anthony_cordesman.jpg (31192 bytes)The Afghanistan-Pakistan war at the end of 2011

Anthony H. Cordesman
Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC

The U.S. is on the thin edge of strategic failure in two wars: the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan. This failure may never reach the point of outright defeat in either country. Iraq may never become hostile, revert to civil war, or come under anything approaching Iranian control. Afghanistan and Pakistan may never become major sanctuaries for terrorist attacks on the U.S. and its allies.

Yet Iraq is already a grand strategic failure. The U.S. went to war for the wrong reasons, let Iraq slide into a half decade of civil war, and failed to build an effective democracy and base for Iraq’s economic development. Its tactical victories, if they last, did little more than put an end to a conflict it helped create, and the U.S. failed to establish anything like the strategic partnership it sought.

The U.S. invasion did bring down a remarkably unpleasant dictatorship, but at a cost of some eight years of turmoil and conflict, some 5,000 U.S. and allied lives and 35,000 wounded, and over 100,000 Iraqi lives. The Congressional Research Service estimates that the dollar cost of the war to the U.S. alone is over $823 billion through FY2012, and SIGIR [Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction] estimates that the U.S. and its allies will have spent some $75 billion on aid, much of it with little lasting benefit to Iraq.

The outcome in Afghanistan and Pakistan now seems unlikely to be any better. While any such judgments are subjective, the odds of meaningful strategic success have dropped from roughly even in 2009 to 4:1 to 6:1 against at the end of 2011. It is all very well for senior U.S. officials to discuss “fight, talk, and build,” and for creating a successful transition before the U.S. and ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] allies withdraw virtually all of their combat troops and make massive cuts in the flow of outside money to Afghanistan. The U.S., however, has yet to present a credible and detailed plan for transition that shows the U.S. and its allies can achieve some form of stable, strategic outcome in Afghanistan that even approaches the outcome of the Iraq War.

Far too many U.S. actions have begun to look like a cover for an exit strategy from Afghanistan, and the U.S. has never provided a credible set of goals — indeed any goals at all — for the strategic outcome it wants in Pakistan. Unless the U.S. does far more to show it can execute a transition that has lasting strategic benefits in Afghanistan and Pakistan well after 2014, it is all too likely to repeat the tragedy of its withdrawal from Vietnam.

Such a U.S. strategic failure may not mean outright defeat, although this again is possible. It is far from clear that the Taliban and other insurgents will win control of the country, that Afghanistan will plunge into another round of civil war, or that Afghanistan and Pakistan will see the rebirth of Al Qaida or any other major Islamist extremist or terrorist threat.

However, the human and financial costs have far outstripped the probable grand strategic benefits of the war. Given the likely rush to a U.S. and ISAF exit, cuts in donor funding and in-country expenditures, and unwillingness to provide adequate funding after 2014, Afghanistan is likely to have less success than Iraq in building a functioning democracy with control over governance, economic development, and security. Worse, Pakistan is far more strategically important and is drifting toward growing internal violence and many of the aspects of a failed state.

Even if Afghanistan gets enough outside funding to avoid an economic crisis and civil war after U.S. and allied withdrawal, it will remain a weak and divided state dependent on continuing U.S. and outside aid through 2024 and beyond, confining any strategic role to one of open-ended dependence. As for a nuclear-armed Pakistan, it is far more likely to be a disruptive force in Afghanistan than a constructive one, and there is little sign it will become any form of real ally or effectively manage its growing internal problems.

Regardless of which outcome occurs, the result will still be strategic failure in terms of cost-benefits to the U.S. and its allies. The Afghan War has cost the U.S. and its allies over 2,700 dead and well over 18,000 wounded. There are no reliable estimates of total Afghan casualties since 2001, but some estimates put direct deaths at around 18,000 and indirect deaths at another 3,200-20,000. And the war is far from over.

The Congressional Research Service estimates that the dollar cost of the war to the U.S. alone is over $527 billion through FY2012, and SIGAR [Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction] estimates that the U.S. and its allies will have spent some $73 billion on aid — much of it again with little lasting benefit. Similar cost estimates are lacking for Pakistan, but they have also taken significant casualties and received substantial amounts of U.S. aid.

The key question now is whether the U.S. can minimize the scale of its strategic failure. Can the U.S. move from concepts and rhetoric to working with its allies, Afghanistan and Pakistan to create a credible transition plan that can secure Congressional and popular support and funding? Can they actually implement such a transition plan with the effectiveness that has been lacking in its efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to date?

Some form of success (or limited failure) may still be possible, but the analysis in this paper warns that nothing the U.S. government has said to date raises a high probability that this will be the case, and that much of the progress it has reported may be misleading. There are four critical areas wherein any lasting level of success is now unlikely:

• Strategic failure? The U.S. has not shown that it can bring about enough of the elements required to create Afghan security and stability in a way that creates more than a marginal possibility that Afghanistan will have a successful transition by 2014, or at any time in the near future. It has never announced any plan that would make this possible. It has no strategic plans or clearly defined goals for Pakistan, although it has far more strategic importance than Afghanistan.

