With U.S. Aid, Warlord Builds Afghan Empire

June 9, 2010

TIRIN KOT, Afghanistan – The most powerful man in this arid stretch of southern Afghanistanis not the provincial governor, nor the police chief, nor even the commander of the Afghan Army.

A security post on the road controlled by Matiullah Khan in southern Afghanistan. He leads a private army that earns millions of dollars guarding NATO convoys


It is Matiullah Khan, the head of a private army that earns millions of dollars guarding NATO supply convoys and fights Taliban insurgents alongside American Special Forces.

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Can Afghanistan Taliban absorb blow to Quetta Shura?

February 26, 2010

The Afghanistan Taliban is under pressure with 7 of 15 members of its top leadership council, the Quetta Shura, recently arrested. But still in place are senior leaders who might step up and other senior Taliban councils responsible for different parts of the country.

By Anand Gopal

Afghan army commandos stand on a sand bank as a US army Apache helicopter flies above them on February 24, 2010. While the recent capture of Quetta Shura leaders was in Pakistan, the organization runs operations have a wide reach, including within Afghanistan.

Kabul, Afghanistan: The Afghan Taliban now faces what may be its biggest test in recent years, with 7 of 15 members of its leadership council, the Quetta Shura, recently captured by Pakistani authorities.

From its perch in Pakistan, the Quetta Shura is said to act as a nerve center for all of the Afghan Taliban’s operations, formulating military and political strategy, appointing field commanders, and managing a shadow government.

Yet still in tact are a roster of experienced leaders who can take their arrested comrades’ place as well as several subcommittees that each oversee sections of the country.

This report on the Taliban’s leadership structure is based on interviews with two Taliban figures who claim to belong to the council and with Afghan intelligence officials.

A wide-reaching organization

The Quetta Shura’s is described as assigning and replacing field commanders in Afghanistan, overseeing the Taliban’s parallel government in Afghanistan, and fielding complaints from Taliban members. In some cases the Taliban’s control over some parts of Afghanistan is so strong that nongovernmental organizations working there – such as the United Nation’s World Food Program – have first sought permission from the Quetta Shura to enter the region.

In addition to the top council, the Taliban relies on a number of other shuras to oversee the insurgency. All of these councils answer to the supreme body in Quetta, and membership in the different councils or shuras sometimes overlaps.

Mullah Abdul Qayoum Zakir, the movement’s leading military commander and a member of the Quetta Shura, who was arrested in Pakistan’s recent crackdown, headed two such bodies.

Like the top council, these two shuras are based in Quetta, Pakistan, and are responsible for military affairs in southern and western Afghanistan, including resistance to the ongoing United States-led offensive in the town of Marjah.

A third council is based in the North Waziristan town of Miram Shah, where insurgent leader Sirajuddin Haqqani directs the Taliban’s operations in the southeast, according to former insurgents and Afghan intelligence officials. Mr. Haqqani is considered one of the most dangerous foes of the Western forces, and has been behind a number of high-profile attacks in recent years.

[A Pakistani Taliban commander in North Waziristan was killed in a suspected CIA missile strike in northwest Pakistan, officials told the Associated Press Thursday. Mohammed Qari Zafar, wanted for a deadly 2006 bombing of the US consulate in Karachi, was among at least 13 people killed Wednesday when three missiles slammed into a compound and a vehicle in the Dargah Mandi area of the North Waziristan on the border with Afghanistan, two Pakistani intelligence officials said. ]

A fourth shura, based in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, serves as the hub for Taliban operations in the eastern and northern parts of Afghanistan. Maulavi Abdul Kabir, the Taliban’s governor of Nangarhar Province when the group was in power, headed this body, according to Afghan and US intelligence officials. Maulavi Kabir was also caught in the Pakistani sweep.

Can the leadership spring back?

Some Taliban figures who do not belong to the Quetta Shura still hold important roles. One example is Qudratullah Jamal, who deals with fundraising and outreach to other groups and potential donors and is believed to be based in Pakistan. Another is Hafez Majid, who has headed a number of military committees over the years.

