History > 2009 > USA > War > Afghanistan (V)
Marking 8 Years of the Afghan War
Detention in ‘Black Jail’
at U.S. Base
November 29, 2009
The New York Times
By ALISSA J. RUBIN
KABUL, Afghanistan — An American military detention camp in
Afghanistan is still holding inmates, sometimes for weeks at a time, without
access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, according to human
rights researchers and former detainees held at the site on the Bagram Air Base.
The site, known to detainees as the black jail, consists of individual
windowless concrete cells, each illuminated by a single light bulb glowing 24
hours a day. In interviews, former detainees said that their only human contact
was at twice-daily interrogation sessions.
“The black jail was the most dangerous and fearful place,” said Hamidullah, a
spare-parts dealer in Kandahar who said he was detained there in June. “They
don’t let the I.C.R.C. officials or any other civilians see or communicate with
the people they keep there. Because I did not know what time it was, I did not
know when to pray.”
The jail’s operation highlights a tension between President Obama’s goal to
improve detention conditions that had drawn condemnation under the Bush
administration and his stated desire to give military commanders leeway to
operate. While Mr. Obama signed an order to eliminate so-called black sites run
by the Central Intelligence Agency in January, it did not also close this jail,
which is run by military Special Operations forces.
Military officials said as recently as this summer that the Afghanistan jail and
another like it at the Balad Air Base in Iraq were being used to interrogate
high-value detainees. And officials said recently that there were no plans to
close the jails.
In August, the administration restricted the time that detainees could be held
at the military jails to two weeks, changing previous Pentagon policy. In the
past, the military could obtain extensions.
The interviewed detainees had been held longer, but before the new policy went
into effect. Mr. Hamidullah, who, like some Afghans, uses only one name, was
released in October after five and half months in detention, five to six weeks
of it in the black jail, he said.
Although his and other detainees’ accounts could not be independently
corroborated, each was interviewed separately and described similar conditions.
Their descriptions also matched those obtained by two human rights workers who
had interviewed other former detainees at the site.
While two of the detainees were captured before the Obama administration took
office, one was captured in June of this year.
All three detainees were later released without charges. None said they had been
tortured, though they said they heard sounds of abuse going on and certainly
felt humiliated and roughly used. “They beat up other people in the black jail,
but not me,” Hamidullah said. “But the problem was that they didn’t let me
sleep. There was shouting noise so you couldn’t sleep."
Others, however, have given accounts of abuse at the site, including two Afghan
teenagers who told The Washington Post that they had been subjected to beatings
and humiliation by American guards.
A Defense Department spokesman, Bryan Whitman, said Saturday that the military
routinely sought to verify allegations of detainee abuse, and that it was
looking into whether the two Afghan teenagers who spoke to The Post had been
Without commenting specifically on the site at Bagram, which is still considered
classified, Mr. Whitman said that the Pentagon’s policy required that all
detainees in American custody in Afghanistan be treated humanely and according
to United States and international law.
All three former detainees interviewed by The New York Times complained of being
held for months after the intensive interrogations were over without being told
why. One detainee said he remained at the Bagram prison complex for two years
and four months; another was held for 10 months total.
Human rights officials said the existence of a jail where prisoners were denied
contact with the Red Cross or their families contradicted the Obama
administration’s drive to improve detention conditions.
“Holding people in what appears to be incommunicado detention runs against the
grain of the administration’s commitment to greater transparency,
accountability, and respect for the dignity of Afghans,” said Jonathan Horowitz,
a human rights researcher with the Open Society Institute.
Mr. Horowitz said he understood that “the necessities of war requires the U.S.
to detain people, but there are limits to how to detain.”
The black jail is separate from the larger Bagram detention center, which now
holds about 700 detainees, mostly in cages accommodating about 20 men apiece,
and which had become notorious to the Afghan public as a symbol of abuse. That
center will be closed by early next year and the detainees moved to a new larger
detention site as part of the administration’s effort to improve conditions at
The former detainees interviewed by The Times said they were held at the site
for 35 to 40 days. All three were sent there upon arriving at Bagram and
eventually transferred to the larger detention center on the base, which allows
access to the Red Cross. The three were hooded and handcuffed when they were
taken for questioning at the black jail so they did not know where they were or
anything about other detainees, they said.
Mr. Horowitz said he had heard similar descriptions of the jail from former
detainees, as had Sahr MuhammedAlly, a lawyer with Human Rights First, a
nonprofit organization that has tracked detention issues in Guantánamo Bay,
Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The International Committee of the Red Cross does not discuss its findings
publicly and would not say whether its officials had visited the black jail.
But, in early 2008, military officials acknowledged receiving a confidential
complaint from the I.C.R.C. that the military was holding some detainees
In August, the military said that it had begun to give the Red Cross the names
of everyone detained, including those held in the Special Operations camps,
within two weeks of capture. But it still does not allow the group face-to-face
access to the detainees.
All three detainees said the hardest part of their detention was that their
families did not know whether they were alive.
“For my whole family it was disastrous,” said Hayatullah, a Kandahar resident
who said he was working in his pharmacy when he was arrested. “Because they knew
the Americans were sometimes killing people, and they thought they had killed me
because for two to three months they didn’t know where I was.”
The three detainees said the military had mistaken them for Taliban fighters.
“They kept saying to me, ‘Are you Qari Idris?’ ” said Gulham Khan, 25, an
impoverished, illiterate sheep trader, who mostly delivers sheep and goats for
people who buy the animals in the livestock market in Ghazni, the capital of the
province of the same name. He was captured in late October 2008 and released in
early September this year, he said.
“I said, ‘I’m not Qari Idris.’ But they kept asking me over and over, and I kept
saying, ‘I’m Gulham. This is my name, that is my father’s name, you can ask the
Ten months after his initial detention, American soldiers went to the group cell
where he was then being held and told him he had been mistakenly picked up under
the wrong name, he said.
“They said, ‘Please accept our apology, and we are sorry that we kept you here
for this time.’ And that was it. They kept me for more than 10 months and gave
me nothing back.”
In their search for him, Mr. Khan’s family members spent the equivalent of
$6,000, a fortune for a sheep dealer, who often makes just a dollar a day. Some
of the money was spent on bribes to local Afghan soldiers to get information on
where he was being held; they said soldiers took the money and never came back
with the information.
In Mr. Hamidullah’s case, interrogators at the black jail insisted that he was a
Taliban fighter named Faida Muhammad. “I said, ‘That’s not me,’ ” he recalled.
“They blamed me and said, ‘You are making bombs and are a facilitator of bomb
making and helping militants,’ ” he said. “I said, ‘I have a shop. I sell spare
parts for vehicles, for trucks and cars.’ ”
Human rights researchers say they worry that the jail remains in the shadows and
largely inaccessible both to the Red Cross and the Afghan Independent Human
Rights Commission, which has responsibility for ensuring humane treatment of
detainees under the Afghan Constitution. Manfred Nowak, the United Nations’
special rapporteur on torture, said that the site fell into something of a legal
limbo but that the Red Cross should still have access to all detainees.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.
Detention in ‘Black Jail’ at U.S. Base, NYT, 29.11.2009,
Families of Military Suicides
Seek White House Condolences
November 26, 2009
The New York Times
By JAMES DAO
Since at least the time of Abraham Lincoln, presidents have sent letters of
condolence to the families of service members killed in action, whether the
deaths came by hostile fire or in an accident.
So after his son killed himself in Iraq in June, Gregg Keesling expected that
his family would receive a letter from President Obama. What it got instead was
a call from an Army official telling family members that they were not eligible
because their son had committed suicide.
“We were shocked,” said Mr. Keesling, 52, of Indianapolis.
Under an unwritten policy that has existed at least since the Clinton
administration, presidents have not sent letters to survivors of troops who took
their own lives, even if it was at the war front, officials say. The roots of
that policy, which has been passed from administration to administration via
White House protocol officers, are murky and probably based in the view that
suicide is not an honorable way to die, administration and military officials
But at a time when the Pentagon is trying to destigmatize mental health care in
hopes of stemming a near epidemic of suicide among service members, the question
of whether the survivors of military suicides deserve presidential recognition
has taken on new significance.
“These families already feel such shame and so alienated from the military and
the country, a letter from the president might give them some comfort, some
sense that people recognize their sacrifice,” said Kim Ruocco, director for
suicide support for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, a
military support group. “What better way to eliminate stigma?”
As suicide has crept out of the shadows and become a front-burner problem for
the military, TAPS, members of Congress and individuals like Mr. Keesling have
begun raising the thorny issue of equal honors for survivors of military
suicides. Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said the administration had
begun a review of the policy on letters of condolence.
“The president’s thoughts and prayers are with every military family who has
lost a loved one in service to our country,” Mr. Vietor said.
Presidential letters of condolence go to survivors of troops who died in action
in a war theater. Though most suicides take place on posts in the United States,
a significant number occur in Iraq and Afghanistan: at least 184 since 2001,
according to Defense Department statistics.
Through October, the Army, which far and away leads the armed forces in
suicides, reported 133 among active-duty soldiers, putting it on pace to surpass
last year’s record, 140. The Marine Corps, which has the second-largest number,
is also likely to have more suicides than last year, 42.
The spike in suicides has prompted an array of actions at the Pentagon. The Army
is collaborating with the National Institute of Mental Health to study mental
health and suicide. It has created a suicide prevention task force led by a
brigadier general. It has instituted suicide prevention programs at most posts
and will require all soldiers to take intensive training in emotional
resiliency, to help them cope with the stress of war and deployment.
But as much as anything, the Army is trying to soften the longstanding sense
that psychological problems are a sign of frailty. “We have to reduce the stigma
surrounding seeking mental health help,” Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army vice
chief of staff, said this year. “Getting help for emotional problems should be
as natural as seeking help for a sprained ankle.”
Mr. Obama has also spoken forcefully about the pain of suicide in the military.
“We know that incidence of psychological injury increase with each additional
tour of duty in Iraq, and that our troops are not getting the support they
need,” he said in the 2008 campaign. “Too many are falling through the cracks
because they need help but feel they can’t get it.”
Advocates for suicide survivors say the military has come a long way in
equalizing the way it deals with suicides. Death benefits are largely the same
for families, regardless of how a service member died. And suicides are eligible
for an array of military honors, like burial in a national cemetery or color
guards at funerals.
But a suspicion remains among survivors that there are differences. Ms. Ruocco,
whose husband, a Marine, killed himself in 2005 after returning from Iraq
several years ago, said several members of TAPS had said they had not received
the folded flags from the military after family members committed suicide. She
said it was possible they were not eligible, but the Pentagon had not been able
to clarify its rules for suicide cases.
She also said the Gold Stars that parents of military suicides received were
slightly different from the Gold Stars given to parents of troops killed in
action. It is a small difference, she said, but one that further separates
suicide survivors from other military families. The stress of war and deployment
is often a cause of suicide, she argued, making it no different than a fatal
wound from a roadside bomb.
But opponents of presidential letters of condolence argue that treating suicide
the same as other war deaths might encourage mentally frail soldiers to take
their lives by making the act seem honorable.
After Gregg Keesling’s son, Chancellor, shot himself in a latrine on June 19,
the family received a folded flag, a letter from the Army praising their son, a
rifle salute at his burial and financial death benefits.
But he views the letter of condolence as an important step toward reducing the
shame and guilt many survivors feel. Hours before Chancellor, a 25-year-old
specialist, killed himself, he had argued with his girlfriend over the phone and
then sent a rambling, despondent e-mail message home.
“I can’t explain how ashamed i am i said some things out of anger,” he wrote. “I
can’t cope without each and every one of you there by me the whole way. I feel
alone and unappreciated for some odd reason this deployment is ending up to be
like the last i thought about killing myself and went to the porti john and
chambered a round into my m4 but decided not to pull the trigger. I realize i
need help and i need to have family put first. Please forgive me and except my
About 17 hours later, he was dead.
“My last words to my son were, ‘Be a man and get through it,’ ” Mr. Keesling
said, recalling one of dozens of frantic phone calls to Iraq in the hours before
Chancellor’s death. “I was the stupid dad. If my son had said, ‘Dad, I’ve broken
my leg, I can’t go on,’ I would have understood. But I didn’t understand the
mental health side.”
Andrew W. Lehren contributed reporting.
Families of Military
Suicides Seek White House Condolences, NYT, 26.11.2009,
4 American Military Personnel
Die in Afghanistan
November 24, 2009
The New York Times
By ALISSA J. RUBIN
KABUL, Afghanistan — Four United States troops have died fighting in
Afghanistan in the last 24 hours, NATO said in a statement Monday, as the Obama
administration continued deliberations on increasing the number of American
Three died on Sunday in southern Afghanistan in two separate incidents. One was
killed in a small arms attack by insurgents and the other two when a roadside
bomb exploded. A fourth service member died in eastern Afghanistan Monday in a
roadside bomb attack. American soldiers are primarily fighting in southern and
The United States has some 68,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, but the White House
is considering increases suggested by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top
American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, of up to 40,000 soldiers.
If that number of soldiers were sent, it would enable American commanders to
bolster forces particularly in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand
which are at the epicenter of the insurgency by the Taliban while also sending
more troops to eastern Afghanistan and committing personnel to train Afghan
forces, according to military analysts in Washington.
At his inauguration for a second term of office after elections tainted by
vote-rigging and festering corruption within his government, President Hamid
Karzai said last week that it would take up to five years for Afghan forces to
assume the primary responsibility for their country’s security. Last Friday,
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the United States could start holding
Afghanistan’s government accountable for corruption by withholding money for
projects “where we control the flow of dollars.”
Reuters reported on Monday that two Afghan ministers suspected of embezzlement
have been summoned for investigation, according to Deputy Attorney General Fazel
Ahmad Faqiryar, and other officials were also being targeted by the inquiry.
It was not clear when the Obama administration would announce its response to
the request for more American troops.
Apart from American forces, other NATO countries have around 35,000 troops in
Afghanistan. Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain has said he will urge other
NATO countries to increase that number by 5,000, but there has been a reluctance
among the allies to commit reinforcements.
NATO gave no details of the latest American casualties.
According to icasualties.org, a Web site that tracks casualties in Iraq and
Afghanistan, American forces lost 59 service personnel killed in October, the
deadliest month in the war that began with the overthrow of the Taliban regime
in late 2001. The latest deaths brought to 16 the number of Americans killed so
far this month.
Afghan officials, meanwhile, reported that three Afghan Army soldiers were
killed by a roadside bomb in southern Helmand Province in the Musa Qala
district, according to The Associated Press, but it was not clear if there was
any connection between the Afghan deaths and the American fatalities.
Alan Cowell contributed reporting from Paris.
4 American Military
Personnel Die in Afghanistan, NYT, 24.11.2009,
In 3 Tacks for Afghan War,
a Game of Trade-Offs
November 23, 2009
The New York Times
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
WASHINGTON — Should President Obama decide to send 40,000 additional American
troops to Afghanistan, the most ambitious plan under consideration at the White
House, the military would have enormous flexibility to deploy as many as 15,000
troops to the Taliban center of gravity in the south, 5,000 to the critical
eastern border with Pakistan and 10,000 as trainers for the Afghan security
The rest could be deployed flexibly across the country, including to the NATO
headquarters in Kabul, the capital, and in clandestine operations.
If Mr. Obama limited any additional American troops to 10,000 to 15,000, the
military would deploy them largely as trainers, with some reinforcements likely
in the southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual home. The
neighboring, and opium-rich, Helmand Province and the eastern border with
Pakistan, military analysts say, would receive few if any American troops and
would remain largely as they are today.
Such trade-offs are part of the discussions under way in the West Wing and at
the Pentagon as Mr. Obama and his top advisers debate escalating the
eight-year-old war. And they drive home the basic point that while the numbers
will dominate the headlines, what is really at stake is how to fight the war.
Here is a primer, culled from the diverse views of administration officials and
military analysts, on the military utility of some of the force options before
the president to bolster the 68,000 American troops already in Afghanistan.
In late September, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American and NATO
commander in Afghanistan, sent three different troop options to the Pentagon:
about 80,000; 40,000 or more; or 10,000 to 15,000. The White House quickly
discarded the idea of sending 80,000, making his middle option the high one
under consideration by the president.
With 40,000 troops, the military priority would be to deploy as many as 10,000
to Kandahar, the desert province abutting Pakistan; its big city, also called
Kandahar, is the second largest in Afghanistan. Currently there are about 3,200
United States troops and 1,600 Canadian soldiers in the area. The Taliban
control much of Kandahar Province and are contesting control of the city.
