C.I.A. bags of cash feed corruption in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — For more than a decade, wads of American dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags have been dropped off every month or so at the offices of Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai— courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency. All told, tens of millions of dollars have flowed from the C.I.A. to Karzai’s office, according to current and former advisers to the Afghan leader. “We called it ‘ghost money,’ ” said Khalil Roman, who served as Mr. Karzai’s deputy chief of staff from 2002 until 2005. “It came in secret, and it left in secret.”

The C.I.A., which declined to comment for this article, has long been known to support some relatives and close aides of Mr. Karzai. But the new accounts of off-the-books cash delivered directly to his office show payments on a vaster scale, and with a far greater impact on everyday governing.

American and Afghan officials familiar with the payments said the C.I.A.’s main goal in providing the cash has been to maintain access to Mr. Karzai and his inner circle and to guarantee the agency’s influence at the presidential palace, which wields tremendous power in Afghanistan’s highly centralized government. But it is not clear that the United States is getting what it still pays for. Mr. Karzai’s willingness to defy the United States on an array of issues seems to have only grown as the cash has piled up. But the C.I.A. has continued to pay, believing it needs Mr. Karzai’s ear to run its clandestine war against Al Qaeda and its allies.

Much of the C.I.A.’s money goes to paying off warlords and politicians, many of whom have ties to the drug trade and, in some cases, the Taliban. The result, American and Afghan officials said, is that the agency has greased the wheels of the same patronage networks that American diplomats and law enforcement agents have struggled unsuccessfully to dismantle, leaving the government in the grips of what are basically organized crime syndicates.

Afghanistan has one of the most corrupt governments in the world and, one American official said, “The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan was the United States.”

The cash does not appear to be subject to the oversight and restrictions placed on official American aid to the country or even the C.I.A.’s formal assistance programs, like financing Afghan intelligence agencies. And while there is no evidence that Mr. Karzai has personally taken any of the money, the payments do in some cases work directly at odds with the aims of other parts of the American government in Afghanistan, even if they do not appear to violate American law.

Handing out cash has been standard procedure for the C.I.A. in Afghanistan since the start of the United States war there. During the 2001 invasion, agency cash bought the services of numerous warlords, including Muhammad Qasim Fahim, the current first vice president. “We paid them to overthrow the Taliban,” an American official said.

The C.I.A. then kept paying the Afghans to keep fighting. For instance, Mr. Karzai’s half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a reputed drug lord, was paid by the C.I.A. to run the Kandahar Strike Force, a militia used by the agency to combat militants, until his assassination in 2011.

While intelligence agencies often pay foreign officials to provide information, dropping off bags of cash at a foreign leader’s office to curry favor is a more unusual arrangement. Afghan officials said the practice grew out of the unique circumstances in Afghanistan, where the George W. Bush administration built the government and selected Mr. Karzai to run it. To accomplish that task, it had to bring to heel many of the warlords the C.I.A. had paid during and after the 2001 invasion. By late 2002, Mr. Karzai and his aides were pressing for the payments to be routed through the president’s office, allowing him to buy the warlords’ loyalty, a former adviser to Mr. Karzai said.

Payments ordinarily range from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, the officials said, though none could provide exact figures. The money is used to cover a slew of off-the-books expenses. Much of it also still goes to keeping old warlords in line. One is Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek whose militia served as a C.I.A. proxy force in 2001. He receives nearly $100,000 a month from the presidential palace, two Afghan officials said. Other officials said the amount was significantly lower.

Mr. Dostum, who declined requests for comment, had previously said he was given $80,000 a month to serve as Mr. Karzai’s emissary in northern Afghanistan. “I asked for a year up front in cash so that I could build my dream house,” he was quoted as saying in a 2009 interview with TIME magazine.

Some of the cash also probably ends up in the pockets of the Karzai aides who handle it. That is not a significant concern for the C.I.A., said American officials familiar with the agency’s operations. “They’ll work with criminals if they think they have to,” one American former official said.

No one mentions the C.I.A.’s money at President Karzai’s cabinet meetings. It is handled by a small clique at the Afghanistan National Security Council, including its administrative chief, Mohammed Zia Salehi, Afghan officials said. Mr. Salehi is better known for being arrested in 2010 in connection with a sprawling, American-led investigation that tied together Afghan cash smuggling, Taliban finances, and the opium trade. Mr. Karzai had him released within hours, and the C.I.A. then helped persuade the Obama administration to back off its anticorruption push, American officials said.

