara of Solidarités International, a French group that has had a limited program of emergency food aid and sanitation in the camps, “but in fact it is.”

Her organization surveyed mortality rates in the camps in recent months. Among children under 5, Ms. Bara said, the camps’ death rate is 144 per 1,000 children, stunningly high even for Afghanistan, which already has the world’s third highest infant mortality rate. That means that one out of every seven children in the Kabul camps will not survive until his or her sixth birthday.

All of the 22 children known to have died were under 5.

Normally, Kabul’s winters are mild for a city in a mountainous country, but not this year. It was the coldest January in 20 years, according to Mohammad Aslam Fazaz, deputy director of the national disaster office. Most nights, temperatures have been dropping below 20 degrees. “There is no clear strategy to help these people,” said Mohammad Yousef, the director general of Aschiana, a well-respected Afghan aid group that provides education and other services in 13 of the camps. “They don’t have access to anything — health, education, food, sanitation, water. They don’t even have an opportunity for survival.”

Aschiana provides four teachers to the Charahi Qambar camp, where they are the only regular humanitarian presence. Residents say there used to be food distributions by the World Food Program in the camp, but that stopped last year. A food program spokeswoman, Silke Buhr, said the agency currently provided food deliveries in Kabul only to vulnerable groups like widows and the disabled.

In the worst-hit camps, even if the men can find work as day laborers or street peddlers, the pay is so scant that they have to choose between buying food or fuel, usually firewood. “You won’t die of hunger, but you will die of cold,” as one father put it.

When it comes to children, however, that is not strictly true. Poorly fed children are much more likely to succumb to hypothermia and disease.

Last month, Kabul suffered two heavy snowstorms, on Jan. 15 and 22, which added wet conditions to the miseries of the camps’ residents, since their dwellings are tents or mud-wall shanties with canvas or plastic roofs.

The combination of damp and cold proved deadly.

Mirwais’s father, Mr. Haideri, was awoken by the 5 a.m. call to prayer at the Charahi Qambar camp on Jan. 15 and found his son stiff as a board. “His color was dark, like when a leaf is frozen; you know it is frozen just by looking at it,” he said.

His wife and he have five surviving young children. “My wife keeps telling me, ‘You have to do something to save our other children, who will die in this cold,’ ” he said. “What can I do?”

That same day in the same camp, Mr. Ghani found his son Abdul Hadi with a fever; when they called for an ambulance, the rescue workers refused to come. “They told me it was too cold,” he said. Abdul Hadi bedded down under a blanket with his mother, but there was no heat in their hut, and the mud under them was wet. When his parents tried to rouse him late that night, Mr. Ghani said, “He was frozen stiff.”

In the Nasaji Bagrami camp, where 14 deaths from cold were reported, according to a camp representative, Mohammad Ibrahim, there were two families that each lost two children.

Born on the same day, the identical twins Naghma and Nazia died on the same night, Jan. 15-16.

The children who died had been tucked up under blankets, sleeping with family members. But camp residents explained that what happens is that very small children are often physically unable to keep blankets pulled tightly around them, and are too young to ask for help. So if there is no fire and they fall asleep, they die.

“Adults know how to keep warm, but the little ones do not,” said Mualavi Musafer, a mullah at the Charahi Qambar camp. His nephew was one of the children who died from the cold, he said.

Mohammad Ismail, a refugee from the Sangin district, one of the worst places in Helmand Province, also lost two children, one to the first snowstorm — his daughter Fawzia, 3 — and one to the second — his son, Janan, 5. Now he and his wife have two surviving children, a baby and their eldest child, 7-year-old Tila.

“The whole night they cry because of the cold,” Mr. Ismail said. “Tila misses her brother especially.” Her brother and sister are buried without formal headstones in a patch of wasteland that has become the Nasaji Bagrami camp cemetery. Tila knows the place. “She goes there every day to see her brother,” her father said.

    Driven Away by a War, Now Stalked by Winter’s Cold, NYT, 3.2.2012,






Panetta Says U.S. to End Afghan Combat Role

as Soon as 2013


February 1, 2012
The New York Times


BRUSSELS — In a major milestone toward ending a decade of war in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Wednesday that American forces would step back from a combat role there as early as mid-2013, more than a year before all American troops are scheduled to come home.

Mr. Panetta cast the decision as an orderly step in a withdrawal process long planned by the United States and its allies, but his comments were the first time that the United States had put a date on stepping back from its central role in the war. The defense secretary’s words reflected the Obama administration’s eagerness to bring to a close the second of two grinding ground wars it inherited from the Bush administration.

Promising the end of the American combat mission in Afghanistan next year would also give Mr. Obama a certain applause line in his re-election stump speech this year.

Mr. Panetta said no decisions had been made about the number of American troops to be withdrawn in 2013, and he made clear that substantial fighting lies ahead. “It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be combat-ready; we will be, because we always have to be in order to defend ourselves,” he told reporters on his plane on his way to a NATO meeting in Brussels, where Afghanistan is to be a central focus.

The United States has about 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, but 22,000 of them are due home by this fall. There has been no schedule set for the pace of the withdrawal of the 68,000 American troops who will remain, only that all are to be out by the end of 2014.

Mr. Panetta offered no details of what stepping back from combat would mean, saying only that the troops would move into an “advise and assist” role to Afghanistan’s security forces. Such definitions are typically murky, particularly in a country like Afghanistan, where American forces are spread widely among small bases across the desert, farmland and mountains, and where the native security forces have a mixed record of success at best.

The defense secretary offered the withdrawal of the United States from Iraq as a model. American troops there eventually pulled back to large bases and left the bulk of the fighting to the Iraqis.

At the same time, Mr. Panetta said the NATO discussions would also focus on a potential downsizing of Afghan security forces from 350,000 troops, largely because of the expense of maintaining such a large army. The United States and other NATO countries support those forces at a cost of around $6 billion a year, but financial crises in Europe are causing countries to balk at the bill.

“The funding is going to largely determine the kind of force we can sustain in the future,” Mr. Panetta said.

He and his team played down last week’s announcement by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France that his country would break with its NATO allies and accelerate the withdrawal of its forces in Afghanistan by pulling back its troops a year early, by the end of 2013. Pentagon officials said Mr. Sarkozy and the United States might be more in tune than it appeared, although they acknowledged confusion about the French president’s statement and said their goal was to sort it out at the NATO meeting.

“A lot of policy officials in Paris were scrambling” after Mr. Sarkozy’s announcement, a senior American defense official said. “So getting exactly to what the French bottom line is hasn’t been easy for them, much less for us.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing the internal deliberations of another country.