“We do not now have enough troops around Kandahar to secure this area from the
enemy,” said Kimberly Kagan, the president of the Institute for the Study of
War, who over the summer was part of a team that helped General McChrystal
assess the Afghan conflict for the president. Control of Kandahar, the hub of
Taliban operations in the south, would be a major strategic accomplishment for
the United States military and a psychological blow to the enemy.
An additional 5,000 American troops would probably be sent to the contested
Helmand Province, home to the poppy crop that is a major source of income for
the Taliban who traffic in opium. The province is the vital breadbasket of
Afghanistan, where the river valley is a fertile ground for pomegranates, wheat
and other fruits and grains.
Some 4,000 Marines are now in the area, but they have been unable to secure
large parts of the province, including guerrilla strongholds in southern and
Yet another 5,000 would probably be sent to the eastern area that some military
planners refer to as “P2K,” for the Afghan provinces of Paktika, Paktia and
Khost. The three provinces border the mountainous tribal area of Pakistan,
including North and South Waziristan. The Pakistani region has become a haven
for the senior leadership of Al Qaeda.
“The preponderance of forces, no matter what number you pick, will be in the
south, and there will be some in the east,” said a senior defense official, who
would not specify further. The relatively stable north and west, he said, “will
remain areas of an economy of force.”
Perhaps as many as 10,000 troops would be deployed as trainers with the Afghan
security forces, with NATO pledging to send thousands more.
20,000 to 35,000 troops
This way encompasses a number of mid-range options under discussion at the
Pentagon and the White House. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Secretary of
State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, have coalesced around a plan to send 30,000 or more troops to
Afghanistan, although there are variations in their positions and they are not
working in lock step.
The difference between 30,000 and 40,000, military analysts say, is that there
might be 5,000 trainers rather than 10,000, and fewer troops to spread flexibly
across the country over all, although there would still be a strong
concentration in the south.
“Kandahar is pretty crucial, and we should not skimp there,” said Michael
O’Hanlon, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution who just
returned from a trip to Afghanistan.
Administration officials say that the additional troops would also be deployed
to protect some dozen population clusters across the country, including not only
Kandahar and Kabul but also Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz in the north, Herat in the
west and Jalalabad in the east.
Military officials say that three-quarters of any additional troops sent, no
matter the number, will be working side by side with Afghan security forces in a
“partnering” or apprentice arrangement. They will be separate from American
trainers, whose job is to put raw recruits through a basic military training
Under the partnering arrangement, Afghan troops will share the same bases as the
Americans, a defense official said, and although there will be separate sleeping
quarters and dining facilities, “they’re going to live together, work together,
plan together and operate together.”
Should Mr. Obama send 20,000 troops, military analysts say, there would probably
be no fourth brigade to use around the country, and parts of Helmand and the
east would receive few if any additional troops. With this number, Mr. Obama
would expect a greater contribution of troops from NATO allies (about 35,000
troops from other NATO countries are currently in Afghanistan). Much of the
American mission would focus on training.
Administration officials estimate the cost of sending 30,000 more troops at $25
billion to $30 billion a year and the cost of sending 20,000 troops at $21
billion a year.
10,000 to 15,000 troops
Under this approach, advocated by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the United
States would accelerate the training of the Afghan security forces and focus on
eliminating the Qaeda leadership in Pakistan through drone strikes.
Mr. Obama is likely to announce his new Afghanistan strategy in the first week
of December, administration officials say.
Despite the attention to the troop number, Anthony H. Cordesman, a military
expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cautioned that it
would be about as helpful to understanding the president’s war strategy as
counting the number of parts in a Ferrari to determine how it would handle the
In 3 Tacks for Afghan
War, a Game of Trade-Offs, NYT, 23.11.2009,
A Bad Month in Afghanistan
Rippled Across the US
November 21, 2009
Filed at 2:03 p.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Every afternoon, seven days a week, Ed Epley has a 5 p.m. appointment with
He pulls a protest sign from his maroon 1961 Volkswagen van -- he has 30 to 40
stashed inside -- and joins a one-hour peace vigil at the Benton County
courthouse in Corvallis, Ore. Epley has been doing this, day in and day out,
since the U.S. launched its first air strikes on Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001.
''I really don't look at it as a job, it's just part of the daily task of being
a citizen,'' says the 73-year-old retiree.
More than eight years later, this small, 365-day-a-year vigil may seem quixotic.
But it stands apart for another reason: It has kept a steadfast focus on the
war. Even though hundreds of thousands of troops have served, even though more
than 800 members of the military have died, the marathon war in Afghanistan has,
for long stretches, been off the nation's radar.
But one terrible month changed all that.
A record number of deaths in October forced the nation to take new notice of
Afghanistan as debate raged over whether President Barack Obama should send tens
of thousands more troops there.
The deaths of 62 Americans -- including three federal agents -- in ambushes,
roadside bombs and helicopter crashes turned a spotlight on an often overlooked
reality: The war is forever shaping lives here.
In the month of October, that was painfully clear as young children learned
their fathers were gone; as young men who not long ago donned high school
football uniforms were mourned; as some soldiers came home, and others prepared
to leave for a war that began its ninth year.
In these 31 days, the war rippled across America.
IN AFGHANISTAN, AN AMBUSH ...
The attack was quick and brazen.
With guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells, hundreds of insurgents
stormed a remote U.S.-Afghan outpost deep in the mountains of northeast
Afghanistan. They attacked simultaneously from three sides -- a mosque,
buildings and a perch on high ground in the Kamdesh district.
The fighting at Combat Outpost Keating lasted almost six hours; rocket and
machine gun fire left large parts of the base in flames.
When the deadliest battle in more than a year was over, scores of insurgents
were dead, but so were eight Americans and three Afghan soldiers; 24 other
Americans were among the injured.
The dead Americans were based at Fort Carson, Colo. They were members of the
Fourth Brigade Combat Team, which already has suffered staggering losses in
Iraq: 64 deaths and more than 400 wounded in a 2004-2005 deployment.
What happened that first Saturday in October was soon felt in homes from
Applegate, Calif., to Kincheloe, Mich., to Lovettsville, Va.
It was not just eight families, but teachers, coaches, pastors, friends and
neighbors who mourned.
There was Spc. Christopher Griffin, a History Channel and Green bay Packers fan;
Staff Sgt. Justin Gallegos, who doted on his 5-year-old son; Sgt. Joshua Hardt,
who enjoyed fishing in the Sierra Nevada mountains; Sgt. Joshua Kirk, a devoted
husband and father; Staff Sgt. Vernon Martin, who married his high school
sweetheart and loved children (they had three), music and basketball; Sgt.
Michael Scusa, who prepared for Army life as a teen marching around the
neighborhood with a brick-loaded backpack; Pfc. Kevin Thomson, an occasional
prankster who adored the movie ''Ghostbusters''; and Spc. Stephan Mace, a
hunter, fisherman and paintballer whose adventurous palate extended to raw
By time October was over, the losses would expand to 28 states in this one
IN NEW JERSEY, A ROLL CALL ...
In the quiet of his office at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, N.J., Rabbi Douglas
Sagal devotes part of each Friday afternoon to the war.
Using a Department of Defense Web site, he gathers a weekly list of those who
died in Afghanistan and Iraq so he can read their names aloud at Friday night
Before the war in Iraq, Sagal told his congregation it would be unforgivable if
the nation proceeded as normal while men and women were fighting -- and dying --
overseas. And that, he says, is exactly what happened.
So about five years ago, Sagal decided to do his part to remember the fallen.
''It came out of my belief that really the great sin of our time, maybe the
great sin of our generation is we send people to war and we insist on living our
lives as if nothing is happening,'' he says. ''I made a promise to myself that
we are going to know the names of those who have died in the service of our
Every Friday, just before the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, Sagal
recites the list of war casualties since the last Sabbath. After the services,
he says veterans or those with family in the military invariably thank him.
''There's an unfair burden being brought on a small percentage of the
population,'' he says. ''At the very least, we as a nation need to understand
there's an enormous price for the political decisions we make or support.''
IN DELAWARE, A SALUTE ...
Inside the cavernous C-17 transport plane, Capt. Pete Hudlow had a solemn -- and
unforgettable -- glimpse of the cost of war.
On a chilly pre-dawn morning in late October, the Air Force captain was part of
an extraordinary scene that unfolded in the darkness at Air Force Mortuary at
Dover Air Force Base. The president had arrived to honor 18 of the war dead
being returned home.
Obama's presence was striking not just because it was unprecedented but also
because Dover's ceremonies have long been cloaked in secrecy. It wasn't until
this spring that the secretary of defense lifted an 18-year ban and allowed
media to film transfers -- if the grieving family approves.
As much of the nation slept, Hudlow, a 40-year-old captain from Tinker Air Force
Base (he's on temporary assignment) walked through the cargo area, verified the
identifications, checked on the American flags covering the metal transfer cases
and made sure all were in the proper order to be removed.
Then, the honor guard teams escorted the fallen off the plane.
''Everything is deliberate, everything is planned, everything is done with the
utmost respect and focus on what we're doing,'' he says. ''There's a reverent,
ceremonial mindset. Nothing about it is routine.''
''It's a somber thing when it's one of the fallen,'' he adds. ''But it's a
little bit more emotional when you walk go into the aircraft, it has no cargo,
and on the floor there are 20-something cases. ... It's humbling. It's got some
''We do what we're tasked to do. We give them the dignity and honor as best we
The last soldier carried off was Sgt. Dale Griffin of Terre Haute, Ind., son of
a Mormon bishop, Eagle Scout, champion wrestler. (His family was the only one
that allowed the media to photograph the return.)
After meeting with the families, Obama marched onto the plane where a prayer was
offered, then walked down the ramp and witnessed the remains being removed. He
offered a crisp salute.
At 4 a.m., Hudlow's mission was over.
''There was a sense of accomplishment,'' he says. ''We got these guys back on
IN CONNECTICUT, A TRIBUTE ...
Capt. Benjamin Sklaver's contributions reached halfway around the world.
Though he was just 32, the Army reservist already had launched his own nonprofit
clean water organization, worked on refugee health issues for the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention and built wells in Uganda, where one villager
dubbed him ''Moses Ben.''
The rabbi at his funeral told more than 1,000 mourners that Sklaver was ''a
warrior for peace.''
If one of war's tragedies is lost potential, no one personifies that more than
Sklaver, killed Oct. 2 by a suicide bomber, founded the ClearWater Initiative
after returning from service in 2007 in northern Uganda. As part of a civil
affairs unit there, he helped bring clean water to embattled villages, building
wells and creating protected springs in area where pregnant women and children
suffered from dysentery and malaria.
''He believed in simple solutions,'' says David Abraham, his graduate school
roommate. ''He saw water as a way to give people hope. He thought of the little
things that would inspire people,'' remembering how Sklaver once used excess
piping to build a soccer post for Ugandan children.
Friends say Sklaver was trying to meet with local leaders outside Kandahar when
he was killed. ''He would tell me it was a dangerous place but he said, 'We're
making progress. We'll get there,''' Abraham says.
His friends will now carry on his organization that has provided almost 7,000
people, mostly Ugandans, with fresh water. The goal is to increase that to
250,000 within 10 years.
Still, they can't help wonder what might have been with Ben at the helm.
''We'll never see,'' Abraham says, ''what ideas he would have brought back from
IN MASSACHUSETTS, A TOWN MOURNS ...
The yellow ribbons appeared almost immediately around light poles and trees in
North Attleboro, Mass. So, too, did the U.S. flags, candles in windows and lawn
signs that read: ''Rest Easy, Capt. Kyle Van De Giesen.''
In a town of 28,000, the death of a war hero travels with lightning speed. It
was a deeply personal loss to those who remembered the little boy who dreamed of
flying, the star quarterback they cheered on Friday nights, the charismatic
Marine who could tell a joke and make everyone laugh.
''This was a big blow to the town,'' says Mike Kirby, editor of The Sun
Chronicle and next door neighbor of the Van De Giesens. ''He triumphed at
everything he did in life. He was a Pop Warner football champ, a high school
football champ, a college football quarterback and a Marine captain. I think
people were aghast that ... this war would defeat him.''
Van De Giesen, 29, was killed Oct. 26 in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.
North Attleboro paid tribute with a moment of silence at a high school football
game and a candlelight vigil that attracted thousands. Folks lined the streets,
clutching American flags as his funeral procession wound its way through town,
passing his house, his schools, the football field where, as a Red Rocketeer,
he'd scored so many touchdowns.
It was particularly poignant for Kirby.
He had attended Van De Giesen's high school and college graduation parties, his
Marine pinning ceremony party, his wedding and his daughter's baptism more than
a year ago. At that time, Kirby says, Van De Giesen -- who had served two tours
in Iraq -- told him he had asked to go to Afghanistan. ''I signed up to defend
my country,'' he said.
Van De Giesen was the first person from North Attleboro to die in action in war
He was killed on his last mission before he was to head home to welcome the
birth of his second child, Colin Joseph. The baby arrived four days after his
father's funeral, on the day Van De Giesen was supposed to reunite with his
''To die under these circumstances,'' Kirby says, ''it's just much too much.''
IN VERMONT, A COUNTDOWN ...
Her husband has just left home to prepare for his second tour in Afghanistan and
Betsy Charlesworth already in wondering what it will mean for their year-old
How, she wonders, will he react when his father returns after being away a year?
''I said to Rob ... 'Marty is not going to know you and he may be afraid of
you.' It breaks my heart. It absolutely breaks my heart,'' she says.
They'll be in touch by phone and Web cam, but Betsy says, ''I am fully prepared
for him (Marty) to look at Rob and say, 'Who are you and why are you in my
house?' ... That's probably the toughest thing. He's probably not going to
Rob Charlesworth, a 39-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Vermont National
Guard, flew to Fort Polk, La., at the end of October. He'll deploy early next
year, one of 1,500 ''Green Mountain Boys.''
He'll be back for the holidays, but Betsy says they've already prepared for his
departure: Rob has handed over the bill-paying duties and written his will. She
has adopted his 11-year-son, Myles, from a previous marriage.
She tries to remember the lessons of her husband's first tour in 2003 -- they
were just dating then -- when he told her not to panic every time she heard
about bloodshed in Afghanistan.
Still, Betsy knows Afghanistan is ''a scary place.''
''People ask me, 'Why don't you tell your husband to get out of the Army? You
have three children. He could die.' But this is his passion,'' she says. ''This
is what he has been called to do. We all will die. I feel that if God is going
to call him in Afghanistan, that's what's meant to be. He could also walk out
the door and be killed. ... I just pray that he comes home safe and sound and
we're all family again.''
IN LOUISIANA, READYING FOR TOUR NO. 4 ...
Col. Will Roy knows exactly what his 83-year-old father thinks about his fourth
tour to Afghanistan.
''My dad keeps saying, 'You've done enough. You've done enough,''' says the
49-year-old colonel who arrived in Fort Polk, La., in October to prepare for his
Next year, Roy will lead the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which has more
than 3,000 soldiers, about half from the Vermont National Guard. It will train
and mentor Afghan security forces.
Roy says he reminds his father, Henry, of his service in the Marines in the
Pacific during World War II -- he signed up when he was 16 -- and how he was
away for five years. ''So what I'm doing -- there is no comparison,'' Roy says.
But he does appreciate his father's angst. When his own son, Adam, now 22, was
deployed to Afghanistan -- he returned last summer -- they had a final phone
call, where he told the young man he was proud of him, urged him to keep his
head down and do the right thing.
Then he called his elderly father and said, '''Hey, Poppy, I really didn't
understand what you were going through. Now I get it.'''
Roy says he's excited about returning to Afghanistan, where he has many friends.
He's determined to help bring peace and stability to the country.
''When people ask me how long we should be in Afghanistan or Iraq, my response
is 40 years,'' he says. He knows that raises eyebrows but, he says, he's not
talking about a huge military presence -- but a full international economic and
diplomatic commitment to get the country back on track.
He likes to provide a biblical analogy to his soldiers:
''How long,'' he asks, ''did Moses take the Jews into the desert?''
And then he answers: ''Forty years.''
IN OREGON, THE VIGIL GOES ON...
Meanwhile, Ed Epley is in year nine in the vigil at the county courthouse in
He's among 8 to 12 regulars who gather from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. -- weekends and
Mike Beilstein, a city council member, still comes by a few times a month. He
helped launch the vigil in 2001 when he brought a ''Peace on Earth'' sign to the
courthouse the day after the first air strikes on Afghanistan.
