Afghanistan has 400,000 football fields worth of opium

Afghanistan has the equivalent of 400,000 football fields of opium, despite significant efforts and money spent by the United States on curbing the development of the country’s drug supply.

The country’s enormous drug reserve is one of several issues holding back the U.S.’s Afghanistan reconstruction efforts, according to John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR). Sopko made the comments at a speech at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

The United Nations estimates Afghan opium cultivation increased by 7 percent last year and accounts for 90 percent of the world’s supply. Both the U.N. and U.S. say Afghanistan has around 500,000 acres, or 780 square miles, of opium-growing land, which is the same as 400,000 football fields.

“This enormous acreage devoted to opium feeds a huge tragedy-fostering heroin addiction and crime around the world, including here — as well as a strategic threat. Taxes on opium are a major revenue source for Afghan insurgents and a powerful prod to corruption among Afghan officials,” said Sopko.

There was no growing of opium poppies under the Taliban before the United States invaded Afghanistan. But the opium-based economy has corrupted all levels of the Afghan government from the police to the parliament. Law enforcement personnel are routinely bribed by opium farmers and drug traffickers, and Afghan government officials are now believed to be involved in at least 70 percent of opium trafficking.

The U.S. isn’t winning the war on drugs in Afghanistan or domestically, said Sopko. The rising level of opium production continues despite the U.S. spending $8.4-billion on counter-narcotics programs in Afghanistan. Last year, the U.S. managed to reduce poppy-cultivation by only 1 percent, he said.

Since 2002, the U.S. has spent more than $110 billion on Afghanistan’s reconstruction, which, adjusted for inflation, is worth more than the entire Marshall Plan after World War II. Billions more dollars have been pledged. While there are some positives, like more schools, lower rates of maternal and infant mortality, and the construction of roads, power stations and irrigation facilities, the list of problems is numerous, said Sopko.

“SIGAR professionals have documented details of U.S.-funded clinics that lack staff or medicines, schools that can collapse on their occupants because of shoddy construction, contracts that weren’t performed properly or at all, aircraft that the Afghans can’t fly or even maintain, troop rosters that can’t be verified, cash assistance that can’t be traced, and many other outrages,” he said.

– edited from Newsweek, May 11, 2015
PeaceMeal, May/June 2015

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Ex-CEO fined $4.5M for defrauding U.S. aid agency

The former president, chief executive officer and chairman of the board of a New Jersey-based international engineering consulting company was sentenced May 8 to 12 months of home confine-ment and fined $4.5 million for conspiring to defraud the U.S. Agency for International Development. Derish Wolff, 79, faced up to 10 years in prison for defrauding the USAID on more than $2.3 billion in contracts for reconstruction work in Afghanistan and Iraq over a nearly 20-year period.

U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said Wolff led a conspiracy involving other former executives of Louis Berger Group Inc. (LBG) to defraud USAID by billing the agency for LBG’s overhead and other indirect costs at falsely inflated rates. From at least as early as 1990 through 2000, Wolff ordered LBG’s former Chief Financial Officer Salvatore Pepe and former Controller Precy Pellettieri to pad the work hours of LBG’s corporate employees, including high-ranking executives and employees in the general accounting division, to make it appear as if they worked on federal projects when they did not. In addition, Wolff instructed his subordinates to charge all commonly shared overhead expenses, such as rent, at LBG’s Washington, D.C., office to an account created to capture USAID-related expenses, even though the D.C. office supported many projects unrelated to USAID or other federal government agencies.

In November 2010, Pepe and Pellettieri pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the government and LBG settled the government’s claims against the company, agreeing to pay $69 million to settle civil charges and submitting to a deferred prosecution deal in which LBG fell under the supervision of a federal monitor.

According to a September 2011 report by the Congressional Wartime Contracting Commission, between $31 billion and $60 billion had been wasted on contracts in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It highlighted LBG’s involvement in two wasteful contracts — a $176-million project to build a road between Khost and Gardez in Afghanistan, and an expensive power plant built near Kabul. The power plant was abandoned after the Afghanistan government decided it was too expensive to operate and maintain, while the road-building project more than doubled in cost because of bribes paid to local warlords for “security,” the commission reported.