• Talk Without Hope: It is far from clear that any major insurgent faction feels it is either losing, or cannot simply outwait, U.S. and allied withdrawal. Nor is it clear that Pakistan will ever seriously attempt to eliminate insurgent sanctuaries within its borders. If insurgents do chose to negotiate, it may well be because they feel the U.S., allied and GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] position is becoming so weak they can use diplomacy as a form of war by other means and speed their victory through deception and by obtaining U.S., allied, and GIRoA concessions. They have already used similar tactics in Helmand and Pakistan, and Nepal and Cambodia are warnings that “talk” may do little more than cover an exit.

• Tactical Success? The very real gains the U.S. and ISAF have made in the south may not be possible to hold if the U.S. move forces east, and the U.S. and ISAF are cutting forces so quickly that it is doubtful they can achieve the goals that ISAF set for 2012. ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] development is being rushed forward as future resources are being cut, and it is far from clear that the insurgents cannot outwait the U.S. and ISAF and win a war of political attrition without having to win tactical battles in the field. The ISAF focus on significant acts of violence is a questionable approach to assessing both tactical and strategic progress, and ANSF transition has been little more than political symbolism.

• Spend Not Build? The latest Department of Defense and SIGAR reports do little to indicate that U.S. and allied efforts to improve the quality of government, the rule of law, representative democracy, and economic development are making anything like the needed level of progress. They are a warning that Afghanistan and the Afghan government may face a massive recession as funding is cut, and the dreams of options like mining income and a “new Silk road” are little more than a triumph of hope over credible expectations. Once again, the very real progress being made in the development of the ANSF is being rushed as future funding is being cut, and it is unclear that current gains will be sustained or that the U.S. has sufficient time left in which to find credible answers to these questions, build Congressional, domestic and allied support, and then to begin implementing them. It is now entering the 11th year of a war for which it seems to have no clear plans and no clear strategic goals. The new strategy that President Obama outlined in 2009 is now in tatters.

There are no obvious prospects for stable relations with Pakistan or for getting more Pakistani support. The Karzai government [in Afghanistan] barely functions, and new elections must come in 2014 — the year combat forces are supposed to leave. U.S. and allied troop levels are dropping to critical levels. No one knows what presence, if any, would stay after 2014. Progress is taking place in creating an Afghan army, but without a functioning state to defend, the ANSF could fragment. Far less progress is taking place in creating the police and justice system. Massive aid to Afghanistan has produced far too few tangible results, and the Afghan economy is likely to go into a depression in 2014 in the face of massive aid and spending cuts that will cripple both the economy and Afghan forces.

It is time the Obama Administration faced these issues credibly and in depth. The U.S. and its allies need a transition plan for Afghanistan that either provides a credible way to stay — with credible costs and prospects for victory — or an exit plan that reflects at least some regard for nearly 30 million Afghans and our future role in the region. It needs to consider what will happen once the U.S. leaves Afghanistan and what longer term approaches it should take to a steadily more divided and unstable Pakistan.

In the case of the U.S., this also means a detailed transition plan that spells out exactly how the U.S. plans to phase down its civil and military efforts, what steps it will take to ensure that transition is stable through 2014, and a clear estimate of the probable cost. The U.S. needs a meaningful action plan that Congress, the media, area experts, and the American people can debate and commit themselves to supporting. If President Obama cannot provide such a plan within months, and win the support necessary to implement it, any hope of salvaging lasting success in the war will vanish.

Even if the U.S. does act on such a plan and provide the necessary resources, it may not succeed, and Pakistan may become progressively more unstable regardless of U.S. aid and actions in Afghanistan. Any de facto “exit strategy” will make this future almost inevitable.

The most likely post-2014 outcome in Afghanistan, at this point in time, is not the successful transition to a democratic Afghan government with control of the entire country. Nor is it likely that the Taliban will regain control of large parts of the country. Rather, the most likely outcome is some sort of middle ground where the insurgents control and operate in some areas, while others are controlled by the Pashtun. Some form of the Northern Alliance is likely to appear, and the role of the central government in Kabul would be limited or caught up in civil conflict.

This would not be what some U.S. policymakers call “Afghan good enough,” it would be “Afghan muddle through.” What, exactly such an “Afghan muddle” would look like, and how divided and violent it would be, is impossible to predict. But it is the most likely outcome and the U.S. needs to start now to examine the different options it has for dealing with a post-2014 Afghanistan that is far less stable and self-sufficient than current plans predict, and make real plans for a Pakistan whose government and military cannot move the country forward and contain its rising internal violence. As is the case in Iraq, strategic failure in the Afghanistan/Pakistan War cannot end in a total U.S. exit. The U.S. must be ready to deal with near and long term consequences.

