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History > 2013 > USA > War > Afghanistan (II)




Two Taliban Rockets

Hit U.S. Embassy in Kabul


December 25, 2013
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — A pair of rockets fired by the Taliban struck the United States Embassy in Kabul shortly before dawn on Wednesday, sending hundreds of American diplomats and aid workers based at the mission scrambling into fortified bunkers to start their Christmas Day, the embassy said.

There were no reports of casualties at the embassy. But Afghan officials said that another two rockets hit other parts of the city and that three police officers were wounded when one of the rockets, which had not exploded on impact, detonated as they were trying to defuse it. The other rocket, which did explode on impact, did not cause any casualties or inflict significant damage, said Gen. Zaher Zaher, the police chief of Kabul.

The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the attack. Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the insurgents, posted a message on his Twitter feed saying the Taliban had hit the American Embassy with four rockets and inflicted heavy casualties. But the Taliban routinely exaggerate the effectiveness of their attacks, and the embassy said no one there had been killed or wounded.

Mr. Mujahid made no reference in his Twitter post to the attack’s occurring on Christmas Day. The holiday carries little significance in Afghanistan, where there are almost no Christians, and the Taliban more commonly try to time headline-grabbing attacks to Islamic holidays.

The embassy said it was assessing any damage that might have been caused by the rockets. It was not immediately clear which part of the sprawling and well-fortified compound in the center of the city had been hit or if any part of the embassy had been damaged. Staff members at the embassy were given the all-clear to move around the compound about two hours after the attack, which took place around 6:40 a.m.

Whether the Taliban had actually intended to strike the embassy was also an open question. Though rocket attacks on Kabul have been relatively infrequent in recent years, they were once more common – and they rarely appeared well targeted.

A number of rockets fired in advance of the presidential election in 2009, for instance, appeared to be aimed at the presidential palace. Most ended up striking areas in the general vicinity of the palace compound, which covers dozens of acres in the middle of Kabul. Few caused serious casualties or significant damage.

    Two Taliban Rockets Hit U.S. Embassy in Kabul, NYT, 25.12.2013,






Afghans Assail Karzai’

Disparate Views on Killings


November 30, 2013
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — As so often happens in the fog of war, the attack in a village in Kandahar on Friday missed the enemy patrol that was its intended target, instead killing an 8-year-old boy and wounding two other children.

President Hamid Karzai was silent about the civilian casualties, although just the day before he had responded with fury to a similar attack in Helmand Province, which also killed one child and gravely wounded two women.

The attack he complained about was carried out by the American-led coalition and used a drone. The attack he ignored was by the Taliban and used a suicide bomber.

The bomber had targeted an American military patrol in the Daman district but detonated prematurely — killing only himself and the boy and wounding two American soldiers, said Javed Faisal, a spokesman for the Kandahar governor, who said no condolences had yet been received from Kabul.

The disparity in the Afghan president’s reaction has been rued by American officials here, but little commented upon, to avoid a messy diplomatic squabble in an already troubled alliance. Now it has started to draw criticism among many Afghans, who complain that their president has been looking for excuses to besmirch the Americans and delay signing a vitally important security deal with them, while overlooking equally serious or even worse abuses attributed to the Taliban.

In short, many Afghans have begun asking, Who exactly are our enemies here? The Americans, who underwrite our government and military but now say they will be forced to withdraw in 2015 without a security deal? Or the Taliban, who have a history of killing officials even remotely connected with the government — a policy that has apparently begun to claim the lives even of some independent relief workers?

That unease has spread throughout governing circles, and several prominent officials have said that a meeting of the president’s cabinet last Monday was dominated by ministers who tried to persuade Mr. Karzai to sign the bilateral security agreement promptly, as his own handpicked loya jirga, or grand council, also urged him to do on Nov. 24.

“We were so shocked by the president’s decision on postponing the signing of the B.S.A.,” one high-ranking official said, on the condition of anonymity to preserve his job. “I think most of his advisers and members of his cabinet disagree with the president on the B.S.A. issue. They all want it to be signed.”

Atiqullah Baryalai, a former deputy defense minister in the Karzai government, said, “His entire cabinet is against him on this.”

“The only ones with him are his spokesman and a few in his inner circle like Khurram,” he added, referring to Mr. Karzai’s chief of staff, Abdul Karim Khurram. A member of the hard-line and conservative Hizb-i-Islami political party, Mr. Khurram since 2012 has been in control of the president’s news media message, persuading Mr. Karzai to appoint a Khurram ally, Aimal Faizi, as spokesman and wresting control of the Government Media and Information Center from its American-mentored staff.

At the president’s cabinet meeting last Monday, Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal went through a detailed analysis of what Afghanistan had to lose financially.

“We need international support,” Mr. Zakhilwal said he reminded the cabinet. “Without that, we would not have been here. Our security, every element of government development, depends on it.”

