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History > 2009 > USA > War > Afghanistan (I)




Jim Day

The Las Vegas Review Journal, Nevada


25 February 2009















U.S. Sets Fight in the Poppies

to Halt Taliban Cash Flow


April 29, 2009
The New York Times


ZANGABAD, Afghanistan — American commanders are planning to cut off the Taliban’s main source of money, the country’s multimillion-dollar opium crop, by pouring thousands of troops into the three provinces that bankroll much of the group’s operations.

The plan to send 20,000 Marines and soldiers into Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul Provinces this summer promises weeks and perhaps months of heavy fighting, since American officers expect the Taliban to vigorously defend what makes up the economic engine for the insurgency. The additional troops, the centerpiece of President Obama’s effort to reverse the course of the seven-year war, will roughly double the number already in southern Afghanistan. The troops already fighting there are universally seen as overwhelmed. In many cases, the Americans will be pushing into areas where few or no troops have been before.

Through extortion and taxation, the Taliban are believed to reap as much as $300 million a year from Afghanistan’s opium trade, which now makes up 90 percent of the world’s total. That is enough, the Americans say, to sustain all of the Taliban’s military operations in southern Afghanistan for an entire year.

“Opium is their financial engine,” said Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “That is why we think he will fight for these areas.”

The Americans say that their main goal this summer will be to provide security for the Afghan population, and thereby isolate the insurgents.

But because the opium is tilled in heavily populated areas, and because the Taliban are spread among the people, the Americans say they will have to break the group’s hold on poppy cultivation to be successful.

No one here thinks that is going to be easy.

Only 10 minutes inside the tiny village of Zangabad, 20 miles southwest of Kandahar, a platoon of American soldiers stepped into a poppy field in full bloom on Monday. Taliban fighters opened fire from three sides.

“From the north!” one of the soldiers yelled, spinning and firing.

“West!” another screamed, turning and firing, too.

An hour passed and a thousand bullets whipped through the air. Ammunition was running low. The Taliban were circling.

Then the gunships arrived, swooping in, their bullet casings showering the ground beneath them, their rockets streaking and destroying. Behind a barrage of artillery, the soldiers shot their way out of Zangabad and moved into the cover of the vineyards.

“When are you going drop the bomb?” Capt. Chris Brawley said into his radio over the clatter of machine-gun fire. “I’m in a grape field.”

The bomb came, and after a time the shooting stopped.

The firefight offered a preview of the Americans’ summer in southern Afghanistan. By all accounts, it is going to be bloody.

Like the guerrillas they are, Taliban fighters often fade away when confronted by a conventional army. But in Afghanistan, as they did in Zangabad, the Taliban will probably stand and fight.

Among the ways the Taliban are believed to make money from the opium trade is by charging farmers for protection; if the Americans and British attack, the Taliban will be expected to make good on their side of that bargain.

Indeed, Taliban fighters have begun to fight any efforts by the Americans or the British to move into areas where poppy grows and opium is produced. Last month, a force of British marines moved into a district called Nad Ali in Helmand Province, the center of the country’s poppy cultivation. The Taliban were waiting. In a five-day battle, the British killed 120 Taliban fighters and wounded 150. Only one British soldier was wounded.

Many of the new American soldiers will fan out along southern Afghanistan’s largely unguarded 550-mile-long border with Pakistan. Among them will be soldiers deployed in the Stryker, a relatively quick, nimble armored vehicle that can roam across the vast areas that span the frontier.

All of the new troops are supposed to be in place by Aug. 20, in order to provide security for Afghanistan’s presidential election.

The presence of poppy and opium here has injected a huge measure of uncertainly into the war. Under NATO rules of engagement, American or other forces are prohibited from attacking targets or people related only to narcotics production. Those people are not considered combatants.

But American and other forces are allowed to attack drug smugglers or facilities that are assisting the Taliban. In an interview, General Nicholson said that opium production and the Taliban are so often intertwined that the rules do not usually inhibit American operations.

“We often come across a compound that has opium and I.E.D. materials side by side, and opium and explosive materials and weapons,” General Nicholson said, referring to improvised explosive devices. “It’s very common — more common than not.”

But the prospect of heavy fighting in populated areas could further alienate the Afghan population. In the firefight in Zangabad, the Americans covered their exit with a barrage of 20 155 millimeter high-explosive artillery shells — necessary to shield them from the Taliban, but also enough to inflict serious damage on people and property. A local Afghan interviewed by telephone after the firefight said that four homes had been damaged by the artillery strikes.

Then there is the problem of weaning poppy farmers from poppy farming — a task that has proved intractable in many countries, like Colombia, where the American government has tried to curtail poppy production. It is by far the most lucrative crop an Afghan can farm. The opium trade now makes up nearly 60 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, American officials say. The country’s opium traffickers typically offer incentives that no Afghan government official can: they can guarantee a farmer a minimum price for the crop as well as taking it to market, despite the horrendous condition of most of Afghanistan’s roads.

“The people don’t like to cultivate poppy, but they are desperate,” Mohammed Ashraf Naseri, the governor of Zabul Province, told a group of visitors this month.

To offer an alternative to poppy farming, the American military is setting aside $250 million for agriculture projects like irrigation improvements and wheat cultivation. General Nicholson said that a $200 million plan for infrastructure improvements, much of it for roads to help get crops to market, was also being prepared. The vision, General Nicholson said, is to try to restore the agricultural economy that flourished in Afghanistan in the 1970s. That, more than military force, will defeat the Taliban, he said.

“There is a significant portion of the enemy that we believe we can peel off with incentives,” the general said. “We can hire away many of these young men.”

Even if the Americans are able to cut production, shortages could drive up prices and not make a significant dent in the Taliban’s profits.

The foray into Zangabad suggested the difficulties that lie ahead. The terrain is a guerrilla’s dream. In addition to acres of shoulder-high poppy plants, rows and rows of hard-packed mud walls, used to stand up grape vines, offer ideal places for ambushes and defense.

But the trickiest thing will be winning over the Afghans themselves. The Taliban are entrenched in the villages and river valleys of southern Afghanistan. The locals, caught between the foes, seem, at best, to be waiting to see who prevails.

On their way to Zangabad, the soldiers stopped in a wheat field to talk to a local farmer. His name was Ahmetullah. The Americans spoke through a Pashto interpreter.

“I’m very happy to see you,” the farmer told the Americans.

“Really?” one of the soldiers asked.

“Yes,” the farmer said.

The interpreter sighed, and spoke in English.

“He’s a liar.”

    U.S. Sets Fight in the Poppies to Halt Taliban Cash Flow, NYT, 29.4.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/29/world/asia/29afghan.html?hp







The Remembered War


March 28, 2009
The New York Times


With his new comprehensive plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama has asserted leadership over the war that matters most to America’s security — the one against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

We do not underestimate the difficulty of succeeding against these deadly adversaries. But it was greatly encouraging simply to see the president actually focusing on this war and placing it in the broader regional framework that has been missing from American policy. That is a good first step toward fixing the dangerous situation that former President George W. Bush created when he abandoned the necessary war in Afghanistan for the ill-conceived war of choice in Iraq.

Mr. Obama has come back to first principles. Instead of Mr. Bush’s vague talk of representative democracy in Afghanistan, he defined a more specific mission. “We are not in Afghanistan to control that country or dictate its future,” Mr. Obama said, but “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

The United States removed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001 as it sought to stamp out the Al Qaeda militants behind the 9/11 attacks. More than seven years later, the Taliban and Al Qaeda are stronger than ever. Militants have crossed the border into Pakistan, where they plot attacks against the United States, its allies and Pakistan.

To rebuild popular support for a mission that once was a global priority, Mr. Obama and other leaders have to keep repeating this message: If Afghanistan falls, if Pakistan falls, extremists will unleash even more fury. That is a threat to us all. Mr. Obama’s plan breaks welcome new ground by treating Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single coherent theater of operation. It finally sets benchmarks for measuring progress by Kabul and Islamabad. It seeks to bring other regional players into the discussion, including Iran and Russia.

The new plan also recognizes there is no military-only solution. We are encouraged by Mr. Obama’s plans to send hundreds of civilians to help develop new jobs in Afghanistan and an economy not tied to poppy production. Like him, we strongly endorse a bipartisan Congressional proposal to invest $1.5 billion annually in Pakistan’s people with the building of schools, hospitals and roads. America cannot hope to defeat the insurgents if Afghans and Pakistanis don’t see their lives improve.

Mr. Obama confronts many challenges. He must persuade the Pakistani intelligence service to stop underwriting the Taliban and the Afghan government to eradicate corruption. He also must persuade NATO to contribute more to the war effort — if not combat troops in Afghanistan, then trainers or development aid.

His plans to urge so-called moderate Taliban to abandon their hard-line leaders is worth trying. But that will require dealing with one of the most disturbing bits of news of the last week. Seven years into the fight, the leader of the American intelligence community acknowledged that it knows shockingly little about the Taliban command

    The Remembered War, NYT, 28.3.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/28/opinion/28sat1.html






Obama Unveils Afghan Plan

to Add Troops and Set Goals


March 26, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama said on Friday that he plans to further bolster American forces in Afghanistan, increase aid to Pakistan, and for the first time set benchmarks for progress in fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban in both chaotic countries.

In strikingly ominous tones, Mr. Obama warned — just as President George W. Bush did repeatedly over the years — of intelligence estimates that al Qaeda “is actively planning attacks on the U.S. homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan.”

“The situation is increasingly perilous,” he told government officials, top military officers and diplomats in remarks at the White House.

He added, “We have a clear and focused goal to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”

But President Obama promised neither to write a “blank check” nor to “blindly stay the course” if his risky new strategy does not achieve its ambitious goals.

In imposing conditions on the Afghans and Pakistanis, Mr. Obama is replicating an approach used in Iraq two years ago both to justify a deeper American commitment and prod shaky governments in the region to take more responsibility for fighting insurgents and building lasting political institutions. The new strategy, officials said, will send 4,000 more troops to train Afghan security forces on top of the 17,000 extra combat troops that he already ordered to Afghanistan shortly after taking office.

For now, Mr. Obama has decided not to send additional combat forces, they said, although military commanders at one point had requested a total of 30,000 more American troops. Even so, the strategy he endorsed on Friday effectively gives Mr. Obama full ownership of the war just as its violence is spilling back and forth across the border with Pakistan.

He called on Congress to approve legislation authorizing $1.5 billion in aid to Pakistan every year over the next five years for strengthening its democratic institutions and for basic infrastructure improvements like building roads and schools.

Prominent Democrats in Congress expressed support for the president’s approach.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said the president’s plan “is wisely centered on dismantling al Qaeda and denying safe havens in both Afghanistan and Pakistan to those who would attack the United States.”

Reaction was favorable on the other side of the Capitol as well.

“We’ve said for some time that we must refocus our resources on threats like Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region,” Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, said in a statement. “I strongly support the president’s decision to do just that.”

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement calling the president’s approach “realistic and bold in a critical region where our policy needs rescuing.” Mr. Kerry and the committee’s ranking Republican, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, will introduce the legislation authorizing the $1.5 billion in aid to Pakistan.

Senator Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he, too, was encouraged, particularly by Mr. Obama’s focus on Pakistan. But Mr. Feingold said he was concerned that the new strategy “may still be overly Afghan-centric when it needs to be even more regional.”

He said the bombing in Pakistan on Friday made it clear that “we need to fully address the inextricable links between the crisis in Afghanistan and the instability and terrorist threats in Pakistan.”

A Republican, Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, also praised the president’s plan.

“Today, the president presented Congress and the American people with an honest assessment of our strategic position in Afghanistan and underscored that America’s core mission must be redefined,” she said.

But Ms. Snowe said increased American aid must be “carefully targeted,” that the Pakistan and Afghanistan must be pressured to do their part.

On Thursday, Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, emerged from a briefing with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to declare that in his judgment the administration’s review “was right on track.”

Although the administration is still developing the specific benchmarks for Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials said they would be the most explicit demands ever presented to the governments in Kabul and Islamabad. In effect, Mr. Obama would be insisting that two fractured countries plagued by ancient tribal rivalries and modern geopolitical hostility find ways to work together and transform their societies.

American officials have repeatedly said that Afghanistan has to make more progress in fighting corruption, curbing the drug trade and sharing power with the regions, while they have insisted that Pakistan do more to cut ties between parts of its government and the Taliban. Mr. Obama telephoned President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan on Thursday to share the main elements of the strategic review.