– edited from and
PeaceMeal, May/June 2015

(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 ends, except not at all

In January 2014 one of the top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan offered a grim prediction on the dangers facing his forces in the coming year. The Taliban will conduct “high-profile, spectacular attacks,” said Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the commander of International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, in an attempt to explain why so many more Afghan troops were dying as they took on the mantle previously borne by America and its allies. “I would expect additional attacks like that. They’ve been doing it all summer.” His insight proved remarkably prescient now that the war in Afghanistan is technically over, though it certainly doesn’t feel that way.

ISAF in Afghanistan formally ended “Operation Enduring Freedom” on Dec. 30 to begin “Operation Freedom’s Sentinel” for what the U.S. considers a new mission there. Roughly 9,800 U.S. soldiers and 3,000 allied troops remain in the country, home to America’s longest war after 13 years of conflict.

However, insurgent suicide bombers continue to conduct devastating attacks, including within the supposed relatively-safe haven of Kabul, the capital.

New leader President Ashraf Ghani has still not been able to navigate his power sharing agreement with rival turned second-in-command Abdullah Abdullah and fully fill his cabinet. Corruption is at an all-time high. Local leaders fear the creeping influence of the Islamic State group. And the Taliban, with which the Afghan government and U.S. partners may have to negotiate in coming years, declared the American-led coalition had failed in its endeavors, earning it victory over the foreign invaders.

The White House, however, remained optimistic. President Barack Obama said in an address on December 28, “For more than 13 years, ever since nearly 3,000 innocent lives were taken from us on 9/11, our nation has been at war in Afghanistan. Now, thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.”

He went on to say, “At the same time, our courageous military and diplomatic personnel in Afghanistan — along with our NATO allies and coalition partners — have helped the Afghan people reclaim their communities, take the lead for their own security, hold historic elections and complete the first democratic transfer of power in their country’s history.”

President Obama did not mention his announcement earlier in December that he would stray from his initial plan to withdraw all combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year. The previous bottom line number of 9,800 may increase by as many as 1,000 if commanders need the support, and they will have the option to deploy U.S. forces on missions if absolutely necessary.

It remains unclear whether Obama will follow through on his target of roughly 4,500 troops by the end of 2015, down to zero the following year just before he leaves the White House.

But it certainly demonstrates the realities of modern warfare that are influencing the White House, whether in the form of growing advice among current and former combat commanders that the U.S. needs more time and manpower to support the fragile Afghan fighting force. Or perhaps Obama was influenced by the situation in nearby Iraq, from which the U.S. withdrew all forces in 2011, only to watch from afar as the local government centralized power along ethnic lines and cleared a path for the Islamic State group to march on Baghdad earlier in 2014.

Dangers in and around Kabul have been exacerbated by a spike in Taliban attacks, a rare occurrence outside of the usual fighting season in the warmer months when fighters leave the shelter of their homes. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in crowed, “ISAF rolled up its flag in an atmosphere of failure and disappointment without having achieved anything substantial or tangible.” He promised the hardline extremist group that first came to power in the 1990s would overthrow the U.S.-backed government, adding, “the demoralized American-built forces will constantly be dealt defeats just like their masters.”

The Afghan army will have to “be more than tactics,” ISAF’s Milley said in January 2014, saying its soldiers needed the critical skills the U.S. still has to provide for them, such as logistics, intelligence and medical support. However, if the Taliban follows through on their plans, that may be the least of their problems.

Pessimism about the military mission in Afghanistan has grown during the past several years. According to a reader survey by Military Times, the percentage of active-duty service members who say the U.S. ultimately is “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to succeed in Afghanistan dropped from 76 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014. A similar trend is reported among civilians. While the mission was overwhelmingly popular when it began in October 2001, a Gallup Poll in 2014 showed that about half of Americans believe sending troops to Afghanistan was a mistake.

– edited from U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 30, 2014
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2015

(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.)

US-funded infrastructure in Afghanistan poised to fall apart

When the bulk of U.S. and foreign personnel clear out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014, they will leave behind lots of expensive coalition-funded projects the Afghan government cannot possibly maintain. Here are a few:

Hospitals: At least 19 of the hospitals built by the international community — including two U.S.-funded facilities that cost nearly $20 million — may be too expensive for the Afghan government to run.

Counternarcotics Aircraft: The Pentagon has invested $770 million for nearly 50 planes to patrol the countryside for opium poppy and hashish fields. But the Afghan government can’t afford the $100 million annual overhead — nor does it have enough qualified pilots to fly the aircraft.