After his release, Mr. Salehi jokingly came up with a motto that succinctly summed up America’s conflicting priorities. He was, he began telling colleagues, “an enemy of the F.B.I. and a hero to the C.I.A.”

 The C.I.A.’s station chief in Afghanistan met with President Karzai on May 4, and the Afghan leader said he had been assured the agency would continue dropping off stacks of cash at his office despite a storm of criticism that erupted since the payments were disclosed.

Members of Congress are among those who have expressed dismay. Senator Bob Corker (Rep.-Tenn.) wrote to President Obama expressing concern that C.I.A. payments appeared to “indicate an incoherent U.S. policy toward Afghanistan,” and asked for an explanation. Rep. Corker added: “The alleged arrangements make accountability impossible and promote corruption at the top levels of the Afghan government, as well as break trust with the American taxpayer.”

– edited from articles by Matthew Rosenberg in The New York Times, April 28 and May 4, 2013
PeaceMeal, May/June 2013

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Afghan peace plan in trouble as Pakistani clerics balk

ISLAMABAD & KABUL — A portion of a peace plan intended to smooth the way for an exit from Afghanistan of U.S.-led military forces already is in trouble, even before it has gotten underway. At issue is a conference between Pakistani and Afghan religious leaders which was scheduled for March in Kabul, the Afghan capital, that was intended to provide religious support for efforts to resolve the war in Afghanistan. But the Pakistani clerics are refusing to participate unless the Taliban are included, something that would be impossible in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis also said they were unwilling to participate in any conference if it could be seen as an endorsement of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

“How come people can talk to the Taliban all over the world but not in Kabul?” asked Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council, a leading organization of Pakistani clerics, who was seen as a possible leader of the Pakistani side of the conference. “We support peace talks. But if we are to discuss peace, then how can you leave out one of the parties to the war?”

With virtually no chance that the Taliban will be defeated on the battlefield, a peace deal with the insurgents is considered the most hopeful way of avoiding Afghanistan sinking into chaos as the American-led coalition force leaves next year.

The Taliban, a religious movement that believes it is fighting a “holy war,” have indicated they’re interested in peace negotiations, and their representatives held discussions in Qatar with U.S. officials last year as well as in Germany, France and elsewhere. But there has been no meeting in Afghanistan, and it’s highly unlikely that the Taliban would attend a conference in Afghanistan anytime soon. The Taliban have not agreed to talk to the Karzai government at all, seeing them as “puppets.”

Liaqat Baloch, secretary-general of Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s most established Islamic political party, denounced the planned conference. “This conference would be held under American pressure,” he said. “For 12 years, they’ve been killing people in Afghanistan and now they want us to come along and clean up their mess, sanctify it. We won’t.”

The Taliban have come out strongly against the idea of the conference, and they have been in direct contact with Pakistani clerics on the issue, Ashrafi said. In January, Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, issued a statement saying that any religious cleric attending would be “answerable to God”, an apparent threat.

American generals and civilian officials acknowledge that they have all but written off engaging the Taliban into a peace deal. The once ambitious American plans for ending the war are being replaced by the far more modest goal of setting the stage for the Afghans to work out a deal among themselves in the years after most Western forces depart, and to ensure Pakistan is on board with any eventual settlement. Military and diplomatic officials here and in Washington said they now expect that any significant progress will come only after 2014, once the bulk of NATO troops have left.

The failure to broker meaningful talks with the Taliban underscores the fragility of the gains claimed during the surge of American troops ordered by President Obama in 2009. The 30,000 extra troops won back territory held by the Taliban, but by nearly all estimates failed to deal a crippling blow.

“It’s a very resilient enemy, and I’m not going to tell you it’s not,” said a senior coalition officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It will be a constant battle, and it will be for years.”

– edited from McClatchy Newspapers and New York Times
PeaceMeal, March/April 2013

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Relentless Afghan conflict leaves traumatized generation

KABUL – On a low bed in a quiet, all-female hospital ward, a depressed Afghan teenager huddles under blankets, her mother close by. In a nearby room are men suffering from schizophrenia, delusions of persecution and power, anxiety and panic disorders. Among them are some of the unseen victims of the war in Afghanistan: a generation of people mentally damaged by their exposure to incessant conflict. The accumulation of psychological problems could begin to undermine national reconstruction and development, say health workers at Afghanistan’s only facility for treating mental illness.