Mr. Sarkozy made the announcement after an attack by a rogue Afghan soldier who killed four unarmed French soldiers on a training mission. There have been similar episodes of Afghan troops’ killing of American forces, most recently involving the death of a Marine in Helmand Province this week.

The senior defense official said the Americans considered the attacks as “isolated incidents,” although “obviously very disturbing.” He said vetting procedures for Afghan security forces were being reviewed.

Mr. Panetta said he would also seek to reassure NATO that although budget constraints and a focus on Asia were forcing the United States to withdraw two combat brigades — as many as 10,000 troops — from Europe, it was not abandoning its allies. The United States, he said, would try to make up some of the difference by rotating more troops in for training exercises in Europe.

    Panetta Says U.S. to End Afghan Combat Role as Soon as 2013, NYT, 1.2.2012,






For Soldier Disfigured in War, a Way to Return to the World


January 30, 2012
The New York Times


Specialist Joey Paulk awoke from a coma in a Texas hospital three weeks after he was burned nearly to death in Afghanistan. Wrapped in bandages from head almost to toe, he immediately saw his girlfriend and mother, and felt comforted. Then he glanced at his hands, two balls of white gauze, and realized that he had no fingers.

So it began: the shock of recognition. Next came what burn doctors call “the mirror test.” As he was shuffling through a hallway at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, he passed a large mirror that he had turned away from before. This time he steeled himself and looked.

His swollen lower lip hung below his gums. His left lower eyelid drooped hound dog-like, revealing a scarlet crescent of raw tissue. His nostrils were squeezed shut, his chin had virtually disappeared and the top half of one ear was gone. Skin grafts crisscrossed his face like lines on a map, and silver medicine coated his scars, making him look like something out of a Terminator film.

“This is who I am now,” he told himself.

Every severe injury is disfiguring in its own way, but there is something uniquely devastating about having one’s face burned beyond recognition. Many burn victims do not just gain lifelong scars, they also lose noses and ears, fingers and hands. The very shape of their faces is sometimes altered, forged anew in heat and flame.

More than 900 American service members have been severely burned in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001, typically from roadside bombs, the military says. Almost all receive extraordinary emergency care and rehabilitation at Brooke. But many will never have their faces restored.

Mr. Paulk, though, has come close. After leaving Texas, and the Army, in 2009, his mouth and eye still deformed, he returned home to California and became something of a recluse, hiding beneath hooded sweatshirts, baseball caps and dark glasses when he went out, if he went out at all.

But he found his way to a program at U.C.L.A. Medical Center called Operation Mend that provides cosmetic surgery for severely burned veterans at no cost — and the operations fundamentally realigned his face, restoring not just the semblance of his former visage, but also a healthy chunk of his self-confidence.

He is venturing out again, to bars, beaches and ball games. On Veterans Day last year, Mr. Paulk, 26, rode in the lead car of the New York City parade, his head bared for tens of thousands to see.

“The burns on a soldier’s face are huge: It’s your military uniform and you can’t take it off,” he said. “The surgery changed so much on my face that it completely changed my whole outlook on life.”

The story of Mr. Paulk’s cosmetic and emotional revival says much about the ways private philanthropy can complement the overtaxed military and veterans health care systems. Now in its fifth year, Operation Mend has provided free cosmetic surgery to more than 50 badly burned veterans of the current wars. The program estimates it spends $500,000 on each of its patients.

But the story also underscores the difficulties of bringing private care into the military world. Though Operation Mend’s founder envisioned the program as a model for public-private cooperation in treating wounded soldiers, it remains one of only a few such ventures, which include Center for the Intrepid rehabilitation centers and Fisher Houses for military families.

Part of the problem, said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the outgoing Army vice chief of staff who has embraced Operation Mend, is that many military doctors remain uncomfortable referring patients out of their system, which they view as a protective cocoon for troops and their families. But that attitude is changing, said General Chiarelli, who is pushing for a private program similar to Operation Mend for treating traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. “Our problems are so big, we have to reach out beyond ourselves,” he said.

Mr. Paulk, who grew up and still lives in the town of Vista in northern San Diego County, joined the Army a year out of high school in 2004, thinking it might help him get a job in law enforcement.

On his first deployment, with a military police unit in eastern Afghanistan in 2007, he was in a Humvee when it struck a buried mine that ignited the fuel tank and instantly killed his team leader. Mr. Paulk regained consciousness 20 feet from the truck, engulfed in flames.

In searing pain yet shivering with cold in the 90-degree heat, an odd question popped into Mr. Paulk’s head as he waited to be evacuated: Do I still have hair? Yes, another soldier said; his Kevlar helmet had saved it. “Maybe,” Mr. Paulk told himself, “the burns aren’t so bad, and I’ll still look like me.”

But it was not to be. By the time he awoke in San Antonio from a medically induced coma, he had already undergone numerous operations and skin grafts to patch his charred face, arms and legs. With his mother’s permission, a surgeon had removed all his fingers, which had been burned black and to the bone and were all but certain to become infected. He had lost 50 pounds in barely four weeks.

Over many months, his body accepted the vast majority of his skin grafts and he regained strength. But the one attempt by a surgeon to replace scar tissue on his face had failed, Mr. Paulk felt. After nearly 30 operations in 18 months, he began to resign himself to his appearance, and prepared to return to Vista, suffering from what his doctors called “surgery fatigue.”

“Everyone has a limit,” said Dr. Ivan Renz, the director of the burn unit at Brooke who Mr. Paulk says saved his life. “You get to a point where you go: ‘hold it, I’ve got to go through anesthesia again?’ ”

But before he left Brooke in December 2008, Mr. Paulk met a representative from Operation Mend who urged him to visit U.C.L.A. He took her card, skeptical that anyone could make him look good again.

The program had its origins in late 2006 when a wealthy philanthropist, Ronald A. Katz, was watching a Lou Dobbs interview with a badly burned Marine named Aaron Mankin. Charmed by the Marine but appalled at the extent of his wounds, Mr. Katz’s late wife, Maddie, poked him in the ribs and practically issued an order: “You have to do something!”

The military already had a state-of-the-art burn center at Brooke. But while the center offered reconstructive surgery, its focus was on saving lives and getting the wounded back on their feet. The Department of Veterans Affairs did not provide reconstructive surgery unless it was deemed medically necessary to restore, promote or preserve health — criteria that did not seem to include making someone look better.