Power Grid: With two-thirds of Afghans lacking regular access to electricity, the U.S. has spent more than a billion dollars beefing up the country’s power grid. But according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the state-run power company may not be able to pay its bills after 2014, when U.S. funding expires. There are also doubts about the “utility’s competence and experience to oversee the construction of a hydroelectric dam in a restive section of Helmand province — a project 29 Marines died to make possible but which insurgents have violently opposed.

Roads: The United States spent $1.7 billion on road and bridge building from 2002 to 2007, but some of the projects have already started to fall apart, “mainly because of the poor quality of initial construction, poor maintenance and overloading,” according to SIGAR.

Schools: More Afghan children are being educated than ever before, thanks to international development efforts. But the Afghan government won’t be able to operate all the new schools, especially as international personnel and aid trickle out of the country.

– Mother Jones, November/December 2013
PeaceMeal, July/August 2014

(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.)

Obama charts end to Afghan war by end of 2016

WASHINGTON — Charting an end to America’s longest war, President Barack Obama announced plans May 27 for keeping nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, but then withdrawing virtually all by the close of 2016 and the conclusion of his presidency. The drawdown would allow Obama to bring America’s military engagement in Afghanistan to an end while seeking to protect the gains made in a war in which he significantly intensified U.S. involvement.

“We have to recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not Americas responsibility to make it one,” Obama declared during an appearance in the White House Rose Garden. He credited American forces, which were first deployed by President George W. Bush within a month of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with striking significant blows against al-Qaida’s leadership, eliminating Osama bin Laden, and preventing Afghanistan from being used as a base for strikes against the United States.

The drawdown blueprint is contingent on Afghanistan’s government signing a stalled bilateral security agreement. While current Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the accord, U.S. officials say they’re confident that either of the candidates running in June’s runoff election to replace him will finalize the deal.

The size and scope of the residual U.S. force largely mirrors what Pentagon officials had sought, which appeared to give Obama cover with some Republicans. But some of his harshest critics on foreign policy — Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire — called the decision short-sighted and warned that it would embolden enemies.

U.S. forces had already been on track to stop combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of this year, more than 13 years after the American-led invasion. But Obama wants to keep some troops there to train Afghan security forces, launch counterterrorism missions and protect progress made in a war that has left at least 2,181 Americans dead and thousands more wounded.

There are currently about 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Under Obama’s plan, that number would be reduced to 9,800 by the end of 2014, stationed throughout Afghanistan. Over the course of next year, the number would be cut in half and consolidated in the capital of Kabul and at Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan. Those remaining forces would largely be withdrawn by the end of 2016, with fewer than 1,000 remaining to staff a security office in Kabul. The American forces would probably be bolstered by a few thousand NATO troops.

As the military draws down in Afghanistan, the CIA also will gradually close its bases along the Pakistan border and pull most of its officers back to the capital. The civilian spy agency is not willing to risk a significant deployment of officers in rural Afghanistan without U.S. troops nearby, U.S. officials said.

Noting the complexity of his drawdown plan, Obama said, “It’s harder to end wars than to begin them.”

– edited from The Associated Press, May 27, 2014
PeaceMeal, May/June 2014

(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.)

Why older Americans are working in Afghanistan

In a society vastly different from their own, older American men and women have used their wisdom and expertise to help Afghanistan and its people recover from the relentless 12-year stress of the longest war in United States history. These Americans are a disparate group. Some are aid workers who left comfortable backgrounds and grew tough in a hard country. Some are engineers called out of retirement for their expertise. Many are soldiers in the final stages of a tour of duty. Others are here for civilian contractor jobs, earning six-figure wages that can’t be matched in the U.S. Dangerous places command high salaries.

Others are driven to help. There are few places like Afghanistan that give people a sense of mission, be it fighting the Taliban, rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, or helping widows and orphans.

The scheduled withdrawal of most U.S. troops by the end of 2014 will not be the end of this story. Many of these people say they will keep on working, even if Afghanistan becomes a more treacherous environment. And as improbable as it may seem to those outside this country, these folks say they’d find it difficult to live anywhere else.

Keith_Blackey.jpg (3257 bytes)Keith Blackey, 68. Four decades ago, Blackey was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Today, he’s back in a war zone, this time trying to revive the Afghan scouting program (similar to the Boy Scouts of Arnerica), decimated by bloody conflicts and the Taliban regime. “I’m not doing anything stupid or putting myself in unnecessary danger while doing my job,” says Blackey, who arrived in 2012.