The concept of mental illness is alien to many in Afghanistan, where the public health system, like much of the country’s infrastructure, has been wrecked by decades of war. Frequently, people suffering psychological disorders are thought by their families to be under the influence of evil spirits or showing symptoms of a physical ailment.

Ghazia Sadid, a 26-year-old mother, endured depression for years after a family member was killed in a bomb attack, and she fled her home in fear of more violence. “I still hear the sounds of explosions. I still remember the fighting, but since I have come here my behavior has changed,” she said, speaking at the Kabul Mental Health Hospital, a green-walled building on the outskirts of the city. “I was totally lost and my life was over. After two years of treatment, now I love my children,” she said. “I loved them then too, but in my imagination I had done something wrong.”

The Kabul hospital has 60 beds for in-patients and another 40 in a separate facility for drug addicts. Men, women and children come for treatment with drugs, counseling, group therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. It is run by the government in partnership with the U.S.-based nonprofit group International Medical Corps and gets funding from the European Union.

The fear of suicide bomb attacks, roadside bombs, and the overall level of violence in Afghanistan — of which civilians bear the brunt, with the number killed rising in 2011 for the fifth straight year to more than 3,000, according to the United Nations — can lead to anxiety, panic and obsession. “The physical aspects of war (last) for a limited time, but the psychological aspects of the war extend for many years. Day by day the mental health problems caused by the war are increasing,” said consultant psychiatrist Said Najib Jawed.

Psychologists working at the hospital say children who have known nothing but fighting since the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban government more than a decade ago are especially vulnerable. “The generation born after 2001 when the international community entered Afghanistan might be 10, 11 year olds now, and I’ve been seeing 11 year olds and 10 year olds nowadays who are presenting with so many mental health problems: nightmares, depression, anxiety, incontinence,” said Mohammad Zaman Rajabi, clinical psychology advisor at the hospital.

Just as socially damaging is the risk of a generation for whom violence has become the norm. “One of the examples I always give is that when you talk to an Afghan boy, you can easily get into a physical fight because they just wait for it. They don’t know any other ways of dealing with a problem than fighting,” Rajabi said. “All these things will lead to a generation of people who are not very healthy mentally, and this will affect everything in the country: education, relationships, families, generally the development of the country.”

– edited from Reuters, November 16, 2012
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2013

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Time to pack up and leave Afghanistan

Edited from a New York Times editorial, October 13, 2012

The United States will not achieve even President Obama’s narrowing goals in Afghanistan, and prolonging the war will only do more harm. After more than a decade of having American blood spilled there and with nearly six years lost to President George W. Bush’s disastrous indifference, it is time for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan on a schedule dictated only by the security of our troops. Two more years of sending the 1 percent of Americans serving in uniform to die and be wounded is too long. It should not take more than a year.

Administration officials offer no hope of achieving broad governance and security goals in Afghanistan. The only final mission we know of, to provide security for a 2014 Afghan election, seems likely to only lend American approval to a thoroughly corrupt political system.

It is now clear that if there ever was a chance of “victory” in Afghanistan, it evaporated when American troops went off to fight the pointless war in Iraq. While some progress has been made, the idea of fully realizing broader democratic and security aims simply grows more elusive. More fighting will not consolidate the modest gains made by this war, and there seems little chance of guaranteeing that the Taliban do not “come back in,” at least in the provinces where they have never truly been dislodged. Meanwhile, more than 2,000 American troops have died in this war and many thousands more have been maimed. The war has now cost upward of $500 billion.

Americans are desperate to see the war end and the 68,000 remaining troops come home. President Obama has not yet tasked military commanders with recommending a pace for the withdrawal. He and the coalition partners have committed to remain engaged in Afghanistan after 2014 at reduced levels, which could involve 15,000 or more American troops to carry out specialized training and special operations. The military may yet ask for tens of thousands more troops, which would be a serious mistake.

The task is to pack up without leaving behind weapons that terrorists want and cannot easily find elsewhere, like Stinger missiles, or high-tech equipment, like Predator drones. Some experts say a secure withdrawal would take at least six months, and possibly a year. But one year is a huge improvement over two. It would be one less year of having soldiers die or come home with wounds that are terrifying, physically and mentally.