''We never feel we're wrong, but we've asked ourselves is this the best way to
address the issue,'' Beilstein says. ''Would I be more effective going home
writing letters? That question has been there from the start and it's there now,
but now that we've been doing it, how do we quit?''
Most days, about 10 people or fewer show up. On the October anniversary of the
war, about 50 did. When big announcements are made -- including events tied to
the Iraq, which also is part of the protest -- the numbers swell.
They've endured shouts of ''nuke them,'' ''go back to Russia,'' ''dirty hippies,
get a job.'' Motorists have pelted them with cans and food.
They've also been greeted with peace signs, honks of support and letters from as
far as New Zealand and Tunisia. (Al-Jazeera taped a segment on the vigil.)
''The message does get out,'' Epley says. ''It's really hard to tell how much
effect we're having. People will stop by and write letters and say they do
appreciate we're out there. That's what keeps us going. ... I think most of us
realize we're never really going to win world peace.''
As for the future?
''I don't know what the signal is going to be to say, 'Let's call it quits,'''
he says. ''We never thought we'd be here this long.''
On the Net:
A Bad Month in
Afghanistan Rippled Across the US, NYT, 21.11.2009,
Clinton Presses Karzai
on Eve of Inauguration
November 19, 2009
The New York Times
By MARK LANDLER
KABUL, Afghanistan — In what amounted to a stern pep talk by a nervous
partner, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived here on Wednesday to
exhort President Hamid Karzai and his government to do a better job of cracking
down on corruption in Afghanistan.
Mrs. Clinton’s unannounced visit, on the eve of Mr. Karzai’s inauguration to
another term, was meant to send a message of American support for his
government, after a chaotic election in which he emerged as the winner after
charges of rampant ballot stuffing and other fraud.
Mr. Karzai welcomed Mrs. Clinton to the presidential palace on Wednesday
evening, and the secretary of state congratulated him on his reelection. “I’m
very energized by being back here and seeing you and a lot of your ministers,”
she said in a polite, if somewhat formal, tone.
“Thank you,” he replied with a smile.
But over dinner, and in a subsequent one-on-one session, Mrs. Clinton said she
planned to press Mr. Karzai for tangible results in tackling other forms of
corruption, which many experts cite as one of the key causes of Afghanistan’s
growing insurgency and deteriorating security.
“We are asking that they follow through on much of what they previously said,
including putting together a credible anti-corruption governmental entity,” Mrs.
Clinton said to reporters traveling with her from Beijing, where she had been
with President Obama on his tour of Asia.
“They’ve done some work on that, but in our view, not nearly enough to
demonstrate a seriousness of purpose to tackle corruption,” she said. “We are
concerned about corruption. We obviously think it has an impact on the quality
and capacity of governance.”
Mrs. Clinton said she was troubled that Mr. Karzai named as one of his two vice
presidents, Marshal Muhammad Fahim, whom American officials believe has been
involved in the drug trade, as well as forging a political alliance with General
Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord suspected of corruption.
“It certainly raises questions,” she said, noting that the United States would
wait to see whether Mr. Karzai confronted that issue directly or sought other
means to raise confidence in his government.
Still, speaking to employees at the heavily fortified United States embassy,
Mrs. Clinton said that the inauguration provided a “window of opportunity” for
Mr. Karzai to “make a new compact with the people of Afghanistan” and to create
a more accountable government.
“We want to be a strong partner with the government and people of Afghanistan,”
she said. “This is a turning point that we will face together.”
In her fourth visit to Afghanistan, and her first as secretary of state, Mrs.
Clinton seemed to be walking a delicate balance — praising Mr. Karzai for the
progress Afghanistan had made during his years in power, even as she signaled
the United States was looking for more.
“It’s not all a one-sided negative story,” she said. “It’s much more balanced
than that. If President Karzai was sitting here, he would say ‘do you know how
hard it’s been to do what I have done for the last eight years?’”
But Mrs. Clinton also reiterated recent comments by White House and other
administration officials that United States was seeking a military strategy that
would give it a clear way out of Afghanistan.
“We don’t have a long term military stake,” she said. “We’re not seeking to
occupy Afghanistan for the undetermined future. We don’t want bases in
Afghanistan. We do want to help the Afghan government and people build up their
own capacity so they can defend themselves.”
Mrs. Clinton was met at the airport by the two generals — Stanley A. McChrystal
and Karl W. Eikenberry — who have staked out opposing positions in the
administration’s lengthy, increasingly fierce, internal debate over how many
additional American troops to deploy to Afghanistan.
General McChrystal, the current commander in Afghanistan, has recommended that
Mr. Obama send up to 40,000 more troops. General Eikenberry, who is the American
ambassador, argued in two recent cables that more troops would increase the
dependency of Afghanistan on the United States, at a time when the reliability
of its leadership was already in doubt.
In a meeting with the generals, a senior administration official said, Mrs.
Clinton quizzed the two about how the United States was meshing its military and
civilian efforts in the country. She pressed for examples of areas where those
efforts were working well, and where there were problems. General McChrystal
offered an overview of the broader security situation.
Whatever their differences on strategy, officials said, there was little
evidence of friction in the generals’ presentation to Mrs. Clinton. On their
assessment of Mr. Karzai’s reliability as a leader, an official said, General
McChrystal and General Eikenberry were largely in agreement.
Mrs. Clinton also complimented the growing staff of the embassy for their work,
which she said was dangerous but vital to the American effort in Afghanistan.
She singled out Matthew Sherman, a Foreign Service officer who rescued soldiers
from a vehicle that had been overturned by a roadside explosive.
Clinton Presses Karzai
on Eve of Inauguration, NYT, 19.11.2009,
High Costs Weigh
on Troop Debate for Afghan War
November 15, 2009
The New York Times
By CHRISTOPHER DREW
While President Obama’s decision about sending more troops to Afghanistan is
primarily a military one, it also has substantial budget implications that are
adding pressure to limit the commitment, senior administration officials say.
The latest internal government estimates place the cost of adding 40,000
American troops and sharply expanding the Afghan security forces, as favored by
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American and allied commander in
Afghanistan, at $40 billion to $54 billion a year, the officials said.
Even if fewer troops are sent, or their mission is modified, the rough formula
used by the White House, of about $1 million per soldier a year, appears almost
So even if Mr. Obama opts for a lower troop commitment, Afghanistan’s new costs
could wash out the projected $26 billion expected to be saved in 2010 from
withdrawing troops from Iraq. And the overall military budget could rise to as
much as $734 billion, or 10 percent more than the peak of $667 billion under the
Such an escalation in military spending would be a politically volatile issue
for Mr. Obama at a time when the government budget deficit is soaring, the
economy is weak and he is trying to pass a costly health care plan.
Senior members of the House Appropriations Committee have already expressed
reservations about the potential long-term costs of expanding the war in
Afghanistan. And Mr. Obama could find it difficult to win approval for the
additional spending in Congress, where he would have to depend on Republicans to
counter defections from liberal Democrats.
One senior administration official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss
the details of confidential deliberations, said these concerns had added to the
president’s insistence at a White House meeting on Wednesday that each military
option include the quickest possible exit strategy.
“The president focused a lot on ensuring that we were asking the difficult
questions about getting to an end game here,” the official said. “He knows we
cannot sustain this indefinitely.”
Sending fewer troops would lower the costs but would also place limitations on
the buildup strategy. Sending 30,000 more troops, for example, would cost $25
billion to $30 billion a year while limiting how widely American forces could
range. Deploying 20,000 troops would cost about $21 billion annually but would
expand mainly the training of Afghans, the officials said.
The estimated $1 million a year it costs per soldier is higher than the $390,000
congressional researchers estimated in 2006.
Military analysts said the increase reflects a surge in costs for mine-resistant
troop carriers and surveillance equipment that would apply to troops in both
Iraq and Afghanistan. But some costs are unique to Afghanistan, where it can
cost as much as $400 a gallon to deliver fuel to the troops through mountainous
Some administration estimates suggest it could also cost up to $50 billion over
five years to more than double the size of the Afghan army and police force, to
a total of 400,000. That includes recruiting, training and equipment.
At a stop at a military base in Alaska on Thursday, Mr. Obama told a gathering
of soldiers that he would not risk more lives “unless it is necessary to
America’s vital interests.” He added during his visit to Tokyo on Friday that he
wanted to avoid taking any step that could be seen as an “open-ended
The administration said Friday that it planned to cut up to 5 percent at
domestic agencies in fiscal 2011 as part of an effort to reduce the federal
budget deficit, which rose to $1.4 trillion with the economic stimulus and
Several leading Republicans have criticized Mr. Obama’s willingness to spend
more freely on domestic programs and urged him to provide General McChrystal
with the resources he is seeking in Afghanistan.
“Keeping our country safe: Isn’t that the first job of government?” said Senator
Christopher S. Bond, a Republican from Missouri and the vice chairman of the
Senate Intelligence Committee. “If we have just a minimalist counterterrorism
strategy, the Taliban will come back over the mountains from Pakistan, and they
will be followed by their co-conspirators from the Al Qaeda organization.”
Cost is far from the only concern about escalating the war. The debate
intensified last week amid disclosures that the United States ambassador to
Afghanistan, Karl W. Eikenberry, had sent cables to Washington expressing his
reservations about deploying additional troops, citing weak Afghan leadership
and widening corruption.
That kind of doubt could also make some in Congress hesitant to support an
expansion of the war, especially with the midterm elections coming next year.
Representative David R. Obey, a Democrat from Wisconsin who heads the House
Appropriations Committee, said recently that sending more troops to Afghanistan
could drain the Treasury and “devour virtually any other priorities that the
president or anyone in Congress had.”
Representative John Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania and chairman of a
subcommittee on defense appropriations, said in an interview that because of
concerns about President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, he thought a majority of
the 258 Democrats in the House would vote against any bill to pay for more
troops. “A month ago, I would have said 60 to 70,” he said.
“Can you pass one?” Mr. Murtha said. “It depends on the Republicans.”
Mr. Murtha said he opposed sending more troops, though he would support any
decision Mr. Obama made. He said he was concerned that even without a
supplemental bill, total spending on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would surge
past $1 trillion next year, which could hamper the economy for years to come.
Others said some Republicans could find it hard to justify a yes vote on troops
after criticizing Mr. Obama for his spending. Some liberal Democrats said voters
who had been drawn to Mr. Obama for his early opposition to the Iraq war could
become disenchanted if he approved a major expansion in Afghanistan.
“In the times we’re in right now, I just totally believe that the public that
elected President Obama really wants to see something different,” said
Representative Lynn Woolsey, Democrat of California.
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama was careful to say that he would not
cut military spending while the nation was engaged in two wars. He also said it
was important to shore up the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. And
shortly after he took office, he approved sending an additional 21,000 soldiers
there, bringing the total American force to 68,000.
Still, many of his supporters assumed that his pledges to withdraw from Iraq,
and to rein in the cost overruns on high-tech weapons programs, would still
produce significant savings.
But even though Mr. Obama has won battles to cancel the F-22 fighter plane and
other advanced programs, the immediate savings have been offset by increased
spending on the surveillance drones and mine-resistant vehicles needed in the
And he recently signed a $680 billion military authorization bill for fiscal
2010 that represented a 2.7 percent increase over the 2009 spending level and a
1.9 percent increase over President Bush’s peak budget in fiscal 2008.
The administration has projected that spending on Iraq would drop by $25.8
billion in fiscal 2010, to $60.8 billion, as most of the troops withdraw.
It also expected spending on the Afghanistan war to increase by $18.5 billion in
fiscal 2010, to $65.4 billion, for a net savings on the two wars of $7.3
billion, if no more troops were added.
High Costs Weigh on
Troop Debate for Afghan War, NYT, 15.11.2009,
Allies Uncover Vast Cache
of Bomb Material in Afghanistan
November 11, 2009
The New York Times
By DEXTER FILKINS
KABUL, Afghanistan —With fertilizer bombs now the most lethal weapons used
against American and NATO soldiers in southern Afghanistan, the operation in
Kandahar was something close to astonishing.
In a pair of raids on Sunday, Afghan police and American soldiers discovered a
half-million pounds of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that is used in the
overwhelming majority of homemade bombs here. Some 2,000 bomb-making devices
like timers and triggers were also found, and 15 Afghans were detained.
With a typical homemade bomb weighing no more than 60 pounds, the seizure of
that much fertilizer — more than 10 tractor-trailer loads — removed potentially
thousands of bombs from the streets and trails of southern Afghanistan,
“You can turn a bag of ammonium nitrate into a bomb in a matter hours,” said
Col. Mark Lee, who heads NATO’s effort to stop the bombmakers in southern
Afghanistan. “This is a great first step.”
The operation in the southern city of Kandahar, which announced Tuesday, is by
far the largest of its type. Ammonium nitrate is illegal in Afghanistan; farmers
here are allowed to use other types, like urea-based fertilizer, on their crops.
Most of the ammonium nitrate fertilizer in Afghanistan is believed to be
imported from Pakistan.
Ammonium nitrate has long been used as both a fertilizer and an explosive.
Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols used a 600-pound ammonium nitrate bomb, mixed
with fuel oil, to attack the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The
attack killed 168 people.
The seizure in Kandahar came on the heels of a number of initiatives aimed at
taking the fertilizer out of the hands of Taliban insurgents. Until this month,
Afghan and NATO officials could only seize ammonium nitrate if it was clearly
associated with insurgent activity. Now, they can seize it regardless. If the
police or soldiers seize ammonium fertilizer from farmers, they are legally
obliged to compensate them for it.
On Sunday, Afghan police officers and American soldiers, acting on intelligence,
went first to a compound in the southern part of the city and found 1,000
100-pounds bags of ammonium nitrate and 2,000 bomb-making components. They
detained 15 people there. They were then led to a second compound a short
distance away, where they found 4,000 100-pounds bags of the fertilizer.
On Tuesday, Afghans and Americans were still carting the ammonium nitrate away;
so far, officials said, they had filled 10 40-foot long shipping containers with
The statistics surrounding homemade bombs tell much of the story of the Afghan
The use of homemade bombs, the leading killer of American and NATO soldiers, has
been skyrocketing. Last year, 4,100 bombs either exploded or were discovered
beforehand in Afghanistan. So far this year, 6,500 bombs have either been found
or have gone off, military officials in Kabul said.
About 60 percent of homemade bombs are discovered here before they explode,
officials in Kabul say.
The overwhelming majority of homemade bombs here, about 75 percent, are in
southern Afghanistan, in places like Kandahar and Helmand Provinces. Most of the
17,000 additional troops dispatched to the country earlier this year by
President Obama went to those places.
While homemade bombs are the leading killer of American and other NATO soldiers,
about 70 percent of those killed and wounded in such attacks are Afghan,
“It’s the Afghans who are bearing the brunt,” Colonel Lee said.
Allies Uncover Vast
Cache of Bomb Material in Afghanistan, NYT, 11.11.2009,
When Soldiers Snap
November 8, 2009
The New York Times
By ERICA GOODE
“Every man has his breaking point,” said military doctors in World War II,
believing that more than 90 days of continuous combat could turn any soldier
into a psychiatric casualty.
For Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who military officials said
gunned down dozens of soldiers at Fort Hood, Tex., on Thursday, that point may
have come even before he experienced the reality of war; he was bound for a
combat zone but had not yet embarked.
Major Hasan was being sent not to fight, but to join those ranks of doctors who,
over centuries of war, have worried about breaking points — how much fear and
tedium soldiers can take; how long they can slog through deserts or over
mountains; how much blood they can see, how many comrades they can lose — and
have sought ways to salve the troops’ psychic wounds and keep them fighting.
Much is unknown about Major Hasan’s motives. He is said to have dreaded
deployment, but what he feared is unclear. And officials have not ruled out the
possibility that his actions were premeditated or political. One report had him
shouting something like “Allahu Akhbar” — Arabic for “God is Great” — before the
But even in this absence of certainty, his case invites a look at the long
history of psychiatric medicine in war, if only because of his status as a
battlefield psychiatrist, and the chance that his own psyche was, on some level,
undone by the kind of stress he treated.
Over the centuries, soldiers have often broken under such stress, and in modern
times each generation of psychiatrists has felt it was closer to understanding
what makes soldiers break. But each generation has also been confounded by the
unpredictability with which aggressions sometimes explode, in a fury no one sees
The current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed more than their share of
stress victims, with a rising number of suicides among soldiers and high rates
of post-traumatic stress disorder. Such casualties often occur not on the
battlefield but after it — or, sometimes, merely in its proximity.