His fate to work in Afghanistan was sealed years ago by a seemingly unrelated event. His fighter jet was shot down during the Vietnam War and he was captured. Thanks to efforts by his wingman to track him down, Blackey was freed in a raid.

Fast-forward to 2005, when his wingman, then a U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, called Blackey for help in their mutual interest: scouting. ‘What do you say to a man who saved your life other than yes?” Blackey says. He flew to Iraq and, in five years’ time, the number of scouts grew from eight to 150,000. Now he’s hoping for similar success in Afghanistan.

“Children are the future of every country,” Blackey says. “Scouts are a way of developing children.”

Mary_MacMakin.jpg (1916 bytes)Mary MacMakin, 85, once lived a privileged life, attending New England’s private schools and later Stanford University, but today no one would dream of calling her lifestyle soft. On any given day, she pedals her bicycle through the dangerous streets of Kabul, where U.S. troops only venture out in flak jackets and armored vehicles.

She shuffles up a grimy stairway to reach the apartment she shares with an Afghan dressmaker. The bitter winter chill pierces the apartment’s small rooms and squat toilet. With daily power cuts, much of the day would be spent in almost total darkness if MacMakin hadn’t invested in large truck batteries, a transformer and other gadgets that store up electricity.

MacMakin says she spends “every penny” of her monthly $1,500 Social Security check on living expenses and on one of the organizations she founded, Afzenda, which enables impoverished women to earn extra income from sewing. She also founded PARSA, which trains Afghans to develop programs that help orphans and widows.

Jailed for four days by the Taliban in the 1990s, MacMakin doesn’t dwell on the dangers of today’s Afghanistan. She knows that civilians working for foreign forces and governments have been kidnapped and murdered. But she has no plans to ever leave the country. How could she desert the women and children, she says, who have come to depend on her for the little help they get?

Lindsey_Pleasant.jpg (2622 bytes)Lindsey Pleasant, 53, says he never considered himself to be “military material.” He graduated from college with a degree in broadcast journalism. Then he joined the U.S. Army in 1985 in what was intended to be a three-year enlistment. Today, 27 years later, he holds the pivotal position of sergeant major. And he’s not thinking about retirement just yet. The St. Louis native says he expects to stay in the military for another three years. “I think soldiers are staying in longer than they were 20 years ago,” says Pleasant, who plays bass guitar at Sunday chapel services.

“I’m just having fun being around soldiers,” he says. “There are days when I have to remind myself that this is a war zone.” When asked about what older soldiers contribute to the military and to the Afghanistan mission, Pleasant sums it up simply: “Experience.”

Waheed_Momand.jpg (2401 bytes)Waheed Momand, 63, who has a Ph.D. in medical cybernetics, was one of many Afghan Americans who returned to their homeland to help rebuild the country. He had fled Afghanistan for California, but in 2004, he went back to aid the U.S. Special Forces, diplomats, Afghan exiles and Kabul officials. “I know that I’m far away from what I really wanted to achieve for this country, but I’m not giving up,” he says. “I really want to make a difference.”

– edited from an article by Denis D. Gray, a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press based in Bangkok, in the AARP Bulletin, August 22, 2013, and reprinted in PeaceMeal, March/April 2014

(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.)

Afghanistan can’t be trusted to prevent misuse of U.S. aid

KABUL, Afghanistan — With billions of dollars in American aid increasingly flowing straight into Afghan government coffers, the United States hired two global auditing firms, KPMG and Ernst & Young, three years ago to determine whether Afghanistan could be trusted to safeguard the money. The findings were so dire that American officials fought to keep them private. But the money has continued to flow, despite warnings from the auditors that none of the 16 Afghan ministries could be counted on to keep the funds from being stolen or wasted.

The problems unearthed by the auditors are detailed in a report published by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, an American government watchdog. The findings raise new questions about the efficacy and wisdom of giving huge amounts of aid directly to a government known for corruption.

The inspector general’s report is likely to increase tensions with President Hamid Karzai, who has bristled for years at what he says is an orchestrated campaign by President Obama’s administration to undermine his government with embarrassing revelations and leaks. American officials have little affection for Mr. Karzai these days, and the deteriorating relationship between the countries has already affected the flow of aid.