Suicides among veterans and those in active service reached unacceptable levels long ago. An estimated 45 percent of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are claiming disability benefits. A quarter of those veterans — 300,000 to 400,000, depending on the study — say they suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is far too high a price to go on asking of troops and their families.

NATO and the Pentagon have built an Afghan Army and police force of nearly 352,000 that is now nominally in the lead for providing security in most of the country but is unreliable. Attrition rates are high, morale is low, and the force has been infiltrated by the Taliban. The United States cannot hang its hopes on that situation changing.

The Taliban have not retaken territory they lost to coalition forces, but their base in Kandahar and Helmand remains heavily contested, even after the 2010 surge. A Pentagon report in May said Taliban attacks in Kandahar from last October through March rose by 13 percent over the same period a year earlier. William Byrd, an Afghan expert at the United States Institute of Peace, said, “The most that probably can be hoped” is that the Afghan army continues to hold Kabul and other major cities. It is not likely to ever become an effective counterinsurgency force.

To increase the odds for a more manageable transition and avert an economic collapse, the United States and other major donors have pledged $16 billion in economic aid through 2015. That is a commitment worth keeping. But the United States and its allies have tried nation building in Afghanistan for at least the last four years and it is not working.

President Hamid Karzai’s weak and corrupt government, awash in billions of dollars, continues to alienate Afghans and make the Taliban an attractive alternative. Mr. Karzai recently chose Asadullah Khalid, a man accused of torture and drug trafficking, to take over the country’s main intelligence agency. Dozens of Karzai family members and allies have taken government jobs, pursued lucrative business interests, or worked as contractors to the United States government.

A recent report by Afghanistan’s central bank said the Afghan political elite had been using Kabul Bank as a piggy bank. In 2010, word that the bank had lost $300 million caused a panic, and the amount later tripled. To win pledges of continued aid at an international donors conference in July, President Karzai promised to crack down on corruption and make political reforms, but he has done little. He has proved himself to be not only unreliable, but a force undermining American goals and Afghans’ interests.

The real threat to democracy in Afghanistan is from corruption. Mr. Karzai stole the last election by fraud, and he got away with it with American forces in place. After giving him 10 years and wads of money, things keep going in the wrong direction. With new elections scheduled for 2014, why would this change?

America’s global interests suffer when it is mired in unwinnable wars in distant regions. Dwight Eisenhower helped the country’s position in the world by leaving Korea; Richard Nixon by leaving Vietnam; President Obama by leaving Iraq. None of those places became Jeffersonian democracies, but the United States was better off for leaving.

Everything will not work out well after we leave Afghanistan. The Taliban will take over parts of the Pashtun south, where they will brutalize women and trample their rights. Warlords will go on stealing. Afghanistan will still be the world’s second-poorest country and highly illiterate.

Post-American Afghanistan is likely to be more presentable than North Korea, less presentable than Iraq, and perhaps about the same as Vietnam. But our war there fits the same pattern of damaging stalemate. We need to exit as soon as we safely can.

– PeaceMeal, Nov/December 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.)


War in Afghanistan claims 2,000th American life

His war was almost over. Or so Marina Buckley thought when her son Lance Cpl. Gregory T. Buckley Jr. told her that he would be returning from Afghanistan to his Marine Corps base in Hawaii in late August. Instead, Lance Corporal Buckley became the 1,990th American service member to die in the war when, on August 10, he and two other Marines were shot inside their base by a man who appears to have been a member of the Afghan forces they were training.

A week later, with the death of Specialist James A. Justice of the Army in a military hospital in Germany, the United States military reached 2,000 dead in the nearly 11-year-old conflict — the nation’s longest war. Nearly nine years passed before American forces reached their first 1,000 dead in the war. The second 1,000 came just 27 months later, a testament to the intensity of fighting prompted by President Obama’s decision to surge 33,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2010.

The new threat of insider attacks that emerged this year has increased concerns about NATO’s ability to turn security operations over to Afghan forces by 2014, the deadline set by President Obama for withdrawing the remaining American forces.

More fundamentally, the deaths — occurring even as American forces are conducting fewer combat missions — have prompted service members and military families alike to wonder: has the decade-long American presence in Afghanistan made a difference?