During the coming year, Mr. Katz enlisted the support of U.C.L.A. and a respected reconstructive surgeon on its faculty, Dr. Timothy Miller, a Vietnam veteran. One of Mr. Katz’s daughters-in-law began assembling volunteer “buddy families” to meet patients at the airport, entertain them and accompany their families to the hospital. He met with General Chiarelli and began to slowly win over the doctors at Brooke.

Mr. Paulk remained a tough sell. But the smaller indignities of his injuries made him relent when an Operation Mend representative called again. He could not open his mouth wide enough to eat a hamburger. Could Dr. Miller fix that? And what about his misshapen lips, which made it impossible for him to pronounce his own name? Dr. Miller pledged to have Mr. Paulk whistling and eating double cheeseburgers again.

With the first surgery, Dr. Miller removed scar tissue, raising the eye lid and lower lip. With second and third operations, he improved the alignment of Mr. Paulk’s eyes and lips by replacing scars with healthy tissue. A fourth surgery implanted silicone to add definition to his chin.

At a recent checkup in Dr. Miller’s office, Mr. Paulk admired his new profile in the mirror. “From a distance, you can’t tell I was injured,” he said.

There are still uncomfortable moments. Some drunks taunted him about his looks at a baseball game, nearly starting a brawl. And Mr. Paulk admits to moments of self-consciousness about his hands. When, for instance, a little girl gawked at him at U.C.L.A. recently, he reflexively tucked his palms under his armpits.

But he has also learned how to function: to put on socks, pull up zippers and tie shoes. He can send texts and drive. He can’t play his beloved baseball, and video games remain a challenge, but he manages to catch a football and spike a volleyball with his palms.

And he looks remarkably comfortable holding a drink at a party.

“Sometimes I’ll hold my cup against my body so I can talk with my hands, and I’ll maneuver and pick it up and everyone thinks it’s so intriguing,” he said. “But I’m just doing what I’m doing to survive.”

    For Soldier Disfigured in War, a Way to Return to the World, NYT, 30.1.2012,






Afghanistan’s Soldiers Step Up Killings of Allied Forces


January 20, 2012
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — American and other coalition forces here are being killed in increasing numbers by the very Afghan soldiers they fight alongside and train, in attacks motivated by deep-seated animosity between the supposedly allied forces, according to American and Afghan officers and a classified coalition report.

A decade into the war in Afghanistan, the report makes clear that these killings have become the most visible symptom of a far deeper ailment plaguing the war effort: the contempt each side holds for the other, never mind the Taliban. The ill will and mistrust run deep among civilians and militaries on both sides, raising questions about what future role the United States and its allies can expect to play in Afghanistan.

Underscoring the danger, a gunman in an Afghan Army uniform killed four French service members and wounded several others on Friday, according to an Afghan police official in Kapisa Province in eastern Afghanistan, prompting the French president to suspend his country’s operations here.

The violence, and the failure by coalition commanders to address it, casts a harsh spotlight on the shortcomings of American efforts to build a functional Afghan Army, a pillar of the Obama administration’s strategy for extricating the United States from the war in Afghanistan, said the officers and experts who helped shape the strategy.

The problems risk leaving the United States and its allies dependent on an Afghan force that is permeated by anti-Western sentiment and incapable of combating the Taliban and other militants when NATO’s combat mission ends in 2014, they said.

One instance of the general level of antipathy in the war exploded into uncomfortable view last week when video emerged of American Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters. Although American commanders quickly took action and condemned the act, chat-room and Facebook posts by Marines and their supporters were full of praise for the desecration.

But the most troubling fallout has been the mounting number of Westerners killed by their Afghan allies, events that have been routinely dismissed by American and NATO officials as isolated episodes that are the work of disturbed individual soldiers or Taliban infiltrators, and not indicative of a larger pattern. The unusually blunt report, which was prepared for a subordinate American command in eastern Afghanistan, takes a decidedly different view. The Wall Street Journal reported on details of the investigation last year. A copy was obtained by The New York Times.

“Lethal altercations are clearly not rare or isolated; they reflect a rapidly growing systemic homicide threat (a magnitude of which may be unprecedented between ‘allies’ in modern military history),” it said. Official NATO pronouncements to the contrary “seem disingenuous, if not profoundly intellectually dishonest,” said the report, and it played down the role of Taliban infiltrators in the killings.

The coalition refused to comment on the classified report. But “incidents in the recent past where Afghan soldiers have wounded or killed I.S.A.F. members are isolated cases and are not occurring on a routine basis,” said Lt. Col. Jimmie E. Cummings Jr. of the Army, a spokesman for the American-led International Security Assistance Force. “We train and are partnered with Afghan personnel every day and we are not seeing any issues or concerns with our relationships.”

The numbers appear to tell a different story. Although NATO does not release a complete tally of its forces’ deaths at the hands of Afghan soldiers and the police, the classified report and coalition news releases indicate that Afghan forces have attacked American and allied service members nearly three dozen times since 2007.

Two members of the French Foreign Legion and one American soldier were killed in separate episodes in the past month, according to statements by NATO. The classified report found that between May 2007 and May 2011, when it was completed, at least 58 Western service members were killed in 26 separate attacks by Afghan soldiers and the police nationwide. Most of those attacks have occurred since October 2009. This toll represented 6 percent of all hostile coalition deaths during that period, the report said.

“The sense of hatred is growing rapidly,” said an Afghan Army colonel. He described his troops as “thieves, liars and drug addicts,” but also said that the Americans were “rude, arrogant bullies who use foul language.”

Senior commanders largely manage to keep their feelings in check, said the officer, who asked not to be named so he could speak openly. But the officer said, “I am afraid it will turn into a major problem in the near future in the lower ranks of both armies.”

There have been successes, especially among the elite Afghan commandos and coalition Special Operations forces, most of whom have undergone in-depth cultural training and speak at least some Dari and Pashto, the two main languages spoken in Afghanistan. But, as highlighted by the classified report, familiarity in most cases appears to have mainly bred contempt — and that, in turn, has undercut the benefits of pairing up the forces.

The problem has also featured in classified reports tracking progress in the war effort, most of which are far more negative than the public declarations of progress, said an American officer, who asked not to be identified because he was discussing secret information.

“If you get two 18-year-olds from two different cultures and put them in New York, you get a gang fight,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who has advised the American military on its Afghan strategy.

“What you have here are two very different cultures with different values,” he said in a telephone interview. “They treat each other with contempt.”