In World War I, the disorder was known as shell shock, and the soldiers who fell
victim were at first believed to have concussions from exploding munitions.
Their symptoms appeared neurological: They included trembling, paralysis, a loss
of sight or hearing.
Yet it turned out that some affected soldiers had been nowhere near an exploding
shell, suggesting “that the syndrome could arise in anticipation of going into a
stressful situation,” said Dr. Richard McNally, a professor of psychology at
Harvard and an expert on traumatic stress.
Some doctors devised methods to treat shell shock victims — one German doctor
tried electroshock to the limbs. But there was also widespread suspicions that
the soldiers were malingering. Some soldiers were shot for cowardice.
Yet shell shock was simply the Great War’s version of a reaction to combat that
has been detected even in the writings of antiquity. Achilles, Jonathan Shay
maintains in “Achilles in Vietnam,” (Scribner, 1994) displayed a form of
traumatic stress when in the Iliad he grieves over the death of his friend
Soldiers in the Civil War suffered from irritability, disturbed sleep, shortness
of breath and depression, a syndrome Jacob Mendes Da Costa, an Army surgeon,
described in 1871 as “irritable heart.”
In World War II, the paralysis and trembling of the early 1900s did not recur.
But nightmares, startled reactions, anxiety and other symptoms persisted as
“battle fatigue” or “war neurosis,” a condition whose treatment was heavily
influenced by the rise of Freudian psychoanalysis.
Out of that war emerged a theory of battlefield treatment known as PIE, or
proximity, immediacy and expectancy. The doctrine held that if a soldier broke
down during combat, he should be treated close to the front, because if he was
sent home, he would do poorly and seldom return to battle. Major Hasan, had he
reached Iraq, would have practiced a similar approach: Soldiers are treated
close to the forward lines and only removed to hospitals farther from the front
in the most severe cases.
Today, the flashbacks, nightmares and other symptoms of soldiers are diagnosed
as post-traumatic stress disorder or P.T.S.D., a term that replaced
“post-Vietnam syndrome” and entered the official nomenclature in 1980, appearing
in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual. Like its
predecessors, the disorder has been easier to diagnose than it has been to
understand or to treat.
Research has yielded some treatments that studies show help soldiers, and the
military — now acutely aware of the problem — has taken steps to make the
methods widely available. Yet the history of treatments for combat stress has
often been a circular one, with experts “remembering and forgetting and
remembering and forgetting but never integrating and creating a lasting
narrative that could be a blueprint for going forward,” as one psychiatrist put
Similarly, scientific views of what makes soldiers susceptible to stress
disorders have waxed and waned. Some experts, in a modern echo of a view put
forward in World War II, argue that soldiers who develop P.T.S.D. have
longstanding vulnerabilities — psychological or physiological — that make them
unable to withstand the pressures of combat. Others assert, in agreement with
the military doctors of World War I, that every soldier simply has a breaking
point, and that multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed to
the numbers who return to a second, psychological war at home.
Yet no theory seems able to capture the unpredictable effects of sustained
violence on human beings, the subtle pressures that years of killing and more
killing exert on a soldier, a doctor or a society — or the reality that every
war travels home with the soldiers who fight it.
“All these people have been under a tremendous amount of stress,” said Dr.
Stephen Sonnenberg, a psychiatrist and adjunct professor at the Uniformed
Services University of the Health Sciences, speaking of soldiers and those who
treat them. “They are holding the stress for everybody.”
When Soldiers Snap, NYT,
Transcripts of Defeat
October 29, 2009
The New York Times
By VICTOR SEBESTYEN
THE highly decorated general sat opposite his commander in chief and explained
the problems his army faced fighting in the hills around Kabul: “There is no
piece of land in Afghanistan that has not been occupied by one of our soldiers
at some time or another,” he said. “Nevertheless much of the territory stays in
the hands of the terrorists. We control the provincial centers, but we cannot
maintain political control over the territory we seize.
“Our soldiers are not to blame. They’ve fought incredibly bravely in adverse
conditions. But to occupy towns and villages temporarily has little value in
such a vast land where the insurgents can just disappear into the hills.” He
went on to request extra troops and equipment. “Without them, without a lot more
men, this war will continue for a very, very long time,” he said.
These sound as if they could be the words of Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the
top American commander in Afghanistan, to President Obama in recent days or
weeks. In fact, they were spoken by Sergei Akhromeyev, the commander of the
Soviet armed forces, to the Soviet Union’s Politburo on Nov. 13, 1986.
Soviet forces were then in the seventh year of their nine-year-long Afghan
conflict, and Marshal Akhromeyev, a hero of the Leningrad siege in World War II,
was trying to explain why a force of nearly 110,000 well-equipped soldiers from
one of the world’s two superpowers was appearing to be humiliated by bands of
“terrorists,” as the Soviets often called the mujahideen.
The minutes of Akhromeyev’s meeting with the Politburo were recently unearthed
by American and Russian scholars of the cold war — these and other materials
substantially expand our knowledge of the Soviet Union’s disastrous campaign. As
President Obama contemplates America’s own future in Afghanistan, he would be
well advised to read some of these revealing Politburo papers; he might also
pick up a few riveting memoirs of Soviet generals who fought there. These
sources show as many similarities between the two wars as differences — and may
provide the administration with some valuable counsel.
Much of the fighting during the Soviet war in Afghanistan was in places that
have grown familiar to us now, like Kandahar and Helmand Provinces. The Soviets’
main base of operations was Bagram, which is now the United States Army
headquarters. Over the years, the Soviets changed their tactics frequently, but
much of the time they were trying and failing to pacify the country’s
problematic south and east, often conducting armed sweeps along the border with
Pakistan, through which many of the guerrillas moved, as the Taliban do now.
That war was characterized by disputes between soldiers and politicians. As
Russian documents show, the politicians ordered the invasion against the advice
of the armed forces. The chief of the Soviet Defense Staff, Marshal Nikolai
Ogarkov, raised doubts shortly before Soviet forces were dispatched on Christmas
Day 1979. He told Dmitri Ustinov — the long-serving defense minister who had
been a favorite of Stalin — that experience from the British and czarist armies
in the 19th century should encourage caution. Ustinov replied: “Are the generals
now making policy in the Soviet Union? Your job is to plan specific operations
and carry them out ... . Shut up and obey orders.”
Ogarkov went further up the chain of command to the Communist Party boss, Leonid
Brezhnev. He warned that an invasion “could mire us in unfamiliar, difficult
conditions and would align the entire Islamic East against us.” He was cut off
mid-sentence: “Focus on military matters,” Brezhnev ordered. “Leave the
policymaking to us.”
The Soviet leaders realized they had blundered soon after the invasion.
Originally, the mission was simply to support the Communist government — the
result of a coup Moscow had initially tried to prevent, and then had no choice
but to back — and then get out within a few months. But the mujahideen’s jihad
against the godless Communists had enormous popular support within the country,
and from outside. Money and sophisticated weapons poured in from America and
Saudi Arabia, through Pakistan.
The Soviets saw withdrawal as potentially fatal to their prestige in the cold
war, so they became mired deeper and deeper in their failed occupation. For
years, the Soviets heavily bombarded towns and villages, killing thousands of
civilians and making themselves even more loathed by Afghans. Whatever tactics
the Soviets adopted the result was the same: renewed aggression from their
opponents. The mujahideen, for example, laid down thousands of anti-tank mines
to attack Russian troop convoys, much as the Taliban are now using homemade
bombs to strike at American soldiers on patrol, as well as Afghan civilians.
“About 99 percent of the battles and skirmishes that we fought in Afghanistan
were won by our side,” Marshal Akhromeyev told his superiors in November 1986.
“The problem is that the next morning there is the same situation as if there
had been no battle. The terrorists are again in the village where they were — or
we thought they were — destroyed a day or so before.” Listen to a coalition
spokesman now explaining the difficulties its forces are facing in tough
terrain, and it would be hard to hear a difference.
There are many in Washington now calling on President Obama to cut his losses
and find an exit strategy from Afghanistan. Even if he agreed, it may not be an
easy business. When Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader in March 1985 he
called Afghanistan “our bleeding wound.” He declared that ending the war was his
top priority. But he could not do it without losing face.
The Soviet leadership fatally prevaricated. Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze
wanted to pull out of Afghanistan immediately and blame Kremlin predecessors for
the unpopular war. So too did Mr. Gorbachev’s most important adviser, the
godfather of the perestroika and glasnost reforms, Aleksandr Yakovlev.
But Mr. Gorbachev dithered, searching for something he could call victory, or at
least that other elusive prize for armies in trouble: peace with honor. “How to
get out racks one’s brains,” Mr. Gorbachev complained in the spring of 1986,
according to Politburo minutes. “We have been fighting there for six years. If
we don’t start changing our approach we’ll be there another 20 or 30 years. We
have not learned how to wage war there.”
Mr. Gorbachev was also haunted by the image of the last Americans leaving Saigon
in panic: “We cannot leave in our underpants ... or without any,” he told his
chief foreign policy aide, Anatoly Chernyayev, whose diaries have recently
become available to scholars. Chernyayev himself called Afghanistan “our
Vietnam. But worse.”
Withdrawal was a long, drawn-out agony. By the time the last troops left in
February 1989, around 15,000 Soviet soldiers and 800,000 Afghans had died. “We
must say that our people have not given their lives in vain,” Mr. Gorbachev told
the Politburo. But even his masterful public relations skills could not mask the
humiliation of defeat. Indeed, it marked the beginning of the end for the Soviet
empire in Europe, as revolution swept through Eastern Europe in 1989, and of the
Soviet Union itself two years later.
In 1988, Robert Gates, then the deputy director of the C.I.A., made a wager with
Michael Armacost, then undersecretary of state. He bet $25 that the Soviet Army
wouldn’t leave Afghanistan. The Soviets retreated in humiliation soon after. Mr.
Gates, we can assume, paid up. But is there a gambling man out there who would
lay money on the United States Army withdrawing in similarly humbling fashion?
And would the defense secretary accept the bet?
Victor Sebestyen is the author of “Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet
Transcripts of Defeat,
Obama Visits Returning War Dead
October 30, 2009
The New York Times
By JEFF ZELENY
President Obama traveled to Dover Air Force Base early Thursday morning,
where he met with family members and paid his respects as the bodies of 18
Americans killed this week in Afghanistan were returned to the United States.
It was the president’s first trip to the Delaware air base, the main point of
entry for the nation’s war dead to return home. The trip was a symbolic one for
Mr. Obama — intended to convey the gravity of his decision as he moves closer to
announcing whether he will send more troops to Afghanistan.
The overnight trip was not announced in advance. The president, wearing a dark
suit and long overcoat, left the White House at 11:44 p.m. A small contingent of
reporters and photographers accompanied Mr. Obama to Dover, where he arrived at
12:34 a.m. aboard Marine One. He returned to the South Lawn of the White House
at 4:45 a.m.
October has been the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the
war began eight years ago, with at least 55 troops killed in action. This week
alone, about two dozen soldiers have died in attacks and accidents. The bodies
returning to Dover Air Force Base shortly after midnight included seven Army
soldiers and three agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration who were
killed when their helicopter crashed on Monday in rural Afghanistan. The bodies
of eight soldiers killed in an attack on Monday also arrived on an Air Force
On a clear fall morning, Mr. Obama boarded the back of the gray plane at 3:40
a.m., standing watch as Air Force Chaplain, Maj. Richard S. Bach, offered a
brief prayer over the cases containing the remains of the 15 soldiers and three
The family of Army Sgt. Dale R. Griffin, 29, of Terre Haute, Ind., agreed to
have the transfer of his remains photographed early Thursday morning. The other
families chose not to, officials said, under a new Pentagon policy that lifted
an 18-year ban on media covering the return of U.S. service members killed in
action if families provide permission.
As the Commander-in-chief stood on the darkened tarmac and saluted, the
flag-draped case was unloaded from the cargo plane in what the military calls a
“dignified transfer,” as six soldiers in white gloves and camouflage fatigues
carried the remains in precision. Mr. Obama and uniformed officers stood at
attention as the case was placed in a white mortuary van parked nearby.
The transfer of the bodies — a solemn, 15-minute proceeding — took place after
Mr. Obama spent nearly two hours meeting privately with several family members
in the chapel of the Air Force base.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, traveled with the president to
Dover. He told reporters earlier that Mr. Obama was “probably getting to the
end” of his decision-making process on his military plans for Afghanistan. The
recent rise in violence would not necessarily influence the strategy, he said,
but it was weighing on the president.
“The hardest task that he has on any given day is signing the condolence letter
to a loved one who’s lost a son or a daughter or a husband, a wife, in Iraq or
Afghanistan, or serving our country overseas,” Mr. Gibbs said.
The trip early Thursday morning came several hours after Mr. Obama signed a
defense spending bill, which he said “reaffirms our commitment to our brave men
and women in uniform and our wounded warriors.” Three days ago, Mr. Obama spoke
to soldiers and Marines at a Naval Air Station in Florida, where he defended
himself against critics who have suggested that he is taking too long to
announce a new military strategy in Afghanistan.
“I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm’s way,” Mr.
The images and the sentiment of the president’s five-hour trip to Delaware were
intended by the White House to convey to the nation that Mr. Obama was not
making his Afghanistan decision lightly or in haste.
The president returned to the White House less than three hours before sunrise
on Thursday morning. He will meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Friday, his
seventh major session on Afghanistan since beginning his review.
Doug Mills contributed reporting from Dover, Del.
Obama Visits Returning
War Dead, NYT, 30.10.2009,
Brother of Afghan Leader
Is Said to Be on C.I.A. Payroll
October 28, 2009
The New York Times
By DEXTER FILKINS,
and JAMES RISEN
This article is by Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti and James Risen.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president
and a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal opium trade, gets
regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency, and has for much of the
past eight years, according to current and former American officials.
The agency pays Mr. Karzai for a variety of services, including helping to
recruit an Afghan paramilitary force that operates at the C.I.A.’s direction in
and around the southern city of Kandahar, Mr. Karzai’s home.
The financial ties and close working relationship between the intelligence
agency and Mr. Karzai raise significant questions about America’s war strategy,
which is currently under review at the White House.
The ties to Mr. Karzai have created deep divisions within the Obama
administration. The critics say the ties complicate America’s increasingly tense
relationship with President Hamid Karzai, who has struggled to build sustained
popularity among Afghans and has long been portrayed by the Taliban as an
American puppet. The C.I.A.’s practices also suggest that the United States is
not doing everything in its power to stamp out the lucrative Afghan drug trade,
a major source of revenue for the Taliban.
More broadly, some American officials argue that the reliance on Ahmed Wali
Karzai, the most powerful figure in a large area of southern Afghanistan where
the Taliban insurgency is strongest, undermines the American push to develop an
effective central government that can maintain law and order and eventually
allow the United States to withdraw.
“If we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan, and we
are perceived as backing thugs, then we are just undermining ourselves,” said
Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the senior American military intelligence official
Ahmed Wali Karzai said in an interview that he cooperated with American civilian
and military officials, but did not engage in the drug trade and did not receive
payments from the C.I.A.
The relationship between Mr. Karzai and the C.I.A. is wide ranging, several
American officials said. He helps the C.I.A. operate a paramilitary group, the
Kandahar Strike Force, that is used for raids against suspected insurgents and
terrorists. On at least one occasion, the strike force has been accused of
mounting an unauthorized operation against an official of the Afghan government,
the officials said.
Mr. Karzai is also paid for allowing the C.I.A. and American Special Operations
troops to rent a large compound outside the city — the former home of Mullah
Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s founder. The same compound is also the base of the
Kandahar Strike Force. “He’s our landlord,” a senior American official said,
speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Mr. Karzai also helps the C.I.A. communicate with and sometimes meet with
Afghans loyal to the Taliban. Mr. Karzai’s role as a go-between between the
Americans and the Taliban is now regarded as valuable by those who support
working with Mr. Karzai, as the Obama administration is placing a greater focus
on encouraging Taliban leaders to change sides.
A C.I.A. spokesman declined to comment for this article.
“No intelligence organization worth the name would ever entertain these kind of
allegations,” said Paul Gimigliano, the spokesman.
Some American officials said that the allegations of Mr. Karzai’s role in the
drug trade were not conclusive.
“There’s no proof of Ahmed Wali Karzai’s involvement in drug trafficking,
certainly nothing that would stand up in court,” said one American official
familiar with the intelligence. “And you can’t ignore what the Afghan government
has done for American counterterrorism efforts.”