Setting benchmarks for Pakistan could be particularly difficult. For years, the United States has simply paid bills submitted by the Pakistani government for counterterrorism operations, even during truces when its military was not involved in counterterrorism. Pakistan has resisted linking its aid to specific performance criteria and officials acknowledged that developing those criteria could be problematic.

The key elements of Mr. Obama’s plan, with its more robust combat force, its emphasis on training, and its far-reaching goals, foreshadow an ambitious but risky and costly attempt to unify and stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr. Obama is unveiling his approach at a time when the conflict is worsening, the lives of the people are not visibly improving, and the intervention by American-led foreign powers is increasingly resented.

He said that “an uncompromising core of the Taliban,” the fundamentalist party that America and its allies ousted seven years ago, must be defeated militarily, but that other opposition forces “who have taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price,” must be drawn back into the fold.

The goals that Mr. Obama has settled on may be elusive and, according to some critics, even naïve. Among other things, officials said he planned to recast the Afghan war as a regional issue involving not only Pakistan but also India, Russia, China, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and the Central Asian states.

His plan envisions persuading Pakistan to stop focusing military resources on its longstanding enemy, India, so it can concentrate more on battling insurgents in its lawless tribal regions. That goal may be especially hard to achieve given more than a half century of enmity — including a nuclear arms race — between Pakistan and India.

All told, the 21,000 additional American troops that Mr. Obama will have authorized almost precisely matches the original number of additional troops that President George W. Bush sent to Iraq two years ago, bringing the overall American deployment in Afghanistan to about 60,000. But Mr. Obama avoids calling it a “surge” and resisted sending the full reinforcements initially sought by commanders.

Instead, Mr. Obama chose to re-evaluate troop levels at a series of specific moments over the next year, officials said. Approaching the issue in increments may be easier to explain to members of Mr. Obama’s own party who fear he is getting the country as entangled in Afghanistan as Mr. Bush did in Iraq.

Mr. Obama is framing the American commitment as a counterterrorism mission aimed at denying havens for Al Qaeda, with three main goals — training Afghan security forces, supporting the weak central government in Kabul and securing the population. While the new strategy calls for expanding Afghan security forces more rapidly, it does not explicitly endorse the request from American commanders to increase the national police and army to 400,000.

At the same time, Mr. Obama would need more than the $50 billion in his budget plan for military operations and development efforts. Asked on Thursday by lawmakers whom he briefed on the plan about the prospect of reconciliation with moderate members of the Taliban, officials said Mr. Obama replied that he wanted to sift out hard-core radicals from those who were fighting simply to earn money.

Senator Levin, who was part of a bipartisan group that pressed Mr. Bush to set benchmarks for Iraq two years ago, embraced the idea of doing the same again for Afghanistan. “There is a determination to set some benchmarks for Afghanistan, and that will be incredibly important,” Mr. Levin said. “We haven’t had them in Afghanistan.”

Dennis C. Blair, the administration’s director of national intelligence, said on Thursday that the United States still lacked intelligence about the power structures inside the country and other basic information necessary for a counterinsurgency campaign. “We know a heck of a lot more about Iraq on a granular level than we know about Afghanistan,” he said.

Speaking with reporters, Mr. Blair estimated that up to three quarters of the Taliban’s rank and file in Afghanistan could be peeled away from the Taliban’s leadership, most of whom are hiding in sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan.


David E. Sanger and Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting.

    Obama Unveils Afghan Plan to Add Troops and Set Goals, NYT, 26.3.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/26/washington/28prexy.html?hp






Op-Ed Columnist

The Winnable War


March 27, 2009
The New York Times


Khyber Pass, Afghanistan

I came to Afghanistan skeptical of American efforts to transform this country. Afghanistan is one of the poorest, least-educated and most-corrupt nations on earth. It is an infinitely complex and fractured society. It has powerful enemies in Pakistan, Iran and the drug networks working hard to foment chaos. The ground is littered with the ruins of great powers that tried to change this place.

Moreover, we simply do not know how to modernize nations. Western aid workers seem to spend most of their time drawing up flow charts for each other. They’re so worried about their inspectors general that they can’t really immerse themselves in the messy world of local reality. They insist on making most of the spending decisions themselves so the “recipients” of their largess end up passive, dependent and resentful.

Every element of my skepticism was reinforced during a six-day tour of the country. Yet the people who work here make an overwhelming case that Afghanistan can become a functional, terror-fighting society and that it is worth sending our sons and daughters into danger to achieve this.

In the first place, the Afghan people want what we want. They are, as Lord Byron put it, one of the few people in the region without an inferiority complex. They think they did us a big favor by destroying the Soviet Union and we repaid them with abandonment. They think we owe them all this.

That makes relations between Afghans and foreigners relatively straightforward. Most military leaders here prefer working with the Afghans to the Iraqis. The Afghans are warm and welcoming. They detest the insurgents and root for American success. “The Afghans have treated you as friends, allies and liberators from the very beginning,” says Afghanistan’s defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak.

Second, we’re already well through the screwing-up phase of our operation. At first, the Western nations underestimated the insurgency. They tried to centralize power in Kabul. They tried to fight a hodgepodge, multilateral war.

Those and other errors have been exposed, and coalition forces are learning. When you interview impressive leaders here, like Brig. Gen. John Nicholson of Regional Command South, Col. John Agoglia of the Counterinsurgency Training Center and Chris Alexander of the U.N., you see how relentless they are at criticizing their own operations. Thanks to people like that, the coalition will stumble toward success, having tried the alternatives.

Third, we’ve got our priorities right. Armies love killing bad guys. Aid agencies love building schools. But the most important part of any aid effort is governance and law and order. It’s reforming the police, improving the courts, training local civil servants and building prisons.

In Afghanistan, every Western agency is finally focused on this issue, from a Canadian reconstruction camp in Kandahar to the top U.S. general, David McKiernan.

Fourth, the quality of Afghan leadership is improving. This is a relative thing. President Hamid Karzai is detested by much of the U.S. military. Some provincial governors are drug dealers on the side. But as the U.N.’s Kai Eide told the Security Council, “The Afghan government is today better and more competent than ever before.” Reformers now lead the most important ministries and competent governors run key provinces.

Fifth, the U.S. is finally taking this war seriously. Up until now, insurgents have had free rein in vast areas of southern Afghanistan. The infusion of 17,000 more U.S. troops will change that. The Obama administration also promises a civilian surge to balance the military push.

Sixth, Pakistan is finally on the agenda. For the past few years, the U.S. has let Pakistan get away with murder. The insurgents train, organize and get support from there. “It’s very hard to deal with a cross-border insurgency on only one side of the border,” says Mr. Alexander of the U.N. The Obama strategic review recognizes this.

Finally, it is simply wrong to say that Afghanistan is a hopeless 14th-century basket case. This country had decent institutions before the Communist takeover. It hasn’t fallen into chaos, the way Iraq did, because it has a culture of communal discussion and a respect for village elders. The Afghans have embraced the democratic process with enthusiasm.

I finish this trip still skeptical but also infected by the optimism of the truly impressive people who are working here. And one other thing:

After the trauma in Iraq, it would have been easy for the U.S. to withdraw into exhaustion and realism. Instead, President Obama is doubling down on the very principles that some dismiss as neocon fantasy: the idea that this nation has the capacity to use military and civilian power to promote democracy, nurture civil society and rebuild failed states.

Foreign policy experts can promote one doctrine or another, but this energetic and ambitious response — amid economic crisis and war weariness — says something profound about America’s DNA.

    The Winnable War, NYT, 27.3.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/27/opinion/27brooks.html?hpw






U.S. Plans Expanded Afghan Security Force


March 19, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama and his advisers have decided to significantly expand Afghanistan’s security forces in the hope that a much larger professional army and national police force could fill a void left by the central government and do more to promote stability in the country, according to senior administration and Pentagon officials.

A plan awaiting final approval by the president would set a goal of about 400,000 troops and national police officers, more than twice the forces’ current size, and more than three times the size that American officials believed would be adequate for Afghanistan in 2002, when the Taliban and Al Qaeda appeared to have been routed.

The officials said Mr. Obama was expected to approve a version of the plan in coming days as part of a broader Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. But even members of Mr. Obama’s national security team appeared taken aback by the cost projections of the program, which range from $10 billion to $20 billion over the next six or seven years.

By comparison, the annual budget for the entire Afghan government, which is largely provided by the United States and other international donors, is about $1.1 billion, which means the annual price of the program would be about twice the cost of operating the government of President Hamid Karzai.

Those figures include only the cost of training and establishing the forces, and officials are still trying to determine what the cost would be to sustain the security forces over the long term.

Administration officials also express concerns that an expanded Afghan Army could rival the corruption-plagued presidency of Mr. Karzai. The American commanders who have recommended the increase argued that any risk of creating a more powerful Afghan Army was outweighed by the greater risks posed by insurgent violence that could threaten the central government if left unchecked.

At present, the army fields more than 90,000 troops, and the Afghan National Police numbers about 80,000 officers. The relatively small size of the security forces has frustrated Afghan officials and American commanders who wanted to turn security over to legitimate Afghan security forces, and not local warlords, at a faster pace.

After resisting the idea for several years, the Bush administration last summer approved an increase that authorized the army to grow to 134,000 over the next three years, in a program that would cost about $12 billion.

The resistance had been a holdover from the early months after the rout of Taliban and Qaeda fighters in 2001, when it appeared that there was little domestic or external threat that required a larger security force.

The new proposal would authorize a doubling of the army, after the increase approved last summer, to about 260,000 soldiers. In addition, it would increase the number of police officers, commandos and border guards to bring the total size of the security forces to about 400,000. The officials who described the proposal spoke on condition of anonymity because they had not been authorized to discuss it publicly in advance of final approval by Mr. Obama.

Some European countries have proposed the creation of an Afghan National Army Trust Fund, which would seek donations from oil kingdoms along the Persian Gulf and other countries to pay for Afghanistan’s security forces.

Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, which would have to approve new American spending, endorsed the goal of expanding Afghan security forces, and urged commanders to place Afghans on the front lines to block the border with Pakistan to insurgents and terrorists.

“The cost is relatively small compared to the cost of not doing it — of having Afghanistan either disintegrate, or fall into the hands of the Taliban, or look as though we are dominating it,” Mr. Levin said in an interview late on Tuesday.

Administration officials and military experts cited recent public opinion polls in Afghanistan showing that the Afghan Army had eclipsed the respect given the central government, which has had difficulty exerting legitimacy or control much beyond the capital.

“In the estimation of almost all outside observers, the Ministry of Defense and the Afghan National Army are two of the most highly functional and capable institutions in the country,” said Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, who is retired and commanded American and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.

General Barno, currently the director of Near East and South Asian security studies at National Defense University, dismissed concerns that the army or the Ministry of Defense would challenge the authority of elected officials in Kabul.

“They are respectful of civil governance,” he said. “If the government of Afghanistan is going to effectively extend security and the rule of law, it has to have more army boots on the ground and police shoes on the ground.”

Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Obama administration now appeared “willing to accept risks and accept downsides it might not otherwise” have considered had the security situation not deteriorated.

Military analysts cite other models in the Islamic world, like Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey, where the United States supports democratically elected civilian governments but raises no objection to the heavy influence wielded by military forces that remain at least as powerful as those governments.

Martin Strmecki, a member of the Defense Science Board and a former top Pentagon adviser on Afghanistan, told a Senate committee last month that the Afghan Army should increase to 250,000 soldiers and the national police force should add more than 100,000 officers. Mr. Strmecki said that only when Afghan security forces reached those numbers would they achieve “the level necessary for success in counterinsurgency.”

Military officers also see an added benefit to expanding Afghanistan’s security forces, if its growing rosters can offer jobs to unemployed young men who now take up arms for the insurgency for money, and not ideology.

“We can try and outbid the Taliban for ‘day workers’ who are laying I.E.D.’s and do not care about politics,” Mr. Biddle said, referring to improvised explosive devices. “But if we don’t control that area, the Taliban can come in and cut off the hands of anybody who is taking money from us.”




C.I.A. Chief in Overseas Trip

The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon E. Panetta, is traveling to India and Pakistan this week to discuss the investigation into the Mumbai terrorist attacks, improved information-sharing to combat violent extremists and other intelligence issues, an American official said Wednesday.

Making his first overseas trip as C.I.A. director, Mr. Panetta was in India on Wednesday and was expected to travel to Pakistan and possibly another country in the following days, the official said.