As Mrs. Buckley recounted things her son loved — basketball, girls, movies, the beach — bitterness choked her words. “Our forces shouldn’t be there,” she said. “It should be over. It’s done. No more.”

But the wars continue to take their toll, even of those who survived combat. More active-duty and reserve soldiers killed themselves last year, 278, than died in combat in Afghanistan, 247.

– edited from The New York Times, August 21, 2012
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2012

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Afghan women are agents of changeAfifa Aziz.jpg (5265 bytes)

Afifa Azim, Executive Director of the Afghan Women’s Network

Afghan women activists traveled from Kabul to Chicago to participate in Amnesty International’s Shadow Summit for Afghan Women on May 20-21.

Wornen of Afghanistan are very active and have been active since before 2001. During Taliban rule, they educated children in secret and worked to keep the educational system alive. They hoped one day the situation would change, and today they have seen the change and the results of their work.

Since 2001, women have assumed 27 percent of the seats in parliament, girls have returned to school and women’s rights have become part of the public dialogue. The women’s movement has developed within civil society, and today many women are active in women’s organizations. And they want to continue to be active.

In order to assure a responsible transition of power, NATO must carefully monitor the security conditions in areas throughout Afghanistan where the NATO forces have drawn down. The continued safety and mobility of Afghan women will be a critical measure of the success of the transition. Relevant indicators include the number of women working outside the home, the participation of women in governmental bodies, the rate of school attendance for girls, women’s access to government services, and the prevalence of violence against women. We need to make the world realize that working jointly to bring changes in Afghanistan can be an example for the world.

NATO member countries must jointly develop a comprehensive strategy and budget to identify how to maintain the achievements of women, how to maintain the gains women have made over the past 11 years. This strategy must include support for building capacity, earning trust in local communities, getting more women into security and police forces, gender training for civil policing, monitoring women’s progress, and ensuring accountability.

We need you to support Afghan women by putting pressure on your policymakers to support our rights and by making sure we are at the table making decisions. I also have a message from Afghan women: We would like to request that you don’t look upon us as victims. Yes, it was so difficult to be alive under the conditions imposed by the Taliban. We had no right to go anywhere without a male. We had no access to health care and suffered beatings all the time. But we worked together, we trained our children, and we wanted to be active. We have all suffered from three decades of war, but we want the world to see us as positive agents of change in Afghanistan and in the world at large.

In an “open letter” signed by dozens of prominent supporters, Amnesty International appealed to President Barack Obama and President Hamid Karzai to safeguard the gains Afghan women have made over the past decade. Signatories include influential Afghan women leaders, as well as retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Meryl Streep, Gloria Steinem and Steven King. Reprinted in PeaceMeal, Sept/October 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.)


Afghan forces need reading lessons before security transfer

KABUL – A third of Afghan national security forces — about 119,000 — are taking basic lessons in reading and counting, as NATO commanders accelerate their training ahead of the withdrawal of most foreign troops in 2014. More than 95 percent of recruits in the Afghan national army and police are functionally illiterate, having never been to school, so are sent on a beginner’s course to teach them how to read, write (their name) and count to 1,000 — skills equivalent to students aged eight in the third grade of the Afghan school system.

In a nation with an overall literacy rate of 37 percent and torn by three decades of war, the widespread absence of elementary reading and counting skills has slowed the training of security forces and their ability to do the job. The situation underscores the daunting challenges facing Afghanistan after the bulk of Western military support is withdrawn.

Afghan forces, which hit a strength of 343,000 men in April as part of a rapid build-up, are set to take over security responsibilities by the middle of next year, while a deadly Taliban insurgency rages.

NATO said a 2009 survey found that the Afghan national army, which is considered the most professional of all the country’s forces and the spearhead of the fight against the Taliban, had a literacy rate of only 13 percent. The police were assumed to be little better, on the basis of the army survey. The soldiers can neither read nor write at the start of the literacy course, so instructors have to explain everything in pictures, and every skill has to be demonstrated.

Troops are unable to read instructions on how to maintain a vehicle, fill out a form for the issue of equipment, or read a serial number to distinguish their weapon from another — all basic soldiering duties anywhere in the world.

“If you have someone who is injured and they are unable to read a map and to provide their location to get picked up, it’s a serious problem. That is a matter of life and death,” said Barbara Goodno, chief of the literacy and language division at NATO’s training mission in Afghanistan.