At the start of the Afghan war, just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the
United States, American officials paid warlords with questionable backgrounds to
help topple the Taliban and maintain order with relatively few American troops
committed to fight in the country. But as the Taliban has become resurgent and
the war has intensified, Americans have increasingly viewed a strong and
credible central government as crucial to turning back the Taliban’s advances.
Now, with more American lives on the line, the relationship with Mr. Karzai is
setting off anger and frustration among American military officers and other
officials in the Obama administration. They say that Mr. Karzai’s suspected role
in the drug trade, as well as what they describe as the mafialike way that he
lords over southern Afghanistan, makes him a malevolent force.
These military and political officials say the evidence, though largely
circumstantial, suggests strongly that Mr. Karzai has enriched himself by
helping the illegal trade in poppy and opium to flourish. The assessment of
these military and senior officials in the Obama administration dovetails with
that of senior officials in the Bush administration.
“Hundreds of millions of dollars in drug money are flowing through the southern
region, and nothing happens in southern Afghanistan without the regional
leadership knowing about it,” a senior American military officer in Kabul said.
Like most of the officials in this article, he spoke on the condition of
anonymity because of the secrecy of the information.
“If it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck,” the
American officer said of Mr. Karzai. “Our assumption is that he’s benefiting
from the drug trade.”
American officials say that Afghanistan’s opium trade, the largest in the world,
directly threatens the stability of the Afghan state, by providing a large
percentage of the money the Taliban needs for its operations, and also by
corrupting Afghan public officials to help the trade flourish.
The Obama administration has repeatedly vowed to crack down on the drug lords
who are believed to permeate the highest levels of President Karzai’s
administration. They have pressed him to move his brother out of southern
Afghanistan, but he has so far refused to do so.
Other Western officials pointed to evidence that Ahmed Wali Karzai orchestrated
the manufacture of hundreds of thousands of phony ballots for his brother’s
re-election effort in August. He is also believed to have been responsible for
setting up dozens of so-called ghost polling stations — existing only on paper —
that were used to manufacture tens of thousands of phony ballots.
“The only way to clean up Chicago is to get rid of Capone,” General Flynn said.
In the interview in which he denied a role in the drug trade or taking money
from the C.I.A., Ahmed Wali Karzai said he received regular payments from his
brother, the president, for “expenses,” but said he did not know where the money
came from. He has, among other things, introduced Americans to insurgents
considering changing sides. And he has given the Americans intelligence, he
said. But he said he was not compensated for that assistance.
“I don’t know anyone under the name of the C.I.A.,” Mr. Karzai said. “I have
never received any money from any organization. I help, definitely. I help other
Americans wherever I can. This is my duty as an Afghan.”
Mr. Karzai acknowledged that the C.I.A. and Special Operations troops stayed at
Mullah Omar’s old compound. And he acknowledged that the Kandahar Strike Force
was based there. But he said he had no involvement with them.
A former C.I.A. officer with experience in Afghanistan said the agency relied
heavily on Ahmed Wali Karzai, and often based covert operatives at compounds he
owned. Any connections Mr. Karzai might have had to the drug trade mattered
little to C.I.A. officers focused on counterterrorism missions, the officer
“Virtually every significant Afghan figure has had brushes with the drug trade,”
he said. “If you are looking for Mother Teresa, she doesn’t live in
The debate over Ahmed Wali Karzai, which began when President Obama took office
in January, intensified in June, when the C.I.A.’s local paramilitary group, the
Kandahar Strike Force, shot and killed Kandahar’s provincial police chief,
Matiullah Qati, in a still-unexplained shootout at the office of a local
The circumstances surrounding Mr. Qati’s death remain shrouded in mystery. It is
unclear, for instance, if any agency operatives were present — but officials say
the firefight broke out when Mr. Qati tried to block the strike force from
freeing the brother of a task force member who was being held in custody.
“Matiullah was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Mr. Karzai said in the
Counternarcotics officials have repeatedly expressed frustration over the
unwillingness of senior policy makers in Washington to take action against Mr.
Karzai — or even begin a serious investigation of the allegations against him.
In fact, they say that while other Afghans accused of drug involvement are
investigated and singled out for raids or even rendition to the United States,
Mr. Karzai has seemed immune from similar scrutiny.
For years, first the Bush administration and then the Obama administration have
said that the Taliban benefits from the drug trade, and the United States
military has recently expanded its target list to include drug traffickers with
ties to the insurgency. The military has generated a list of 50 top drug
traffickers tied to the Taliban who can now be killed or captured.
Senior Afghan investigators say they know plenty about Mr. Karzai’s involvement
in the drug business. In an interview in Kabul this year, a top former Afghan
Interior Ministry official familiar with Afghan counternarcotics operations said
that a major source of Mr. Karzai’s influence over the drug trade was his
control over key bridges crossing the Helmand River on the route between the
opium growing regions of Helmand Province and Kandahar.
The former Interior Ministry official said that Mr. Karzai was able to charge
huge fees to drug traffickers to allow their drug-laden trucks to cross the
But the former officials said it was impossible for Afghan counternarcotics
officials to investigate Mr. Karzai. “This government has become a factory for
the production of Talibs because of corruption and injustice,” the former
Some American counternarcotics officials have said they believe that Mr. Karzai
has expanded his influence over the drug trade, thanks in part to American
efforts to single out other drug lords.
In debriefing notes from Drug Enforcement Administration interviews in 2006 of
Afghan informants obtained by The New York Times, one key informant said that
Ahmed Wali Karzai had benefited from the American operation that lured Hajji
Bashir Noorzai, a major Afghan drug lord during the time that the Taliban ruled
Afghanistan, to New York in 2005. Mr. Noorzai was convicted on drug and
conspiracy charges in New York in 2008, and was sentenced to life in prison this
Habibullah Jan, a local military commander and later a member of Parliament from
Kandahar, told the D.E.A. in 2006 that Mr. Karzai had teamed with Haji Juma Khan
to take over a portion of the Noorzai drug business after Mr. Noorzai’s arrest.
Dexter Filkins reported from Kabul, and Mark Mazzetti and James Risen from
Washington. Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Washington.
Brother of Afghan Leader
Is Said to Be on C.I.A. Payroll, NYT, 28.10.2009,
8 U.S. Troops Are Killed
in Bombings in Afghanistan
October 28, 2009
The New York Times
By ALISSA J. RUBIN
KABUL, Afghanistan — Eight Americans died in combat in southern Afghanistan
on Tuesday, bringing October’s total to 53 and making it the deadliest month for
Americans in the eight-year war. September and October were both deadlier months
overall for NATO troops.
The troops, along with an Afghan civilian accompanying them, were killed in
several attacks involving “multiple, complex” improvised bombs, according to a
statement from the NATO-led coalition.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, said that Taliban in Zabul Province
were responsible. He said they had blown up two armored vehicles carrying the
troops. He also said that the Taliban had engaged in a fierce firefight lasting
more than a half-hour with Afghan police in Zabul and killed eight officers. His
report could not be verified because the American military is with-holding
additional information until the families of the dead had been notified.
On Oct. 26, two incidents involving helicopter crashes resulted in the death of
eleven American troops and three drug enforcement agents, but hostile fire was
almost certainly not a factor in those cases, according to a military spokesman.
The October toll of 53 American soldiers killed exceeds that of August, when 51
died, according to icasualties.org, a Web site that tracks military losses in
Afghanistan and Iraq.
The United States has been increasing the number of soldiers and marines in
Afghanistan and many have gone into some of the toughest areas of the country.
Southern Afghanistan has been the most contested ground with both locally-based
insurgents and fighters that cross the border from Pakistan.
“A loss like this is extremely difficult for the families as well as for those
who served alongside these brave service members,” said Capt. Jane Campbell of
the Navy, a spokeswoman for the international troops.
The mounting casualties come as President Barack Obama is deliberating over
whether to send more troops to Afghanistan and whether to undertake a full
counter-insurgency strategy, which requires a larger commitment of resources.
The American public is split on whether to put more troops in harm’s way.
Also on Tuesday, the American and NATO-led forces said an Army plane that had
been missing since Oct. 13 was found with the remains of three civilian crew
members on Oct. 21 in the high mountains of northeastern Afghanistan over
Nuristan Province, where the military has been conducting extensive operations.
The army said the plane’s disappearance had not been announced until recovery
efforts were complete.
The aircraft was stripped of all sensitive materials and destroyed in place,
according to a statement from the NATO-led forces. The case is under
investigation, but the military said it did not think that hostile action was
the cause of the crash.
Taimoor Shah contributed reporting.
8 U.S. Troops Are Killed
in Bombings in Afghanistan, NYT, 28.10.2009,
4 U.S. Soldiers Die
in Afghan Helicopter Collision
October 27, 2009
The New York Times
By DEXTER FILKINS
KABUL — Four American soldiers were killed Monday when two helicopters
collided in flight in southern Afghanistan, a military spokeswoman said, adding
that gunfire from insurgents was not to blame.
Another helicopter crash on Monday, in western Afghanistan, involved American
and Afghan soldiers and caused “deaths and injuries,” said the spokeswoman,
Capt. Elizabeth Mathias.
She would not specify an exact location of the crash but said the military was
“98 percent sure that insurgent activity was not involved.”
Both incidents, Captain Mathias said, were being investigated.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said it conducted four
operations in eastern and southern Afghanistan on Sunday, killing several
insurgents and detaining six suspected militants.
On Saturday, the coalition said in a brief statement, an American soldier was
killed by an improvised explosive device in southern Afghanistan.
4 U.S. Soldiers Die in
Afghan Helicopter Collision, NYT, 27.10.2009,
The Vietnam War We Ignore
October 18, 2009
The New York Times
By LEWIS SORLEY
AS President Obama and his advisers contemplate a new course for Afghanistan,
many commentators are suggesting analogies with earlier conflicts, particularly
the war in Vietnam. Such comparisons can be useful, but only if the
characterizations of earlier wars are accurate and lessons are appropriately
Vietnam is particularly tricky. While avoiding the missteps made there is of
course a priority, few seem aware of the many successful changes in strategy
undertaken in the later years of the conflict. The credit for those
accomplishments goes in large part to three men: Ellsworth Bunker, who became
the American ambassador to South Vietnam in 1967; William Colby, the C.I.A.
officer in charge of rural “pacification” efforts; and Gen. Creighton Abrams,
who became the top American commander there in 1968.
A closer look at key aspects of how these men rethought their war may prove
instructive to those considering our options in Afghanistan today. Among their
principles were these:
Fight one war: Abrams, Bunker and Colby agreed that the war would be fought —
and won or lost — in the villages. They decided to put equal priority on all key
aspects of the war — thus the improvement of South Vietnam’s armed forces and
the elimination of covert Vietcong bases and refuges in rural areas were given
the same emphasis as large combat operations.
In Afghanistan, it is vital that American and NATO troops get out of their
protected bases to work alongside Afghan forces and build trust with civilians.
In some ways this may be trickier than in Vietnam, as our troops will have to
navigate the tribal and ethnic rivalries that have long divided Afghan society.
Rethink combat operations: The early strategy in Vietnam was to use large units
in “search and destroy” sweeps — often on ground of the enemy’s choosing in the
deep jungle. Abrams decided instead to try “clear and hold” operations, in which
small patrols were sent to villages to protect the populace. These troops were
followed by South Vietnamese security forces — which Abrams made sure would get
better training and equipment and were integrated into the regular army — to
provide the “hold.”
In Afghanistan, combat does little good unless allied or Afghan forces remain
behind to keep the Taliban from simply moving back in.
Restrain the use of force: Early on, Abrams said, “My problem is colored blue.”
By that he meant that friendly forces (usually portrayed in blue on battle maps,
as contrasted to the enemy shown in red) were causing undue “collateral damage”
to the South Vietnamese people and their property. He reined in the use of heavy
firepower like artillery and tactical airstrikes.
Allied forces in Afghanistan may have to accept increased risks to themselves as
the price of protecting the population. There have been some grumblings that
they are hampered by the rules of engagement, and perhaps in platoon-level
operations that it true. But Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander
in Afghanistan, is right that Western forces have to cut down on civilian deaths
caused by air power and reckless use of force.
Create an effective central government: As Nguyen Van Thieu, who became South
Vietnam’s president in 1967, gained experience and influence, senior Americans
came to regard him as the “No. 1 pacification officer.” He traveled extensively,
promoting and evaluating local programs. And by 1972 his “Land to the Tiller”
initiative had achieved genuine land reform, distributing two and a half million
acres of land to nearly 400,000 farmers.
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has no signature triumph like Land to the
Tiller, nor has he made many efforts to reach out to average Afghans. Perhaps
Washington should make some of its support to his government contingent on
anticorruption efforts and delivering real services to his people.
Support local governments: In Vietnam, rural hamlets were able to elect their
own officials, who were sent to training sessions in the port city of Vung Tau.
President Thieu spoke to every class, emphasizing that they had to be “little
presidents” and make good use of the resources that the central government would
provide for economic growth, health care and schools.
Given the diversified population of Afghanistan there has been too much emphasis
on central government — if the Karzai government lags in giving money and
supplies to local and tribal leaders, the United States should consider doling
out more aid directly to them.
Gather intelligence: “The intelligence is the most important part of this whole
damn thing,” Abrams told a visiting officer. “And if that’s good, we can handle
anything.” The best way to root out the enemy’s secret bases in Vietnam was to
get good information from villagers and “ralliers,” former Vietcong rebels who
had switched sides.
In Afghanistan, a continuing security presence in contested areas will be key to
getting Afghans and former insurgents to aid the war effort. As long as they
fear Taliban reprisal, locals will stay silent.
Build the economy: Vietnam depended on rice, and widespread fighting and enemy
gains in early years took many acres of land out of cultivation. Pacification
efforts put some of that land back into production and re-opened local markets,
while the introduction of genetically engineered “miracle rice” greatly
increased yields. In Afghanistan, finding viable alternative crops for farmers
now growing opium poppies would seem to be a first order of business.
Improve security: Protection of the people (not body counts, as in the earlier
period) became the measure of progress in Vietnam. The appropriate metrics to
watch in Afghanistan are probably economic growth, the percentage of children
attending school and health data, along with freedom of movement within and
between population centers.
Control the borders: In South Vietnam, allied forces were never able to seal off
borders with Cambodia, Laos or North Vietnam. The self-imposed prohibitions
against going outside South Vietnam with ground forces allowed the enemy to use
border areas for training, supply routes and sanctuary.
Similarly, the Taliban uses the Pakistan border as its own barrier, and American
drone attacks can do only so much. Either Washington must find a way to get the
Pakistanis to step up the fight against the terrorists, or consider operations
across the border.
Maintain political support at home: All that was accomplished on the battlefield
in the latter years of Vietnam was lost when Congress, having tired of the whole
endeavor, drastically cut support for South Vietnam. Neither Lyndon Johnson nor
Richard Nixon was able to rally public and press support for the war.
President Obama has said that Afghanistan is a war of necessity. If so, he must
put his political capital behind it. As he and his advisers plan the new course
for the war, he must also come up with a new approach for selling it to Congress
and the American people.
Lewis Sorley, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, is the author of “A Better War:
The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam.”
The Vietnam War We
Ignore, NYT, 18.10.2009,
Taliban Fight Back
Against Pakistan Offensive
October 18, 2009
Filed at 1:27 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MIR ALI, Pakistan (AP) -- Militants fired on helicopter gunships and attacked
Pakistani troops advancing into their main sanctuary near the Afghan border,
residents and those fleeing reported Sunday, as the army pressed ahead with its
most critical offensive yet against al-Qaida and the Taliban.
The assault in South Waziristan comes following repeated requests from the U.S.
to take on the jihadists behind soaring terrorist attacks in the nuclear-armed
nation and al-Qaida and other extremists believed to be plotting strikes in the
The push involves mostly poorly equipped soldiers trained to fight conventional
wars, not counterinsurgency operations, who have failed in three other campaigns
in the mountainous region since 2001. Five soldiers and 11 militants have been
reported killed since the offensive began Saturday.
Reporters are blocked from visiting the region, but early accounts Sunday
suggested that the 30,000 troops were in for much tougher fight than in the Swat
Valley, another northeastern region that the army successfully wrestled away
from insurgents earlier this year.