Anthony H. Cordesman has served as national security assistant to Senator John McCain of the Senate Armed Services Committee and in various other government positions. He has authored over 50 books on U.S. security policy, energy policy, and the Middle East. The above is the Executive Summary of a 55-page report released on November 15, 2011, and reprinted in PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2012.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Lewis-McChord soldier found guilty in war-crimes case

Army Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the highest-ranking soldier charged in a major war-crimes case, was found guilty Nov. 10 of three counts of murdering unarmed Afghan villagers and a dozen other crimes. The verdict by a five-member military panel at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma was reached after more than a week of testimony that included detailed accounts of Gibbs’ participation from two other soldiers who had already pleaded guilty for their roles in the murders.

Gibbs was found guilty of 15 separate charges, including murder, conspiracy to murder, assault on another soldier and cutting body parts off corpses. “Staff Sgt. Gibbs betrayed his oath, he betrayed his unit, and with the flag of his nation emblazoned across his chest, thousands of miles from home, he betrayed his nation,” said Maj. Robert Stelle, in closing arguments.

Gibbs is the highest-ranking soldier convicted in the murders. As part of a series of plea deals, two other soldiers were convicted of participating in the murders and a third of involuntary manslaughter. One other soldier faces a court-martial next year on murder charges. An additional seven soldiers, including a medic from another unit, were charged with lesser crimes.

Prosecutors said Gibbs developed murder “scenarios” to kill unarmed civilians with a rogue group of five soldiers of the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division from Lewis-McChord. They then posed with the corpses as if they had just bagged a deer. Published photos are among the most disturbing images of American war crimes to emerge from the decade-long U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

Gibbs, a strapping, 6-foot-4 squad leader from Billings, Mont., admitted on the witness stand to taking body parts, including a finger snipped from a villager killed in February and a tooth plucked from a villager killed in May. Nevertheless, he sought to convince the jury he was an innocent man, wrongly framed by other platoon members.

Court testimony from platoon members indicated they were bored and frustrated over their inability to do battle with an enemy that planted plenty of roadside bombs, but rarely engaged them in firefights. They then developed plans to kill villagers and drop weapons by the bodies to make them appear to be legitimate combat deaths.

Gibbs’ wife, Chelsy Gibbs, sat through the entire trial, but he had asked his father and mother not to attend, according to his attorney. Gibbs appeared stunned by the verdict against him, which came after less than a day of deliberations. He faced the possibility of life imprisonment without parole, but the panel rejected the prosecutor’s calls for that penalty. Instead, he will be able to petition for parole after 10 years.

– edited from The Seattle Times, November 10, 2011
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2011

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Jean MacKenzie.gif (8456 bytes)10 years on, Afghanistan isn’t far from where it started

Jean MacKenzie

KABUL, Afghanistan — When Al Qaeda’s planes hit the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, the world altered for everyone. But no two countries have been more affected by the shift than the United States and Afghanistan, who are tied together in a war whose outcome, a decade after the initial invasion, is still very much in doubt.

The United States has changed as a result of 9/11; the sense of superpower invulnerability is gone, perhaps forever. Afghanistan, too, has undergone a change, but a more physical one. The dusty, hardscrabble capital I first saw in 2004 has been spruced up considerably, with high-rise buildings of green and blue glass that dominate the center of the city. Shiny new cars clog the streets, and thousands of well-heeled foreigners are pumping millions of dollars into what was once a cash-starved economy.

But that’s not all. There are the thousands of dead in districts around the country, killed by Taliban explosives, caught in crossfire between the insurgents and foreign troops, shot by U.S. Special Forces in night raids or bombed in misdirected airstrikes. The Taliban control large swaths of territory, and formerly safe provinces like Parwan and Baghlan are now largely no-go areas. The gains that NATO has made in clearing aside the Taliban are too frequently pushed back as soon as the troops move on.

Many people initially welcomed the foreign troops. The brutal, joyless Taliban regime was gone. Children could fly kites, teenagers could play music. Chess was once again a beloved pastime, and women began to venture out of their homes on their own. In those first heady days after the fall of the Taliban, anything seemed possible. But now most Afghans consider security to be their number-one problem. If travel, school and work are impossible, not much else matters.

I arrived at the height of the optimism, in late 2004, right after the first direct presidential elections the country had ever held. Despite their threats, the Taliban had failed to disrupt the process. Voting was more or less transparent, despite scattered reports of quick-wash “indelible” ink and disappearing ballot boxes. Hamid Karzai won by a landslide, and the country was proud of its achievement.

It is a different world now. Much has changed for the better. Hundreds of young people have been educated abroad. Millions of children, including girls, are now in school. Almost everyone has a cell phone, and internet-access is spreading.

But the past five years have seen an erosion of hope that has left many Afghans cynical and bitter. The fledgling banking system, once a source of pride, has been marred by scandal: the $900-million Kabul Bank grabathon eroded what little faith and respect people still had in their government.

The 2009 presidential poll saw blatant vote-rigging and a failure of the international community to adequately monitor the process. The Parliamentary ballot a year later was no better, and set in motion a Constitutional crisis that is still causing waves.

The country is mired in a seemingly endless war, run by a hopelessly corrupt government and deeply conflicted about the presence of international troops. The Taliban cannot chase the foreigners out, but the combined weight of 48 countries hasn’t been able to crush the insurgency. Most agree that a political solution is necessary, but many still oppose negotiations with the Taliban.