Some 3,000 Afghan teachers have been hired as part of a $200-million program for basic literacy funded until 2014 by Japan, Britain, Finland and the United Arab Emirates. “Training is difficult, it does not happen quickly or easily,” Goodno said.

– edited from Reuters, June 22, 2012
PeaceMeal, July/August 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.)


Corruption poses biggest threat to U.S. forces in Afghanistan

The biggest threat to U.S. forces departing Afghanistan won’t come from the Taliban or al Qaeda, but will come from the Afghan government itself, according to a high-ranking member of the U.S. military. Maj. Gen. John Toolan, head of the Marine Corps 2nd Division, argued that corruption within Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration has now surpassed the insurgency as the main threat to the U.S. mission. The two-star general led American and NATO operations in the restive Helmand province last March as the commander of Regional Command-Southwest.

Toolan put the rampant corruption he saw during that time into two categories. One is “parasitic corruption,” where Afghan officials associated with the country’s thriving narcotics trade suck authority away from the weak central government to protect their criminal activities. The second is “predatory corruption,” where members of the Afghan security forces use their authority to extort from local Afghans in areas outside of Kabul’s control.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) pointed out there was no way to weigh the threat posed by the Taliban against corruption inside Karzai’s regime. “I can't compare apples to oranges,” said Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Afghan officials argue that Kabul has made significant progress in reining in corrupt elements within the government and the military. But with systemic corruption permeating the top of the government, that assertion seems self-serving. But such progress will be key to success of the post-war security pact American and Afghan officials just finalized at NATO’s summit in Chicago. Terms of the deal will give Afghan forces complete control of security operations in the country once U.S. forces leave in 2014.

A contingent of American special forces will remain to support Afghan-led missions and to continue counterterrorism operations. But if Kabul cannot keep the behavior of its own soldiers and government bureaucrats above board by the time coalition forces leave Afghanistan, the United States will “lose everything we’ve gained” over the past 10 years of war, according to Maj. Gen. Toolan.

– edited from TheHill.com, April 28, 2012
PeaceMeal, May/Junel 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.)


Afghan insurgency still ‘a resilient and determined enemy’

More than 10 years after the Taliban government was toppled, the Afghan insurgency remains “a resilient and determined enemy,” likely to use high-profile attacks like the 18-hour siege of Kabul on April 15, according to the Defense Department’s semi-annual report to Congress. The Pentagon presented a mixed picture of the war in Afghanistan on May 1, saying President Barack Obama’s surge of 33,000 extra troops had weakened the Taliban but that a resilient insurgency, the “limited capacity” and persistent corruption of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government, and selective cooperation from Pakistan posed major threats to U.S. efforts.

Although overall insurgent attacks decreased by 9 percent in 2011 compared to 2010, intense fighting increased in the Taliban’s southern stronghold of Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where thousands of U.S. soldiers have sought to shut down their operations since 2010. A Pentagon official said the statistics showed the U.S. moving “from us essentially losing the war to us making important progress.”

If we assume a straight-line extrapolation at that rate, the country may be pacified in 10 more years.

The report’s conclusions are unlikely to extinguish doubts about whether the Obama administration can establish a stable, secure Afghanistan as Western nations press ahead with plans to withdraw most combat soldiers by the end of 2014. As the NATO force grows smaller, the Western strategy now hinges on its ability to transform an inexperienced, ill-equipped Afghan army into a professional fighting force that can face off against insurgents by itself. But local forces remain plagued by attrition, poor leadership and inadequate management.

The Obama administration also continues to grapple with what the Pentagon described as “selective counterinsurgency operations” by the Pakistani government, which U.S. officials have long complained refuses to help the United States hunt down Taliban militants whose interests may align with its own. Pakistan’s decision to keep key supply routes into Afghanistan closed since 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed by U.S. aircraft in November have held up thousands of tons of equipment, the Pentagon said, and could “significantly degrade” withdrawal operations.

– edited from Reuters, May 1, 2012
PeaceMeal, May/Junel 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.)


NATO transition in Afghanistan

Pres. Barack Obama and fellow NATO leaders solidified plans May 21 for an “irreversible transition” in Afghanistan, affirming their commitment to ending the deeply unpopular war in 2014 and voicing confidence in the ability of Afghan forces to take the lead for securing their country even sooner. While NATO will maintain a significant presence in Afghanistan after 2014, it will not be a combat mission.

Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai participated in the meeting, as did Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, whose country will have a critical role in ensuring Afghanistan’s stability after NATO troops leave. Zardari’s presence cast a shadow over the summit due to the U.S. and Pakistan being at odds over Pakistan’s closure of key routes used to send supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan.

As NATO leaders herald the Afghan war’s eventual end, they face the grim reality of two more years of fighting and more of their troops dying in combat. Some NATO countries, most recently France, plan to end their combat commitments early. The Taliban and its allies have given notice that they are waiting to fill the void in Afghanistan after NATO leaves.

– edited from The Associated Press, May 21, 2012
PeaceMeal, May/Junel 2012

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Truth, lies and Afghanistan: How military leaders have let us down

Lt_Col_Daniel_Davis.jpg (4724 bytes)Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, U.S. Army

I spent last year in Afghanistan, visiting and talking with U.S. troops and their Afghan partners. My duties with the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force took me into every significant area where our soldiers engage the enemy. Over the course of 12 months, I covered more than 9,000 miles and talked, traveled and patrolled with troops in Kandahar, Kunar, Ghazni, Khost, Paktika, Kunduz, Balkh, Nangarhar and other provinces. What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground.

I was sincerely hoping to learn that the claims were true: that conditions in Afghanistan were improving, that the local government and military were progressing toward self-sufficiency. I did not need to witness dramatic improvements to be reassured, but merely hoped to see evidence of positive trends, to see companies or battalions produce even minimal but sustainable progress. Instead, I witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level.

I had served in Operation Desert Storm, in Afghanistan in 2005-06 and in Iraq in 2008-09. My arrival again in country in late 2010 marked the start of my fourth combat deployment and my second in Afghanistan. I interviewed or had conversations with more than 250 soldiers in the field, from the lowest-ranking 19-year-old private to division commanders and staff members at every echelon. I spoke at length with Afghan security officials, Afghan civilians and a few village elders.

I saw the incredible difficulties any military force would have to pacify even a single area of any of those provinces; I heard many stories of how insurgents controlled virtually every piece of land beyond eyeshot of a U.S. or International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) base. I saw little to no evidence the local governments were able to provide for the basic needs of the people. Some of the Afghan civilians I talked with said the people didn’t want to be connected to a predatory or incapable local government. From time to time, I observed Afghan Security forces collude with the insurgency.

Much of what I saw during my deployment, let alone read or wrote in official reports, I can’t talk about; the information remains classified. But I can say that such reports — mine and others’ — serve to illuminate the gulf between conditions on the ground and official statements of progress. And I can relate a few representative experiences, of the kind that I observed all over the country.

In January 2011, I made my first trip into the mountains of Kunar province near the Pakistan border. On a patrol to the northernmost U.S. position in eastern Afghanistan, we arrived at an Afghan National Police (ANP) station that had reported being attacked by the Taliban 2 hours earlier. Through the interpreter, I asked the police captain, “What are your normal procedures in situations like these? Do you form up a squad and go after them? Do you periodically send out harassing patrols? What do you do?”

The captain laughed. “No! We don’t go after them,” he said. “That would be dangerous!”

According to the cavalry troopers, the Afghan policemen rarely leave the cover of the checkpoints. In that part of the province, the Taliban literally run free.

In August, I went on a dismounted patrol with troops in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province. Several troops from the unit had recently been killed in action, one of whom was a very popular and experienced soldier. One of the unit’s senior officers rhetorically asked me, “How do I look these men in the eye and ask them to go out day after day on these missions? What’s harder: How do I look [my soldier’s] wife in the eye when I get back and tell her that her husband died for something meaningful? How do I do that?”

How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding, behind an array of more than seven years of optimistic statements by U.S. senior leaders in Afghanistan? No one expects our leaders to always have a successful plan. But we do expect — and the men who do the living, fighting and dying deserve — to have our leaders tell us the truth about what’s going on.

On Sept. 11, the 10th anniversary of the infamous attack on the U.S., I visited another unit in Kunar province. I talked with the local official who served as the cultural adviser to the U.S. commander. Here’s how the conversation went:

Davis: “Here you have many units of the Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF]. Will they be able to hold out against the Taliban when U.S. troops leave this area?”