''Militants are offering very tough resistance to any movement of troops,''
Ehsan Mahsud told The Associated Press in the town of Mir Ali, close to the
battle zone. He and a friend arrived there early Sunday after traveling through
He said the army appeared to be mostly relying on air strikes and artillery
against well-dug in militants who were occupying high ground. He said the
insurgents were firing heavy machine guns at helicopter gunships, forcing the
air force to use higher-flying jets.
The army is up against about 10,000 local militants and about 1,500 foreign
fighters, most of them from Central Asia. They control roughly 1,275 square
miles (3,310 square kilometers) of territory, or about half of South Waziristan,
in areas loyal to former militant chief Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a
U.S. missile strike in August.
A resident in the town of Wana in the heart of Taliban-territory said the
insurgents had left the town and were stationed on the borders of the region,
determined to block any advance in their territory, which has been under
militant control for several years.
''All the Taliban who used to be around here have gone to take their position to
protect the Mehsud boundary,'' Azamatullah Wazir said by phone. ''The army will
face difficulty to get in there.''
Intelligence officials said Saturday that the ground troops were advancing on
two flanks and a northern front of a central part of South Waziristan controlled
by the Mehsuds. The areas being surrounded include the insurgent bases of Ladha
and Makeen, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not
allowed to brief the media.
As many as 150,000 civilians -- possibly more -- have left in recent months
after the army made clear it was planning an assault. Most are believed to be
staying in rented homes or with host families, but there are perhaps as many as
350,000 still in the region. The United Nations has been stockpiling relief
supplies in a town near the region, but authorities are not expecting a major
refugee crisis like the one that occurred during an offensive this year in the
Swat Valley, also in the northwest.
Over the last three months, the Pakistani air force has been bombing targets,
while the army has said it has sealed off many Taliban supply and escape routes.
The military has been trying to secure the support of local tribal armies in the
At least 11 suspected insurgents were killed in the jet bombings, while a
roadside bomb hit a security convoy, killing one soldier and wounding three
others, two local intelligence officials said. A military statement Saturday
evening said four soldiers were killed and 12 wounded in exchanges in the
It is nearly impossible to independently verify information from the region,
which has little infrastructure or government presence. Foreigners require
permission to enter the tribal areas, and few Pakistani journalists from other
parts risk traveling there.
Rasool Dawar reported from Mir Ali, while Zarar Khan reported from Islamabad.
Taliban Fight Back
Against Pakistan Offensive, NYT, 18.10.2009,
4 U.S. Soldiers Killed in Afghanistan
October 17, 2009
The New York Times
By SHARON OTTERMAN
Two American soldiers were instantly killed and two others died of their
wounds after their patrol vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in southern
Afghanistan, military officials said on Friday.
The explosion took place sometime on Thursday, but no other information was
released, pending notification of family members, said Lt. j.g. Tommy Groves, a
Navy spokesman for American forces in Afghanistan.
In a separate episode, an Afghan woman and school-aged child were killed in
cross-fire in southeastern Afghanistan during an operation to find militants
suspected of carrying out a series of attacks, the international forces in
The Afghan national police and international forces were jointly carrying out
the operation in Ghazni Province when they came under fire from a two-story
building. After the firefight, during which a number of militants were killed,
the international forces entered the building and found the two wounded
civilians, who later died.
Their deaths sparked protests in a nearby town, Reuters reported. Civilian
casualties related to actions by international forces are highly contentious in
Afghanistan, and the anger they generate hurts the chances of success of the
international operation, according to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who took
command of foreign forces in Afghanistan in June, and other analysts. Protecting
Afghan civilians is the focal point of General McChrystal’s reworked strategic
plan for the war.
Reuters television images from the scene showed a group of Afghans huddled
together and crying over the two bodies. Later, a group of 100 angry Afghans
marched through a nearby village shouting “Death to America” and “Death to Hamid
Karzai,” the Afghan president, Reuters reported.
“House searches, killings and beatings of civilians have become daily business,”
one villager told Reuters.
The NATO command said in a statement that it was impossible to determine whether
fire from the militants or joint Afghan-international patrol had killed the
pair, and it expressed regret over the loss.
“Afghanistan continues to be a dangerous place, and we are genuinely sorry when
any Afghan civilians are killed,” said Col. Wayne Shanks, a press officer for
American and NATO-led forces. “Our operational planning tries to prevent any
casualties, but our enemy continues to engage our forces without regard for any
Afghan civilians in the area.”
4 U.S. Soldiers Killed in Afghanistan, NYT,
Biden No Longer
a Lone Voice on Afghanistan
The New York Times
October 14, 2009
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — A few hours after getting off a plane from America’s war zones,
Joseph R. Biden Jr. slipped into a chair, shook off his jet lag and reflected on
what he had seen. The situation in Iraq, he said, was much improved. In
Pakistan, he said he saw encouraging signs.
Then he came to Afghanistan and shook his head.
“It has deteriorated significantly,” he said. “It’s going to be a very heavy
That was six days before Mr. Biden was sworn in as vice president in January,
and just after he had met with President-elect Barack Obama, who had sent him on
the fact-finding mission to figure out just what the new administration was
inheriting. Mr. Biden’s assessment was even grimmer during his private meeting
with Mr. Obama, according to officials.
From the moment they took office, Mr. Biden has been Mr. Obama’s in-house
pessimist on Afghanistan, the strongest voice against further escalation of
American forces there and the leading doubter of the president’s strategy. It
was a role that may have been lonely at first, but has attracted more company
inside the White House as Mr. Obama rethinks the strategy he unveiled just seven
For Mr. Biden, a longtime senator who prided himself on his experience in
foreign relations, the role represents an evolution in his own thinking, a shift
from his days as a liberal hawk advocating for American involvement in
Afghanistan. Month by month, year by year, the story of Mr. Biden’s
disenchantment with the Afghan government, and by extension with the engagement
there, mirrors America’s slow but steady turn against the war, with just 37
percent supporting more troops in last week’s CBS News poll.
“He came to question some of the assumptions and began asking questions about
whether there might be other approaches that might get you as good or better
results at lower cost,” said Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on
Foreign Relations, who has been consulted by Mr. Biden on the matter.
Mr. Biden does not favor abandoning Afghanistan, but his approach would reject
the additional troops sought by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and leave the
American force in Afghanistan roughly the same, 68,000 troops. Rather than
emphasize protecting the Afghan population, he would accelerate training of
Afghans to take over the fight while hunting Al Qaeda in Pakistan using drones
and special forces. His view has caught on with many liberals in his party.
“The vice president is asking great questions and he understands this issue
very, very deeply,” said Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, Mr. Biden’s
successor as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “He’s been there many
times. He knows the issues and the personalities very well. He’s set out a good
Beyond Mr. Biden’s strategic concerns, some who participated in administration
deliberations earlier this year said he was keenly aware that the country, and
particularly his party’s liberal base, was growing tired of the war and might
not accept many more years of extensive American commitment.
“I think a big part of it is, the vice president’s reading of the Democratic
Party is this is not sustainable,” said Bruce O. Riedel, who led the
administration’s review this year. “That’s a part of the process that’s a
legitimate question for a president — if I do this, can I sustain it with
political support at home? That was the argument the vice president was making
back in the winter.”
But Mr. Riedel said the public could be persuaded to stick by the war with a
well-articulated argument by the president. And others, more harshly, argue that
Mr. Biden’s judgment on foreign policy has often been off base.
They point out that he voted against the successful Persian Gulf war of 1991,
voted for the Iraq invasion of 2003, proposed dividing Iraq into three sections
in 2006 and opposed the additional troops credited by many with turning Iraq
around in 2007.
“When was the last time Biden was right about anything?” Thomas E. Ricks, a
military writer, wrote in a blog on Sept. 24. Mr. Ricks is affiliated with the
Center for a New American Security, a research organization founded by
Mr. Biden’s office rejects that criticism. “From nuclear arms control to ending
ethnic cleansing in the Balkans to confronting the threat of terrorism, the vice
president has not only been right on many of the toughest questions of U.S.
foreign policy over the past 30 years, he has been consistently ahead of the
curve,” said Jay Carney, his communications director.
Mr. Biden’s journey on the American war in Afghanistan began where it did for
many political leaders. He strongly supported President George W. Bush’s
decision to topple the Taliban after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and after
traveling there in January 2002 was convinced that half-measures were not
When the United States invaded Iraq, Mr. Biden’s attention shifted, but he
eventually expressed concern that attention was being diverted from Afghanistan
and refocused on what Democrats were calling “the good war” as he opened his
campaign for president.
In January 2007, he opposed Mr. Bush’s troop buildup in Iraq by arguing that “if
we’re going to surge anywhere,” then it “should be Afghanistan.” In August of
that year, when Mr. Obama, too, proposed more troops for Afghanistan, Mr.
Biden’s camp responded with a statement calling him a “Johnny-come-lately” and
suggesting that it was “a little disingenuous” of Mr. Obama.
But by the time Mr. Biden traveled to Afghanistan again in February 2008, he was
rethinking his views, according to people close to him. He had grown sour on
President Hamid Karzai and the Kabul government’s pervasive corruption. During a
now-famous dinner, Mr. Biden became exasperated by Mr. Karzai’s denials about
corruption, threw down his napkin and declared, “This dinner is over.”
Mr. Biden also engaged in a tough talk with Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the NATO
commander in Afghanistan at the time.
“His concept was to keep a small footprint, have an offshore strategy as the
sole approach to seeking better security and stability in Afghanistan and focus
on counterterrorism and the hard-core ideologues who won’t change,” General
McNeill said. But the general disagreed: “It could lead to greater insecurity
and instability in that region.”
Mr. Biden had also been influenced by the difficult years in Iraq. “The Iraq
experience has been an important, formative one in the sense that Biden has been
much more aware that fighting insurgents is not entirely a military process,”
said Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser who has talked with
Mr. Biden about it.
When Mr. Biden visited Afghanistan in January for a third time, he returned
increasingly convinced that America’s national interest lay in Pakistan. With
fewer than 100 Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan, he reasoned, the nation was
investing disproportionate resources in the wrong country.
In an interview hours after he returned, Mr. Biden sounded deeply pessimistic.
“There’s very little governance, there’s significant corruption and the drug
trade is humongous,” he said. While some allies had been helpful, he said,
“others have dropped the ball considerably.” So Mr. Obama needed “fresh
assessment of and assertion of what the goal” should be.
Nine months later, Mr. Obama is reassessing his goal. While officials anticipate
that he will fall between the suggestions from Mr. Biden and his commanding
general in Afghanistan, they agree that Mr. Biden has shaped the choices — not
entirely unlike his predecessor, Dick Cheney.
“There are some ironic similarities to Cheney’s definition of the job and
Biden’s in one sense,” Mr. Haass said. “They’re both people who are not hobbled
by their own ambitions, they’re both experienced national security hands, and it
freed up Cheney and it frees up Biden to give an honest take.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.
Biden No Longer a Lone
Voice on Afghanistan, NYT, 14.10.2009,
A Dogged Taliban Chief Rebounds,
October 11, 2009
The New York Times
By SCOTT SHANE
WASHINGTON — In late 2001, Mullah Muhammad Omar’s prospects seemed utterly
bleak. The ill-educated, one-eyed leader of the Taliban had fled on a motorbike
after his fighters were swiftly routed by the Americans invading Afghanistan.
Much of the world celebrated his ouster, and Afghans cheered the return of
girls’ education, music and ordinary pleasures outlawed by the grim
Eight years later, Mullah Omar leads an insurgency that has gained steady ground
in much of Afghanistan against much better equipped American and NATO forces.
Far from a historical footnote, he represents a vexing security challenge for
the Obama administration, one that has consumed the president’s advisers,
divided Democrats and left many Americans frustrated.
“This is an amazing story,” said Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence
Agency officer who coordinated the Obama administration’s initial review of
Afghanistan policy in the spring. “He’s a semiliterate individual who has met
with no more than a handful of non-Muslims in his entire life. And he’s staged
one of the most remarkable military comebacks in modern history.”
American officials are weighing the significance of this comeback: Is Mullah
Omar the brains behind shrewd shifts of Taliban tactics and propaganda in recent
years, or does he have help from Pakistani intelligence? Might the Taliban be
amenable to negotiations, as Mullah Omar hinted in a Sept. 19 statement, or can
his network be divided and weakened in some other way? Or is the Taliban’s total
defeat required to ensure that Afghanistan will never again become a haven for
The man at the center of the American policy conundrum remains a mystery, the
subject of adoring mythmaking by his followers and guesswork by the world’s
intelligence agencies. He was born, by various accounts, in 1950 or 1959 or 1960
or 1962. He may be hiding near Quetta, Pakistan, or hunkered down in an Afghan
village. No one is sure.
“He can’t operate openly; there are too many people looking for him,” and the
eye he lost to Soviet shrapnel in the 1980s makes him recognizable, said Alex
Strick van Linschoten, a Dutch-born writer who lives in Kandahar, where Mullah
Omar’s movement was born, and who has helped a former Taliban official write a
“There are four or five people who can pass messages to Omar,” Mr. Strick van
Linschoten said. “And then there’s a circle of people who can get access to
those four or five people.”
Rahimullah Yusufzai, of The News International, a Pakistani newspaper, who
interviewed Mullah Omar a dozen times before 2001, called him “a man of few
words and not very knowledgeable about international affairs.” But his reputed
humility, his legend as a ferocious fighter against Soviet invaders in the
1980s, and his success in ending the lawlessness and bloody warlords’ feuds of
the early 1990s cemented his power.
“His followers adore him, believe in him and are willing to die for him,” Mr.
Yusufzai said. While even Taliban officials rarely see him, Mullah Omar “remains
an inspiration, sending out letters and audiotapes to his commanders and
fighters,” the journalist said.
A recent assessment by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American commander in
Afghanistan, identified the Taliban as the most important part of the
insurgency, coordinating “loosely” with groups led by two prominent warlords. He
concluded that “the insurgents currently have the initiative” and “the overall
situation is deteriorating.”
The statement from Mullah Omar, one of a series issued in his name on each of
the two annual Id holidays, offered a remarkably similar analysis. He, or his
ghostwriter, praised the success of “the gallant mujahedeen” in countering the
“sophisticated and cutting-edge technology” of the enemy, saying the Taliban
movement “is approaching the edge of victory.”
For a recluse, he showed a keen awareness of Western public opinion, touching on
the history that haunts foreign armies in Afghanistan (“We fought against the
British invaders for 80 years”), denouncing fraud in the recent presidential
election and asking of the American-led forces, “Have they achieved anything in
the past eight years?”
American military and intelligence analysts say the Taliban have definitely
achieved some things. They describe today’s Afghan Taliban as a franchise
operation, a decentralized network of fighters with varying motivations, united
by hostility to the Afghan government and foreign forces and by loyalty to
The Taliban have deployed fighters in small guerrilla units and stepped up the
use of suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices. The movement has
expanded military operations from the Taliban’s southern stronghold into the
north and west of the country, forcing NATO to spread its troops more thinly.
Day-to-day decisions are made by Mullah Omar’s deputies, in particular Mullah
Abdul Ghani Baradar, a skilled, pragmatic commander, who runs many meetings with
Taliban commanders and “shadow governors” appointed in much of the country,
Mullah Omar heads the Taliban’s Rahbari Shura, or leadership council, often
called the Quetta Shura since it relocated to the Pakistani city in 2002. The
shura, consisting of the Taliban commanders, “operates like the politburo of a
communist party,” setting broad strategy, said Mr. Yusufzai, the Pakistani
journalist. General McChrystal wrote in his assessment that the shura “conducts
a formal campaign review each winter, after which Mullah Omar announces his
guidance and intent for the coming year.”
Thomas E. Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the
University of Nebraska, Omaha, said that “as a symbolic figure, Omar is a
centrifugal force for the Taliban,” playing a similar role to that of Osama bin
Laden in Al Qaeda. But Dr. Gouttierre credits the Taliban’s success not to any
military genius on the part of Mullah Omar but to more worldly advisers from
Pakistan’s intelligence service and Al Qaeda.
Western and Afghan sources agree on the bare outline of Mullah Omar’s biography:
He was born in a village, had limited religious schooling, fought with the
mujahedeen against the Soviet Army and helped form the Taliban in 1994. Some
accounts say he is married and has two sons.
His emergence as the leader of the puritanical students who later fought their
way to the capital, Kabul, may have resulted from his very obscurity, some
experts say. He was not a flamboyant warlord with allies and enemies, a likely
plus for the Taliban’s sponsors in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence
Directorate. “He had an unaligned quality that made him useful,” Mr. Strick van
In jihadist accounts, his story has the feeling of legend: “At the height of his
youth, he stepped forward against the disbelievers and terrorized their ranks,”
says an undated 10-page biography from an Islamist information agency, which
also describes how he once refused cream and other delicacies, preferring “a
bowl of plain soup with some hard, stale bread.”