Mr. Zakhilwal has a close relationship with Mr. Karzai and is also well regarded by the Americans.

After the cabinet session, Mr. Zakhilwal gave a series of interviews suggesting that Mr. Karzai was moderating the demands he had made before he would agree to sign the deal, dropping his insistence on a politically difficult release of Afghan prisoners from the American base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and accepting United States assurances that it would not interfere in next year’s Afghan presidential elections.

That left only the president’s insistence that raids on Afghan homes had to stop immediately (instead of in 2015, as provided in the security agreement) and that the Americans should make some initial steps to try to restart peace talks with the Taliban.

“These are conditions that are doable,” Mr. Zakhilwal said in an interview. “These things could be done very quickly.”

He predicted that the security agreement could be signed within two or three weeks, if there was proof that home raids had really stopped and some concrete overtures toward peace talks were made. “The president absolutely has no intention of delaying this thing,” Mr. Zakhilwal said.

Mr. Faizi, the spokesman, said he had made similar assurances in an interview with 1TV, an Afghan station.

Then the drone attack in Helmand took place on Thursday.

Asked on Friday about Mr. Zakhilwal’s assurances, Mr. Faizi was dismissive. In an email response to questions, he said of Mr. Zakhilwal: “His opinion is based on what I said two days ago to 1TV in an interview, which was the case. But yesterday’s incident in Helmand has damaged the whole atmosphere.”

“President Obama assured President Karzai that the U.S. will ‘make every effort to respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans in their homes and in their daily lives, JUST AS WE DO FOR OUR OWN CITIZENS,’ ” he said, quoting from a letter that Mr. Obama sent Mr. Karzai, to which Mr. Faizi added his own emphasis. “That is how the U.S. respects the sanctity and dignity of homes in the U.S., bombing a residence for an individual?”

The Taliban for years have been killing far more civilians than the coalition has; the latest United Nations report on the subject says three-fourths of the 1,038 civilian fatalities between January and July this year were by the Taliban, and less than one-tenth of them by the Americans and their coalition partners.

“What does this mean, when every time he says nothing about the Taliban but always is raising questions about the Americans?” Mr. Baryalai asked. “I think Karzai is sending a message to the Taliban, that he really doesn’t want a security agreement with the Americans.”

Most of Mr. Karzai’s American allies, for all the bruising they have taken from him in public lately, would probably not go that far. But, as one Western diplomat warned, noting how weak public support was in the United States for a continued mission in Afghanistan: “Mr. Karzai should be careful what he wishes for.”


Alissa J. Rubin contributed reporting from Kabul,

and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

    Afghans Assail Karzai’s Disparate Views on Killings, NYT, 30.11.2013,






Recent Drone Strikes Strain U.S. Ties

With Afghanistan and Pakistan


November 29, 2013
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — Two separate but similarly bitter disagreements over drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan have complicated relations between the United States and those two countries at a delicate moment, again highlighting the political complications from America’s persistent reliance on the lethal remote-controlled weapons.

In Afghanistan, the American military commander called President Hamid Karzai late Thursday to apologize for a drone strike that resulted in civilian casualties and that gave Mr. Karzai renewed reason to refuse to sign a long-term security agreement with the United States.

In Pakistan’s tribal belt, meanwhile, what was thought to be C.I.A. drone strike on Friday killed a Pakistani militant days after a major political party, as part of its campaign to end the drone strikes, publicly named a man it said was America’s top spy in the country.

The use of these weapons, which is deeply resented, highlights the political costs to the United States of the drone campaigns, even as its range of military options in the region has started to narrow with American combat troops leaving Afghanistan.

The American military already has greatly restricted raids on Afghan homes, amid demands from Mr. Karzai for a complete ban on such operations. The raids, normally carried out by Special Operations forces to apprehend insurgent leaders, are the last routine combat missions of the United States in Afghanistan.

Afghan anger over one such raid last week led Mr. Karzai to insist on a ban, and he has said he will not sign the long-term security agreement with the United States until such operations are definitively over.

That leaves airstrikes, particularly by drones, as one of the last practical military options left to the American-led military coalition in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, where there are no American military ground operations and the C.I.A. controls the drones, that has long been the case.

There, nationalist politicians have long denounced the C.I.A.-led campaign in the tribal belt as a flagrant breach of sovereignty, and are now employing new means to frustrate it.

As part of that effort, the political party of the former cricket star Imran Khan on Wednesday accused the director of the C.I.A. and the man it identified as the agency’s Islamabad station chief of murder.

Mr. Khan says the strikes have jeopardized efforts to start peace talks with Taliban insurgents. Last Saturday, Mr. Khan led a large protest rally in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, which his party governs. Since then, Mr. Khan’s supporters have tried to block NATO supplies in the province.

After the latest strike, officials of Mr. Khan’s party renewed their criticism.