Congress cut the budget for development aid in Afghanistan roughly in half, to about $1.12 billion, in the current fiscal year. That step was in part a rebuke of Mr. Karzai’s increasingly vitriolic statements about the United States and his refusal to sign a long-term security agreement that American and Afghan negotiators put together last fall.

The direct assistance, which now accounts for about half of all American aid to the government, was a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s strategy to build a credible national government that could capitalize on the battlefield gains made by the surge of American forces in 2009 and 2010. But just as the surge yielded military gains against the Taliban that have proved to be transient, the efforts to transform the Afghan government have been undercut by the corruption that pervades Mr. Karzai’s administration, as illustrated in the audits.

For instance, $236 million earmarked for the Afghan Ministry of Public Health was in danger of misappropriation “arising from payment of salaries in cash,” according to a United States Agency for International Development risk assessment cited by the inspector general. The Afghan Mines Ministry could be “paying higher prices for commodities and services to finance kickbacks and bribes,” another assessment based on the audits said.

John F. Sopko, the special inspector general, called the strategy of delivering more direct assistance “the biggest gamble with taxpayer money that USAID has ever made.” His report acknowledged that direct aid payments to the Afghan government would probably continue no matter what problems were found. His chief recommendation was that the agency apply more pressure on Afghan ministries to clean up their operations.

The report accuses the agency and the State Department of not being forthright with Congress, saying the most dire assessments in the audits, which started in 2011, were withheld from lawmakers, including assessments that American officials had taken less than 10 percent of the measures they could have taken to reduce the risk that aid money would be lost to Afghan mismanagement or corruption.

USAID characterized the latest report as one with lots of smoke but no fire. The agency said that despite all the warnings about risks, the report outlined no specific instances of fraud. The agency also said it had taken steps to forestall fraud and would continue to do so. As an example, it cited the routing of money to each ministry’s separate account at the Afghan central bank. With the American aid funds isolated from each ministry’s general account, American officials can keep closer tabs on how the money is spent.

American officials have earmarked $896 million in assistance to date that they want to deliver directly to Afghan ministries. But because of the waste and corruption issues, they have disbursed only $202 million of that.

American officials are displeased with the release of the inspector general’s report, saying it is likely to infuriate the Afghan officials who allowed the auditors to examine their operations. The release will probably lead to “reduced cooperation from the Afghan government, and could undermine our ability to conduct proper oversight of direct assistance programs in the future,” the aid agency warned the inspector general in a letter. It implored the inspector general to “not make this sensitive material available to the public.”

The inspector general disagreed, arguing that the public’s right to know outweighed the need for secrecy.

– edited from The New York Times, January 30, 2014
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2014

(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.)

Afghanistan governance, security and U.S. policy after 2014

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, an independent arm of Congress, issued a report January 17 on the future of Afghanistan that’s not cheery for Afghans or for American taxpayers. Discussing the international force that will be in place as most U.S. military involvement winds down in 2014, it declares with ample understatement: “Afghanistan will likely remain dependent on foreign aid indefinitely.”

The United States and its partner countries are reducing military involvement in Afghanistan as Afghan security forces assume lead security responsibility throughout the country and the Afghan government prepares for presidential and provincial elections on April 5. The current international security mission terminates at the end of this year and will likely transition to a reduced mission consisting mostly of training the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF). The residual U.S. force that will likely remain in Afghanistan after 2014 is expected to consist of about 6,000-10,000 U.S. trainers and counterterrorism forces, assisted by about 5,000 partner forces performing similar missions.

The U.S. troops that remain after 2014 would do so under a U.S.-Afghanistan security agreement that has been negotiated but which President Hamid Karzai refuses to sign until additional conditions he has set down are met. Fearing instability after 2014, some ethnic and political faction leaders are reviving their militia forces should the international drawdown lead to a major Taliban push to retake power.

Regardless of the size of a residual international force, some in the Obama administration remain concerned that Afghan stability after 2014 is at risk from weak and corrupt Afghan governance and insurgent safe havens in Pakistan. Among efforts to promote effective and transparent Afghan governance, U.S. officials are attempting to ensure that the April 5 elections will be devoid of the fraud that plagued Afghanistan’s elections in 2009 and 2010. Other U.S. and partner country anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan have yielded few concrete results.