David E. Sanger contributed reporting.

    U.S. Plans Expanded Afghan Security Force, NYT, 19.3.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/19/us/politics/19military.html






Less Body Armor

Might Be the Answer

in Afghanistan


March 10, 2009
Filed at 5:52 a.m. ET
The New York Times


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Heavy layers of body armor, a proven lifesaver of U.S. troops, also may be an impediment to winning the fight in Afghanistan, where 17,000 additional American forces are being sent to quell rising violence.

Weighing as much as 34 pounds each, the protective vests hinder American forces hunting down more agile insurgents who use the country's rugged peaks and valleys to their advantage, according to military officials.

The proper balance between troop safety and mobility will be examined this week during a series of oversight hearings by the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. Beginning Tuesday, senior Army and Marine Corps leaders are scheduled to testify on a wide range of subjects, including force protection, readiness levels and ergonomic injuries.

When body armor is added to the assault rifles, ammunition, water and other essential gear troops are required to carry, they can be lugging as much as 80 pounds into combat. Besides moving more slowly, overburdened troops tire more quickly and are prone to orthopedic injuries that can take them out of action, the officials say.

But convincing a war-weary public of a less-is-more approach won't be easy, they acknowledge. If a commander decides the gear shouldn't be used for a particular mission and a service member is killed, there could be a backlash, said Jean Malone, deputy director of experiment plans at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab in Quantico, Va.

''We've got to have the internal fortitude to come back and say: 'We have the data. We made the right decision. We can't guarantee you that nobody will die in this war,''' he said.

Paring down the amount of armor could actually make troops safer on the battlefield, officials say. Speed and maneuverability give them the best chance of killing or capturing the Taliban and other militants before they can set roadside bombs or get in position for an ambush.

''Being able to maneuver and fight and chase down a fleeing enemy; that's actually where your protection is (versus) armoring up and being more static,'' said Brig. Gen. Tim Hanifen, deputy commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico.

The loads carried by modern American troops are equivalent to those ''the medieval knight wore into and out of battle back in the year 1000 until about the 16th century,'' he said.

Bomb-resistant vehicles that are light and nimble enough to handle Afghanistan's primitive roads are also needed, according to Hanifen. Trucks that worked well in Iraq, which has a comparatively sophisticated transportation network, may be less suitable in harsher terrains.

As troop levels are surging in Afghanistan, so are roadside bomb attacks, according to the Pentagon's Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.

In January and February, 52 IED attacks in Afghanistan killed 32 coalition troops and wounded 96 more, according to preliminary figures from the organization. During the same two months in 2008, 21 IED attacks killed 10 troops and wounded 39.

Body armor has become a focus of Marine Corps efforts to lighten troop loads because it weighs so much more than the other gear. The standard kit consists of hardened composite plates inserted into a ballistic vest. The vest and plates protect the upper body from armor-piercing bullets and shrapnel.

Personal armor made of substantially lighter composite materials that are more effective than current models won't be available for several years. So the Marine Corps is looking for near-term solutions.

The Marine Corps is buying 65,000 vests called ''scalable plate carriers'' that weigh under 20 pounds. The carrier, which uses the same plates as the standard vest, doesn't cover as much of the torso. About 14,000 of the plate carriers have been fielded and the feedback has been positive, according to Marine Corps officials.

Over the next two weeks, the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab is conducting an experiment at Camp Pendleton, Calif., to assess the risks of using less armor. The results of the trials will help guide battlefield commanders who make the final call on what gear troops should use.

    Less Body Armor Might Be the Answer in Afghanistan, NYT, 10.3.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/03/10/washington/AP-Marines-Lighter-Loads.html






U.S. Halted Some Afghan Raids

Over Concern on Deaths


March 10, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The commander of a secretive branch of America’s Special Operations forces last month ordered a halt to most commando missions in Afghanistan, reflecting a growing concern that civilian deaths caused by American firepower are jeopardizing broader goals there.

The halt, which lasted about two weeks, came after a series of nighttime raids by Special Operations troops in recent months killed women and children, and after months of mounting outrage in Afghanistan about civilians killed in air and ground strikes. The order covered all commando missions except those against the highest-ranking leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, military officials said.

American commanders in Afghanistan rely on the commando units to carry out some of the most delicate operations against militant leaders, and the missions of the Army’s Delta Force and classified Navy Seals units are never publicly acknowledged. But the units sometimes carry out dozens of operations each week, so any decision to halt their missions is a sign of just how worried military officials are that the fallout from civilian casualties is putting in peril the overall American mission in Afghanistan, including an effort to drain the Taliban of popular support.

A United Nations report released last month specifically blamed clandestine missions by commando units for contributing to a surge in civilian deaths in Afghanistan in 2008. The report concluded that the number of civilian casualties rose nearly 40 percent compared with 2007, although it found that suicide bombings and other Taliban attacks were the primary cause.

Military officials said the halt was ordered in part to allow American commanders time to impose new safeguards intended to reduce the risk of civilian deaths. They said it was also intended to help the military release information about civilian casualties more quickly, to pre-empt what some said have been exaggerated accounts by Afghan officials.

According to senior military officials, the stand-down was ordered by Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, the head of the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the secret commando units.

The rising civilian death toll in Afghanistan has soured relations between American commanders and the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai, who has vocally criticized the raids.

The stand-down began in mid-February, and the raids have since resumed. It is unclear, though, whether the Special Operations missions are being carried out with the same frequency as before the halt.

At least two Special Operations ground raids in December helped fuel the tensions between the American military and Mr. Karzai. In one case, American troops raided a compound in Khost Province in an attempt to capture a Qaeda suspect. The suspect was taken into custody, but several civilians were killed and a 4-year-old boy was bitten by an attack dog used in the operation.

During another December raid, American troops killed six Afghan police officers and one civilian in Zabul Province in southern Afghanistan. An American military spokesman called the killings a “tragic case of mistaken identity.”

Some top civilian and military officials in Afghanistan say they believe that Mr. Karzai and some of his aides have at times exaggerated reports of civilian casualties to fuel anti-American sentiment for domestic political purposes. Mr. Karzai will run for re-election this year and is under political pressure to speak out against Afghan deaths at the hands of American troops.

Still, there is little dispute that the increased intensity of American military operations in Afghanistan last year has contributed to the rise in the civilian death toll. As President Obama sends thousands more troops to the war-ravaged country, some officials worry that each civilian death may only drive Afghans toward the Taliban and other militant groups.

One senior official said that procedures had been set up to allow American troops to report more quickly the number of enemy and civilian deaths after a specific operation, and to quickly disseminate the information to Afghan officials in Kabul, the capital, and at the local and provincial levels.

Officials also said the military had adopted new procedures aimed at reducing civilian casualties, but they did not specify what those procedures were.

Col. Gregory S. Julian, a spokesman for Gen. David D. McKiernan, who commands all American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, last week denied that there had been any halt to Special Operations missions. On Monday, however, Colonel Julian seemed to acknowledge that the stand-down had occurred, but he said his boss was not behind the order.

“General McKiernan takes the issue of civilian casualties very seriously, but he did not direct the pause in operations,” Colonel Julian said.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is in charge of American forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, supported the decision to suspend the Special Operations missions, according to a senior military official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing classified military units. A White House spokesman declined to comment.

General McKiernan had issued a broad order on Dec. 30 that underscored the commitment of allied forces to reducing the risk of civilian casualties. He ordered that Afghan security forces should lead “all searches and entries of Afghan homes, mosques, religious sites or places of cultural significance,” unless there was a “clear and identified danger” coming from a building.

General McKiernan’s two-page directive followed American military operations last year that left dozens of civilians dead.

In perhaps the most notable case, American airstrikes on Aug. 22 in a village in western Afghanistan killed far more civilians than American commanders initially acknowledged.

A military investigator’s report found that more than 30 civilians, not 5 to 7 as the military had long insisted, had died in the airstrikes against what was believed to be a Taliban compound in Azizabad. The strikes were in support of allied ground forces, including American Special Operations forces.

The Afghan government initially insisted that 90 civilians died in the raid, and it never fully accepted the American military’s revised death toll.

An Official’s Grim Assessment

PARIS — As the United States prepares to commit 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the commander of NATO and American forces there said Monday that the coalition was “not winning” the war against the resurgent Taliban in parts of the country.

The commander, Gen. David D. McKiernan, said there were areas in the north, east and west where coalition and Afghan forces were winning the battle to curb the Taliban.

“But there are other areas — large areas in the southern part of Afghanistan especially, but in parts of the east — where we are not winning,” he said in an interview with the BBC.

“More has to happen along multiple lines of operation in order for anybody by any metric to say that the Afghans are winning or the efforts of the coalition are winning,” he said.

President Obama also said recently that the United States was not winning the Afghan war.

    U.S. Halted Some Afghan Raids Over Concern on Deaths, NYT, 10.3.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/10/world/asia/10terror.html






Op-Ed Columnist

Wars, Endless Wars


March 3, 2009
The New York Times


The singer Edwin Starr, who died in 2003, had a big hit in 1970 called “War” in which he asked again and again: “War, what is it good for?”

The U.S. economy is in free fall, the banking system is in a state of complete collapse and Americans all across the country are downsizing their standards of living. The nation as we’ve known it is fading before our very eyes, but we’re still pouring billions of dollars into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with missions we are still unable to define.

Even as the U.S. begins plans to reduce troop commitments in Iraq, it is sending thousands of additional troops into Afghanistan. The strategic purpose of this escalation, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged, is not at all clear.

In response to a question on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Mr. Gates said:

“We’re talking to the Europeans, to our allies; we’re bringing in an awful lot of people to get different points of view as we go through this review of what our strategy ought to be. And I often get asked, ‘Well, how long will those 17,000 [additional troops] be there? Will more go in?’ All that depends on the outcome of this strategy review that I hope will be done in a few weeks.”

We invaded Afghanistan more than seven years ago. We have not broken the back of Al Qaeda or the Taliban. We have not captured or killed Osama bin Laden. We don’t even have an escalation strategy, much less an exit strategy. An honest assessment of the situation, taking into account the woefully corrupt and ineffective Afghan government led by the hapless Hamid Karzai, would lead inexorably to such terms as fiasco and quagmire.

Instead of cutting our losses, we appear to be doubling down.

As for Iraq, President Obama announced last week that substantial troop withdrawals will take place over the next year and a half and that U.S. combat operations would cease by the end of August 2010. But, he said, a large contingent of American troops, perhaps as many as 50,000, would still remain in Iraq for a “period of transition.”

That’s a large number of troops, and the cost of keeping them there will be huge. Moreover, I was struck by the following comment from the president: “There will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments, but our enemies should be left with no doubt. This plan gives our military the forces and flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners and to succeed.”

In short, we’re committed to these two conflicts for a good while yet, and there is nothing like an etched-in-stone plan for concluding them. I can easily imagine a scenario in which Afghanistan and Iraq both heat up and the U.S., caught in an extended economic disaster at home, undermines its fragile recovery efforts in the same way that societies have undermined themselves since the dawn of time — with endless warfare.

We’ve already paid a fearful price for these wars. In addition to the many thousands of service members who have been killed or suffered obvious disabling injuries, a study by the RAND Corporation found that some 300,000 are currently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and that 320,000 have most likely experienced a traumatic brain injury.

Time magazine has reported that “for the first time in history, a sizable and growing number of U.S. combat troops are taking daily doses of antidepressants to calm nerves strained by repeated and lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Suicides among soldiers rose in 2008 for the fourth consecutive year, largely because of the stress of combat deployments. It’s believed that 128 soldiers took their own lives last year.

Much of the country can work itself up to a high pitch of outrage because a banker or an automobile executive flies on a private jet. But we’ll send young men and women by the thousands off to repeated excursions through the hell of combat — three tours, four tours or more — without raising so much as a peep of protest.

Lyndon Johnson, despite a booming economy, lost his Great Society to the Vietnam War. He knew what he was risking. He would later tell Doris Kearns Goodwin, “If I left the woman I really loved — the Great Society — in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs... All my dreams...”

The United States is on its knees economically. As President Obama fights for his myriad domestic programs and his dream of an economic recovery, he might benefit from a look over his shoulder at the link between Vietnam and the still-smoldering ruins of Johnson’s presidency.

    Wars, Endless Wars, NYT, 3.3.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/opinion/03herbert.html?ref=opinion






Obama Widens Missile Strikes

Inside Pakistan


February 21, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — With two missile strikes over the past week, the Obama administration has expanded the covert war run by the Central Intelligence Agency inside Pakistan, attacking a militant network seeking to topple the Pakistani government.