The “U.S. has nothing but contempt for Pakistan’s leadership,” said Shireen Mazari, the party’s central information secretary, calling the attack a “direct test of the will of the federal government” led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Friday’s drone strike in Pakistan occurred at a delicate moment for the army, as leadership was passing from the previous army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to his successor, Lt. Gen. Raheel Sharif.

At a ceremony in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, General Kayani expressed confidence in his successor and paid tribute to soldiers who had died in operations against the Taliban in the troubled northwest of the country.

“I kept the interest of the country and armed forces above everything in the decisions that I took in the last six years,” General Kayani said, referring to his tenure as army chief.

In Afghanistan, even an apology by the American commander appeared to do little to assuage official anger.

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, called Mr. Karzai late Thursday to express “deep regrets” about the drone strike in Helmand earlier that day, and promised a joint investigation, a coalition official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The coalition official confirmed that two drone attacks had taken place in Helmand Province on Thursday. The first, in Garmsir district, targeted an insurgent commander traveling on a motorcycle, but the missile missed him and apparently hit civilians; one child was reported killed, and two women were severely wounded. The targeted man fled on foot and was killed by a later drone strike.

In the second attack, in Nawa Barak Sai district nearby, a drone strike killed a single insurgent who had been targeted, causing no civilian casualties, the official said.

But Mr. Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, disputed the NATO account. He said that in the first instance, American drones fired missiles at the man while he was riding a motorbike but also while he was hiding in a house.

Omar Zwak, the spokesman for the Helmand governor, identified the target of the strike as Mullah Nazar Gul, who he said was a bomb maker. Mr. Zwak said the man had been killed inside a house.


Rod Nordland reported from Kabul,

and Salman Masood from Islamabad, Pakistan.

    Recent Drone Strikes Strain U.S. Ties With Afghanistan and Pakistan,
    NYT, 29.11.2013,






Ignore Karzai’s Arrogant Insults


November 28, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — What is going on with President Hamid Karzai? The world’s only superpower, leading a coalition of some 50 nations, is willing to stay on in his country after a war that has already lasted a dozen years and cost the United States more than $600 billion and more than 2,000 fatalities — and yet the Afghan president keeps throwing up roadblocks.

The latest insult is his decision to hold off on signing a bilateral security agreement, the legal basis for American forces to remain in his country past 2014, on the grounds that his successor should have that prerogative next year. Mr. Karzai has also thrown in new demands — just when we thought the security agreement was a done deal. For one, he now seems to believe he can compel the United States to release all Afghan detainees in the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay.

Certainly, part of Mr. Karzai’s attitude comes from the umbrage he has taken at various Americans, especially in recent years. Some United States officials did make mistakes in their handling of the complex Afghan leader, lecturing him in public too stridently about matters such as Afghan government corruption. There can be little doubt, though, that Mr. Karzai’s own peevishness and ingratitude have played a large role.

In addition, Mr. Karzai believes, accurately perhaps, that the talks over the bilateral security agreement provide him with his last remaining leverage with Washington. He is wrong in thinking that Afghanistan remains a center of geopolitics, the location of a modern-day “great game” like the 19th-century competition between Britain and Russia, or the 1980s Cold War struggle pitting the Soviet Union against the United States and others. But Mr. Karzai is right that we are concerned enough about Afghanistan’s future to wish to maintain a presence even after NATO’s combat mission expires in just 13 months. He also rightly perceives that the United States wants to keep a vigilant eye on extremist groups in tribal regions of northwest Pakistan.

Against this backdrop, American officials should stay calm. It would be a mistake to let one man — increasingly detached from Afghan public and political opinion — determine the fate of the American role in South Asia. Even with Osama bin Laden dead, the stakes remain high: Extremist groups from Al Qaeda to Lashkar-e-Taiba (the Pakistani group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terror attack) could easily put down roots again in Afghanistan if the country were to fall to the Taliban after NATO’s departure.

The recent assembly of Afghan tribal elders, a loya jirga, again demonstrated what we already knew — that the Afghan people want us to stay. After the defeat of the Soviets in 1989, civil war, state collapse and Taliban victory followed. The Afghan people have seen this movie already; they do not want the sequel. The loya jirga urged Mr. Karzai to sign the agreement; he demurred.

The main candidates in Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election also want us to stay. A poll by the Moby Group in Kabul, Afghanistan’s largest private media organization, suggests that the two leading contenders are former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani. Both are pro-Western; both are smart and competent. The same is true of Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul, said by some to be President Karzai’s choice to succeed him after elections in April. Other candidates also support a continuing American and international presence.

So the United States should stay patient. It can say to Mr. Karzai, If you want to reinforce Afghan democracy by letting your successor sign this security deal, we can live with that; in the meantime, working with your ministers and other leaders, we will plan on staying — precisely as if the accord were already in place.

Of course, the United States can make contingency plans; it would need a Plan B in any event. Even as it anticipates alternate scenarios, it can continue discussions with Mr. Karzai on the other “conditions” that he has just introduced. For American leaders, we counsel patience and flexibility in the talks on a security deal.