An unexpected potential benefit to stability could come from a negotiated settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban and other insurgent groups. However, such negotiations have been sporadic, and U.S.-Taliban discussions that were expected to begin after the Taliban opened a political office in Qatar in June 2013 did not materialize. Afghanistan’s minorities and women’s groups fear that a settlement might include compromises with the Taliban that erode human rights and ethnic power-sharing.

The United States and other donor countries continue to fund development projects in Afghanistan, increasingly delegating project implementation to the Afghan government. U.S. officials assert that Afghanistan might be able to exploit vast mineral and agricultural resources, as well as its potentially significant oil resources, to prevent a major economic downturn as international donors scale back their involvement. U.S. officials also seek greater Afghan integration into regional trade and investment.

Even if these economic efforts succeed, Afghanistan will likely remain dependent on foreign aid indefinitely. Through the end of FY2013, the United States provided nearly $93 billion in assistance to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, of which more than $56 billion has been to equip and train Afghan forces. The anticipated U.S. aid for FY2014 is over $10 billion, including $7.7 billion to train and equip the ANSF. Administration officials have said that economic aid requests for Afghanistan are likely to continue roughly at recent levels through at least FY2017.

– edited from the summary of the report by Kenneth Katzman, CRS Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2014

(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.)

Children increasingly are casualties in crossfire of Afghan-Taliban fighting

Obaidullah_Salaar.jpg (108683 bytes)Ghazi Balkiz

Photo caption: Twelve-year-old Obaidullah Salaar sits in a wheelchair at his uncle's house in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Nov. 17, 2013, after he was discharged from the hospital. He lost both legs when mortars exploded on his house in the village of Ghani Khail in Wardak province in eastern Afghanistan on Oct. 30, 2013. His sister, brother, cousin and uncle were killed in the attack.

KABUL, Afghanistan – A loud bang, a cloud of dust, a poof of smoke. Twelve-year-old Obaid Salaar doesn’t remember much of what happened on the overcast afternoon of October 30th. But when he woke up hours later in the hospital, he was missing both of his legs.

“The shells hit my family members and they died. I lost my sister, my brother, my cousin and my uncle, all of them were killed. Thank God that I am still alive,” he said from his bed in the Kabul Emergency Hospital, where patients are treated for free.

For a boy who had just lost his legs he seemed very composed, said his cousin Ahmad Salaar. “We were crying, saying you lost your legs, but he said, don’t cry for me, my legs were given to me by God and were taken from me by God.”

Obaid initially blamed the Taliban for his losses. “The Taliban are responsible for all this,” he said. He added later, “I also blame American forces.”

Afghan children like Obaid are increasingly caught in the middle of the fight between Afghan security forces and militant groups like the Taliban. Doctors said most injuries are caused by bullets, bombs and shelling, and the conditions vary from mild to critical.

The Taliban dismissed reports about mounting civilian casualties as propaganda created against them by “their enemies." Zabylah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman said, “It is our obligation to fight the foreign forces and sometimes civilians die, but our war is a very low casualty war if we compare it to other wars. Our enemy, the U.S., is the one who is destroying our villages and killing our women and children.”

According to statistics from the Kabul Emergency Hospital and other clinics affiliated with it, civilian casualties have increased by 45 percent nationwide over the last year. In some areas like Lashkar Gah in the southern Helmand province — a Taliban stronghold — they have increased by 80 percent.

In mid-November, nine children were killed in Afghanistan in two separate incidents. Seven children from the same family died when a bomb exploded as they played on the side of a road in the eastern Paktika province. Two other children were killed in the southern Zabul province when their family’s vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb.

The closure of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) bases, and the handover of security responsibilities and tasks to Afghan security forces, have led to an escalation of attacks by militant groups like the Taliban. This has resulted in “civilians increasingly being killed or injured in the crossfire or by improvised explosives planted by anti-government elements,” a U.N. report said.

Wahid Mujdah, an Afghan security analyst, said, “In the past Afghan forces were backed by foreign forces and had better equipment. Now the security responsibilities have been handed over to Afghan forces and that has encouraged the Taliban to fight them because they can engage them for longer periods of time.”

And civilians — notably children hoping for a brighter future — are increasingly paying a toll. Obaid, a sixth grader at the top of his class, was eager to leave the hospital and go back home to study for his upcoming exams so he wouldn’t lose his position in his class. He hopes to be a doctor when he grows up.