Taliban folklore tells of his bravery in the 1980s in removing his own injured
eye and fighting on; of his dream in the mid-1990s in which the Prophet Muhammad
told him he would bring peace to Afghanistan; and of how in 1996, he donned a
cloak reputed to have belonged to the prophet and took the title “commander of
That was the year that Mr. bin Laden moved his base to Afghanistan. Ever since,
the central question about Mullah Omar for American officials has been his
relationship with Al Qaeda.
In 1998, two days after American cruise missiles hit a Qaeda training camp in an
unsuccessful attempt to kill Mr. bin Laden, Mullah Omar telephoned an astonished
State Department official, Michael E. Malinowski, who took the call on his porch
at 2:30 a.m. Mullah Omar demanded proof that the Qaeda leader was involved in
terrorism, according to declassified records. (Mullah Omar also suggested that
to improve American relations with Muslim countries, President Bill Clinton
should step down.)
Mr. bin Laden courted the Taliban leader, vowing allegiance and calling the far
less educated man a historic leader of Islam. A letter of advice from Mr. bin
Laden to Mullah Omar on Oct. 3, 2001, found on a Qaeda computer obtained by The
Wall Street Journal, heaped on the praise (“I would like to emphasize how much
we appreciate the fact that you are our emir”).
Despite intense pressure from the United States and its allies to turn over Mr.
bin Laden, Mullah Omar declined, and paid a steep price when the Taliban fell.
Richard Barrett, a former British intelligence officer now monitoring Al Qaeda
and the Taliban for the United Nations, argues that Mullah Omar has learned the
lesson of 2001. If the Taliban regain power, he said, “they don’t want Al Qaeda
He added, “They want to be able to say, ‘We are a responsible government.’ ”
Indeed, in his Sept. 19 statement, Mullah Omar made such an assertion: “We
assure all countries that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as a responsible
force, will not extend its hand to cause jeopardy to others.”
Mr. Riedel, who helped devise the Afghanistan strategy now being rethought,
scoffs at such pronouncements as “clever propaganda.”
“We’ve been trying for 13 years to get the Taliban to break with Al Qaeda and
turn over bin Laden, and they haven’t done it,” Mr. Riedel said. “Whatever the
bond is between them, it’s stood the test of time.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Pir Zubair Shah from
A Dogged Taliban Chief
Rebounds, Vexing U.S., NYT, 11.10.2009,
Marking 8 Years of the Afghan War
October 8, 2009
The New York Times
To the Editor:
Re “Obama Rules Out Large Reduction in Afghan Force” (front page, Oct. 7):
Senator John McCain warns against any middle ground and says, “Half measures is
what I worry about.” Citing previous experience in Iraq, he adds, they “lead to
failure over time and an erosion of American public support.”
We now have 68,000 troops in Afghanistan and have been there for eight years.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request would take the number over 100,000. Is that
a full measure? That’s a question that is never answered.
If we’re in a war that must be won, why do we approach it, as we did so
disastrously in Iraq, with piecemeal measures?
Let the generals and the Pentagon tell us what winning really means and how many
troops it will take to achieve that victory. Then, and only then, can the
American public make a true decision. We can go for costly long-term care or we
can do immediate emergency surgery to save the patient’s life.
Richard L. Gilbert
To the Editor:
Re “Top U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Rejects Scaling Down Military Objectives”
(news article, Oct. 2):
You report that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has again spoken out, this time in
London, against the possible modification of our commitment in Afghanistan. In
his request for 40,000 more troops, the general rejects any suggestion that our
efforts be more targeted at Al Qaeda, as opposed to the larger goal of defeating
What’s going on here? Why is an American general, no matter how honorable and
brilliant, allowed to advocate national policy outside the walls of the White
Yes, it’s a free country, but there’s only one commander in chief, and he should
be able to keep his options open without undue pressure from generals in the
Fremont, Calif., Oct.
To the Editor:
Re “Surgical Strikes Shape Afghanistan Debate” (news article, Oct. 6):
My family has not gone to bed feeling as safe as we now do in this country in
the eight years since 9/11, and President Obama has already made the country a
safer place than President George W. Bush did after fighting two bloody and
Let these wars not become President Obama’s. Then this new presidency, with its
promise of bold change, will have been all for nothing, and probably without a
remotely similar potential for a safe America in a peaceable world for decades.
We won’t indefinitely continue to feel safer, and be seen even more and more as
a friend of the world’s Islamic street, unless the president continues to stay
the course and sound even more loud and clear rapprochement.
Cambridge, Mass., Oct.
To the Editor:
Instead of being mired in the mess of a military conflict in Afghanistan —
fighting warlords, the Taliban and various other hostile groups, killing more
Americans and allied associates — let’s do what the Taliban cannot do. Let’s
develop a type of Marshall Plan — build roads, schools and clinics and provide
family planning services. Create a national infrastructure.
In fact, we could gain access to all of the prison data in the United States,
and anyone who had the necessary skills could be used to help reconstruct the
country. I am tired of seeing our young people killed. Let’s do something
constructive for a change.
Rita K. Miller
To the Editor:
“The Distance Between ‘We Must’ and ‘We Can’ ” (Week in Review, Oct. 4) and “10
Steps to Victory in Afghanistan” (Op-Ed, Oct. 4) reflect the reckless assumption
that because Osama bin Laden struck at America from Afghanistan, we will be able
to make a fiercely conservative tribal people trade their ways for ours, or cow
them into submission. Nothing in their history or ours suggests that either is
Nothing in Afghanistan is fundamentally different from our misadventures in
Lebanon and Somalia. Forty years after Vietnam, it seems as if the United States
still cannot recognize an indomitable adversary or a fight we won’t win.
Chonburi, Thailand, Oct.
To the Editor:
Re “Beijing’s Afghan Gamble” (Op-Ed, Oct. 7):
Robert D. Kaplan’s article about China’s involvement in Afghanistan, and his
argument that continuing the United States military presence there will allow
the Chinese to benefit over the long run, makes some interesting points. It
might be possible to look at the situation in some other ways as well.
While Mr. Kaplan seems to see the United States making things safer for Chinese
investment and future profits, one might argue that China’s engagement in
Afghanistan, and the local economic development it is promoting, will over time
reduce the appeal of the Taliban and reduce the threat that radical Islamic
terrorism will find a receptive home in that country.
Poverty, corruption and social injustice are the real roots of the rage that
drives the bombers. If the United States had spent a trillion dollars over the
last eight years on bottom-up economic development across the Islamic world, our
security situation both at home and internationally would be very different
Kenneth J. Hammond
Las Cruces, N.M., Oct.
The writer is a professor of East Asian history at New Mexico State University.
To the Editor:
The suggestion by Robert D. Kaplan (Op-Ed, Oct. 7) that China ultimately wins no
matter what the United States does in Afghanistan and Pakistan is sorely
China borders both countries, and the radicalization of Muslim populations in
Central Asia, including the eight million Uighur population in Xinjiang Province
in China, would greatly accelerate if the United States should fail in the
The recent violent protests by the Uighur Muslim population add further impetus
for Beijing to work with the United States in ensuring that events in
Afghanistan and Pakistan do not escalate into an internal threat to China’s
The writer is a researcher at the Foundation for International Relations, or
Marking 8 Years of the
Afghan War , NYT, 8.10.2009,
8 Years in,
Obama Weighs Afghanistan Options
October 7, 2009
Filed at 3:10 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON (AP) -- On the eighth anniversary of the beginning of the war in
Afghanistan, President Barack Obama is gathering his national security team for
another strategy session.
Obama is examining how to proceed with a worsening war that has claimed nearly
800 U.S. lives and sapped American patience. Launched after the Sept. 11, 2001,
terrorist attacks to defeat the Taliban and rid al-Qaida of a home base, the war
has lasted longer than ever envisioned.
House and Senate leaders of both parties emerged Tuesday from a nearly 90-minute
conversation with Obama with praise for his candor and interest in listening.
But politically speaking, all sides appeared to exit where they entered, with
Republicans pushing Obama to follow his military commanders and Democrats saying
he should not be rushed.
Obama said the war would not be reduced to a narrowly defined counterterrorism
effort, with the withdrawal of many U.S. forces and an emphasis on special
operations forces that target terrorists in the dangerous border region of
Afghanistan and Pakistan. Two senior administration officials say such a
scenario has been inaccurately characterized and linked to Vice President Joe
Biden, and that Obama wanted to make clear he is considering no such plan.
The president did not show his hand on troop increases. His top commander in
Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has bluntly warned that more troops are
needed to right the war, perhaps up to 40,000 more. Obama has already added
21,000 troops this year, raising the total to 68,000.
Obama also gave no timetable for a decision, which prompted at least one pointed
Inside the State Dining Room, where the meeting was held, Obama's Republican
opponent in last year's presidential race, Sen. John McCain, told Obama that he
should not move at a ''leisurely pace,'' according to people in the room.
That comment later drew a sharp response from Obama, they said. Obama said no
one felt more urgency than he did about the war, and there would not be nothing
leisurely about it.
Obama may be considering a more modest building of troops -- closer to 10,000
than 40,000 -- according to Republican and Democratic congressional aides. But
White House aides said no such decision has been made.
The president insisted that he will make a decision on troops after settling on
the strategy ahead. He told lawmakers he will be deliberate yet show urgency.
''We do recognize that he has a tough decision, and he wants ample time to make
a good decision,'' said House Republican leader John Boehner. ''Frankly, I
support that, but we need to remember that every day that goes by, the troops
that we do have there are in greater danger.''
What's clear is that the mission in Afghanistan is not changing. Obama said his
focus is to keep al-Qaida terrorists from having a base from which to launch
attacks on the U.S or its allies. He heard from 18 lawmakers and said he would
keep seeking such input even knowing his final decision would not please them
Obama's emphasis on building a strong strategy did not mean he shed much light
on what it would be. He did, though, seek to ''dispense with the more extreme
options on either side of the debate,'' as one administration official put it.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the
The president made clear he would not ''double down'' in Afghanistan and build
up U.S forces into the hundreds of thousands, just as he ruled out withdrawing
forces and focusing on a narrow counterterrorism strategy.
''Half-measures is what I worry about,'' McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters. He
said Obama should follow recommendations from those in uniform and dispatch
thousands of more troops to the country -- similar to what President George W.
Bush did during the 2008 troop ''surge'' in Iraq.
Public support for the war in Afghanistan is dropping. It stands at 40 percent,
down from 44 percent in July, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll. A
total of 69 percent of self-described Republicans in the poll favor sending more
troops, while 57 percent of self-described Democrats oppose it.
The White House said Obama won't base his decisions on the mood on Capitol Hill
or eroding public support for the war.
''The president is going to make a decision -- popular or unpopular -- based on
what he thinks is in the best interests of the country,'' press secretary Robert
Gibbs told reporters.
Associated Press writers Pamela Hess, Jim Kuhnhenn, Anne Flaherty, Anne Gearan,
Jennifer Loven, Robert Burns, Philip Elliott and Charles Babington contributed
to this report.
8 Years in, Obama Weighs
Afghanistan Options, NYT, 7.10.2009,
Afghan, US Troops
Kill 40 Militants in East
October 6, 2009
Filed at 1:43 p.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- American and Afghan troops swept through forested
mountains in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, killing 40 militant fighters in a
hunt for insurgents responsible for one of the deadliest attacks of the war on
U.S. troops, the Defense Ministry said.
Ten Afghan soldiers were also killed during the operations since Monday, most of
them in Nuristan province's Kamdesh district, ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad
Zahir Azimi said.
The violence was part of a spate of attacks across the nation, including a
roadside bomb strike on a NATO convoy in Sayed Abad district west of Kabul that
wounded two foreign soldiers, said Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, an American media
officer for NATO forces.
The Obama administration is struggling to spell out a strategy to quell the
conflict, including whether it should escalate it by deploying as many as 40,000
additional troops. The U.S. currently has a 65,000-strong force in Afghanistan.
The country also is nearing a resolution to August's intensely disputed
presidential vote. Election workers began recounting suspect ballots Monday, and
a ruling on whether President Hamid Karzai won or will face a runoff is likely
Remote Kamdesh, cut off from the rest of the region with no regular phone or
radio contact and few roads, is where eight Americans and two Afghan security
troopers died Saturday after hundreds of Taliban militants overwhelmed their
thinly manned garrisons.
Azimi said joint operations were continuing Tuesday in Kamdesh, and seven
insurgents had been arrested there.
Mathias, however, said there had ''not been any significant engagement'' in
Kamdesh since Saturday. She said U.S. and Afghan forces were still in the remote
area and had not pulled out. Mathias had no details on how insurgents carried
out the attack or were able to inflict such heavy casualties.
NATO said in a statement that 100 attackers were killed in Saturday's fighting.
The alliance had previously said only that coalition forces inflicted ''heavy
casualties'' while defending the outposts with artillery, airstrikes and
The bloodshed was the heaviest U.S. loss of life in a single battle since July
2008, when nine American soldiers were killed by a raid on an outpost in the
Kamdesh, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the Pakistani border and about 150
miles (230 kilometers) from Kabul, is known to be a haven for some al-Qaida
fighters and militants loyal to Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose
military chief, Kashmir Khan, has been unsuccessfully targeted by U.S. missiles
over the past eight years.
NATO said Saturday's attack was carried out ''by local anti-Afghan forces, while
local Taliban'' and Hekmatyar fighters ''may have helped facilitate'' it. The
Taliban have claimed responsibility.
In other violence Tuesday, a patrol came under small arms and
rocket-propelled-grenade fire in Logar province, southwest of Kabul, but there
were no casualties, Mathias said. Logar police chief Gen. Mohammed Mustafa
Mosseini said the attack sparked a gunbattle that led to the arrest of at least
In London, Britain's defense ministry said one British soldier died Monday after
an explosion in southern Afghanistan. The soldier was on foot patrol near the
Nad Ali district center in restive Helmand province.
AP Television News video from the site of the roadside bomb attack that left two
NATO troops wounded in Sayed Abad district showed a damaged armored vehicle on
its side near the road, with a blown-off wheel laying in a field as
international forces secured the area.
This week, President Barack Obama and senior policy advisers are deciding
whether to further escalate the conflict after adding 21,000 U.S. troops earlier
this year. Congress, which is divided on the issue, takes up a massive defense
spending bill this week before the president will have time to settle on a
direction for the war.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates appealed Monday for calm amid the intense debate
over the flagging war, and for time and privacy for the president to reach a
decision. Gates' remarks appeared to be an implicit rebuke of the man he helped
install as the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who has
been lobbying in public for additional troops.
Gates has not said whether he supports McChrystal's recommendation to expand the
number of U.S. forces by as much as nearly 60 percent.
Meanwhile, a recount of suspect votes from last month's disputed presidential
election continued into its second day. Election officials in Kabul inspected
dozens of ballot boxes, looking for multiple ballots marked by the same hand,
for tallies that didn't square with ballot papers or ballots that were still
attached to each other in bundles.
A U.N.-backed fraud panel has ordered the recount of about 13 percent of polling
stations following charges of massive ballot-box stuffing and suspicious vote
tallies in the Aug. 20 poll. Though preliminary results show President Hamid
Karzai winning outright with 54.6 percent, enough votes are considered suspect
that the voiding of tainted boxes could cause Karzai to dip below the 50 percent
needed to avoid a runoff.
Afghan election officials have said they expect to be able to announce results
Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt in Kabul and Anne Gearan in Washington
contributed to this report.
Afghan, US Troops Kill
40 Militants in East, NYT, 6.10.2009,
Attacks on Remote Posts
Highlight Afghan Risks
October 5, 2009
The New York Times
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
and SANGAR RAHIMI
KABUL, Afghanistan — Insurgents attacked a pair of remote
American military bases in Afghanistan over the weekend in a deadly battle that
underscored the vulnerability of the kind of isolated bases that the top
American commander there wants to scale back.
The commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is pressing for a change in strategy
that would shift troops to heavily populated centers to protect civilians and
focus less on battling the insurgents in the hinterlands.
As though to reinforce his point, insurgents carried out a bold daylight strike
on two bases on the Pakistani border, killing eight Americans and four Afghan
security officers in the deadliest attack for American soldiers in more than a
year, Afghan and American officials said Sunday.