The missile strikes on training camps run by Baitullah Mehsud represent a broadening of the American campaign inside Pakistan, which has been largely carried out by drone aircraft. Under President Bush, the United States frequently attacked militants from Al Qaeda and the Taliban involved in cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, but had stopped short of raids aimed at Mr. Mehsud and his followers, who have played less of a direct role in attacks on American troops.

The strikes are another sign that President Obama is continuing, and in some cases extending, Bush administration policy in using American spy agencies against terrorism suspects in Pakistan, as he had promised to do during his presidential campaign. At the same time, Mr. Obama has begun to scale back some of the Bush policies on the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects, which he has criticized as counterproductive.

Mr. Mehsud was identified early last year by both American and Pakistani officials as the man who had orchestrated the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister and the wife of Pakistan’s current president, Asif Ali Zardari. Mr. Bush included Mr. Mehsud’s name in a classified list of militant leaders whom the C.I.A. and American commandos were authorized to capture or kill.

It is unclear why the Obama administration decided to carry out the attacks, which American and Pakistani officials said occurred last Saturday and again on Monday, hitting camps run by Mr. Mehsud’s network. The Saturday strike was aimed specifically at Mr. Mehsud, but he was not killed, according to Pakistani and American officials.

The Monday strike, officials say, was aimed at a camp run by Hakeem Ullah Mehsud, a top aide to the militant. By striking at the Mehsud network, the United States may be seeking to demonstrate to Mr. Zardari that the new administration is willing to go after the insurgents of greatest concern to the Pakistani leader.

But American officials may also be prompted by growing concern that the militant attacks are increasingly putting the civilian government of Pakistan, a nation with nuclear weapons, at risk.

For months, Pakistani military and intelligence officials have complained about Washington’s refusal to strike at Baitullah Mehsud, even while C.I.A. drones struck at Qaeda figures and leaders of the network run by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a militant leader believed responsible for a campaign of violence against American troops in Afghanistan.

According to one senior Pakistani official, Pakistan’s intelligence service on two occasions in recent months gave the United States detailed intelligence about Mr. Mehsud’s whereabouts, but said the United States had not acted on the information. Bush administration officials had charged that it was the Pakistanis who were reluctant to take on Mr. Mehsud and his network.

The strikes came after a visit to Islamabad last week by Richard C. Holbrooke, the American envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In a telephone interview on Friday, Mr. Holbrooke declined to talk about the attacks on Mr. Mehsud. The White House also declined to speak about Mr. Mehsud or the decisions that led up to the new strikes. A C.I.A. spokesman also declined to comment.

Senior Pakistani officials are scheduled to arrive in Washington next week at a time of rising tension over a declared truce between the Pakistani government and militants in the Swat region.

While the administration has not publicly criticized the Pakistanis, several American officials said in interviews in recent days that they believe appeasing the militants would only weaken Pakistan’s civilian government. Mr. Holbrooke said in the interview that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others would make clear in private, and in detail, why they were so concerned about what was happening in Swat, the need to send more Pakistani forces to the west, and why the deteriorating situation in the tribal areas added to instability in Afghanistan and threats to American forces.

Past efforts to cut deals with the insurgents failed, and many administration officials believe that they ultimately weakened the Pakistani government.

But Obama administration officials face the same intractable problems that the Bush administration did in trying to prod Pakistan toward a different course. Pakistan still deploys the overwhelming majority of its troops along the Indian border, not the border with Afghanistan, and its intelligence agencies maintain shadowy links to the Taliban even as they take American funds to fight them.

Under standard policy for covert operations, the C.I.A. strikes inside Pakistan have not been publicly acknowledged either by the Obama administration or the Bush administration. Using Predators and the more heavily armed Reaper drones, the C.I.A. has carried out more than 30 strikes since last September, according to American and Pakistani officials.

The attacks have killed a number of senior Qaeda figures, including Abu Jihad al-Masri and Usama al-Kini, who is believed to have helped plan the 1998 American Embassy bombings in East Africa and last year’s bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.

American Special Operations troops based in Afghanistan have also carried out a number of operations into Pakistan’s tribal areas since early September, when a commando raid that killed a number of militants was publicly condemned by Pakistani officials. According to a senior American military official, the commando missions since September have been primarily to gather intelligence.

The meetings hosted by the Obama administration next week will include senior officials from both Pakistan and Afghanistan; Mrs. Clinton is to hold a rare joint meeting on Thursday with foreign ministers from the two countries. Also, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Pakistani Army chief, will meet with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lt. Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of Pakistan’s military spy service, will accompany General Kayani.




Bomber Kills More Than 30

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The police on Friday blamed a suicide bomber for a powerful explosion that killed more than 30 people and wounded at least 50 in the Pakistani city of Dera Ismail Khan, according to residents and Pakistani television reports.

The bombing, aimed at the funeral of a Shiite man who had been shot, set off chaos in the city of a million people on the edge of Pakistan’s tribal areas. Mobs attacked security forces, ransacked shops and surrounded hospitals said the mayor, Abdur Rauf.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.

    Obama Widens Missile Strikes Inside Pakistan, NYT, 21.2.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/21/washington/21policy.html






Putting Stamp on Afghan War,

Obama Will Send 17,000 Troops


February 18, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama said Tuesday that he would send an additional 17,000 American troops to Afghanistan this spring and summer, putting his stamp firmly on a war that he has long complained is going in the wrong direction.

The order will add nearly 50 percent to the 36,000 American troops already there. A further decision on sending more troops will come after the administration completes a broader review of Afghanistan policy, White House officials said.

Mr. Obama said in a written statement that the increase was “necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires.”

At least for now, Mr. Obama’s decision gives American commanders in Afghanistan most but not all of the troops they had asked for. But the decision also carries political risk for a president who will be sending more troops to Afghanistan before he has begun to fulfill a promised rapid withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Many experts worry that Afghanistan presents an even more formidable challenge for the United States than Iraq does, particularly with neighboring Pakistan providing sanctuary for insurgents of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Under Mr. Obama’s plan, a unit of 8,000 marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., will be deployed in the next few weeks, aiming to be in Afghanistan by late spring, administration officials said, while an Army brigade from Fort Lewis, Wash., composed of 4,000 soldiers, will be sent in the summer. An additional 5,000 Army support troops will also be deployed in the summer.

Antiwar groups criticized Mr. Obama’s decision even before the White House announced it.

“The president is committing these troops before he’s determined what the mission is,” said Tom Andrews, director of the coalition organization Win Without War. “We need to avoid the slippery slope of military escalation.”

Mr. Obama said in his statement that “the fact that we are going to responsibly draw down our forces in Iraq allows us the flexibility to increase our presence in Afghanistan.”

American generals in Afghanistan had been pressing for additional forces to be in place by late spring or early summer to help counter growing violence and chaos in the country. Of the 30,000 additional troops that the commanders had initially sought, some 6,000 arrived in January after being sent by President Bush.

The administration’s review of Afghanistan policy is supposed to be completed before early April, when Mr. Obama heads to Europe for a NATO summit meeting at which he is expected to press American allies for more troops and help in Afghanistan.

In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Tuesday, Mr. Obama said he was “absolutely convinced that you cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban, the spread of extremism in that region solely through military means.”

    Putting Stamp on Afghan War, Obama Will Send 17,000 Troops, NYT, 18.2.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/18/washington/18web-troops.html?hp






Afghan Civilian Deaths

Rose 40 Percent in 2008


February 18, 2009
The New York Times


PARIS — Civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose by 40 percent last year, the highest level since the American-led invasion in late 2001 that dislodged the Taliban government, a United Nations report said Tuesday.

More than half of the 2,118 casualties were caused by militants’ roadside bombs and suicide attacks, but many were from airstrikes and other actions by NATO and American forces battling the resurgent Taliban, the report said.

The findings deepened concern about civilians trapped between the combatants in an intensifying war that looms as one of the main foreign policy challenges facing the Obama administration. Richard C. Holbrooke, the special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has just completed a tour of the region.

President Obama is already weighing whether to double the American troop deployment in Afghanistan to about 60,000 troops. But Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, have expressed dismay about civilian casualties, arguing that more troops could lead to more fatalities.

The United Nations report, compiled by a human rights unit, said the death toll among civilians rose to 2,118 in 2008 from 1,523 in 2007, most in the south of the country where fighting is intense.

The insurgents were blamed for 1,160, or 55 percent, of the deaths — an increase of 65 percent over similar attacks in 2007, the report said.

The report said 828 deaths, or 39 percent, were caused by pro-government forces, an increase of almost a third over the 2007 level.

The most glaring recent example of civilian casualties came last week, when five children were killed in predawn fighting between Australian special operations troops and Taliban guerrillas in south-central Afghanistan. Such episodes have reduced support among the Afghans for foreign troops on their soil.

But civilians have more to fear from the insurgents, the United Nations report said. A joint statement on Tuesday from the Afghan Interior Ministry and the American Command in Kabul said a roadside bomb on Monday killed five civilians near Kandahar; coalition forces who went to investigate came under small arms fire.

The report said: “2008 saw a distinct pattern of attacks by the armed opposition in crowded residential and other such areas with apparent disregard for the extensive damage they can cause to civilians.”

The report also took issue with “an intimidation campaign that includes the summary execution of individuals perceived to be associated with, or supportive of the government and its allies.”

It said 130 deaths “could not be attributed to any of the conflicting parties since, for example, some civilians died as a result of cross-fire or were killed by unexploded ordinance.”

    Afghan Civilian Deaths Rose 40 Percent in 2008, NYT, 18.2.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/18/world/asia/18afghan.html?hp






Taliban Attackers

Storm Kabul Offices


February 12, 2009
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban suicide bombers struck government buildings at three sites in Kabul on Wednesday, killing at least 20 people and wounding 57 in coordinated attacks that demonstrated the ease with which the insurgents can penetrate even Afghanistan’s heavily fortified capital.

At the Justice Ministry, five Taliban guerrillas armed with explosives and Kalashnikov rifles killed two guards, stormed the building, and took control of several floors for about an hour. Frightened employees, including the justice minister, barricaded themselves in their offices while the armed men stalked the halls for victims. They shot to death 10 people before being killed.

Coming on the eve of a scheduled visit by Richard C. Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the attacks underscored the deteriorating security in the Afghanistan and the growing sense of siege in the capital.

The Taliban, who already control much of the countryside, have steadily encroached on the capital and its outlying provinces. Mr. Holbrooke’s visit is part of a ground-up review of the war effort, as the Obama administration prepares to send as many as 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan this year in hopes of turning the war around. President Obama was scheduled to meet with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday afternoon to discuss Afghan troop levels.

The attacks, the most audacious and deadly here since last summer, highlighted how steep that challenge will be and the growing boldness of the Taliban. The multiple strikes cloaked this city of four million in chaos and panic for the entire day. Miles of Kabul’s principal thoroughfares were blocked off, as police and soldiers rushed to reinforce scores of checkpoints.

Hours afterward, there were fears that other bombers were still roaming Kabul. In addition to the eight suicide bombers who struck at the Justice Ministry, the Education Ministry and the general directorate for prisons, eight others were still “looking for a chance,” a Taliban spokesman said. Across the city, streets were empty as residents were too spooked to go outside.

The attacks clearly shook Afghan government officials. “The enemy still has the capability to bring this amount of weapons and explosives inside the city of Kabul and find their way to government institutions,” said Hanif Atmar, the minister of interior.

He promised new and strict security measures that would be “uncomfortable” for residents, but necessary. Many parts of the capital are already sectioned off for security, and foreign embassies sit behind layers of checkpoints and blast walls.

The most confidence-shaking attack, at the Justice Ministry, began about 10 a.m., when five Taliban took over three of the building’s four floors. The ministry is located in the heart of the capital, a few hundreds yards from the grounds of the presidential palace.

“There’s chaos on all four floors,” Habib Mushakhas, a senior ministry official, said after police rushed him out of the building. “I heard an explosion, then a firefight. There was a lot of blood in the corridors. I saw one dead body.”

Another survivor, a ministry employee named Hafizullah, was trapped in his office for two-and-a-half hours. “There was lots of shooting, and there was blood everywhere,” he said.

Before the attackers began their rampage, they sent three messages to people in Pakistan “calling for the blessing of their mastermind,” said Amrullah Saleh, the head of the Afghan national intelligence service. He offered no other details on the messages, but said the authorities would investigate.