Night raids and aggressive military operations continue, with the justification that the insurgents must be forced to the negotiating table by the sure prospect of defeat. Anyone who thinks this is possible has never spent much time with Afghans.

A new conference planned for December in Bonn, Germany, seems destined to repeat the mistakes of the first one. Those who were there at the time have said that not inviting the Taliban sowed the seeds of future problems. But Washington’s newly installed ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, has already said there is no place for the Taliban in Bonn.

Once the international forces pull out, it’s hard to see how the changes in Afghanistan will last. When the first U.S. troops got on the airplane home, property prices in Kabul began to plummet.

The sleek restaurants, supermarkets, taxi services, and other businesses that have sprung up to cater to foreigners and the newly prosperous will likely be forced to close, leaving thousands of Afghans unemployed. The hundreds of young people who have been educated in the West will doubtless do what the previous generation did: they will use their education to land lucrative jobs elsewhere.

Many of Afghanistan’s top officials have foreign passports and family tucked away in various Western countries [not to mention millions of dollars corruptly siphoned from U.S. reconstruction aid]. It will not be a difficult transition for them.

Ethnic tensions and regional disputes that have never been resolved are once again coming to the fore. It is all too likely that the militias now being equipped and trained by U.S. Special Forces will turn their weapons on each other, as they did in the 1990s.

According to many observers, both Afghan and international, Afghanistan is headed for another civil war — a proxy battle with the United States and its allies funneling weapons and cash to one side, and regional powers like Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia each backing their favorite horses.

Ten years after 9/11, with hundreds of billions of dollars spent, thousands of lives lost and immense goodwill squandered, Afghanistan seems to be going backwards.

Jean MacKenzie is a senior correspondent for GlobalPost based in Kabul, Afghanistan, following five years as program director for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting in Kabul. She has had an extensive career as a journalist with the Moscow Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Newsday and the Boston Globe. This article appeared on, September 9, 2011, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2011.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Killing campaign for the hearts and minds of the people

The following article is edited from the transcript of the PBS FRONTLINE documentary, “Kill/Capture,” written and produced by Stephen Grey and Dan Edge, that aired on May 11, 2011.

On May 2nd, 2011, U.S. Special Operations forces killed the world’s most wanted man in a raid on a house in Pakistan. The operation gave the world a glimpse into a vast and secret campaign being waged by the United States. It’s known as the kill/capture program, a campaign the military says has killed or captured more than 12,000 militants in the last year. Using pilotless drones and other cutting-edge electronic technology, which Pentagon adviser Lt. Col. John Nagl (ret.) describes as “an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine,” elite teams are hunting down al Qaeda and Taliban leaders one by one and taking them out.

The kill/capture program is veiled in secrecy. Very little has been disclosed about how it operates or its effects on the ground. But FRONTLINE has spent months traveling through Afghanistan, investigating how this secret campaign is conducted, what it’s doing to al Qaeda and the Taliban, and whether it can play a decisive part in ending the war.

Across the country, targeted raids have become a defining tactic in the war against Taliban leaders, calculated to keep the enemy on the run. Even with 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, in the province of Khost in a mountainous region on Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, there are still not enough forces to maintain security outside the major towns. The U.S. troops here have been told that a Taliban target is holed up in a certain compound, but they discover their intelligence is wrong. They’ve raided the home of a tribal elder, Shahzad Jamil, who claims to support the government, not the Taliban. The soldiers decide to conduct a search anyway, at the risk of causing further offense. Finding some weapons used for personal security, the elder is taken in for questioning.

After being released without charge a few hours later, Shahzad Jamil says (translated), “This is very bad! This is why people are so upset. This makes me feel like joining the Taliban to fight against you. You’re disrespecting me. If I’m a terrorist or a member of al Qaeda, then show me proof. There is no proof.” He continues, “This will have consequences. I am a tribal leader. ... If my tribe learns about this, they will be so angry with these people.”

Kill/capture missions seem a far cry from how this war was once portrayed. When 30,000 extra U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan last year, the military said they were implementing a counterinsurgency campaign — explained publicly as a battle for the hearts and minds of the people. Get in among the people, protect the people, and thereby isolate the insurgents. But according to those close to the military command, counterinsurgency also involves hunting down the enemy.

Overseeing the campaign in the early days of the troop surge was Gen. Stanley McChrystal. After pioneering kill/capture operations in the Iraq War, McChrystal increased their use in Afghanistan. And when Gen. David Petraeus took command last summer, he stepped them up further. Petraeus has doubled the number of kill/capture missions and issued hundreds of press releases announcing the death or detention of Taliban leaders.