Let us remember the girls who can go to school — an affront to the Taliban — and the Afghan women who are increasingly emerging as an important factor in the future of their country. Let’s remember, too, the ethnic minorities who have found a place and their voice in a modern, forward-looking Afghanistan.

And finally, let’s not forget the progress purchased so dearly in this decade and more of war. We must not permit Mr. Karzai’s pique to flush all this down the drain.

The United States can ride this one out. And given the enduring American strategic interests in this part of the world, as well as our huge sacrifice, that’s exactly what we should do.

In the end, this is about the American and the Afghan peoples, not about Hamid Karzai.


John R. Allen, a retired Marine Corps general

and a former commander of NATO and American forces

in Afghanistan, is a fellow at the Brookings Institution,

where Michael E. O’Hanlon is the director of research.

    Ignore Karzai’s Arrogant Insults, NYT, 28.11.2013,






The Long Goodbye in Afghanistan


November 23, 2013
The New York Times


From his first campaign for the White House, President Obama has vowed to end more than a decade of war, bring the troops home and put America on a less militaristic footing. He has reduced the forces in Afghanistan from about 100,000 in 2010 to about 47,000 today and has promised that all American and international combat forces will be out by the end of 2014.

But he has also indicated that a residual force of American troops will remain in Afghanistan to train Afghan security forces and engage in counterterrorism missions. In all this time, he has not made a clear and cogent case for any particular number of troops or explained how a residual force can improve the competency of Afghan forces when a much broader and intensive American engagement over the last decade has not.

Yet last week the Obama administration announced that it had reached an agreement with Afghanistan on a long-term bilateral security arrangement that, officials say, would allow up to 12,000 mostly American troops to be in that country until 2024 and perhaps beyond — without Mr. Obama offering any serious accounting to the American people for maintaining a sizable military commitment there or offering a clue to when, if ever, it might conclude.

The administration’s focus, instead, has been on whether an Afghan tribal council and the Afghan Parliament will formally approve the pact and whether President Hamid Karzai will sign it.

Even now, key details of the security agreement are unclear. Mr. Karzai has spoken about a force of 10,000 to 15,000 American and NATO troops; President Obama has not yet announced a figure, but officials have talked of 8,000 to 12,000.

Officials have said the troops’ main role will be to continue to train and assist the 350,000-member Afghan security force. The capability of the Afghan security force has improved, but it still cannot defend the country even after a $43 billion American investment in weaponry and training. Proponents of a residual force also argue that it is needed to protect Kabul, to prove that the United States is not abandoning Afghanistan and to pressure the Taliban to negotiate a political settlement, which military commanders say is the only path to stability. In addition, since Afghanistan cannot finance its security apparatus, American officials say Congress is unlikely to keep paying for the Afghan Army and police, at a cost that could range from $4 billion to $6 billion per year, unless Americans are there to verify that the money is properly spent.

The American forces are also expected to conduct counterterrorism missions when needed. The draft agreement allows United States Special Operations forces to have leeway to conduct antiterrorism raids on private Afghan homes. As Mr. Obama’s letter to Mr. Karzai says, American troops will be able to carry out the raids only under “extraordinary circumstances involving urgent risk to life and limb of U.S. nationals.” (Under current protocol, Afghan troops take the lead in entering homes.) The pact also gives American soldiers immunity from Afghan prosecution for actions taken in the course of their duties. The failure to reach agreement on this immunity issue blocked a long-term security deal between the United States and Iraq and led to the final withdrawal of troops there.

President Obama said in May that the United States needs to “work with the Afghan government to train security forces, and sustain a counterterrorism force, which ensures that Al Qaeda can never again establish a safe haven to launch attacks against us or our allies.” Managing a productive relationship with Afghanistan has always been difficult with Mr. Karzai, who is an unpredictable, even dangerous reed on which to build a cooperative future. And it is unclear if Afghanistan, driven by corruption, sectarian divisions and the Taliban insurgency can have any better governance when elections are held next April.

Mr. Karzai’s long record of duplicitous behavior is just one of the many reasons it is tempting, after a decade of war and tremendous cost in lives and money, to argue that America should just wash its hands of Afghanistan. There is something unseemly about the United States having to cajole him into a military alliance that is intended to benefit his fragile country.

Regardless of what he, the tribal council and the Afghan Parliament decide, President Obama still has to make a case for the deal to the American people.

    The Long Goodbye in Afghanistan, NYT, 23.11.2013,






An Exit Strategy From Afghanistan


October 20, 2013
The New York Times


As it winds down its 12-year-old military commitment in Afghanistan, the United States is still looking for a face-saving way out of a conflict that seems headed, at best, for a stalemate. The new bilateral security agreement between the two nations is part of that exit strategy. So is a hoped-for political settlement with the Taliban, on which there has been no progress, and a 2014 presidential election process that is also having problems.

Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Oct. 12 that they had agreed on key elements of a security deal that could keep some American troops in Afghanistan once the current NATO combat mission ends after 2014. Even so, they did not reveal details and there are reasons to wonder if Mr. Karzai would want a post-2014 security agreement on terms that Washington would accept.

A major sticking point is legal jurisdiction over American forces who could be assigned to Afghanistan after next year when the 51,000 troops there now have departed. The administration, which thought the issue had been resolved, has insisted that the troops have immunity from prosecution under Afghan law and that any troops accused of crimes be tried in the United States.

Both sides have raised the stakes — the Americans, by warning that all troops could be withdrawn if the immunity issue is not resolved in their favor; Mr. Karzai, by delegating a final decision on the issue to an unpredictable tribal council and Parliament, instead of making it himself. The United States has set a deadline of Oct. 31 for a deal, but the talks could collapse, much as they did in Iraq, where the failure to agree on an immunity deal hastened the withdrawal of all American troops.

President Obama has not formally committed to deploying a residual force or said how big it might be. Nor has he or Mr. Kerry made a compelling case for why such a force would be necessary, though they have suggested that it would focus on training Afghan security forces and preventing a resurgence of Al Qaeda. Ideally, all troops would come home as soon as possible, but Mr. Obama’s argument, if he has one, deserves a hearing.

News reports say many Afghans fear that the Kabul government could collapse and the country could return to civil war. The Taliban, through a spokesman, claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack on Friday near a residential compound on the outskirts of Kabul.

Even in Washington, officials acknowledge that once American forces depart, the Taliban likely will gain ground, at least in rural areas. And the competence of Afghanistan’s 350,000-member security force remains in doubt, even after a $40 billion investment in American weaponry and training. Although Afghan forces appear to have mostly held their own against the insurgency in the recent fighting season, they made no significant gains and suffered what some officials said were heavy casualties.

American commanders concluded some time ago that the war could end only with a negotiated settlement, not a military victory. But talks with the Taliban collapsed before they were to open last June and are not expected to start until after the Afghan presidential election in April. Proponents of a residual force say it is needed to protect Kabul and to pressure the Taliban to negotiate a settlement. They also argue that Congress is unlikely to keep paying for the Afghan Army and police, at a cost that could range from $4 billion to $6 billion, unless Americans are deployed there.

These arguments might be convincing if Mr. Karzai and his cronies were leaders who had used the last decade, and billions of dollars in international assistance, to build a government committed to delivering services and to winning the loyalty of the people. Instead, they fostered a corrupt system that has allowed the Taliban to remain a viable alternative force.

Now, just when the country needs to elect and unite around a new president, the political process, which is controlled to a large extent by Mr. Karzai, seems as vulnerable to corruption as ever. According to Reuters reports, voter cards, which are used to cast ballots, “have become a form of currency,” selling for about $5 each. American troops, no matter how long they stay, cannot compensate for this kind of self-inflicted damage.

    An Exit Strategy From Afghanistan, NYT, 20.10.2013,






The Afghan Legacy


July 4, 2013
The New York Times


Along with waging war in Afghanistan, the United States has worked to rebuild the country. But, after more than a decade and nearly $93 billion spent on reconstruction and security programs, there are still worrisome lapses in accountability, management and effectiveness.

The special inspector general on Afghan reconstruction, John Sopko, has cataloged the problems in a series of reports and concluded that some programs are actually working against American interests. While his aides say the mismanaged money is a small percentage of the overall spending, that still amounts to billions of dollars. These problems are persisting at a critical time when American forces are withdrawing from the country, and the United States has a diminishing opportunity to ensure programs and projects are designed and carried out in a way that puts Afghanistan on a firmer footing.

Since Mr. Sopko was appointed last year, here are a few of the things that his office has discovered:

■ The Pentagon has proceeded with the purchase of aircraft costing $771.8 million (including 30 Russian helicopters) despite the fact that just 7 of 47 Afghan pilots assigned to the air force unit are fully qualified to fly counterterrorism missions, which is the primary objective. The unit has a quarter of the 806 personnel needed to operate at full strength, and there is no plan for reaching that goal. It will take the air unit at least 10 years to perform crucial maintenance and logistics tasks independently, in part because of the difficulty of finding recruits who are literate and don’t have criminal records.

■ The inspector general’s office is investigating charges against 52 prime contractors for failing to pay their subcontractors some $62 million. This has meant delayed projects, causing Afghan subcontractors to blame the United States for the nonpayments.

■ The office has also raised questions about weaknesses in Washington’s efforts to avoid contracting with those who support the Taliban and its investment in projects, like hospitals, that Afghans cannot sustain.

A few months ago, Mr. Sopko asked the Pentagon, the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development for a list of their 10 most successful and least successful projects. In a critique released this week, he faulted some of their data and challenged some of their claims of progress.