As the first police rushed to the scene, a mob gathered outside and security officers struggled to push them back. “Run away! They will shoot you!” one plainclothes intelligence officer screamed.

After a little more than an hour, scores of police and Afghan soldiers rushed into the building and scaled ladders onto upper floors. More than 20 shots were fired. Soon after, ambulances began taking policemen and soldiers away, their feet hanging off of stretchers poking out the open doors. It was not clear whether they were injured or dead.

Eventually, the police and soldiers took back enough of the Justice Ministry building to begin evacuating dozens of survivors. Then they rushed children out from the kindergarten classroom inside the ministry. Shrieking parents rushed to where the soldiers had corralled the children outside.

“Where’s my son! Where’s my son!” one woman shouted. Soldiers took her to the children, but the woman said her son wasn’t there. The police also took several civilian corpses out of the building.

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan, Sangar Rahimi from Kabul and Alan Cowell from Paris.

    Taliban Attackers Storm Kabul Offices, NYT, 12.2.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/12/world/asia/12afghan.html?hp






Afghan Leader

Finds Himself Hero No More


February 8, 2009
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — A foretaste of what would be in store for President Hamid Karzai after the election of a new American administration came last February, when Joseph R. Biden Jr., then a senator, sat down to a formal dinner at the palace during a visit here.

Between platters of lamb and rice, Mr. Biden and two other American senators questioned Mr. Karzai about corruption in his government, which, by many estimates, is among the worst in the world. Mr. Karzai assured Mr. Biden and the other senators that there was no corruption at all and that, in any case, it was not his fault.

The senators gaped in astonishment. After 45 minutes, Mr. Biden threw down his napkin and stood up.

“This dinner is over,” Mr. Biden announced, according to one of the people in the room at the time. And the three senators walked out, long before the appointed time.

Today, of course, Mr. Biden is the vice president.

The world has changed for Mr. Karzai, and for Afghanistan, too. A White House favorite — a celebrity in flowing cape and dark gray fez — in each of the seven years that he has led this country since the fall of the Taliban, Mr. Karzai now finds himself not so favored at all. Not by Washington, and not by his own.

In the White House, President Obama said he regarded Mr. Karzai as unreliable and ineffective. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said he presided over a “narco-state.” The Americans making Afghan policy, worried that the war is being lost, are vowing to bypass Mr. Karzai and deal directly with the governors in the countryside.

At home, Mr. Karzai faces a widening insurgency and a population that blames him for the manifest lack of economic progress and the corrupt officials that seem to stand at every doorway of his government. His face, which once adorned the walls of tea shops across the country, is today much less visible.

Now, perhaps crucially, an election looms. Mr. Karzai says he will ask the voters to return him to the palace for another five-year term. The election is set for Aug. 20, after what promises to be a violent and eventful summer. In a poll commissioned by a group of private Afghans, 85 percent of those surveyed said they intended to vote for someone other than Mr. Karzai.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration will have to decide what it wants from Mr. Karzai as it tries to make good on its promise to reverse the course of the war. Or whether it wants him at all.

With the insurgency rising, corruption soaring and opium blooming across the land, it perhaps is not surprising that so many Afghans, and so many in Washington, see President Karzai’s removal as a precondition for reversing the country’s downward surge.

“Under President Karzai, we have gone from a better situation to a good situation to a not-so-bad situation to a bad situation — and now are going to worse,” said Abdullah, a former foreign minister in Mr. Karzai’s government who may now challenge him for the presidency (and who, like many Afghans, has only one name). “That is the trend.

“So let us say Karzai stays in power through the summer and that nothing serious happens and then he wins re-election,” Dr. Abdullah said. “Then there will be two scenarios, and only two scenarios — a rapid collapse or a slow unraveling.”

People close to Mr. Karzai say the man is exhausted, wary of his enemies and worried for his physical safety. He feels embattled and underappreciated, they say, but is utterly determined, in spite of it all, to run again and win. In recent weeks, the growing American dissatisfaction with Mr. Karzai, coupled with a simmering frustration among Afghans over what they regard as the reckless killing of civilians by American forces, has prompted extraordinary reactions from Mr. Karzai.

At a news conference on Tuesday at his marble-floored palace, Mr. Karzai appeared side-by-side with Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general. Mr. Karzai wore his signature outfit of fez and cape, but his visage was wan and slack. Asked by an Afghan reporter about his relations with American leaders, Mr. Karzai sprang to life, accusing unnamed people in the American government of trying to “pressure” him to stay silent over the deaths of Afghan civilians in attacks by Americans.

“Our demands are clear — to stop the civilian casualties, the searching of Afghan homes and the arresting Afghans,” Mr. Karzai said of the Americans. “And of course, the Americans pressured us to be quiet and to make us retreat from our demands. But that is impossible. Afghanistan and its president are not going to retreat from their demands.”

Mr. Karzai did not touch on larger frustrations, which Afghan and Western officials here say he harbors, about the overall American effort, namely, the relegation of Afghanistan to second-tier status after the invasion of Iraq. Many Afghans and Western officials here believe that it was the Iraq war, more than any other factor, that deprived Mr. Karzai of the resources he needed to help the Afghan state stand on its own, and to prevent the resurgence of the Taliban that Mr. Obama is now vowing to contain.

Yet for all the doubts about Mr. Karzai — and for all the strains he labors under — he remains by far the strongest politician in the country. He commands the resources of the Afghan state, including the army and the police, and billions of dollars in American and other aid that flows into the treasury.

In his seven years in office, Mr. Karzai has successfully presided over the transition of the Afghan state from the devastated, pre-modern institution it was under the Taliban to the deeply troubled but largely democratic one it is today. Perhaps most important for his future, Mr. Karzai has assembled a team of senior administrators whose competence and experience would be difficult for any challenger to match.

Perhaps for that reason, of the many prominent Afghans who have hinted that they may run against him, including Dr. Abdullah and a former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani, only a handful of Afghans have so far declared their intentions. Some Afghan leaders say they will announce their candidacies soon, but it seems just as likely that they are waiting to see if Mr. Karzai stumbles.

As for the members of Mr. Obama’s team, they may yet discover that Mr. Karzai is the man they will be forced to deal with, whether they like him or not.

At the palace news conference, Mr. Karzai acknowledged his own unpopularity, and then offered a vigorous defense of his record. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

“Well, I have been in government for seven years. It’s natural that I would not be as popular now as I was seven years ago,” Mr. Karzai said.

“The institutions of Afghanistan have worked very well,” he added. “The Afghan people participated in the election for president. They participated in elections for Parliament. The parliamentary system has been functioning a lot better than some established parliaments in the world. They have been making laws, approving laws. The government institutions are increasingly in progress — the economy, the national army, the growth of education. We went from almost two or three universities in 2002 to 17 universities, to the freedom of the press, hundreds of newspapers and radios and all that. I and the Afghan people are proud of our achievements.”

And, he might also have said, six million Afghan children attending school, a quarter of whom are girls, whose education was prohibited by the Taliban.

One of the people with the most generous words for Mr. Karzai is William Wood, the American ambassador. Under the ambassador’s former boss, President Bush, Mr. Karzai enjoyed a favored personal status, even if his state did not. That special relationship was symbolized by the videoconferences in which the two men participated regularly.

“The guy works very hard,” Mr. Wood said of Mr. Karzai. “He faces a problem set every day that would daunt anyone. He’s got an insurgency based outside the country, and a level of poverty and criminality inside the country that feeds the insurgency. He’s got an army that had to be built from zero following the ouster of the Taliban. He’s got a police force that had to be reformed.

Speaking in an interview at his office in Kabul, Mr. Wood added: “Yeah, I think he’s tired. And I think frankly that everyone — the international community, the United States, the United Nations, Western Europe, the international press — were unrealistically optimistic about the problem of Afghanistan following the ouster of the Taliban.”

Mr. Wood will soon be replaced by Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, a former commander of American forces here.

In his last tour, which ended in 2007, General Eikenberry enjoyed good relations with Mr. Karzai. Given Mr. Karzai’s mood these days, that is probably a good thing.

At a ceremony last month for the first graduates of Afghanistan’s National Military Academy, Mr. Karzai stood and addressed the assembled 84 cadets as well as a group of diplomats, including Mr. Wood. Mr. Karzai turned the occasion into a populist barnburner.

“I told America and the world to give us aircraft — otherwise we will get them from the other place!” Mr. Karzai roared, prompting applause. “I told them to give us the planes soon, that we have no more patience, and that we cannot get along without military aircraft!

“Give us the aircraft sooner or we will get them from the others!” Mr. Karzai roared again. “We told them to bring us tanks, too — otherwise we will get them from other place!”

Mr. Karzai never said what the “other place” was.

Abdul Waheed Wafa contributed reporting from Kabul, and Peter Baker from Washington.

    Afghan Leader Finds Himself Hero No More, NYT, 8.2.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/world/asia/08karzai.html?hp






UN: 2, 100 Civilians Killed

In Afghanistan In 2008


February 3, 2009
Filed at 12:29 p.m. ET
The New York Times


GENEVA (Reuters) - More than 2,100 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2008, a 40 percent rise from the previous year, the United Nations said Tuesday.

It also cited partial figures saying that the Taliban and local warlords were responsible for 1,000 out of 1,800 civilian deaths up to the end of October, mainly due to suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices.

Nearly 700 people were killed by international and Afghan forces in the same period -- including 455 who died in air strikes -- while the cause of the remaining 100 had yet to be determined, it said.

The civilian toll was established by U.N. human rights officers deployed in Afghanistan whose full report was still being finalized, according to a U.N. spokesman.

"According to U.N. figures, over 2,100 civilians were killed as a result of armed conflict in 2008, which represents an increase of about 40 percent from 2007," U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said.

The U.N. said 1,523 people were killed in 2007.

Holmes was speaking to representatives of aid donor countries in Geneva while launching an appeal for $604 million for Afghanistan for 2009.

Violence in Afghanistan has rebounded to the highest levels since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban.

In the last year Islamist militants have regrouped and, despite the presence of nearly 70,000 international troops, increased both the scope and scale of their attacks. Air strikes which have killed civilians have provoked anger among Afghans and resentment against the presence of foreign troops.



"The armed conflict is increasingly characterized by the use of suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, kidnappings and air strikes, all of which tend to increase civilian casualties," the U.N. appeal document said, citing threats from the incursion of more foreign fighters and regional instability.

"The indications are that ... the security situation countrywide will deteriorate further and that the risk to both national and international aid workers will increase."

Aid workers have also been victims of violence, with 36 killed and 92 abducted in the first 10 months of last year, Holmes said. "It is a very difficult and dangerous context in which to operate," he said.

Forty percent of the country was now off-limits to aid workers.

"The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is serious and it's getting worse particularly because of the escalating armed conflict and also because of the severe drought which has been raging there," Holmes said.

The U.N.'s last broad-based humanitarian appeal for Afghanistan was in 2002/03. The new appeal, which would aim to help one-third of Afghanistan's 30 million people, includes $354 million for food aid.

Afghanistan harvested only two-thirds of its annual food requirements last year because of drought, according to the U.N. appeal. "High food prices have reduced further the ability of people to buy food and have increased social tensions and instability in several provinces," it said.

(Editing by Laura MacInnis and Myra MacDonald)

    UN: 2, 100 Civilians Killed In Afghanistan In 2008, NYT, 3.2.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2009/02/03/world/international-us-afghan-un-toll.html






Aides Say

Obama’s Afghan Aims

Elevate War


January 28, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama intends to adopt a tougher line toward Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, as part of a new American approach to Afghanistan that will put more emphasis on waging war than on development, senior administration officials said Tuesday.

Mr. Karzai is now seen as a potential impediment to American goals in Afghanistan, the officials said, because corruption has become rampant in his government, contributing to a flourishing drug trade and the resurgence of the Taliban.

Among those pressing for Mr. Karzai to do more, the officials said, are Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Richard C. Holbrooke, Mr. Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The officials portrayed the approach as a departure from that of President Bush, who held videoconferences with Mr. Karzai every two weeks and sought to emphasize the American role in rebuilding Afghanistan and its civil institutions.

They said that the Obama administration would work with provincial leaders as an alternative to the central government, and that it would leave economic development and nation-building increasingly to European allies, so that American forces could focus on the fight against insurgents.

“If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who served under Mr. Bush and is staying on under Mr. Obama, told Congress on Tuesday. He said there was not enough “time, patience or money” to pursue overly ambitious goals in Afghanistan, and he called the war there “our greatest military challenge.”