The kill/capture campaign is waged by both Special Operations forces and conventional troops. But leading and directing the program is a secretive counterterrorism unit within Special Forces known as Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which exists outside the NATO chain of command. With ranks that include the elite Navy SEALs, its mission is not only the hunt for the world’s leading terrorists. In Afghanistan, it’s working from a target list that now includes thousands of names of different types of individuals: commanders, bomb makers, fighters, logistics people, financiers, et cetera. It was JSOC that carried out the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

Night raids distress Afghans

Last fall, the district of Andar was a war zone. The Taliban were in control and determined to stop ordinary Afghans from voting in national elections. On that election day, only three people turned up to vote from a population of more than 100,000. But over the last six months, kill/capture operations have helped transform Andar’s district center into a secure zone. More than 40 raids across the province have killed or captured over a hundred militants. The Taliban have disappeared from the town center. The Afghan government, supported by American troops, has been able to open a school. The hope now is that the locals will choose to back the government over the Taliban.

But progress here is limited. While the government now runs one school in the district, the Taliban run more than 20. And security here has come at a cost to the “hearts and minds” campaign. When we accompany the Afghan army on patrol, we meet locals who strenuously object to the tactics of the kill/capture teams. One unidentified Afghan man stated, “These people come in the middle of the night. They break into houses. They bring dogs with them. They drag women out of the house. This is an offense to Islam.” Another said, “If the Taliban were hiding in my house, I wouldn’t tell you. They don’t dishonor our women, but your friends do.”

Night raids are the signature tactic of JSOC’s kill/capture campaign. Almost all JSOC operations take place under cover of darkness. The Afghan government says they want the night raids to stop. Mohammed Daudzai, chief of staff to President Karzai, stated, “Night raids are against our culture. Even if it doesn’t cause any harm, that’s unacceptable because it’s a disgrace to people’s dignity in our culture. You have a village that has a very peaceful life, and in the middle of the night, people come and surround the village and search a few houses and take a few prisoners. And in that scuffle, a few of them are killed, women disgraced. The next day, what do you expect? The entire village youth becomes Taliban. They’re searching for the Taliban to recruit them and give them weapons.”

Gen. McChrystal knew that night raids could turn the Afghan population against American soldiers. Now they are doing six times as many night raids as they were two years ago. The story of one JSOC operation that took place last September shows how kill/capture missions can alienate ordinary Afghans. This was a daylight air strike in the northern province of Takhar. The aftermath of the strike was filmed by a local police officer.

The U.S. military announced that they had killed a prominent Taliban commander and his fighters, but it soon emerged that something may have gone wrong. Locals said the dead were all innocent civilians, election workers on the campaign trail. Home videos showed some of the election workers out campaigning. For some of their journey before the strike, they had a police escort out of concern that the Taliban might attack them.

The military conducted a review of the operation. Ten days later, a press release was issued. It said that the attack was “selective, surgical and legitimate” but that the military could not rule out the possibility of civilian casualties.

We traveled to the remote corner of Afghanistan where the strike took place and met with a group of survivors. Ihsanullah, a school teacher who was there that day, remembered, “That day was like a celebration. We were campaigning for the elections. We were making friends, inviting them along with us. We had no idea they were all about to die. Altogether, there were six vehicles. Our vehicle was at the end. Then there was a sound, a huge bang.”

Ihsanullah told us how two explosions destroyed one of the cars. He said helicopters then fired at those who survived the initial attack. “After the attack,” he said, “the ground was covered with body parts and blood. They killed ordinary people — elders, students and teachers.”

 The military remains adamant that even if civilians may have died, it was still a successful mission because a key Taliban commander was also killed. But a group of researchers in Kabul challenge this account. For the last eight months, an organization called the Afghan Analysts Network has been investigating this case.

The most prominent of those killed was an Afghan elder called Zabet Amanullah. U.S. officials have confirmed to FRONTLINE that he was the target. But many are convinced he was innocent.

Kate Clark, with the Afghan Analysts Network, said Amanullah “was living openly. He was working on the [election] campaign quite openly, staying with people. He was on the media a lot. Everyone from the governor down were asking, ‘Why did they kill him?’”

U.S. officials have told FRONTLINE that Zabet Amanullah led a double life as a Taliban deputy governor and that his real name was Mohammad Amin. But many Afghans maintain that the U.S. military made a mistake and that Mohammad Amin is someone else entirely from the man they killed that day.

Michael Semple, a former U.N. official and one of the leading experts on the Taliban, has lived and worked in the region for 20 years. Semple says he has tracked down and met the Taliban commander Mohammad Amin in person — after the attack that was supposed to have killed him. Semple asserted, “Mohammad Amin is alive. He’s somebody who did, indeed, serve as a deputy governor for the Taliban system in Takhar, who’s been engaged in the insurgency... But the point is, he’s flesh and blood. He’s got an identity ... that we have checked out, and he’s still alive.”

The Afghan government agrees that the U.S. military made a mistake that day. Mohammed Daudzai said, “A lot of mistakes are there. And every day, we are shivering that God knows what more mistakes may happen. If there are mistakes in operation, then we provide more opportunities for recruitment for the enemy.”