For instance, the administration has cited advances in health care, noting that 60 percent of Afghans are within an hour walk of a health clinic compared with 9 percent in 2001. Mr. Sopko says this may be because more Afghans now live in cities where the clinics are located. And while the United States says life expectancy increased from 44 years to 60 years, he suggests such data were “selectively chosen in order to emphasize progress” and prefers a World Bank figure of 48 years. On the Pentagon claim that 194,000 Afghan national security forces have received some level of literacy training, he says the data provided don’t prove that the effort has materially improved the overall literacy rate or battlefield effectiveness.

Senior officials at the United States Agency for International Development say Mr. Sopko’s reports are too narrowly focused, ignore their efforts to monitor programs and give short shrift to their successes, like development of the energy sector in a difficult environment.

From the start, the United States has faced daunting challenges in Afghanistan, including violence, extreme poverty, corruption and President Hamid Karzai’s fecklessness. President Obama’s request for $3.4 billion more for Afghanistan in 2014 would put the pot forreconstruction available to spend at $20 billion. Before Congress approves additional financing, it needs to demand precise answers from the administration to the sensible questions that Mr. Sopko has posed about the need for effective oversight and meaningful measures of success.

    The Afghan Legacy, NYT, 4.7.2013,






Afghan Commandos

Step Up Their Combat Role


May 14, 2013
The New York Times


AT A CLASSIFIED COMMANDO BASE, Afghanistan — One day this month, a pair of Russian Mi-17 assault helicopters delivered two teams of Afghan commandos, their faces obscured by black masks, in a touch-and-go landing at this camp in a lush valley encircled by frosty peaks about 50 miles from Kabul.

A training squadron drawn from the most secretive counterterrorism units fielded by the United States and its NATO allies watched as the Afghan commandos stormed and cleared a three-story office building that was left conspicuously unfinished — the kind of structure favored by insurgents.

This is the combination of Afghan and allied troops that the Obama administration and the government in Kabul say will assume an increasing share of the combat burden in Afghanistan as the NATO alliance gradually hands over responsibility for security operations to Afghan troops.

As other troops are withdrawn, Special Operations forces are expected to make up almost one-third of the American military presence in Afghanistan by next February. Their specialty — advising local military units on the front lines and hunting down top insurgent or terrorist leaders — will become the major focus of the alliance’s effort here either until American troops are withdrawn by the target date of December 2014 or the Afghan government asks them to stay past then.

On any day in Afghanistan, about 60 Special Operations teams are working with Afghan local police forces to provide security in villages; 50 more are assigned to Afghan strike forces, including 9 commando battalions and special police units and 19 provincial response companies.

The most elite units are housed at secret bases like this one, where assault helicopters stand by to carry them on their missions. Other commando battalions and provincial response companies are scattered among population centers and along the ring road linking Afghanistan’s major cities.

For American commanders, the transition to Afghan leadership on security has been a challenge, requiring a sharp increase in the intensity of training.

It has also required a significant reorganization of planning — and a change in the culture of American Special Operations forces, which, for the first time since the war began, answer to a single commander responsible for coordinating what had been separate, even conflicting, efforts.

“The dirty little secret among S.O.F. is that we were competing among ourselves,” said Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas, the senior commander overseeing all American and allied Special Operations forces, or S.O.F., in Afghanistan.

“We didn’t necessarily share information to the greatest extent possible,” said General Thomas, an Army Ranger with a long career in Special Operations. “It wasn’t about who got the credit or glory — but we were all so focused on our individual mission that we didn’t always synchronize the effort in the most efficient way for a common goal.”

There have been times when one strike team was targeting a suspected insurgent without knowing that a training team was courting his close kinsman to raise a local police force from their home village.

That began to change just under a year ago when General Thomas took charge of a new military organization here — the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan, making him, in essence, the first to lead a division-sized deployment of Special Operations forces. Under his command are all the various “tribes” of American Special Operations forces: Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs and Marine Corps Special Operations units, as well as the top-tier strike teams that hunt down or kill high-value terrorist and insurgent leaders.

Senior officials say the new level of coordination has paid dividends in the form of initiatives like a centralized system for allocating drones, helicopters and airplanes that has allowed the 200 Special Operations aircraft to increase their sortie rate to 6,000 missions a month from 4,000.

Even as the number of American troops will be cut in half from 68,000 by next February under President Obama’s withdrawal orders, the number of Special Operations forces will remain the same through the Afghan presidential election, which is scheduled for next spring, but could be delayed until closer to December 2014.

While the bulk of the American and allied conventional forces remaining in Afghanistan will make the transition to a support role — and will be increasingly based at large military headquarters — the 10,000 American Special Operations troops will continue to be deployed alongside Afghan units. (Including NATO and coalition troops, the total Special Operations deployment here numbers 13,700.)