Mr. Gates said last week that previous American goals for Afghanistan had been “too broad and too far into the future,” language that differed from Mr. Bush’s policies.

NATO has not met its pledges for combat troops, transport helicopters, military trainers and other support personnel in Afghanistan, and Mr. Gates has openly criticized the United States’ NATO allies for not fulfilling their promises.

Mr. Holbrooke is preparing to travel to the region, and administration officials said he would ask more of Mr. Karzai, particularly on fighting corruption, aides said, as part of what they described as a “more for more” approach.

Mr. Karzai is facing re-election this year, and it is not clear whether Mr. Obama and his aides intend to support his candidacy. The administration will be watching, aides said, to see if Mr. Karzai responds to demands from the United States and its NATO allies that he arrest associates, including his half-brother, whom Western officials have accused of smuggling drugs in Kandahar.

Shortly before taking office as vice president last week, Mr. Biden traveled to Afghanistan in his role as the departing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He met with Mr. Karzai and warned him that the Obama administration would expect more of him than Mr. Bush did, administration officials said. He told Mr. Karzai that Mr. Obama would be discontinuing the video calls that Mr. Karzai enjoyed with Mr. Bush, said a senior official, who added that Mr. Obama expected Mr. Karzai to do more to crack down on corruption.

After his return from Afghanistan, Mr. Biden, who has had a contentious relationship with Mr. Karzai, described the situation there as “a real mess.”

An election is scheduled to be held no later than the fall, under Afghanistan’s Constitution. Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American who is a former United States ambassador to the United Nations and is viewed as a possible challenger to Mr. Karzai, warned that the Obama administration must tread carefully as it recalibrated its Afghanistan policy.

“If it looks like we’re abandoning the central government and focusing just on the local areas, we will run afoul of Afghan politics,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “Some will regard it as an effort to break up the Afghan state, which would be regarded as hostile policy.”

Mr. Obama is preparing to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan over the next two years, perhaps to more than 60,000 from about 34,000 now. But Mr. Gates indicated Tuesday that the administration would move slowly, at least for now. He outlined plans for an increase of about 12,000 troops by midsummer but cautioned that any decision on more troops beyond that might have to wait until late 2009, given the need for barracks and other infrastructure.

With the forces of the Taliban and Al Qaeda mounting more aggressive operations in eastern and southern Afghanistan, administration officials said they saw little option but to focus on the military campaign. They said Europeans would be asked to pick up more of the work on reconstruction, police training and cooperation with the Afghan government. They also said much of the international effort might shift to helping local governments and institutions, and away from the government in Kabul.

“It’s not about dumping reconstruction at all,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic delicacy of the subject. “What we’re trying to do is to focus on the Al Qaeda problem. That has to be our first priority.”

Mr. Gates said Tuesday that under the redefined Afghan strategy, it would be vital for NATO allies to “provide more civilian support.” In particular, he said, the allies should be more responsible for building civil society institutions in Afghanistan, a task that had been falling to American forces. He also demanded that allies “step up to the plate” and defray costs of expanding the Afghan Army, an emerging power center, whose leaders could emerge as rivals to Mr. Karzai.

Mr. Gates added that the United States should focus on limited goals. “My own personal view is that our primary goal is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to attack the United States and our allies, and whatever else we need to do flows from that objective,” he said.

    Aides Say Obama’s Afghan Aims Elevate War, NYT, 28.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/us/politics/28policy.html?hp






From Hospital,

Afghans Rebut U.S. Account


January 26, 2009
The New York Times


MEHTARLAM, Afghanistan — The American military declared the nighttime raid this month a success, saying it killed 32 people, all Taliban insurgents — the fruit of an emphasis on intelligence-driven use of Special Operations forces.

But the two young men who lay wincing in a hospital ward here told a different story a few days later, one backed up by the pro-American provincial governor and a central government delegation.

They agreed that 13 civilians had been killed and 9 wounded when American commandos broke down doors and unleashed dogs without warning on Jan. 7 in the hunt for a known insurgent in Masamut, in Laghman Province in eastern Afghanistan. The residents were so enraged that they threatened to march on the American military base here.

The conflicting accounts underscore a dangerous rift that has grown between Afghans and the United States forces trying to roll back widening Taliban control of the countryside.

With every case of civilian casualties or mistaken killings, the anger that Afghans feel toward the government and foreign forces deepens and makes residents less likely to help American forces, Afghan officials warn. Meanwhile, American forces are reluctant to share information about future military raids with local officials, fearing that it will be passed on to the Taliban.

Added to all that is a complication for American forces here: many villagers are armed, in the absence of an effective local police force.

Into that increasingly complex environment, the Obama administration is preparing to send as many as 30,000 more troops this year. As the plan moves forward, Afghan officials and some Western coalition partners are voicing concern that the additional troops will only increase the levels of violence and civilian casualties, after a year in which as many as 4,000 Afghan civilians were killed.

The outrage over civilian deaths swelled again over the weekend. Hundreds of angry villagers demonstrated here in Mehtarlam, the capital of Laghman Province, on Sunday after an American raid on a village in the province on Friday night. The raid killed at least 16 villagers, including 2 women and 3 children, according to a statement from President Hamid Karzai.

The president condemned the raid, saying it had not been coordinated with Afghan officials, and called for such raids to stop. The United States military said that 15 armed militants, including a woman, had been killed.

In a sign of how serious the episode was, an American military spokesman, Col. Greg Julian, said the military would send an investigation team to the area, The Associated Press reported.

Raids like the ones in Laghman Province by United States Special Operations forces, on Jan. 7 and on Friday, have been a special focus of complaint for several years.

Provincial governors say the tactics used, and the lack of coordination with Afghan and other American and NATO forces, alienate villagers and cause unneeded casualties among civilians. The raids are undoing much of the good work done by other American and international troops and reconstruction teams, they say.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission warned that the lack of accountability of those conducting such raids, and the lack of redress for civilian victims, was stoking resentment. “The degree of backlash and community outrage that they provoke suggests they may often not be an advisable tactic within the Afghan context,” the commission concluded in a report in December.

Mr. Karzai said in an address at the opening of Parliament on Tuesday that he had once more sent written requests to United States forces and to NATO to end civilian casualties.

Afghans would never complain about casualties among their security forces, but they would never accept the suffering of civilians, he said, to a great shout of support from the chamber. The speaker of the Senate, Sebaghatullah Mojadeddi, followed with a warning that if more care was not taken, the nation could rise up against the foreign troop presence here.

A number of different American units, Special Forces and others, have been conducting counterterrorism operations around the country for the past seven years, operating out of the Bagram and Kandahar airfields, and several small Special Forces bases. They do not operate under NATO command and usually do not coordinate their operations with Afghan forces, since they argue that the element of surprise is critical.

Military spokesmen often release results of raids but do not identify the forces involved. Philip Alston, a United Nations special rapporteur, or investigator, complained last year that despite high-level meetings with the military, he had been unable to identify some of the groups conducting the raids or to establish the chain of command under which they operated.

Afghan officials and others suspect some of the raids may also be carried out by the C.I.A.

The raid in Masamut on the night of Jan. 7 was typical of many conducted in Afghanistan. United States Special Operations forces entered the village under cover of darkness looking for a known Taliban insurgent, Gul Pacha, who was killed in the raid, along with a visitor to his home, another Taliban member, Bahadur Khan.

According to several villagers, the nighttime raid stirred alarm and confusion as people were roused from their sleep.

One of the first to be shot and killed was a man called Qasem, a member of the Afghan Border Police who was at home on leave. His brother, Wazarat Khan, said Qasem was killed as soon as he looked out his front door.

“We did not think they were Americans; we thought they were thieves,” he said. “They killed my brother right in the doorway.”

One of the men in the hospital, Abdul Manan, 25, who had a bullet wound in the shoulder, said he woke up when he heard a female neighbor calling for help and heard three shots.

He said he came out of his house and saw soldiers wearing headlamps. “I thought they were smoking cigarettes,” he said. “They said something in English that I did not understand, and then they shot me.”

Another man, Darwaish Muhammad, 18, hospitalized with shrapnel wounds, said he was awakened by the mother of a neighbor, Shahpur Khan, calling for help. He had been shot.

Mr. Muhammad said he and two others rushed to help carry the woman’s son on a rope bed down a slope outside the village to get help. They were 10 minutes from the village when a helicopter fired a rocket at them, killing the wounded man and two of the bearers. He and the mother were badly wounded, he said.

A United States military spokesman, Col. Jerry O’Hara, confirmed that United States air support forces had fired on a group of five carrying a wounded person outside the village. He said all five had been killed and all were militants. That some of the villagers survived may explain some of the discrepancy of the death toll.

Colonel O’Hara added that care had been taken not to use air power inside the village, to avoid civilian casualties. He dismissed the villagers’ accounts that they had mistaken the soldiers for thieves. “I am not buying that,” he said. “These people were acting as sentries.”

In a statement, Colonel O’Hara said, “Coalition forces exercised great restraint and prevented any civilian casualties at the same time the enemy placed the whole village in harm’s way by operating the way they do.”

In an interview, he also expressed frustration that four years after his earlier tour in Afghanistan, people still were not coming forward with information against Taliban members. “Until there is active involvement amongst Afghan civilians to turn in or give a tip on people with explosives, you are not going to get on the road to peace,” he said.

Yet, after seven years of war, Afghans say that villagers are less and less inclined to side with a foreign army that still conducts house searches and bombardments.

The villagers of Masamut readily acknowledged that Mr. Pacha had been a member of the Taliban. They had even nicknamed him “Al Qaeda.” But they criticized the United States forces for killing his elderly father and two sons along with him, and for the shooting of the other villagers.

“The government should have informed us not to come outside while they surrounded the house of Gul Pacha,” said Mawla Dad, 35, whose brother, nephew and cousin, an off-duty policeman, were all killed.

The governor of Laghman Province, Lutfullah Mashal, acknowledged that some of the villagers were armed. But he explained that because there was no police force to speak of in rural areas, villages kept security through a kind of neighborhood watch. “Whoever came out with a weapon, he was shot because the American forces have night-vision devices,” the governor said.

Villagers of Masamut, and local officials who visited the village afterward, protested the tactics used in the raid to United States military officials. The governor also complained that the raid had been conducted without coordination with Afghan forces or even with other American forces based in the province.

The raid undermined the government, Mr. Mashal said, and the tactics violated Afghan customs and whipped up a religious hatred, which was very damaging for both the government and the international forces.

“The people are angry with us,” he said. “Unless the international community, and especially military forces, coordinate with us, we are not going to win this war, because to win the war is to win the hearts and minds of the people, and then you can beat the enemy.”

    From Hospital, Afghans Rebut U.S. Account, NYT, 26.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/26/world/asia/26afghan.html?hp






Obama's War

Fearing Another Quagmire

in Afghanistan


January 25, 2009
The New York Times


When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

—Rudyard Kipling, “The Young British Soldier,” 1892


WASHINGTON — Can President Obama succeed in that long-lamented “graveyard of empires” — a place that has crushed foreign occupiers for more than 2,000 years?

Ever since the Bush administration diverted its attention — and resources — to the war in Iraq from the war in Afghanistan, military planners and foreign policy experts have bemoaned the dearth of troops to keep that country from sliding back into Taliban control. And in that time, the insurgency blossomed, as Taliban militants took advantage of huge swaths of territory, particularly in the south, that NATO troops weren’t able to fill.

Enter Mr. Obama. During the campaign he promised to send two additional brigades — 7,000 troops — to Afghanistan. During the transition, military planners started talking about adding as many as 30,000 troops. And within days of taking office, Mr. Obama announced the appointment of Richard Holbrooke, architect of the Balkan peace accords, to execute a new Afghanistan policy.

But even as Mr. Obama’s military planners prepare for the first wave of the new Afghanistan “surge,” there is growing debate, including among those who agree with the plan to send more troops, about whether — or how — the troops can accomplish their mission, and just what the mission is.

Afghanistan has, after all, stymied would-be conquerors since Alexander the Great. It’s always the same story; the invaders — British, Soviets — control the cities, but not the countryside. And eventually, the invaders don’t even control the cities, and are sent packing.

Think Iraq was hard? Afghanistan, former Secretary of State Colin Powell argues, will be “much, much harder.”