The United States soldier was killed this month when an Afghan soldier opened fire on Americans playing volleyball at a base in the southern province of Zabul. The assailant was quickly gunned down. The deadliest single incident came last April when an Afghan Air Force colonel, Ahmed Gul, killed eight unsuspecting American officers and a contractor with shots to the head inside their headquarters.

He then killed himself after writing “God in your name” and “God is one” in blood on the walls of the base, according to an Air Force investigation of the incident released this week.

In a 436-page report, the Air Force investigators said the initial coalition explanation for the attack — stress brought on by financial problems — was only a small part of Colonel Gul’s motivation. His primary motive was hatred of the United States, and he planned the attack to kill as many Americans as possible, the investigators said.

There have been no reported instances of Americans’ killing Afghan soldiers, although a rogue group of United States soldiers killed three Afghan civilians for sport in 2010. Yet there is ample evidence of American disregard for Afghans. After the urination video circulated, a number of those who had served in Afghanistan took to Facebook and other Web sites to cheer on their compatriots, describing Afghans of all stripes in harsh terms.

Many messages were posted on public forums, others in private message strings. One private exchange was provided to The Times by a participant in the conversation; the names of those posting matched those on record as having served in the Marine Corps. In that conversation, a former Marine said he thought the video was “pretty awesome.” Another said he hoped it would happen more often.

The 70-page classified coalition report, titled “A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility,” goes far beyond anecdotes. It was conducted by a behavioral scientist who surveyed 613 Afghan soldiers and police officers, 215 American soldiers and 30 Afghan interpreters who worked for the Americans.

While the report focused on three areas of eastern Afghanistan, many of the Afghan soldiers interviewed had served elsewhere in Afghanistan and the author believed that they constituted a sample representative of the entire country.

“There are pervasive feelings of animosity and distrust A.N.S.F. personnel have towards U.S. forces,” the report said, using military’s abbreviation for Afghan security forces. The list of Afghan complaints against the Americans ran the gamut from the killing of civilians to urinating in public and cursing.

“U.S. soldiers don’t listen, they are too arrogant,” said one of the Afghan soldiers surveyed, according to the report. “They get upset due to their casualties, so they take it out on civilians during their searches,” said another.

The Americans were equally as scathing. “U.S. soldiers’ perceptions of A.N.A. members were extremely negative across categories,” the report found, using the initials for the Afghan National Army. Those categories included “trustworthiness on patrol,” “honesty and integrity,” and “drug abuse.” The Americans also voiced suspicions about the Afghans being in league with the Taliban, a problem well documented among the Afghan police.

“They are stoned all the time; some even while on patrol with us,” one soldier was quoted as saying. Another said, “They are pretty much gutless in combat; we do most of the fighting.”


Alissa J. Rubin, Rod Nordland, Sangar Rahimi and Graham Bowley

contributed reporting from Kabul.



This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 20, 2012

An earlier version of this article omitted reference to a previous account of the classified coalition report, which was published in The Wall Street Journal last year.

    Afghanistan’s Soldiers Step Up Killings of Allied Forces, NYT, 20.1.2012,






A Changed Way of War in Afghanistan’s Skies


January 15, 2012
The New York Times


INSIDE STRIKE FIGHTER VENGEANCE 13, over Kandahar Province, Afghanistan — Cmdr. Layne McDowell glanced over his left shoulder, through the canopy of a Navy F/A-18, to an Afghan canyon 9,000 feet below. An American infantry company was down there.

The soldiers had been inserted by helicopter. Now a ground controller wanted the three strike fighters circling overhead to send a sign — both to the grunts and to any Taliban fighters shadowing them as they walked.

Commander McDowell banked and aligned his jet’s nose with the canyon’s northeastern end. Then he followed his wingmen’s lead. He dived, pulled level at 5,000 feet and accelerated down the canyon’s axis at 620 miles per hour, broadcasting his proximity with an extended engine roar.

In the lexicon of close air support, his maneuver was a “show of presence” — a mid-altitude, nonlethal display intended to reassure ground troops and signal to the Taliban that the soldiers were not alone. It reflected a sharp shift in the application of American air power, de-emphasizing overpowering violence in favor of sorties that often end without munitions being dropped.

The use of air power has changed markedly during the long Afghan conflict, reflecting the political costs and sensitivities of civilian casualties caused by errant or indiscriminate strikes and the increasing use of aerial drones, which can watch over potential targets for extended periods with no risk to pilots or more expensive aircraft.

Fighter jets with pilots, however, remain an essential component of the war, in part because little else in the allied arsenal is considered as versatile or imposing, and because of improvements in the aircraft’s sensors.

Commander McDowell’s career has followed the arc of this changing role. At the outset of the war in 2001, American aircraft often attacked in ways that maximized violence, including carpet bombing, dropping cluster munitions and conducting weeks of strikes with precision-guided munitions.

Flying in an F-14 squadron from the aircraft carrier Enterprise, then-Lieutenant McDowell dropped 6,000 pounds of munitions in the war’s first week, destroying Taliban aircraft and vehicles at Herat airfield and striking training camps and barracks in Kandahar Province.

He had already flown the past two years in Kosovo and Iraq, where in 32 combat sorties he dropped 35,000 pounds of guided munitions, including on Serbian barracks that were struck when the largest number of soldiers were believed to be inside.

“Our culture is a fangs-out, kill-kill-kill culture,” he said. “That’s how we train. And back then, the mind-set was: maximum number of enemy killed, maximum number of bombs on deck, to achieve a maximum psychological effect.”

That was then. A little more than a decade on, his most common mission is what is called an “overwatch,” scanning the ground via infrared sensors and radioing what he sees to troops below.

In 953 close-air support sorties by the 44 F/A-18 Super Hornets aboard the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, from where Commander McDowell flies now, aircraft struck only 17 times. They flew low- or mid-elevation passes 115 times.

The shifts in missions and tactics partly reflect adaptations by the Taliban. But guided by complex rules of engagement and by doctrine emphasizing proportionality and restraint, they also reflect what Commander McDowell calls “a different mentality.”

These days, striving for certitude in target selection and minimizing civilian casualties have become standard practice. Projecting power nonlethally is routine. Dropping bombs is not.

“So much has changed from when I was here the first time,” he said, looking down at Afghanistan on a six-hour flight early last week. “Now I prefer not dropping — if I can accomplish the mission other ways.”

A Day’s Work

Commander McDowell’s workday began at 4:30 a.m., when he woke in a small stateroom and readied for a long sortie. At 5:30 a.m., he gathered for his preflight briefing.