Adviser: “No. They are definitely not capable. Already all across this region [many elements of] the security forces have made deals with the Taliban. [The ANSF] won’t shoot at the Taliban, and the Taliban won’t shoot them.

“And last night, right on that mountain there [he pointed to a ridge overlooking the U.S. base], a member of the ANP was murdered. The Taliban came and called him out, kidnapped him in front of his parents, and took him away and murdered him. He was a member of the ANP from another province and had come back to visit his parents. ... The people are not safe anywhere.”

That murder took place within view of the U.S. base, a post nominally responsible for the security of an area of hundreds of square kilometers. Imagine how insecure the population is beyond visual range. And yet that conversation was representative of what I saw in many regions of Afghanistan.

In all of the places I visited, the tactical situation was bad to abysmal. If the events I have described — and many, many more I could mention — had been in the first year of war, or even the third or fourth, one might be willing to believe that Afghanistan was just a hard fight, and we should stick it out. Yet these incidents all happened in the 10th year of war. As the numbers depicting casualties and enemy violence indicate the absence of progress, so too did my observations of the tactical situation all over Afghanistan.

I’m hardly the only one who has noted the discrepancy between official statements and the truth on the ground. A January 2011 report by the Afghan NGO Security Office noted that public statements made by U.S. and ISAF leaders at the end of 2010 were “sharply divergent from [ISAF] ‘strategic communication’ messages suggesting improvements. We encourage [nongovernment organization personnel] to recognize that no matter how authoritative the source of any such claim, messages of the nature are solely intended to influence American and European public opinion ahead of the withdrawal, and are not intended to offer an accurate portrayal of the situation for those who live and work here.”

If Americans were able to compare the public statements many of our leaders have made with classified data, this credibility gulf would be immediately observable. Naturally, I am not authorized to divulge classified material to the public. But I am legally able to share it with members of Congress. I have accordingly provided a much fuller accounting in a classified report to several members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, senators and House members.

When it comes to deciding what matters are worth plunging our nation into war and which are not, our senior leaders owe it to the nation and to the uniformed members to be candid — graphically, if necessary — in telling them what’s at stake and how expensive potential success is likely to be. U.S. citizens and their elected representatives can decide if the risk to blood and treasure is worth it.

Likewise when having to decide whether to continue a war, alter its aims or to close off a campaign that cannot be won at an acceptable price, our senior leaders have an obligation to tell Congress and American people the unvarnished truth and let the people decide what course of action to choose. That is the very essence of civilian control of the military. The American people deserve better than what they’ve gotten from their senior uniformed leaders over the last number of years. Simply telling the truth would be a good start.

– edited from Armed Forces Journal, February 2012
PeaceMeal, March/April 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.)


U.S. negotiations with the Taliban have failed

U.S. negotiations with the Taliban have failed and the United Nations should take the lead to optimize the chances of ending almost 11 years of war, according to the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization that is committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict. In a blow to hopes of a negotiated end to the war, the Taliban suspended talks with the United States after the massacre of 17 Afghan civilians by a lone U.S. soldier and the burning of Korans at a NATO base in February.

“U.S. efforts to negotiate with the Taliban to date have failed and risk further destabilizing the country and the region, and as a result we call for the U.N. Secretary General to intervene and appoint a team of negotiators,” said a senior analyst at the ICG.

U.S. objectives in Afghanistan are far more modest than they were in the months following the September 11 terrorist attacks, when the hope was to replace the Taliban with a stable democracy. Nearly 11 years later, the United States and its allies continue to face major problems, including insurgent attacks, and a weak government. The string of U.S. setbacks has damaged ties with Kabul at a time when it is negotiating a pact to outline its future presence in the country.

“The Afghan government and its international backers have adopted a market bazaar approach to negotiations,” the ICG said. Bargains are being cut with any and all comers, regardless of their political relevance or ability to influence outcomes.”

The Brussels-based group warned that failure to hash out a better approach to a settlement could mean more conflict, especially in the context of national elections set for 2014 in which President Hamid Karzai is constitutionally barred from running again. “There is a sense of political vacuum. It’s not clear at all who will replace him and that means the competition becomes much more intense. Unfortunately political competition in Afghanistan is never peaceful; it is almost always violent.”

– edited from Reuters, March 25, 2012
PeaceMeal, March/April 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.)