“Iraq had a middle class,” Mr. Powell pointed out on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” a couple of hours before Mr. Obama was sworn in last Tuesday. “It was a fairly advanced country before Saddam Hussein drove it in the ground.” Afghanistan, on the other hand, “is still basically a tribal society, a lot of corruption; drugs are going to destroy that country if something isn’t done about it.”

For Mr. Obama, Afghanistan is the signal foreign policy crisis that he must address quickly. Some 34,000 American troops are already fighting an insurgency that grows stronger by the month, making this a dynamically deteriorating situation in a region fraught with consequence for American security aims. Coupled with nuclear-armed Pakistan, with which it shares a border zone that has become a haven for Al Qaeda, Afghanistan could quickly come to define the Obama presidency.

Mr. Obama’s extra troops will largely be battling a Taliban insurgency fed by an opium trade estimated at $300 million a year. And that insurgency is dispersed among a largely rural population living in villages scattered across 78,000 square miles of southern Afghanistan.

One question for Mr. Obama is whether 30,000 more troops are enough. “I think that this is more of a psychological surge than a practical surge,” said Karin von Hippel, an Afghanistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said she favored the troop increase, but only as a precursor to getting the Europeans to contribute more, and to changing America’s policy so it focuses more on the countryside, as opposed to the capital.

“In Afghanistan, the number of troops, if you combine NATO, American and Afghan troops, is 200,000 forces versus 600,000 in Iraq,” Ms. von Hippel said. “Those numbers are so low that an extra 30,000 isn’t going to get you to where you need to be. It’s more of a stop-gap measure.”

“But something,” she said, “is better than nothing.”

That last assertion, however, is also open to debate. Some foreign policy experts argue that Mr. Obama’s decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan is simply an extension of Bush administration policy in the region, with the difference being that Mr. Obama could be putting more American lives at risk to pursue a failed policy.

While more American troops can help to stabilize southern Afghanistan, that argument goes, they cannot turn the situation around in the country unless there are major changes in overall policy. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, the darling of the Bush administration, has begun to lose his luster; American and European officials now express private frustration over his refusal to arrest drug lords who have been running the opium trade.

Mr. Karzai has also been widely criticized for not cracking down enough on corruption. And diplomats say his distaste for venturing far beyond his fortified presidential palace in Kabul reinforces the divide between Afghanistan’s central government and its largely rural population, giving the Taliban free rein in the countryside.

Before sending in more American troops, argues Andrew Bacevich, an international relations professor at Boston University, Mr. Obama should figure out if he is going to change an underlying American policy that has shrunk from putting pressure on Mr. Karzai.

“It seems there’s a rush to send in more reinforcements absent the careful analysis that’s most needed here,” said Mr. Bacevich, author of “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.”

“There’s clearly a consensus that things are heading in the wrong direction,” Mr. Bacevich said. “What’s not clear to me is why sending 30,000 more troops is the essential step to changing that. My understanding of the larger objective of the allied enterprise in Afghanistan is to bring into existence something that looks like a modern cohesive Afghan state. Well, it could be that that’s an unrealistic objective. It could be that sending 30,000 more troops is throwing money and lives down a rat hole.”

Putting aside the question of whether a modern cohesive Afghan state is a realistic objective, United States policy makers would like, at the very least, to get to a point in Afghanistan where the country is no longer a launching pad for terrorist attacks like what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. Beating back the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, and rooting out Qaeda training camps on the Pakistani border in eastern Afghanistan with the goal of finding Osama bin Laden, are all central parts of American policy, even absent a modern cohesive Afghan state.

Can 30,000 more troops help with that objective?

J. Alexander Their, an Afghanistan expert at the United States Institute of Peace, argues that additional troops can form a basis for stability, but that their presence will be for naught unless there is also government reform. “The Afghan population, particularly in the rural areas, have a strong degree of ambivalence toward the government,” he said. “People expect very little from government, or expect bad things. Yet we’ve ignored government reform and rule of law as part of our strategy.”

The appointment of Mr. Holbrooke as special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan may signal the direction that the Obama administration will take there. In the past, Mr. Holbrooke has written — as he did in a column in The Washington Post last spring — that in Afghanistan, “massive, officially sanctioned corruption and the drug trade are the most serious problems the country faces, and they offer the Taliban its only exploitable opportunity to gain support.”

And during her confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Afghanistan a “narco-state” with a government “plagued by limited capacity and widespread corruption.” So an Obama administration may, indeed, look for ways to press Mr. Karzai to crack down on corruption and drug trafficking.

But Mr. Their, of the peace institute, says that for a troop increase to produce anything but the limited securing of a few areas, Mr. Obama and NATO may have to go further. “There has to be increasing recognition that what is most important is some form of accountable government,” he said. “If they’re willing to contemplate a world without Karzai, they’ll be more open to a fair process and more open to the idea that there may be others out there.”

    Fearing Another Quagmire in Afghanistan, NYT, 25.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/weekinreview/25cooper.html






Radio Spreads Taliban’s Terror

in Pakistani Region


January 25, 2009
The New York Times


PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Every night around 8 o’clock, the terrified residents of Swat, a lush and picturesque valley a hundred miles from three of Pakistan’s most important cities, crowd around their radios. They know that failure to listen and learn might lead to a lashing — or a beheading.

Using a portable radio transmitter, a local Taliban leader, Shah Doran, on most nights outlines newly proscribed “un-Islamic” activities in Swat, like selling DVDs, watching cable television, singing and dancing, criticizing the Taliban, shaving beards and allowing girls to attend school. He also reveals names of people the Taliban have recently killed for violating their decrees — and those they plan to kill.

“They control everything through the radio,” said one Swat resident, who declined to give his name for fear the Taliban might kill him. “Everyone waits for the broadcast.”

International attention remains fixed on the Taliban’s hold on Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal areas, from where they launch attacks on American forces in Afghanistan. But for Pakistan, the loss of the Swat Valley could prove just as devastating.

Unlike the fringe tribal areas, Swat, a Delaware-size chunk of territory with 1.3 million residents and a rich cultural history, is part of Pakistan proper, within reach of Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Islamabad, the capital.

After more than a year of fighting, virtually all of it is now under Taliban control, marking the militants’ farthest advance eastward into Pakistan’s so-called settled areas, residents and government officials from the region say.

With the increasing consolidation of their power, the Taliban have taken a sizable bite out of the nation. And they are enforcing a strict interpretation of Islam with cruelty, bringing public beheadings, assassinations, social and cultural repression and persecution of women to what was once an independent, relatively secular region, dotted with ski resorts and fruit orchards and known for its dancing girls.

Last year, 70 police officers were beheaded, shot or otherwise slain in Swat, and 150 wounded, said Malik Naveed Khan, the police inspector general for the North-West Frontier Province.

The police have become so afraid that many officers have put advertisements in newspapers renouncing their jobs so the Taliban will not kill them.

One who stayed on the job was Farooq Khan, a midlevel officer in Mingora, the valley’s largest city, where decapitated bodies of policemen and other victims routinely surface. Last month, he was shopping there when two men on a motorcycle sprayed him with gunfire, killing him in broad daylight.

“He always said, ‘I have to stay here and defend our home,’ ” recalled his brother, Wajid Ali Khan, a Swat native and the province’s minister for environment, as he passed around a cellphone with Farooq’s picture.

In the view of analysts, the growing nightmare in Swat is a capsule of the country’s problems: an ineffectual and unresponsive civilian government, coupled with military and security forces that, in the view of furious residents, have willingly allowed the militants to spread terror deep into Pakistan.

The crisis has become a critical test for the government of the civilian president, Asif Ali Zardari, and for a security apparatus whose loyalties, many Pakistanis say, remain in question.

Seeking to deflect blame, Mr. Zardari’s government recently criticized “earlier halfhearted attempts at rooting out extremists from the area” and vowed to fight militants “who are ruthlessly murdering and maiming our citizens.”

But as pressure grows, he has also said in recent days that the government would be willing to talk with militants who accept its authority. Such negotiations would carry serious risks: security officials say a brief peace deal in Swat last spring was a spectacular failure that allowed militants to tighten their hold and take revenge on people who had supported the military.

Without more forceful and concerted action by the government, some warn, the Taliban threat in Pakistan is bound to spread.

“The crux of the problem is the government appears divided about what to do,” said Mahmood Shah, a retired Pakistani Army brigadier who until 2006 was in charge of security in the western tribal areas. “This disconnect among the political leadership has emboldened the militants.”

From 2,000 to 4,000 Taliban fighters now roam the Swat Valley, according to interviews with a half-dozen senior Pakistani government, military and political officials involved in the fight. By contrast, the Pakistani military has four brigades with 12,000 to 15,000 men in Swat, officials say.

But the soldiers largely stay inside their camps, unwilling to patrol or exert any large presence that might provoke — or discourage — the militants, Swat residents and political leaders say. The military also has not raided a small village that locals say is widely known as the Taliban’s headquarters in Swat.

Nor have troops destroyed mobile radio transmitters mounted on motorcycles or pickup trucks that Shah Doran and the leader of the Taliban in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, have expertly used to terrify residents.

Being named in one of the nightly broadcasts often leaves just two options: fleeing Swat, or turning up headless and dumped in a village square.

When the army does act, its near-total lack of preparedness to fight a counterinsurgency reveals itself. Its usual tactic is to lob artillery shells into a general area, and the results have seemed to hurt civilians more than the militants, residents say.

In some parts of Pakistan, civilian militias have risen to fight the Taliban. But in Swat, the Taliban’s gains amid a large army presence has convinced many that the military must be conspiring with the Taliban.

“It’s very mysterious how they get so much weapons and support,” while nearby districts are comparatively calm, said Muzaffar ul-Mulk Khan, a member of Parliament from Swat, who said his home near Mingora was recently destroyed by the Taliban.

“We are bewildered by the military. They patrol only in Mingora. In the rest of Swat they sit in their bases. And the militants can kill at will anywhere in Mingora,” he said.

“Nothing is being done by the government," Mr. Khan added.

Accusations that the military lacks the will to fight in Swat are “very unfair and unjustified,” said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the chief military spokesman, who said 180 army soldiers and officers had been killed in Swat in the past 14 months.

“They do reach out, and they do patrol,” he said.

Military officials also say they are trying to step up activity in Swat. This weekend, soldiers were deployed to protect a handful of educational buildings in Mingora, amid a wave of school bombings.

General Abbas said the military did not have the means to block Taliban radio transmissions across such a wide area, but he disputed the view that Mingora had fallen to the militants.

“Just because they come out at night and throw down four or five bodies in the square does not mean that militants control anything,” he said.

Few officials would dispute that one of the Pakistani military’s biggest mistakes in Swat was its failure to protect Pir Samiullah, a local leader whose 500 followers fought the Taliban in the village of Mandal Dag. After the Taliban killed him in a firefight last month, the militants demanded that his followers reveal his gravesite — and then started beheading people until they got the information, one Mandal Dag villager said.

“They dug him up and hung his body in the square,” the villager said, and then they took the body to a secret location. The desecration was intended to show what would happen to anyone who defied the Taliban’s rule, but it also made painfully clear to Swat residents that the Pakistani government could not be trusted to defend those who rose up against the militants.

“He should have been given more protection,” said one Pakistani security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the subject. “He should have been made a symbol of resistance.”

Gruesome displays like the defilement of Pir Samiullah’s remains are an effective tactic for the Taliban, who have shown cruel efficiency in following through on their threats.

Recently, Shah Doran broadcast word that the Taliban intended to kill a police officer who he said had killed three people.

“We have sent people, and tomorrow you will have good news,” he said on his nightly broadcast, according to a resident of Matta, a Taliban stronghold. The next day the decapitated body of the policeman was found in a nearby village.

Even in Mingora, a town grown hardened to violence, residents were shocked early this month to find the bullet-ridden body of one of the city’s most famous dancing girls splayed on the main square.

Known as Shabana, the woman was visited at night by a group of men who claimed to want to hire her for a party. They shot her to death and dragged her body more than a quarter-mile to the central square, leaving it as a warning for anyone who would flout Taliban decrees.

The leader of the militants in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, gained prominence from making radio broadcasts and running an Islamic school, becoming popular among otherwise isolated homemakers and inspiring them to sell their jewelry to finance his operation. He also drew support from his marriage to the daughter of Sufi Mohammed, a powerful religious leader in Swat until 2001 who later disowned his son-in-law.

Even though Swat does not border Afghanistan or any of Pakistan’s seven lawless federal tribal areas, Maulana Fazlullah eventually allied with Taliban militants who dominate regions along the Afghan frontier.