Lt. Cmdr. Fran Catalina, a pilot who would be one of his wingmen, offered a reminder that the Afghan war, in its 11th winter, was grinding on, and that the reach of the Navy’s carrier aircraft was welcome — even far inland. “There were 43 enemy-initiated attacks in the last reporting period,” he said, showing a map. “Lots of kinetics yesterday.”

Each pilot and weapons-systems officer, who flies in the rear seat of an F/A-18F, was assigned a mission supporting a different ground unit.

At 7:15 a.m., after donning ejection-seat torso harnesses and survival vests and collecting their pistols, they climbed into their aircraft, which waited, armed and fueled, on the flight deck. The carrier was steaming into the wind in the North Arabian Sea.

The aircraft carried a mix of laser- and G.P.S.-guided bombs, heat-seeking air-to-air missiles and ammunition for 20-millimeter cannon.

Shortly before 8 a.m., after preflight checks, Commander McDowell taxied to one of the ship’s four catapults, where sailors attached a hold-back bar to the jet’s nose wheel. He pushed Vengeance 13’s dual engines to full power. The engines roared. The aircraft shook.

He saluted a sailor on the flight deck. The sailor saluted back. “Five seconds,” Commander McDowell said.

He raised his chin, pressed the back of his helmet against the seat and flexed his muscles as he braced for the rush.

The bar released. The steam-driven catapult slammed forward. Vengeance 13 accelerated to 180 miles an hour in about 200 feet. It vaulted off the carrier’s bow. Perhaps two seconds had passed. He had just experienced 3.5 Gs, and he was flying, just above the waves.

“And we’re airborne,” he said.

Commander McDowell is scheduled to assume command of an F/A-18 squadron in May. He is 38, a graduate of the Naval Academy and a former test pilot. His call-sign — Keebler — reflects what he calls his elfin stature (he is 5 feet 7 inches tall) and insatiable sweet tooth.

The nickname also suggests a compliment. Shorter pilots can typically withstand greater gravitational forces when in fast minimum-radius turns or the dives, rolls and climbs involved in dogfighting and strafing. Commander McDowell, who has withstood seven Gs without losing consciousness, is known, in his trade, as “a G-monster.”

On a previous flight from the carrier he had demonstrated for a reporter in the back seat some of what an F/A-18F can do, making the reporter disoriented — and airsick — at 6.5 Gs, chatting calmly as he put the aircraft into a supersonic dive and a series of maneuvers over the Gulf of Oman.

For a combat flight into Afghanistan, however, he would conserve energy and fuel. He flew level at 500 feet for seven miles, banked left and climbed to 25,000 feet, where he was joined by two other Super Hornets.

The trio headed north for their first mission, to support the company freshly landed in the valley in Kandahar.

To get there, they flew toward a designated slot of airspace in western Pakistan. Known as “the Boulevard,” the corridor is a busy air bridge — the route through which Pakistan allows NATO aircraft access to Afghanistan. For planes from air bases in the Persian Gulf, this is the way around Iran.

Commander McDowell’s flight, commanded by Capt. Dell Bull in Vengeance 11, overtook slower aircraft heading to the war. Around 9:15 a.m., the flight crossed over the Afghan border.

An Air Force KC-10 tanker waited ahead, flying a wide circle over a Central Asian desert. It dragged a hose ending in a basket surrounding a small valve. It was time to refuel.

Vengeance 13 went first. After Vengeance 11 had refueled, too, the two aircraft broke off and headed to their mission; Vengeance 12 would join them later. Captain Dell checked in with the ground controller, who said the company had taken fire earlier in the morning.

For about an hour, the aircraft used infrared sensors to watch buildings and the canyon, covering the soldiers’ movement. The Taliban did not show themselves.


A New Mind-Set

After refueling a second time, the jets checked in with a ground controller near the Arghandab River, the area that in late 2010 was a high-profile part of the offensive to displace the Taliban.

Before that offensive, the American presence along the river had been light. Now, from the air, the military footprint was clear. The river was a network of outposts and bases with high walls, many watched over by cameras mounted on tethered blimp-like balloons.

If one place might suggest the way Commander McDowell’s role on the battlefield had changed over his career, this was it. He flew a slow left turn, pointing to an area where several days before an infantry patrol had skirmished with Afghan gunmen.

The gunmen had fired from a field not far from Forward Operating Base Wilson and then dashed into a cluster of mud-walled buildings, he said. Commander McDowell had arrived overhead within minutes.

What happened next framed the contrast between the old practices and the new.

The infantrymen talked him toward the building. Then they marked it by firing a smoke grenade at its walls. Above the river, Commander McDowell fixed his infrared sensor on the compound, sharing the video feed with a ground controller, who confirmed he was looking at the right place. What to do?

In 1999, late in the war in Kosovo, Commander McDowell said pilots routinely killed. On one sortie, in the rush to stop Serbs from killing ethnic Albanians, Commander McDowell dropped a 1,000-pound, laser-guided bomb at the mouth of a tunnel that five trucks carrying Serbian soldiers had just entered. The shrapnel and pressure wave from the blast probably killed every man.

Back then, the rules of engagement allowed pilots to track suspected military vehicles.

“And if a military vehicle stopped at a house, we would get a reading of where the driver went,” he said. “If we were able to identify that the truck was Serbian military, and it stopped for a long period of time at the house, we made the assumption that they were stopping for resupply and within a couple days that house was taken out.”

A little more than a dozen years later, he was above a home in which at least two Taliban fighters had taken shelter after firing on an American patrol. But he did not know who else might be inside. Neither he nor the soldiers requested clearance for an airstrike.

“What if we hit that house and two guys inside had guns and we get eight kids, too?” he said.

High over the Arghandab River, he banked over the home that he and the rules had spared.

Referring to the targeting display in the cockpit, he pointed out its proximity to other homes, and described the limits of what he knew about so-called “patterns of life” — the rhythm of the human activity at the compound where Taliban fighters hid.

“I didn’t think about these things at all in Kosovo,” he said.

The reach of a nuclear carrier, augmented with aerial tankers, made it possible for strike aircraft to penetrate 800 miles from the ship. But what was the point of projecting power if it was not projected responsibly? The changes, he said, have been good.

“I would say that in my younger days I would have been frustrated, because we have ordnance and we know where the enemy is, and I would have wanted permission to strike that building,” he said. “Did I feel frustrated this time? Not in the slightest. It is a different mission. It calls for a different mentality.”