But life will be different for Obaid now. He’s learning how to use a wheelchair at his uncle’s house on the outskirts of Kabul while waiting for the swelling in his legs to subside in order to be fitted for artificial limbs — a process his doctors said could take months. “I will stay here — Kabul — until I get the prosthetic legs,” he said.

– edited from NBC News, November 20, 2013
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2013

(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.)

Exporting mismanagement to Afghanistan

A partly-plastic roller wheel for an aircraft ramp worth a bit more than $7 is billed to the Pentagon at $1,678. “Commander” seats for Stryker armored vehicles are purchased long after they became obsolete. A 38-year supply of parts is stocked for an aircraft with a much shorter lifespan. “Do we have enormous warehouses sitting around with stuff that no one is going to use?” asked a senior defense official who briefed reporters on these and other episodes earlier this year. “Yes.”

The purchase of spare parts by the U.S. military is a big business, with more than $25 billion worth of screws and widgets kept in storerooms. It is also a notoriously sloppy one. Pentagon auditors have found that, due to poor bookkeeping, the military services regularly buy parts that they already have plenty of. Due to poor oversight, moreover, they often pay too much for them.

Now, in an act of generosity, the Pentagon has successfully exported its spare parts mismanagement to Afghanistan. A multinational, U.S.-led military office called the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan spent $370 million from 2004 through the middle of this year on spare parts for vehicles operated by the Afghan National Army. But last year, it confirmed that it could not account for $230 million worth of the spare parts, according to an Oct. 16 report by the Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

Not only that, the multinational office ordered another $138 million worth of spare parts to cover purported shortages, but without determining first whether the needed screws and widgets were already in stock. Why? Well, the military relied on the Afghans to keep records of its inventory. And the Afghans, according to the audit, did not keep those records up to date. When auditors asked, the office couldn’t find any written justification for the new parts orders.

Some of the purchases are continuing, apparently on autopilot, with a stream of revenues going to the companies that make the vehicles and their components. And it may get worse, since the multilateral office intends to turn over the authority to make spare parts purchases — funded by U.S. and allied grants — to the Afghan Army itself.

“Guessing is not appropriate when spending tax dollars,” said special inspector general John F. Sopko, who signed the report. “The United States has spent hundreds of millions on spare parts that are unaccounted for.”

His report is decorated with photos of “non-inventoried” spare parts in boxes piled high outdoors and in a warehouse, located in different regions of the country. The Army, the report says, “lacks the staff to conduct inventories.” After visiting Kabul and the provinces of Mazar-e-Sharif, Helmand and Kandahar, his auditors said they were told that some containers are not inventoried for a year, “leaving contents susceptible to theft.” The entire process leaves “U.S.-purchased equipment and funds vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse,” according to the report.

Sopko’s report did have one potential bright spot: He said the multinational office had taken the auditors’ warnings to heart and promised to create a “transfer point” where incoming parts would be inventoried and their handover to Afghan officials officially recorded. The office also promised to try to pull uninventoried parts back into its custody, in preparation for a formal transfer and signing-off.

In a written reply to the report, the multinational office attributed the pileup of uninventoried equipment partly to a consolidation in Kabul of material formerly held at other depots. But the office agreed to defer purchases of non-critical parts until the inventories are completed.

“I’m pleased,” Sopko said, that the multinational force “is taking our recommendations seriously. The test will be in whether they implement procedures that are effective. We’re hopeful, but the proof is in the pudding.”

– edited from The Center for Public Integrity, October 16, 2013
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2013

(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.)

After record opium year, Afghans plant new crop

Afghanistan’s farmers are rushing to replant their fields with the base ingredient of opium after the country reaped its biggest poppy harvest ever last May. That harvest produced a staggering 6,000 tons of opium, 49 percent higher than the previous year and more than the combined output of the rest of the world, according to the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime (UNODC).

The eastern province of Nangarhar saw a dramatic five-fold increase in the area planted with poppies from 2012-2013. The province also illustrates all the factors fueling the increase and thwarting efforts by Afghan officials and their U.S. allies to eradicate the crop. Poverty is widespread, making the lucrative poppy crop a draw. Instability is high, making any attempt to control planting impossible.

In Cham Kalai, a village of traditional sun-baked mud houses, people are poor and families are big. There isn’t a health clinic for miles. And there’s no electricity or running water. “Wheat is no good [as a crop],” said one poppy farmer. “The only thing that is good is poppies. They are gold.”