His fighters now roam the valley with sniper rifles, Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortar tubes and, according to some officials, night-vision goggles and flak vests.

His latest tactic is a ban on girls’ attending school in Swat, which will be tested in February when private schools are scheduled to reopen after winter recess. The Taliban have already destroyed 169 girls’ schools in Swat, government officials say, and they expect most private schools to stay closed rather than risk retaliation.

“The local population is totally fed up, and if they had the chance they would lynch each and every Talib,” said Mr. Naveed Khan, the police official. “But the Taliban are so cruel and violent, no one will oppose them. If this is not stopped, it will spill into other areas of Pakistan.”

Ismail Khan contributed reporting.

    Radio Spreads Taliban’s Terror in Pakistani Region, NYT, 25.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/world/asia/25swat.html?hp






Major Troop Decisions

for Afghan War Await Obama


January 17, 2009
Filed at 4:23 a.m. ET
The New York Times


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Lingering decisions on how quickly the Pentagon can get U.S. forces out of Iraq and into Afghanistan are being pushed off until after the Obama administration takes over next week as military commanders continue to wrangle over where the troops are needed most.

By the end of this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expected to approve sending more Marines to southern Afghanistan, effectively lowering their numbers in Iraq's western Anbar province, and he may also endorse deploying an Army brigade equipped with armored Stryker vehicles. Senior military officials say there is general agreement to cut back on the 22,000 Marines in Iraq, but Army officials have concerns about how to free up the Stryker unit.

As the Pentagon looks to double the existing force in Afghanistan, the overall cast of the military's growing force in Afghanistan is becoming clearer: Commanders want to beef up the expeditionary units and trainers in the south and east with enough new troops to stem the violence without becoming an occupying force that would alienate the Afghan population.

Their challenge, however, is to get troops out into the hundreds of tiny villages in the volatile southern region, where the Taliban insurgency has been centered. To do that, Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has asked for more mobile forces and believes the strykers will allow soldiers to move more easily along the rugged trails to the widely dispersed tribal enclaves.

Stryker brigades come outfitted with several hundred eight-wheeled, 19-ton Stryker vehicles, which offer greater protection than a Humvee and are more maneuverable than the heavily armored mine-resistant vehicles that are being used across Iraq.

With generals heading the Iraq war reluctant to give up troops, and those in Afghanistan demanding more help, Pentagon officials have been struggling to stretch an already-strained force to meet both needs. But as President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office, there is already increasing pressure to more rapidly reduce forces in Iraq, to meet Obama's stated intention to make Afghanistan a higher priority.

A key unanswered question -- which will ultimately determine the size and makeup of the force -- is what the Obama administration's goal in Afghanistan will be.

Will he continue President George W. Bush's emphasis on spreading freedom and democracy? That would create the need for an extensive, lengthy and diverse effort to stabilize and modernize the weak Afghan government, build infrastructure and require a commitment for decades or more.

Or will he say the mission is simply to do enough military damage there to ensure that Taliban, al-Qaida and other terror groups in Afghanistan and along the Pakistan border are dismantled or defeated enough to prevent another attack on America?

In an interview during his final days in office, Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, told The Associated Press that he believes the fight for democracy must go on, and that more special operations forces are needed in Afghanistan.

''I think it's important for this new administration not to lose the emphasis on the importance of freedom and democracy as an element of succeeding in Iraq and Afghanistan, and succeeding in the war on terror,'' Hadley said.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters that Obama and his national security team are still discussing their Afghanistan strategy and how it will take shape.

Fundamentally, Morrell said, it will be a counterinsurgency fight and the next president, advised by Gates and his military leaders, ''will ultimately come to some understanding about where this president wants to lead the mission in Afghanistan.''

A second challenge, is how to meet the need for various support forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Under a U.S.-Iraq security agreement, American combat forces must be out of Iraqi cities by June, and out of the country by 2011. But support forces -- ranging from intelligence and surveillance experts to engineers and logistics personnel -- are specialists the Iraqis don't have and will continue to need.

At the same time, those are the same forces McKiernan needs in Afghanistan to build the infrastructure for his growing force and to enhance surveillance, particularly along the Pakistan border.

Pentagon officials have said they plan to send up to 30,000 additional troops to the Afghan war, including four combat brigades and thousands of support forces. Of those, Gates said three brigades and some of the support troops will go in by summer. A brigade is roughly 3,500 troops.

Even as decisions on major units have been delayed, Gates this week approved the deployment of about 2,000 new support troops to Afghanistan, including about 660 Navy sailors from a construction and engineering unit based in Gulfport, Miss. The others include military police, medical personnel and other logistics specialists, senior military officials said.

The sailors -- known as Seabees -- can deploy quickly for emergencies or disasters to build roads, bridges and other facilities. A few hundred Seabees serving in Kuwait have already been transferred to Afghanistan, according to the Navy.

There are currently 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, including 15,000 with the NATO-led coalition and 18,000 fighting insurgents and training the Afghan army and police. There are 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq -- still more than the total there before the force build-up which began in early 2007, and is credited in part for the decline in violence.

Future troops levels also depend on the outcome of several military reviews of the Afghanistan strategy that are under way or recently completed, including a key administration study that Bush officials expect to deliver to the Obama White House.

By the end of the month, Gates is expected to approve the deployment of the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade to Afghanistan. But senior officials say they are still working out the numbers. A MEB can vary in size and makeup, and can swell to as many as 20,000 Marines, although a total that high is unlikely.


On the Net:

Defense Department: http://www.defenselink.mil

    Major Troop Decisions for Afghan War Await Obama, NYT, 17.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/01/17/washington/AP-US-Afghanistan.html






Suicide Bomb Kills 3 Afghans in Kabul


January 17, 2009
Filed at 4:32 a.m. ET
The New York Times

(Corrects U.S. toll to say no U.S. troops killed after U.S. military issued erroneous statement)

KABUL (Reuters) - No U.S. troops were killed in a suicide car bomb attack outside a U.S. base and the German embassy in the Afghan capital Saturday, a U.S. military spokesman said.

The U.S. military previously issued a statement which said two U.S. soldiers were killed and 12 wounded in the blast, but a spokesman said that statement was issued in error and six U.S. soldiers were wounded in the blast.

    Suicide Bomb Kills 3 Afghans in Kabul, NYT, 17.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2009/01/17/world/international-us-afghan-violence-blast.html






Bomb Kills 2 Afghans,

Wounds 5 US Troops in Kabul


January 17, 2009
Filed at 4:15 a.m. ET
The New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- A suicide car bomb attack Saturday on a heavily guarded road between the German Embassy and a U.S. military base in the Afghan capital killed two Afghan civilians and wounded five U.S. troops, officials said.

The Taliban claimed responsibility and said the bomber targeted German military personnel.

The U.S. military released a statement shortly after the 9:45 a.m. attack saying two U.S. troops were killed and 12 wounded. But Col. Greg Julian, the top U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan, later said the statement was based on bad information and that five American forces had been wounded in the attack and none killed.

Firefighters and soldiers doused burning vehicles in the street near the base with water. Afghan security personnel and U.S. soldiers carried a U.S. service member out of a window near the blast. It was not clear whether soldier was dead or alive.

Two Afghan civilians died in the blast and 23 were wounded, said Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the Defense Ministry spokesman.

The German Embassy shares a small, two-lane road with Camp Eggers, a U.S. base that serves as the headquarters for soldiers training Afghan police and army personnel. Dozens of armed Afghan security personnel guard the street, and blast walls of concrete and sand-filled mesh-wire boxes line the road.

''It did not breach the wall (of the base),'' said Lt. Col. Chris Kubik, a U.S. military spokesman. ''It was fairly close but I can't tell you if they were targeting us or not.''

A spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin said ''some personnel'' were wounded in the blast, but he did not give numbers. He said they had no reports of deaths.

Windows inside the German compound shattered in the explosion, but the wall protecting the compound is still intact, he said. The spokesman refused to give his name for publication, citing government policy.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said a Taliban suicide bomber named Shumse Rehman carried out the attack in a Toyota Corolla. He said the bomber targeted two vehicles believed to be carrying German military officers.

''The Germans have forces in the north of Afghanistan and they are involved in the killing of innocent Afghans. The Taliban will target all those countries who have forces in Afghanistan,'' he said.

Mujahid said the Taliban had been monitoring the movements of German vehicles and planned the attack to target officers believed to be inside.

Germany has 3,200 troops in Afghanistan, mainly in the country's north. That region is considerably more peaceful than the country's east or south, but German troops still suffer from occasional bomb attacks.

The U.S. has some 32,000 troops in Afghanistan and plans to send up to 30,000 more this year.


Associated Press reporters Jason Straziuso, Heidi Vogt, Amir Shah contributed to this report.

    Bomb Kills 2 Afghans, Wounds 5 US Troops in Kabul, NYT, 17.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/01/17/world/AP-AS-Afghanistan.html






Op-Ed Columnist

The Afghan Quagmire


January 6, 2009
The New York Times


The economy is obviously issue No. 1 as Barack Obama prepares to take over the presidency. He’s charged with no less a task than pulling the country out of a brutal recession. If the worst-case scenarios materialize, his job will be to stave off a depression.

That’s enough to keep any president pretty well occupied. What Mr. Obama doesn’t need, and what the U.S. cannot under any circumstances afford, is any more unnecessary warfare. And yet, while we haven’t even figured out how to extricate ourselves from the disaster in Iraq, Mr. Obama is planning to commit thousands of additional American troops to the war in Afghanistan, which is already more than seven years old and which long ago turned into a quagmire.

Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who is now a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, wrote an important piece for Newsweek warning against the proposed buildup. “Afghanistan will be a sinkhole,” he said, “consuming resources neither the U.S. military nor the U.S. government can afford to waste.”

In an analysis in The Times last month, Michael Gordon noted that “Afghanistan presents a unique set of problems: a rural-based insurgency, an enemy sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan, the chronic weakness of the Afghan government, a thriving narcotics trade, poorly developed infrastructure, and forbidding terrain.”

The U.S. military is worn out from years of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. The troops are stressed from multiple deployments. Equipment is in disrepair. Budgets are beyond strained. Sending thousands of additional men and women (some to die, some to be horribly wounded) on a fool’s errand in the rural, mountainous guerrilla paradise of Afghanistan would be madness.

The time to go all out in Afghanistan was in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks. That time has passed.

With no personal military background and a reputation as a liberal, President-elect Obama may feel he has to demonstrate his toughness, and that Afghanistan is the place to do it. What would really show toughness would be an assertion by Mr. Obama as commander in chief that the era of mindless military misadventures is over.

“I hate war,” said Dwight Eisenhower, “as only a soldier who has lived it can, as only one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”

What’s the upside to the U.S., a nation in dire economic distress, of an escalation in Afghanistan? If we send 20,000, or 30,000, or however many thousand more troops in there, what will their mission be?

In his article for Newsweek, Mr. Bacevich said: “The chief effect of military operations in Afghanistan so far has been to push radical Islamists across the Pakistani border. As a result, efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are contributing to the destabilization of Pakistan, with potentially devastating implications.

“No country poses a greater potential threat to U.S. national security — today and for the foreseeable future — than Pakistan. To risk the stability of that nuclear-armed state in the vain hope of salvaging Afghanistan would be a terrible mistake.”

Our interest in Afghanistan is to prevent it from becoming a haven for terrorists bent on attacking us. That does not require the scale of military operations that the incoming administration is contemplating. It does not require a wholesale occupation. It does not require the endless funneling of human treasure and countless billions of taxpayer dollars to the Afghan government at the expense of rebuilding the United States, which is falling apart before our very eyes.

The government we are supporting in Afghanistan is a fetid hothouse of corruption, a government of gangsters and weasels whose customary salute is the upturned palm. Listen to this devastating assessment by Dexter Filkins of The Times:

“Kept afloat by billions of dollars in American and other foreign aid, the government of Afghanistan is shot through with corruption and graft. From the lowliest traffic policeman to the family of President Hamid Karzai himself, the state built on the ruins of the Taliban government seven years ago now often seems to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it.”

Think about putting your life on the line for that gang.

If Mr. Obama does send more troops to Afghanistan, he should go on television and tell the American people, in the clearest possible language, what he is trying to achieve. He should spell out the mission’s goals, and lay out an exit strategy.

He will owe that to the public because he will own the conflict at that point. It will be Barack Obama’s war.

The Afghan Quagmire, NYT, 6.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/06/opinion/06herbert.html