    A Changed Way of War in Afghanistan’s Skies, NYT, 15.1.2012,






Video Inflames a Delicate Moment for U.S. in Afghanistan


January 12, 2012
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — A video showing four United States Marines urinating on three dead Taliban fighters provoked anger and condemnation on Thursday in Afghanistan and around the world, raising fears in Washington that the images could incite anti-American sentiment at a particularly delicate moment in the decade-old Afghan war.

The Obama administration is struggling to keep the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, on its side as it carefully tries to open talks with the Taliban. Yet the video showing such a desecration — a possible war crime — is likely to weaken the American position with both. The Taliban and Mr. Karzai each pointed to the images as evidence of American brutality, a message with broad appeal in Afghanistan, where word of the video was slowly spreading on Thursday.

Senior military officials in Kabul and at the Pentagon confirmed that the video was authentic and that they had identified the Marines as members of the Third Battalion, Second Marines, which completed a tour of Afghanistan this fall before returning to its base at Camp Lejeune, N.C. The officials did not release the Marines’ names but said one wore a corporal’s uniform.

Pentagon officials said the video had been made between March and September 2011, when the Marine battalion was stationed in Helmand Province, a strategic Taliban heartland and a center of the opium poppy trade. The officials said that they did not know the precise location shown in the video but that it had probably been made in the northern part of the province, where the battalion had been operating. Seven of the approximately 1,000 Marines in the battalion were killed during the seven-month deployment.

Pentagon officials said that as far as they knew, all four Marines were still on active duty.

Even before the authenticity of the video had been confirmed, expressions of outrage and contrition by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top officials left no doubt that they regarded it as real.

Aware of the inflammatory potential, Mr. Panetta telephoned Mr. Karzai to assure him that an investigation was under way and that those responsible would be punished. Mr. Panetta told the Afghan leader that “the conduct depicted in the footage is utterly deplorable, and that it does not reflect the standards or values American troops are sworn to uphold,” said George Little, the Pentagon spokesman.

The video showed the four Marines, in their distinctive sand-colored camouflage, urinating over the three bodies — one covered in blood. One Marine says, “Have a great day, buddy.”

The Taliban initially indicated that the video would not undermine the push toward talks, saying that they saw it as just more evidence of what they said was American brutality and arrogance.

But later on Thursday, in an official statement, the Taliban dropped references to the talks and emphasized the brutality message. “We strongly condemn the inhuman act of wild American soldiers, as ever, and consider this act in contradiction with all human and ethical norms,” the statement said.

Mr. Karzai said that he was deeply disturbed and that he had asked the Americans to punish the perpetrators severely. “This act by American soldiers is simply inhuman and condemnable in the strongest possible terms,” he said.

American officials reacted remorsefully throughout the day on Thursday in their damage-control effort. The American-led coalition in Afghanistan and the United States Embassy in Kabul offered separate condemnations. Coalition officials said in a statement that the behavior displayed in the video “dishonors the sacrifices and core values of every service member representing the 50 nations of the coalition.”

Mrs. Clinton expressed what she called “total dismay.”

“It is absolutely inconsistent with American values and the standards we expect from our military personnel,” she said in Washington, adding that anyone involved “must be held fully accountable.”

Mr. Panetta said in Washington that he had ordered the Marines and Gen. John R. Allen, a Marine Corps officer who commands coalition forces in Afghanistan, to investigate immediately.

The video, posted on public video-sharing Web sites including LiveLeak and YouTube, began ricocheting around international news Web sites on Wednesday.

Whether the American condemnations will mollify the anger of Afghans remains unclear. But for those who had seen the video, the images appeared to deepen their dislike of the United States, which is widely seen as an occupier here.

“The Taliban sometimes commit such harsh acts, but it was enough just to kill them and not to degrade or humiliate their dead bodies,” said Jawad, a university student in Kabul who gave only one name.

Hajji Ahmad Fareed, a former member of Parliament, said the images confirmed to him that America was against Islam. The Americans “will never be friends with us and never bring peace,” he said. Americans have urinated “on our holy Koran,” he said, and have now done so “on the bodies of our Muslims.”

Mr. Fareed was referring to an erroneous report in Newsweek in 2005 that American soldiers at the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had thrown a Koran into a toilet. The report prompted protests and riots in many parts of the Muslim world. The worst was in Afghanistan, where at least 17 people were killed.

Last year, protests erupted in Afghanistan over the burning of a Koran at a Florida church. Several people were killed, including seven United Nations staff members in Mazar-i-Sharif.

American officials in Afghanistan have also struggled to overcome the fallout from a rogue group of American soldiers who in 2010 killed three Afghan civilians for sport in a series of crimes. The soldier accused of being the ringleader of the group, whose members patrolled roads and small villages near Kandahar, was convicted of three counts of murder by an American military panel in November.

The actions of the Marines in the video could amount to a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which require that the bodies of those killed in war be treated honorably.

While the images largely dominated the news in Afghanistan on Thursday, the Taliban’s campaign of assassinations continued when a suicide car bomber killed the governor of a district in the southern province of Kandahar.

The district governor, Said Fazluddin Agha, was riding home after work when his armored vehicle was hit by an attacker in a Suzuki packed with explosives, said Zalmai Ayoubi, a spokesman for the governor of Kandahar. Two of his sons were also killed, and nine police officers and one civilian were wounded. Mr. Agha was the target of an assassination attempt two years ago.


Reporting was contributed by Elisabeth Bumiller and John H. Cushman Jr.

from Washington; Sangar Rahimi, Sharifullah Sahak and Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul;

an employee of The New York Times from Kandahar, Afghanistan;

and J. David Goodman from New York.


This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 12, 2012

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name

of the U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.

    Video Inflames a Delicate Moment for U.S. in Afghanistan, NYT, 12.1.2012,






Karzai’s Ultimatum Complicates U.S. Exit Strategy


January 8, 2012
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai’s denunciation last week of abuses at the main American prison in Afghanistan — and his abrupt demand that Americans cede control of the site within a month — surprised many here. The prison, at Bagram Air Base, is one of the few in the country where Afghan and Western rights advocates say that conditions are relatively humane.

American officials, caught off guard by the president’s order, scrambled to figure out the source of the allegations. Now they have at least part of an answer: the Afghan commission that documented the abuses appears to have focused mainly on the side of the prison run by Afghan authorities, not the American-run part, according to interviews with American and Afghan officials.

Mr. Karzai was, in essence, demanding that the Americans cede control of a prison to Afghan authorities to stop abuses being committed by Afghan authorities.