Taliban is forever

The U.S. military maintains that fewer than 1 percent of kill/capture operations harm civilians. They argue that accurate missions are inflicting unprecedented damage upon the Taliban network. To investigate this claim, we made contact with the Taliban and headed to the province of Baghlan in northern Afghanistan, where JSOC unleashed a series of night raids and air strikes against insurgent leaders. We arranged a meeting with a group of Taliban, who have just survived one of these attacks. They are on the run, and the meeting has taken months to arrange. We find the Taliban gathered at the grave of their former commander, killed on the spot in a U.S. air strike. Khalid Amin eulogizes, “God bless him in paradise. He was killed four months ago, but jihad will continue in spite of his death. We are his brothers. We will follow in his path. One day, his child will ask who killed his father, and he will take up arms against the infidels who killed his father. Jihad cannot be stopped. If we are killed, then our children will take up the fight. Jihad will continue until Judgment Day. God is great!”

Until recently, Khalid Amin was a foot soldier. He now controls around 50 Taliban fighters, after two senior commanders were killed by Special Forces. Showing photographs, Amin says, “This is Juma Khan, one of our distinguished commanders. He was killed on the front line. This is Maulvi Jabar, our district chief. He was killed with 30 others in a night raid. When he died, the enemy [that is, U.S. military] said the Taliban was finished here. But three months later ... we have many more fighters than back then. These night raids cannot annihilate us. We want to die anyway, so those destined for martyrdom will die in the raids and the rest will continue to fight without fear.”

 Matthew Hoh, a former official in the U.S. Foreign Service, observed, “We’re killing a lot of mid-level commanders, but they get replaced by other mid-level commanders. So it hurts them in the sense that they have to promote new people, but they just promote new people. And the more raids we do like this, the more we upset and aggrieve the Afghan population, and the more support they get.”

 Matthew Hoh resigned from the Foreign Service in 2009 because he believes that U.S. tactics are only fueling the insurgency in Afghanistan, as they did in Iraq. The last year in Afghanistan has been the most violent of the entire war. More U.S. soldiers were killed, more Taliban were killed, and more Afghan civilians were killed than ever before. But U.S. commanders argue that this unprecedented violence could actually be a sign that the strategy is working.

Dexter Filkins, an American journalist known primarily for his coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for The New York Times and now with The New Yorker, observes, “This is one of the great paradoxes of the war. What the military commanders will tell you is, ‘Look, things are going to get worse before they get better. And so right now, they’re worse because we’re going into places where we haven’t — literally haven’t been in years. We’re killing, capturing people that until now, you know, for years have been enjoying safe havens, freedom of movement, and suddenly that’s not possible anymore.’ I think at some point — and this is the big ‘if’ — the curve is supposed to go down, the curve of violence. That hasn’t happened yet.”

Taliban turncoats have regrets

But the U.S. military points to signs of progress in some parts of Afghanistan. They say that the kill/capture campaign is pushing Taliban foot soldiers to defect from the insurgency, a process known as “reintegration.” In Kunduz province after an intense targeting campaign, 40 insurgents have decided to leave the Taliban and join the government side. Journalists have been invited to a public reintegration ceremony. One of the defectors is a commander called Abdul Aziz. Along with his fighters, he’s been on the run from U.S. Special Forces for a year. Now he’s changed sides, is being given extra weapons by the Afghan government, and is asked to help hunt down his former Taliban friends.A month after the ceremony, we go back to find Abdul Aziz and his militia and discover that he is starting to regret his decision to leave the Taliban. He says, “When I was with the Taliban, things were different. People used to welcome us. When we came to a village, they would invite us in and they would be very hospitable. The people were so happy to see us then. Now they’re not. I don’t know why. They’re not welcoming any more. Now we have to work with no support.”

Aziz and his men have not been paid by the government since they started working for them. They are cold and hungry. And they are very worried that at some point, they might actually have to fight their former Taliban friends. Then something happens that none of them want. One of Aziz’s men has just been told that there are some Taliban hiding in a house nearby.

The militiaman reports to Aziz, “I asked an old man if there were any Taliban there. He mistook me for Taliban and said, ‘Yes, they are here.’ I asked him where. He said in his house. What should I do now?” Aziz seems unsure what to do. He tries to persuade the village elder to hand the Taliban over without a confrontation, but forgets he is wearing a microphone.

“Come this way please, uncle,” Aziz says to the elder. “Right, the Taliban who are hiding here — I was a member of the Taliban myself. About 30 fighters worked for me. I joined the government side about a month ago, but the Taliban are still my brothers. Look, we don’t like the Americans. We’ve had bad experiences with them. They’re infidels. They are the enemies of our religion, our nation and our honor. If God makes the Taliban successful, then we will be Taliban again. Do you understand? On that day, we will be Taliban.”

The U.S. military acknowledges that there aren’t enough Taliban foot soldiers switching sides to make a real difference in the war. But they argue that the kill/capture campaign might soon drive the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table.

Taliban won’t negotiate with Karzai

We were offered the chance to meet a senior Taliban leader, Mullah Yunus, who is high on the list of kill/capture targets and is on the run from U.S. Special Forces. He is the Taliban head of operations for the province of Baghlan and is said to have been behind an infamous suicide attack that killed 70 people, most of them civilians. Yunus is a rising star in the Taliban leadership and was promoted to his position after Special Forces killed his predecessor last year. We ask him if the Taliban are ready to talk peace with the Afghan government.