Last season, more land than ever before was cultivated with poppies — some 516,000 acres. Cultivation spread to two provinces that had been declared poppy-free, while the amount of poppy crop eradicated by authorities decreased 24 percent.

The biggest producers are Helmand province, where the Taliban insurgency is strong, and Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban. Ironically, it was Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar who successfully banned poppy planting in 2000 when the group ruled Afghanistan. Poppy production went from more than 4,000 tons to barely a few pounds, the U.N. said. When the Taliban were ousted in December 2001, farmers ripped up their wheat and planted poppies.

Moreover, invading U.S. and NATO troops partnered with Afghan security contractors and government officials who were involved in the drug trade, according to Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the UNODC’s regional representative in Kabul. “Everybody who is powerful” benefits from the opium industry, he said.

As a result, Afghanistan, has a burgeoning addiction problem. More than 1 million Afghans are addicts, living in squalor in its cities. In the capital Kabul they sleep in a garbage-filled dried river bed reeking of human waste. Fifteen percent are women or children, who are sometimes sent by their parents to find opium to feed their habit and in turn become addicts. The U.N. report said Afghanistan has increased its services to treat addicts, but caregivers say they are overwhelmed.

– edited from The Associated Press, November 13, 2013
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2013

(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 villagers disappointed by life sentence for Bales

SSgt Robert Bales.jpg (7509 bytes)JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. — The U.S. soldier who massacred 16 Afghan civilians last year in one of the worst atrocities of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was sentenced August 23 to life in prison with no chance of parole — the most severe sentence possible, but one that left surviving victims and relatives of the dead deeply unsatisfied.

“We wanted this murderer to be executed,” said Hajji Mohammad Wazir, who lost 11 family members in the attack by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. “We were brought all the way from Afghanistan to see if justice would be served. Not our way. Justice was served the American way.”

Bales, 40, pleaded guilty in June in a deal to avoid the death penalty for his March 11, 2012, raids near his remote outpost in Kandahar province, when he stalked through mud-walled compounds and shot 22 people — 17 of them women and children. Some screamed for mercy, while others didn’t even have a chance to get out of bed.

The only possible sentences were life in prison without parole, or life with the possibility of release after 20 years. The soldier showed no emotion as the six jurors chose the former after deliberating for less than two hours. An interpreter flashed a thumbs-up sign to a row of Afghan villagers who were either wounded or lost family members in the attacks.

“I saw his mother trying to cry, but at least she can go visit him,” said Hajji Mohammad Naim, who was shot in the neck. “What about us? Our family members are actually six feet under.”

The villagers, who traveled nearly 7,000 miles to testify against Bales, spoke with reporters through an interpreter and asked what it would be like for someone to break into American homes and slaughter their families. A boy of about 13 displayed a scar from a bullet wound to his leg.

Bales never offered an explanation for why he armed himself with a 9 mm pistol and an M-4 assault rifle and left his post on the killing mission, but he apologized on the witness stand and described the slaughter as an “act of cowardice, behind a mask of fear, bullshit and bravado.”

Prosecutors described Bales as a “man of no moral compass.” Lt. Col. Jay Morse told the jury in his closing argument, “In just a few short hours, Sgt. Bales wiped out generations. Sgt. Bales dares to ask you for mercy when he has shown none.”

Defense attorney Emma Scanlan argued for the lighter sentence, begging jurors to consider her client’s prior life and years of good military service and suggested he snapped under the weight of his fourth combat deployment. She read from a letter Bales sent to his two children 10 weeks before the killing: “The children here are a lot like you. They like to eat candy and play soccer. They all know me because I juggle rocks for them.”

“These aren’t the words of a cold-blooded murderer,” Scanlan said.

Prosecutors, laying out the case for a life term, argued that Bales’ own “stomach-churning” words demonstrated that he knew exactly what he was doing. “My count is 20,” Bales told another soldier when he returned to the base.

Lt. Col. Morse displayed a photograph of a girl’s bloodied corpse and described how Bales executed her where she should have felt safest — beside her father, who was also slain. Morse also played a surveillance video of Bales returning to the base after the killings, marching with “the methodical, confident gait of a man who’s accomplished his mission.”

– edited from The Associated Press, August 23, 2013
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2013

(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.)