“That partnering is rock solid, and we hope over time to come up off the tactical level,” General Thomas said. But he noted that Afghan and NATO leaders all understand the critical importance of assuring that next year’s elections are credible and secure. “So we’re probably going to stay a while longer at the tactical level than we were considering a year ago,” he added.

Alliance commanders acknowledge that one of their greatest fears is an insurgent offensive on Kabul that, even if it failed, would so humiliate Afghanistan’s security forces that — like the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War — it would undermine support for the mission here and in nations that contribute troops to the effort.

Insurgents have mounted exactly that type of raid in the past. And while Afghan and NATO officials said at the time that local security forces reacted with speed and lethal professionalism to subdue the militants, the reality is different. Special Operations commanders now acknowledge that the responses were slow and clumsy and that Afghan troops needed to be strongly urged to move in.

“The Afghan Army hadn’t performed that well in two previous tasks,” said one NATO Special Operations commander here. “Both counterattacks had to be heavily mentored. It came out O.K. in the end — but only after a lot of prompting from our side.”

The effort to sharpen the skills of Afghan Special Forces is focused at this base, which was opened to a New York Times reporter and photographer under the ground rules that its location and the Special Operations units operating here would not be disclosed. Here, the Afghan national commando strike force practices on a training range that includes a full-scale mock-up of a heroin laboratory, a fake village marketplace and that three-story, half-built office building.

The effort, according to allied and Afghan Special Operations commanders, is paying off: Twice in recent weeks, their units have prevented the use of truck bombs, each holding a charge several times larger than the explosives that leveled a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

“The most important thing that this unit offers is security for Kabul, and as we move into this fighting season and into the upcoming elections in ’14, the population will view the security of the capital as a symbol of the credibility of their government,” said Brig. Gen. James E. Kraft Jr., a deputy commander of the Special Operations Joint Task Force.

The commandos, he said, “have been making significant advances in securing the ‘rat lines’ leading toward Kabul and interdicting I.E.D. materials.”

Shortcomings remain. One NATO Special Operations adviser said the training squadron was trying to “wean the Afghans off the ‘crack pipe’ of our aviation” — in particular troop transport and medical evacuation, which the Afghan forces cannot yet sustain on their own.

Although the unit based here is considered the most proficient in the country, allied officials said that it conducted 85 percent of its missions unilaterally, but still required coalition support for the other 15 percent.

    Afghan Commandos Step Up Their Combat Role, NYT, 14.5.2013,






Commander Denies U.S.

to Blame in Afghan Deaths


May 13, 2013
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — The highest-ranking international military commander in Afghanistan has categorically denied any American or NATO responsibility for the deaths of at least 17 women and children after nearly seven hours of intensive airstrikes near their compound in eastern Afghanistan, in the latest development in a case that has greatly raised tensions with the Afghan government.

In an interview, the commander, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., insisted that the Taliban had caused the deaths, over April 5 and 6 in a mountainous area of Kunar Province, despite the findings of an Afghan government investigation and the accounts of a number of local residents who said the civilians had died of blast injuries incurred after repeated American airstrikes near the house they were in.

“No S.O.F., no U.S., no coalition forces were involved in the deaths,” General Dunford said, using the abbreviation for Special Operations forces. “It’s been investigated ad nauseam.”

The spokesman for President Hamid Karzai is equally adamant about the conclusion of the Afghan investigation: that the immediate cause of death was the airstrikes. The Afghan government also said reckless disregard for civilian lives had been shown by both the Taliban and a secretive Afghan paramilitary force with C.I.A. advisers. They were locked in a firefight that led the American operatives and their Afghan forces to call in the airstrikes.

“There is no change in our position: The airstrikes killed women and children,” said the spokesman, Aimal Faizi.

The violence in Kunar last month became one of the main exhibits in Mr. Karzai’s campaign to bring to heel American covert operations in Afghanistan, particularly by C.I.A.-affiliated militias. Mr. Faizi used the phrase “irresponsible armed groups” to describe them, and demanded that they either come under full Afghan control or be disbanded.

While it is difficult to evaluate the conflicting assessments because the investigation by the international military forces has not been made public, interviews with people who were in the village throughout the bombing and with doctors familiar with the physical effects of blast waves suggest that blast injuries are the mostly likely explanation.

Those interviews, as well as one with a member of the Afghan paramilitary team involved, suggest an operation that went catastrophically awry after a serious underestimation of the Taliban force’s strength. The villagers described the airstrikes as being particularly fierce to allow the C.I.A.-run force, known as a counterterrorism pursuit team, to escape with the body of one of its C.I.A. advisers who was killed.

American military officials would not say whether the C.I.A. is subject to engagement rules that try to protect civilians by sharply limiting airstrikes. Maj. David E. Nevers, spokesman for General Dunford, said even those directives allow for airstrikes when American troops are at risk of being overwhelmed by enemy fire. It appears that the same rules apply to the C.I.A.