“We will never negotiate with the Karzai government,” Mullah Yunus says. “They are the puppets of our enemies. Instead of talking to them, we will try to target them and eliminate them.”

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the July 12 assassination of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, by his own head of security. Critics maintain that Ahmad Wali Karzai was a warlord mired in corruption. He was paid by the CIA, had a personal militia, and was involved in drug trafficking.

We ask Yunus if the Taliban will ever be willing to negotiate.

“No,” he says emphatically. “This war has become like delicious food for us. When a day passes without fighting, we get restless. We are sad when we cannot fight. Negotiations will only be possible when the Americans leave Afghanistan. We will only talk when they compensate us for all our losses. Otherwise we will attack Americans in foreign countries.”

Young commanders like Mullah Yunus have risen to positions of power because of the kill/capture campaign. They have little interest in making peace. Those close to the U.S. military acknowledge there’s a danger that the kill/capture campaign may radicalize the Taliban, but they say it’s worth the risk. U.S. commanders argue that, for now, kill/capture is a crucial part of a wider counterinsurgency campaign that is starting to roll back the Taliban.

Gen. Petraeus maintains, “We’re seeing progress for the first time in many years. Our assessment is that we have halted the momentum of the Taliban in much of the country — not all — and that we have reversed the momentum in some important areas, while noting that there’s no question that there’s still a great deal of hard work to be done.”

Gen. Petraeus’s optimistic view hauntingly echos that of Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968. In a late-1967 televised news conference, Gen Westmoreland stated there was “light at the end of the tunnel” to describe U.S. “progress” in Vietnam and that the war was being “won.” Ten weeks later came the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive, which showed Americans at home a realistic view of the situation on the ground and marked the beginning of the end for the United States in Vietnam.

Across Afghanistan, the military admits, the Taliban are still in control of much of the countryside. Back in Andar district, after a campaign that has seen hundreds of insurgents killed or captured, Sgt. Gavin Erickson of the 101st Airborne is on patrol in Taliban territory. He says, “Up here, it’s like, a hatred like you just can’t describe. You ask questions about Taliban, you know they’re there, but the people lie to you and you know they’re lying right to your face. That’s probably the most disappointing thing, especially when you’re here to help them.”

Dexter Filkins reflects, “I think the most troubling question that hangs over this whole enterprise, for all the money and all the blood that’s been spent on it, is we know that NATO and the Americans can go into an area and clear it and kill a lot of Taliban and chase them out of there. They can. They’re pretty good at that. They can even hold the town. They can even govern it. They can build stuff. They can build schools. They can build roads. We know they can do that. It costs a lot of money, it costs a lot of lives, but they can do it. But the one thing that hasn’t been demonstrated at all, and we’re now in the 10th year of this thing, is can we hand it off to the Afghans?”

 The foot soldiers here say the answer is “not yet.” In Sgt. Erickson’s opinion, “Honestly, I think if we left, the Taliban would take it over again.”

 It is now almost 10 years since the United States came to Afghanistan to drive out al Qaeda and the Taliban. Tens of thousands of Taliban have been killed or captured. The leader of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, is now dead. But it’s far from clear what the long-term consequences of this kill/capture campaign will be.

Prior to the United States invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban were interested only in governing their own country. They had no international goals. Now Mullah Yunus says, “We tell the infidels that if you kill us, we become stronger, and the number of our attacks will just increase as time passes. We have launched revenge attacks already, and we will now try to take revenge in foreign countries. We are resolute.”

– PeaceMeal July/ August 2011

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

U.S. soldier pleads guilty to murdering Afghans

The first of five U.S. soldiers charged with killing unarmed Afghan civilians in cold blood last year pleaded guilty on March 23 to three counts of premeditated murder and was sentenced to 24 years in prison. The guilty plea, entered by Army Spc. Jeremy Morlock, 23, of Wasilla, Alaska, marked a key turning point in the most serious prosecution of alleged U.S. military atrocities during 10 years of war in Afghanistan. Speaking under oath, Morlock, also implicated the four other members of his infantry unit’s so-called “kill team” and agreed to testify further against them if called as a prosecution witness for their courts-martial.

In a hushed voice, Morlock recounted his role in the deaths of three unarmed Afghan villagers, whose slayings by grenade blasts and rifle fire from Morlock and others in his unit were staged to appear as legitimate combat casualties. Morlock said the murder schemes were common knowledge in his platoon: “It was almost the entire platoon, give or take a handful of soldiers.”

The Army recently completed a top-to-bottom review of Morlock’s combat unit, the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in western Washington state. Army prosecutor Capt. Andre LeBlanc told the judge the “investigation is so expansive and ongoing that there’s a strong possibility” additional charges will be filed.

The case was brought into grim relief only days earlier when German magazine Der Spiegel published three photos related to the killings, one showing Morlock crouched grinning over a bloodied corpse as he lifted the dead man’s head by the hair. Der Spiegel reported that it had obtained four thousand photographs and videos taken by American soldiers, which are now in the hands of military prosecutors.