But the American snickering subsided quickly as it became apparent that the Afghans were not backing off their demand, the officials said, and instead appeared intent on turning it into a test of their national sovereignty.

“We have the right to rule on our own soil,” said Gul Rahman Qazi, the chief of the Afghan commission that investigated the prison, at a weekend news conference in which his panel listed accusations of abuses.

The matter is exposing the deep vein of mutual mistrust and suspicion that runs beneath the American and Afghan talk of partnership, and officials characterize the prison dispute as a critical complication for the United States’ intent to withdraw from the Afghan war on its own terms.

The prison plays a key role in the war effort, housing almost all the detainees that forces from the American-led coalition deem “high value,” including Taliban operatives. Transferring the prison to Afghan control is a central issue in the on-again, off-again negotiations between Washington and Kabul over the shape of the relationship between the two countries after NATO ends combat operations in 2014.

“It doesn’t make it easy to keep talking when you’re getting ultimatums,” said an American official who did not want to be identified for fear of straining already delicate relations. “This isn’t a side issue or something that we can just let go and see what happens.”

It is the latest — and one of the most serious — case of how increasingly frequent and unilateral outbursts by Mr. Karzai and his allies indicate growing resentment of the Americans, even as he is trying to negotiate some sort of American military support past the 2014 deadline.

Afghan and Western officials close to the matter describe Mr. Karzai as increasingly suspicious about being cut out and worked around by the Americans, and anti-Western advisers have been gaining in influence in his circle, for the moment at least, the officials said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to harm relations with the president and one another.

That has become apparent in the past two months, as the positive talk heard at an international conference on Afghanistan’s future in Bonn, Germany, has given way to a markedly more hostile tone. Mr. Karzai is again demanding an immediate end to the night commando raids that the United States consider vital to getting at insurgent field commanders. Another presidential commission late last month publicly condemned NATO forces for killing civilians without mentioning that the Taliban killed far more innocents, according to United Nations assessments of Afghan casualties.

Mr. Karzai came close last month to disrupting the latest American move to jump-start talks with the Taliban when he abruptly rejected a plan for the Persian Gulf state of Qatar to host an insurgent negotiating office. He has since acquiesced, but his aides say the overtures to the Taliban are another example of the Americans’ trying to sidestep Mr. Karzai’s administration. Statements from the presidential palace about the talks have pointedly made reference to foreigners as the source of Afghanistan’s troubles.

Then, on Thursday came the sudden demand for control over the American prison, known as the Parwan Detention Facility. The Americans were given no warning the order was going to be issued. Asked about the timing, Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Mr. Karzai, said: “It was decided, and then we issued it. I don’t think it is not clear.”

American officials planned to meet with the Afghans to discuss the matter on Saturday after a scheduled news conference, waiting to see whether Afghan officials changed their tone. They did not. Mr. Qazi, the chief of the Afghan commission, told reporters that Afghan officials considered transfer of the prison a critical matter of national sovereignty.

The commissioners said prisoners had complained of torture, humiliating strip searches, being held in freezing cells and a lack of due process. The commission’s legal adviser, Ahmad Hanif Hanifi, stood and recited a list of suspected abuses during the news conference. But when pressed for details, especially about under whose watch the abuses might have happened, the Afghan officials began backing away.

Mr. Qazi acknowledged that “we do not have a lot of information on the details” of what had taken place in the American side of the prison, which the commission visited briefly only on Dec. 27. During an earlier visit, in May, the commission was not given access to the American side of the prison, a statement American officials did not dispute.

Despite the lack of details, Mr. Qazi said, “what has happened there will become clear” in time.

Afterward, the commission’s deputy chief, Abdul Qader Adalatkhah, said in a brief interview that most of the abuses documented so far were from the Afghan side of the prison. No matter, he said, there are “problems in the international side,” as well. He would not elaborate.

Despite the tenor of the news conference, a Western official said the meeting later Saturday between Afghan and American officials about the prison had been “productive.” The official would not provide details.

Built as part of the Obama administration’s revamping of American detention facilities and policies, the $60 million prison abuts Bagram Air Base, one of the main coalition bases in the country. It replaced an older prison that was housed in a Soviet-era machinery hangar inside Bagram and was the site of well-documented abuse cases.

Conditions at the new prison are markedly better, according to independent Afghan and Western assessments, although arbitrary detentions and a lack of due process remain serious problems.

It is unclear how the Afghan officials will proceed in pressing their authority to take control of the prison. Whether they have the capacity is another question. The Americans have been slowly training Afghan guards and administrators, but the efforts are said to be behind schedule.

Mr. Faizi, the presidential spokesman, brushed aside concerns about Afghan readiness. He said the government was only sticking to an agreed upon plan to hand over the prison by the end of 2011.

Yet, even that is in dispute. American officials said there was never a hard deadline. An internal Afghan government document about the prison in 2010, obtained by The New York Times, appears to back up their point. “The transition will be based on demonstration of capacity rather than a specific time table,” the document reads. It is signed by a number of government officials, including the minister of defense, Abdul Rahim Wardak.

American officials said they believed the prison’s fate would ultimately be decided in the talks on the so-called strategic partnership document, which is intended to spell out the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States after 2014. The next round of talks has not yet been scheduled.


Jawad Sukhanyar contributed reporting.

    Karzai’s Ultimatum Complicates U.S. Exit Strategy, NYT, 8.1.2012,






Talking With the Taliban


January 4, 2012
The New York Times


The Taliban’s announcement that they plan to open an office in Qatar and possibly begin peace negotiations deserves a close look and a full draught of skepticism.

This is the same group of militants, led by Mullah Muhammad Omar, that ruled Afghanistan with such medieval brutality, denying women access to an education or health care. It is the same group that gave sanctuary to Al Qaeda before Sept. 11, 2001, and that is still killing NATO troops and terrorizing and murdering the Afghan people. But if there is even a remote chance of a political settlement — one that does not reimpose the Taliban’s horrors — it must be explored.

Tuesday’s announcement was short on specifics, but it did make clear that the militants want to talk to Washington, not Kabul. Early talks with American officials might get things moving. But there can be no deal without full Afghan participation, and the Obama administration should consider appointing an international mediator to bring a broad mix of participants — including Afghanistan’s meddling neighbors — to the table.

For months, the administration has been signaling its interest in talks, and we don’t know why the Taliban responded now. One theory is that they are being squeezed by American and NATO military operations. Another is that the Taliban are hoping to use the negotiations to speed up an American withdrawal and lock in Taliban terms. Either way, coalition forces must keep pushing back hard.