The Afghan team and its C.I.A. advisers were searching a compound used by a prominent insurgent commander when they were besieged by a large Taliban force shooting into the compound, even though the children and relatives of Taliban insurgents were inside, several villagers said.

The Afghan team put the women and children together in one room as bullets began flying.

When the aircraft arrived, after the battle had been raging for hours the bombing was so unrelenting that one villager said it had sounded like “the end of the world.”

Multiple villagers said the barrage had involved eight or nine aircraft: roughly four airplanes, two helicopters, two drones and “one really big airplane” that locals described as “never running out of fuel or bombs.”

The bombing went on for an hour after the Taliban fire stopped, as the barrage struck in front of and behind the counterterrorism team’s vehicles as it brought its dead and wounded to a place where they could be flown out, residents said.

After the bombing, the villagers were stunned by what they saw: Instead of craters and collapsed houses, they saw no immediate evidence of the airstrikes.

“We couldn’t find any crater caused by the bomb,” said Hajji Ali Ahmed, a village elder. “We have seen many episodes of bombing and its casualties during the anti-Soviet jihad, and when the Americans have bombed our villages. Those bombings destroyed houses, even big houses; crumbled thick walls; uprooted trees.”

“The casualties were usually missing limbs or were torn open and bleeding,” he said. “But the casualties from this bombing were totally different from anything we have seen in the past.”

The bodies were unmarked by blood or shrapnel, several villagers said.

“We believe that the bombs were all acoustic or sonic bombs,” Mr. Ahmed said. He said they were intended “only to deter the Taliban” and to allow the Counterterrorism Pursuit Team to retreat.

The lack of visible marks might signal that the air team was using munitions with airburst fuzes, which detonate above the ground and create shock waves, according to weapons experts.

Munitions should be “proportionate and discriminate to avoid civilian casualties,” said Georgette Gagnon, the human rights director for the United Nations mission here.

Still, villagers said, the house where the women and children were hiding did not seem to have been directly struck.

The American military mission here says the civilians were alive when the team left. While the military would not comment on the munitions used — or explain why they maintain that the Taliban killed the civilians — they hold that assertion up as a main point of defense.

“Before leaving the area, two unit members personally conducted a head count of all 9 women and 11 children who were consolidated in the safe room,” Major Nevers said. “All were alive and uninjured when the unit departed the scene.”

Assuming that account is true, doctors say it was possible that the civilians already had internal injuries from bombing and died later, or that the bombing went on after the team left. While a part of one of the buildings sheltering the women and children collapsed, it was unclear whether that was enough to kill them.

“People can survive a blast injury and not be aware of the internal bleeding and then die a few hours later,” said Dr. Christopher Born, who specializes in orthopedic trauma at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence.

A colleague at the hospital, Dr. Roman Hayda, a former Army orthopedist, noted that being indoors may not have been much of a defense. “If the wave enters an enclosed space or somebody is up against a wall, it can have a reflective effect and it can magnify the effect of the blast wave,” Dr. Hayda said.

But, he cautioned, “the only way to really know would be to do an autopsy.”


An employee of The New York Times

contributed reporting from Kunar Province, Afghanistan;

Matthew Rosenberg from Kabul;

and C. J. Chivers from the United States.

    Commander Denies U.S. to Blame in Afghan Deaths, NYT, 13.5.2013,






8 Soldiers Die in Attacks in Afghanistan


May 4, 2013
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — Eight soldiers with the American-led military coalition were killed Saturday, making it the bloodiest day this year for Western troops fighting here.

Two were shot in an insider attack, one died in a small-arms attack and five Americans were killed when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb, according to statements from the International Security Assistance Force and Afghan officials.

The explosion that killed the five American soldiers took place in the Maiwand district in western Kandahar Province, said Jawed Faisal, a spokesman for the governor of Kandahar. The soldiers were driving toward villages from central Maiwand when they were attacked, he said. Capt. Dan Einert, a spokesman for the international coalition here, confirmed that the five soldiers were Americans.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the insider attack in Farah Province in western Afghanistan, where an Afghan National Army soldier turned his weapon on his trainers after an argument, said Lt. Col. Hajji Dil Jan, the deputy police chief of Farah Province.

A Taliban spokesman said in an e-mail that the gunman was from Farah Province.

The coalition said it would not confirm the nationality of the two soldiers who were killed because the next of kin had not yet been notified. But most of the troops in Farah are Americans. Colonel Jan said the gunman, who went by the name Quadratullah, was killed by American soldiers.

Insider attacks rose sharply in 2012, with 64 deaths in 48 attacks, more than in any previous year, Captain Einert said. The military has taken extensive measures to prevent them, and so far this year there have been four episodes.

But with the Taliban’s spring offensive now under way, military officials say they are expecting the militants to increase the use of the tactic.

The eighth casualty occurred in an attack in northern Afghanistan, Captain Einert said.


Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting.

    8 Soldiers Die in Attacks in Afghanistan, NYT, 4.5.2013,




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