More images of U.S. troops posing with the bodies of murdered Afghan civilians were published by Rolling Stone magazine, which obtained about 150 photos and posted 17 of them on its website. Also posted are two videos allegedly showing U.S. attacks on Afghans.

The existence of such photos has drawn comparisons with pictures of Iraqi prisoners taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004.

In a statement, the Army apologized for the photos which “are disturbing and in striking contrast to the standards and values of the U.S. Army.” It said it would “relentlessly” pursue the truth, no matter how difficult or lengthy the investigation.

Morlock was described by prosecutors as the right-hand man to the accused ringleader of the rogue platoon, SSgt. Calvin Gibbs. They alone were charged with killing all three victims, whom Morlock testified were chosen at random by Gibbs. Besides his alleged role in terrorizing civilians, Morlock was accused along with Gibbs of intimidating fellow soldiers by displaying severed fingers taken from Afghan war dead.

Military judge Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks said he intended to sentence Morlock to life in prison with possibility of parole but was bound by the deal limiting the sentence to 24 years in exchange for a guilty plea. “I knew what I was doing was wrong, sir,” Morlock stated to the judge. “I publicly take responsibility for the deaths,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on how I lost my moral compass.” He later read a statement apologizing to the victims’ families and “people of Afghanistan.”

– edited from Reuters, Voice of America News and BBC News
PeaceMeal, March/April 2011

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Afghans protest deadly U.S. raid

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A night raid by American troops in the eastern province of Nangarhar on May 14 left at least 10 Afghans dead. American Special Operations troops and Afghan special forces carried out the raid in an attempt to arrest an insurgent named Qari Shamshudin, who was among the 10 people killed. Within hours, protests by their relatives and friends turned violent, claiming at least one more life, according to accounts from witnesses. Afghan officials said the witnesses described the dead as civilians, but a spokesman for the American military, Lt. Col. Joseph Breasseale, said they were insurgents, including a Taliban subcommander and several others. He said they were killed in a firefight after refusing orders to come out of a house. Two insurgents were wounded and captured, he said, and "multiple automatic rifles" were found in the house.

It was the second fatal night raid in two weeks in the Surkh Rod District about nine miles west of Jalalabad, the provincial capital. Afghan officials had confirmed that a man was killed in the previous raid on April 28. An Afghan member of Parliament, Safia Sidiqi, said that the house raided then was her own and that the victim was related by marriage to her brother. Ms. Sidiqi was among the protesters on May 14, witnesses said. The protesters carried the bodies of four of the latest victims, burned an American flag, and shouted slogans, including "Death to America" and "Long Live the Taliban." They were also critical of the provincial governor, Gul Agha Shirzai, and Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

When the crowd of villagers and relatives tried to storm the district police and government building, the police fired to repulse them, according to Mr. Abdul Zai, killing one protester and wounding two. Ms. Sidiqi said she worked to calm the crowd down and dissuade it from an attempt to march on Jalalabad.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, Zemarai Bashary, said, "The local people in the area are claiming these are innocent civilians who have been killed." He was sending an official delegation of the Afghan national police's criminal investigation division to investigate the night raid. The agency had previously conducted investigations of civilian killings by NATO forces elsewhere.

In response to the April 28 case, Mrs. Sidiqi accused the Americans of deliberately seeking out her house, although she was not at home at the time of the raid. "My brother called me on the phone at 11:40 p.m. and told me that there were some thieves outside our house and then I called Nangarhar Provincial Police headquarters, and they told me they are not thieves, they are Americans doing their search operations," she said. In that raid, Colonel Breasseale said, the victim came out of the house with a shotgun. "He clearly presented hostile intent and they yelled at him to drop the weapon and he refused to do it," he said. He was skeptical of claims that the people inside the house thought they were being attacked by thieves.

A villager from Surkh Rod District, said he lost four cousins and an uncle in the raid there. He said his uncle was shot while still asleep in his bed and his cousins had hidden in the house when they were shot. "I hate this stupid Karzai, this stupid governor," said the villager, Omarudin, who like many Afghans uses only one name. "My uncle and cousins were not Taliban, so why did they kill them?"

Ms. Sidiqi, who later visited the survivors, said it was clear to her that all of the victims were farmers who had been working late into the night threshing their wheat harvest. One of the victims, all males, was a 12-year-old boy and another a 70-year-old man. "I think this is the enemies of the Americans in Afghanistan, feeding them bad information in order to create friction between the Americans and the people of Afghanistan," she said. "If the Americans keep behaving like that, definitely it turns people to the Taliban."

Ms. Sidiqi said NATO troops should work with local officials and elders to arrest people they suspect of insurgent ties. "Instead they just shot them down as they jumped from their beds," Ms. Sidiqi said. She confirmed there were some weapons found in the house. "They were two rifles; these are farmers and everyone has rifles," she said. "They cannot compete with a hundred Americans with all their modern weapons."

edited from The New York Times, May 14, 2010
PeaceMeal, May/June 2010

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)