Apart from wanting the Americans out, it is not clear what the Taliban will demand. Washington must not budge on its insistence that as part of any agreement, the Taliban must sever all ties to Al Qaeda, renounce violence and accept the Afghan Constitution and its commitments to political and human rights for all Afghans.

There are many more big questions, including whether other Afghan extremists — most notably the Haqqani network — will come to the table, whether there can be a peace deal if they don’t and whether their patrons in Pakistan can be persuaded to support serious negotiations or will work to undermine them.

As a confidence-building measure, Washington is considering a Taliban request that it transfer some Taliban detainees to custody in Afghanistan or Qatar from the prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Any prisoner release will first require careful vetting, and then there will have to be vigilant monitoring to ensure that the prisoners don’t go back to the battlefield. There is also talk from Americans of identifying some cease-fire zones where the Taliban’s interest in stopping the fighting could be tested.

President Obama has pledged that the bulk of NATO troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. That will be easier to achieve if there is a political agreement with the Taliban, but it must be one that ensures that Afghanistan does not again become a launching pad for attacks on this country and doesn’t revert to the horrors of Taliban rule.

    Talking With the Taliban, NYT, 4.1.2012,






Taliban to Open Qatar Office in Step Toward Peace Talks


January 3, 2012
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — Giving its first major public sign that it may be ready for peace talks, the Taliban announced on Tuesday that it had struck a deal to open a peace mission in Qatar.

The step was a sharp reversal of the Taliban’s longstanding public denials that it was involved or interested in any negotiations to end its insurgency in Afghanistan.

In a statement, Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said that along with a “preliminary” deal to set up the office in Qatar, the group was asking that Taliban detainees held at the American prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, be released. Mr. Mujahid did not say when the Qatar office would be opened, or give specifics about the prisoners the Taliban wanted freed.

American officials have said in recent months that the opening of a Taliban mission would be the single biggest step forward for peace efforts that have been plagued by false starts. The most embarrassing came in November 2010, when it emerged that an impostor had fooled Western officials into thinking he represented the Taliban and then had disappeared with hundreds of thousands of dollars used to woo him.

The opening of an office in Qatar is meant to give Afghan and Western peace negotiators an “address” where they can openly contact legitimate Taliban intermediaries. That would open the way for confidence-building measures that Washington hopes to push forward in the coming months. Chief among them, American officials said, is the possibility of transferring a number of “high-risk” detainees — including some with ties to Al Qaeda — to Afghan custody from Guantánamo Bay. The prisoners would then presumably be freed some time in the future.

American officials said they would consider transferring only those prisoners the Afghan authorities request. Among the names being discussed are Muhammad Fazl, the former Taliban deputy defense minister; two former provincial governors, Khairullah Khairkhwa of Herat and Noorullah Nori of Balkh; Abdul Haq Wasiq, a former top Taliban intelligence official; and one of the Taliban’s top financiers, Muhammad Nabi. Mr. Fazl is accused of having commanded forces that killed thousands of Shiite Muslims, who are a minority in Afghanistan, while the Taliban ruled the country.

The American officials said that another idea under consideration was the establishment of cease-fire zones within Afghanistan, although that prospect was more uncertain and distant. The officials asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the talks.

American officials have said for years that the war in Afghanistan would ultimately require a political solution, not a military one. The “surge” of additional troops ordered by President Obama at the end of 2009, and the sharp increase in kill-and-capture missions against the Taliban’s midlevel leadership by special operations forces over the past two years have largely been aimed at getting the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Though there were public hints of interest, Western officials in Kabul were questioning as recently as last month whether the Taliban was indeed ready or willing to talk. Tuesday’s announcement will help to erase those doubts, Western officials said, although they stressed that the process was closer to the beginning than the end and that there was no assurance that a final settlement could be reached.

“Publicly, I don’t think we could have asked for a stronger endorsement of the peace process from the other side,” said a Western diplomat in Kabul, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the talks. “But this isn’t even close to having a done deal. That’s going to take years, if it even happens.”

There was no immediate comment from the Afghan government, which has been cool to the idea. When word that Qatar had agreed to host such a peace office first surfaced in December, the Karzai government rejected the notion and recalled its ambassador from the Persian Gulf state. Afghan officials complained at the time that they had not been formally notified by the Qataris, and that they preferred that any such mission be in Saudi Arabia or Turkey. But a week ago, President Hamid Karzai grudgingly agreed to Qatar as the site.

The American embassy in Kabul issued a brief statement on Tuesday reiterating what the United States wants to see in a final settlement. “We support an Afghan-led reconciliation process in which the Taliban break with Al Qaeda, renounce violence and accept the Afghan constitution, especially protections for minorities and women,” said Gavin Sundwall, a spokesman for the embassy.

Three suicide bombings on Tuesday in the southern city of Kandahar, where the Taliban first rose to prominence in the 1990s, provided a bloody reminder of the violence that continues to plague Afghanistan. A total of 13 people, including a child and four police officers, were killed in the three attacks, Faisal Ahmad, a spokesman for the government of Kandahar province, told The Associated Press.

The first attack came in the morning, when a suicide bomber on a motorcycle set off his explosives in the city. The other two attacks, apparently by suicide bombers on foot, came within minutes of each other in the early evening, Mr. Ahmad told the news agency.

Since the debacle with the impostor, America and its allies have focused on establishing a trustworthy channel for pursuing a peace deal with the Taliban. The push began early last year when American and German negotiators managed to make contact with a man they believed to be a legitimate representative of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s reclusive leader.

The Western diplomat said on Tuesday that the Taliban announcement was a product of 10 months of on-again, off-gain talks with the man, Tayeb Agha, a former secretary to Mullah Omar. The talks were shrouded in secrecy in large part to protect Mr. Agha and other Taliban intermediaries.

The biggest concern was that the government of Pakistan, where most of the Taliban’s leadership is believed to reside, would obstruct any talks in which it did not play a direct role. Pakistan has in the past arrested insurgent leaders who sought to open talks without its blessing.

Afghan and American officials have long feared that Pakistan aims to use the peace process, which it says it supports, as a way to solidify a dominant position in Afghanistan. Pakistan is believed to have backed the Taliban for much of the past decade, for the same reason. The Qatar office is seen as a way of lessening Pakistani influence over the talks.


Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting from Kabul,

and Eric Schmitt contributed from Washington.

    Taliban to Open Qatar Office in Step Toward Peace Talks, NYT, 3.1.2012,




home Up