The assault occurred less than 20 miles from the site of a similar attack that
killed nine Americans last year, which had already become a cautionary tale at
the Pentagon for how not to win the war in Afghanistan.
And it came as the debate within the administration over the war sharpened
Sunday, as President Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones,
seemed to distance himself from General McChrystal, saying that he did not
believe that Afghanistan was in “imminent danger of falling” to the Taliban.
The battle began Saturday morning, when insurgents stormed the two American base
camps in the Kamdesh District of Nuristan Province, pounding them with guns and
rocket-propelled grenades. The provincial police chief, Muhammad Qasim
Jangulbagh, estimated that about 300 militants took part, The Associated Press
The Americans fought back with helicopters, heavy guns and airstrikes, but the
insurgents were persistent and the battle lasted into the afternoon, said Col.
Wayne M. Shanks, a spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The commander of the Americans in the area, Col. Randy George, described the
strike as “a complex attack in a difficult area.”
While much about the attack was still obscure on Sunday, its broad outlines were
eerily similar to those of a strike in nearby Kunar Province in July 2008. In
that assault, about 200 insurgents stormed a small American outpost in the
village of Wanat, less than 20 miles southwest of the compounds that were
That attack, a four-hour firefight in which the 48 American soldiers and 24
Afghan soldiers were outnumbered nearly three to one, has been described as the
“Black Hawk Down” of Afghanistan, a debacle whose lessons the military says it
has already incorporated in its new doctrine for the war.
The Wanat attack was well coordinated, disciplined and sustained, qualities that
made it strikingly different from the usual roadside bombs, ambushes and
hit-and-run attacks that had characterized the insurgency. The attack on
Saturday seems to have followed that pattern.
It was less clear whether another factor Pentagon officials identified in Wanat,
the military’s tense and mistrustful relationship with residents, was present in
Kamdesh. In Wanat, the local people were furious with Americans for killing the
staff members of a medical clinic in an airstrike the week before, and
commanders suspect for that reason that residents were more hospitable to
In Kamdesh, according to Jamaluddin Badar, the governor of Nuristan Province,
there have been no major American airstrikes causing civilian deaths since he
became governor 10 months ago.
Both attacks are likely to play into the debate in Washington, where the
administration is considering General McChrystal’s request for a substantial
increase of troops that he says is critical to defeating the Taliban.
General Jones, the president’s national security adviser, seemed to challenge
that premise on Sunday. On the CNN program “State of the Union,” he said he did
not believe that Afghanistan was in “imminent danger of falling” to the Taliban
and that the presence of Al Qaeda “is very diminished.” And on the CBS program
“Face the Nation,” he described General McChrystal’s recommendation for a troop
increase as “his opinion” of “what he thinks his role within that strategy is.”
General McChrystal has said that success against the Taliban is not a sure thing
and that if the Taliban regained power, Afghanistan could again become a
terrorist base. He has asked the administration for 40,000 more troops on top of
the 68,000 Americans already deployed there or en route as part of a strategy
that protects civilians, clears Taliban-held territory and holds it while Afghan
soldiers are trained.
He has also called for pulling American forces out of sparsely populated areas,
including Kamdesh. The attack there on Saturday does not change those plans,
Colonel Shanks said.
But Mr. Badar, the Nuristan governor, said that pulling back would be a mistake.
Too few troops in the area and its proximity to the lawless tribal areas of
Pakistan have created a poisonous mix, leaving his province vulnerable.
“We knew the Taliban was getting stronger every day in eastern Nuristan,” he
said. Teachers and civil servants in the area have been threatened and can no
longer travel to the central parts of the province, he said.
He added: “We have long shared our concern with the government and foreign
forces but they didn’t take it seriously.”
He said the attackers had gathered in a mosque and a nearby village before
staging the assault on the compounds, which are near each other on top of a hill
overlooking the district center about 10 miles from the border with Pakistan.
The fighters had come from Pakistan, he said, after military operations pushed
them out of their bases there. He said the strike was led by a Taliban commander
named Dost Muhammad, whom he described as the shadow commander for the Taliban
It was unclear whether the insurgents breached either compound, but Colonel
Shanks said that by the end of the battle, American forces still controlled the
outposts, which they share with Afghan security forces. Mr. Badar said the
attackers briefly entered the compounds.
Mr. Badar said that 11 Afghan police officers, including the district police
chief, were kidnapped in the raid. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, Gen.
Zahir Azimi, said that Afghan soldiers had also been captured on Saturday but he
could not confirm how many.
The Americans identified the attackers as “tribal militia” rather than Taliban,
a term that some military planners say oversimplifies the fight Americans face
here and gives the appearance, sometimes falsely, of a coordinated, hierarchical
The American military statement said American forces had “effectively repelled
the attack and inflicted heavy enemy casualties.”
The bodies of at least five insurgents were found in the area after the fight,
Mr. Badar said. The hostages were taken to Mandagal, a village in Kamdesh.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahed, said that Taliban fighters overran the
outposts and briefly occupied them. He said the Taliban were holding the
district police chief and an intelligence officer hostage. He said that seven
Taliban fighters had been killed, and that the fighters eventually withdrew
because the area came under bombardment.
In another attack on Saturday, one American soldier died of wounds after being
struck with a bomb in eastern Afghanistan, the military said.
Attacks on Remote Posts
Highlight Afghan Risks, NYT, 5.10.2009,
The Distance Between
‘We Must’ and ‘We Can’
October 4, 2009
The New York Times
By JAMES TRAUB
Over the next few weeks, Barack Obama must make the most difficult decision
of his presidency to date: whether or not to send up to 40,000 more troops to
Afghanistan, as his commanding general there, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has
This summer, Mr. Obama described the effort in Afghanistan as “a war of
necessity.” In such a war, you do whatever you need to do to win. But now, as
criticism mounts from those who argue that the war in Afghanistan cannot, in
fact, be won with more troops and a better strategy, the president is having
A war of necessity is presumably one that is “fundamental to the defense of our
people,” as Mr. Obama has said about Afghanistan. But if such a war is
unwinnable, then perhaps you must reconsider your sense of its necessity and
choose a more modest policy instead.
The conservative pundit George Will suggested as much in a recent column in
which he argued for a reduced, rather than enhanced, American presence in
Afghanistan. Mr. Will cited the testimony of George Kennan, the diplomat and
scholar, to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Vietnam in 1966:
“Our country should not be asked, and should not ask of itself, to shoulder the
main burden of determining the political realities in any other country. ...
This is not only not our business, but I don’t think we can do it successfully.”
Mr. Kennan’s astringent counsel has become piercingly relevant today, as
Americans discover, time and again, their inability to shape the world as they
would wish. Indeed, George W. Bush’s tenure looks in retrospect like an
inadvertent proof of the wisdom of restraint, for his ambitious policy to
transform the Middle East through regime change and democracy promotion largely
ended in failure. The irony is that Mr. Obama, who as a candidate reassured
conservative critics that he had read and absorbed the wisdom of Reinhold
Niebuhr, Mr. Kennan and other “realists,” is now himself accused of ignoring the
limits of American power, like Mr. Bush or Lyndon Johnson, in his pursuit of
victory in an unwinnable war.
The idea that American foreign policy must be founded upon a prudent recognition
of the country’s capacities and limits, rather than its hopes and wishes, gained
currency after World War II, possibly the last unequivocally necessary war in
American history. At the war’s end, of course, the global pre-eminence of the
United States was beyond question. But Mr. Kennan, Mr. Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau
and others tried to imbue their sometimes-grandiose fellow-citizens with a
rueful awareness of the intransigence of things.
“The problems of this world are deeper, more involved, and more stubborn than
many of us realize,” Mr. Kennan said in a 1949 speech to the Academy of
Political Science. “It is imperative, therefore, that we economize with our
limited resources and that we apply them where we feel that we will do the most
The realists won that debate. Mr. Kennan argued that a policy of confrontation
with Stalin’s Russia, advocated by the more fervent anti-Communists, would be
neither effective nor necessary; the Soviets, rather, could be checked by
“intelligent long-range policies” designed to counter — to contain — their
ambitions. Of course he lost in Vietnam, where the nation-building dreams of a
generation of cold war liberals came to grief. The neoconservatives who came to
power with George W. Bush were just as dismissive of the cautionary sprit of
realism as the liberals of an earlier generation had been, and thought of
themselves as conservative heirs of the idealistic tradition of Woodrow Wilson.
Now, as Americans debate whether or not to double down in Afghanistan, it’s
striking how opinion is divided not according to left and right, or hawk and
dove, but rather by the difference between the Wilsonian “what we must do” and
the Kennanite “what we can do.”
Stephen Holmes, a left-leaning law professor at New York University, recently
wrote a critique of General McChrystal’s plan that almost exactly echoed
Will/Kennan: “Turning an illegitimate government into a legitimate one is simply
beyond the capacities of foreigners, however wealthy or militarily unmatched.”
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a hawkish Democrat, has reportedly urged the
president to devote less of the country’s energies to Afghanistan in order to
apply them where they will do the most good — Pakistan. On the other hand,
advocates of the proposed new strategy, like Peter Bergen, an expert on Islamic
terrorism, invoke America’s “obligation” to the Afghan people and the strategic
catastrophe that would come of ceding the country to the Taliban. One side
reasons from the means, the other from the ends.
In the real world, of course, the distinction between these two very different
dispositions is a fluid one. After all, in a true war of necessity, like World
War II, a state and a people summon the capacity to do what must be done, no
matter how difficult. So the objective question at the heart of the current
debate is whether the battle for Afghanistan represents such a war, or whether —
like those for Vietnam or Iraq — the problem that it presents can be solved by
less bloody and costly means.
Americans broadly agree that their government must at all costs prevent major
attacks on American soil by Al Qaeda. But there the consensus ends, and their
questions begin: Do we need to sustain the rickety Afghan government of
President Hamid Karzai in order to achieve that objective? If so, will a
combination of overwhelming military force and an accompanying civilian surge
not only repel the Taliban but make Afghanistan self-sustaining over the long
The leaked McChrystal plan argues both that we must and that we can, and that a
more modest effort “will likely result in failure.” Critics like the military
analyst Andrew Bacevich insist, by contrast, that we cannot and that we need not
— that Americans can contain the threat of jihad through such measures as
enhanced homeland defense. Others have argued for a middle course involving a
smaller troop increase and less nation-building.
George Kennan was right about the cold war. But the question now is whether
“containment” is also the right metaphor for Afghanistan, and for the threat of
Islamic extremism. Containment (Mr. Kennan also used the imagery of chess and
the pruning and pinning of trees) is a metaphor of geographical contiguity.
Soviet ambitions could be checked here, conceded there. America’s adversary was
not, Mr. Kennan insisted, a global force called Communism; it was Russia, an
expansionist but conservative power. By that logic, the United States could lose
in Vietnam with no lasting harm to itself.
But Al Qaeda, and jihadism generally, is a global force that seeks control of
territory chiefly as a means to carry out its global strategy. It has no borders
at which to be checked; its success or failure is measured in ideological rather
than territorial terms — like Communism without Russia. Mr. Kennan often
suggested that America’s own example of democratic prosperity was one of its
most powerful weapons during the cold war; and plainly that is so today as well.
That is one weapon with which the threat of Islamic extremism must be
challenged; but it is only one.
The question boils down to this: How grave a price would Americans pay if
Afghanistan were lost to the Taliban? Would this be a disaster, or merely, as
with Vietnam, a terrible misfortune for which the United States could compensate
through a contemporary version of Mr. Kennan’s “intelligent long-range
policies”? If the latter, then how can Americans justify the immense cost in
money and manpower, and the inevitable loss of life, attendant upon General
McChrystal’s plan? How can they gamble so much on the corrupt, enfeebled and
barely legitimate government of President Karzai? Why insist on seeking to do
that which in all probability can not be done?
But what if it’s the former? What if the fall of Kabul would constitute not only
an American abandonment of the Afghan people, but a major strategic and
psychological triumph for Al Qaeda, and a recruiting tool of unparalleled value?
Then the Kennanite calculus would no longer apply, and the fact that nobody can
be completely confident that General McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy
will work would not be reason enough to forsake it.
In that case — and perhaps only in that case — Afghanistan really would be a war
The Distance Between ‘We Must’ and ‘We Can’,
Eight U.S. Soldiers Dead
in Bold Attack in Afghanistan
October 5, 2009
The New York Times
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
and SANGAR RAHIMI
KABUL, Afghanistan — Insurgents besieged two American outposts in eastern
Afghanistan on Saturday, American and Afghan officials said, killing eight
Americans and two Afghan policemen in a bold daylight strike that was the
deadliest for American soldiers in more than a year.
The attack took place in the Nuristan province, a remote area on the border with
Pakistan. It began Saturday morning, when insurgents stormed the area, pounding
the two American base camps with guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Americans fought back, striking their attackers with helicopters, heavy guns and
airstrikes, but the insurgents were persistent and the battled lasted into the
afternoon, said Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan.
It was unclear whether insurgents made it inside either of the two compounds,
but Colonel Shanks said that by the end of the battle, American forces still
controlled the outposts. The Americans shared the compounds with Afghan security
“The militants put on a very aggressive attack,” Col. Shanks said. “Our forces
had to use a considerable amount of firepower to counter it.”
The governor of Nuristan province, Jamaluddin Badar, reached by telephone on
Sunday, said that 11 Afghan police officers, including the district police
chief, had been kidnapped in the strike. He said the attackers did breach the
compounds briefly. The American military did not confirm the report.
Much about the attack was still unclear on Sunday, but its broad outlines were
eerily familiar. Nine American soldiers were killed in July 2008 in the same
province, when 200 insurgents stormed their small outpost in the village of
That attack, which has been described as the “Black Hawk Down” of Afghanistan,
with the 48 American soldiers and 24 Afghan soldiers outnumbered three to one in
a four-hour firefight, is now seen as a cautionary tale for the war here, which
commanders say should focus more on protecting civilians.
Locals in the area were furious with Americans for the killing of local medical
staff in an airstrike the week before, and commanders believe that for that
reason, they were more hospitable to insurgents.
Outrage was so intense that President Hamid Karzai called for an investigation
into the airstrike, which local officials at the time said had killed 22
Mr. Badar said Saturday’s attack took place in the Kamdysh district, about 10
miles from the border with Pakistan, and less than 20 miles southwest of the
attack last year.
Attackers gathered in a mosque and a nearby village, before staging the attack.
Mr. Badar said the attackers were Taliban fighters who had come from Pakistan,
after military operations in that country pushed them out of their bases there.
He said the strike was led by a Taliban commander named Dost Muhammed, whom he
described as the shadow commander for the Taliban in Nuristan.
The Americans identified the attackers as “tribal militia,” a departure from
their typical usage of the word Taliban. Col. Shanks said the description was
more specific. Some military planners argue applying the word Taliban to all
insurgents oversimplifies the fight Americans face here and gives the
appearance, sometimes falsely, of a coordinated, hierarchical fighting force.
The American military statement said American forces had “effectively repelled
the attack and inflicted heavy enemy casualties.”
It was the largest number of American casualties in a single day since the Wanat
attack last July, according to iCasualties.org, an independent group that tracks
NATO casualties here.
The bodies of at least five insurgents were found in the area after the fight,
Mr. Badar said. The hostages were taken to Mandigal, a village in Kamdysh.
The commander of the unit the Americans belonged to, Col. Randy George, called
Saturday’s strike “a complex attack in a difficult area.”
American forces had planned to pull out of the sparsely populated area, as part
of a strategic shift to place more troops in heavily populated centers. The
attack does not change those plans, Colonel Shanks said.
But Mr. Badar believes that would be a mistake. Too few troops in the area and
clumsy airstrikes have created a poisonous mix for his province, whose proximity
to the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan allows easy passage for the Taliban.
“We knew the Taliban was getting stronger every day in eastern Nuristan,” he
said, describing how teachers and civil servants in the area had received
threats and can no longer travel to the central parts of the province.
He added: “We have long shared our concern with the government and foreign
forces, but they didn’t take it seriously.”
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahed, said that Taliban fighters overran the
outposts and briefly occupied them.
He said Taliban fighters were holding the district police chief and an
intelligence officer hostage. He said seven Taliban fighters had been killed and
that the fighters eventually withdrew because the area came under bombardment.
In another attack on Saturday, one American soldier died of wounds after being
struck with a bomb in eastern Afghanistan, the military said.
Eight U.S. Soldiers Dead in Bold
Attack in Afghanistan, NYT, 5.10.2009,