While the recent crackdown may put pressure on the Taliban, the movement has survived the loss of senior leaders before.

In early 2009, Pakistani authorities announced that they had captured Ustad Yasir, at the time the Taliban’s chief of military operations. His current whereabouts are unknown. In 2007, Pakistani officials captured Mullah Obaidullah, then considered the movement’s No. 2. Other senior leaders have been killed on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

The current sweep, however, marks the first time so many members of the leadership have been apprehended at once.

America’s Jilted Lover In New Delhi

February 22, 2010

India is one of the reasons for the US debacle in Afghanistan.


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan-Pakistan army chief has offered to train the Afghan army. This is part of a list of demands – not all of them made public – that seek to correct a basic American mistake: While courting Pakistan as an ally, Washington secretly empowered India.

Until last month, Washington was hoping that India’s relatively cheaper soldiers will come handy where the Europeans won’t, and that a bungled Afghan project could be continued on, well, a leaner budget.

Washington is now in the process of correcting this mistake. And not because of any real change in heart. It’s just that Islamabad is reasserting itself.

This has sent alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. And within the pro-Indian media in Washington.

Exhibit A: an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Let India Train the Afghan Army , written by Indian analyst Sumit Ganguly on Feb. 14. The op-ed could have been written in the national security adviser’s office in New Delhi. The talking points might as well have originated there.

Mr. Ganguly basically begs Washington to consider the Indian army for a role in Afghanistan. Not doing that, he warned, would amount to ‘a grave strategic error’. The op-ed actually ends with these three words.

The Indian analyst sounded almost desperate with his pushy sales pitch [Example: India's army enjoys ' an optimal "teeth to tail" ratio, specifically trained in counterinsurgency operations'].

But there are genuine reasons why Mr. Ganguly’s idea is a bad one.

India is one of the reasons for the US debacle in Afghanistan. Back in 2002, self-styled Indian experts on Pakistan and Afghanistan convinced Washington that India can provide better intelligence on extremist groups than the double-dealing Pakistanis. Washington listened. The Bush White House and Pentagon were more than happy to buy Indian theories on who to deal with inside Afghanistan and how to keep Pakistan at bay.

Partly due to this (ill) advice, discredited Afghan warlords were brought on board. Indian intelligence agents were given a lot of space in Afghanistan. New Delhi used this space against Pakistan. Not all of the terrorism inside Pakistan over the past five years is the result of Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Indians misled the Americans not just on the ground in Afghanistan but also in the corridors of Washington’s think tanks. Indian experts offered provocative ideas on how Pakistan is ripe for a redrawing of borders along alleged linguistic and ethnic fault lines, a la Iraq. Bush-era Washington listened eagerly as Indian experts promoted the idea of using these fault lines as a negotiating card with Pakistan to secure its cooperation. This is how a separatist insurgency in Pakistan’s Balochistan province was born in 2005.

Needless to say, Indian involvement backfired. Spices are not good in every dish.

As the Indian fingerprints became clearer, a feeling grew among Pakistanis that Washington took Pakistan for a ride since 2002. Never before in the half-century of US-Pakistani relations has anti-Americanism been this high in Pakistan. It’s totally unheard of.

Now Washington is realizing its mistake and adjusting its Afghan policy accordingly. The United States must not be distracted again.

No one in Washington is really enthusiastic about the Pakistani offer to train the Afghan army. You will not see Wall Street Journal publishing an op-ed advocating Pakistan’s viewpoint anytime soon. But this festering anti-Pakistanism in the US media should give way to a new way of looking at Pakistan, America’s demonized ally.

Taliban bombs hinder Afghan offensive

February 18, 2010

By Patrick Baz

Thousands of US-led troops fighting to capture a key Taliban bastion in Afghanistan risk becoming bogged down as they run into resistance from mortars and scores of buried bombs.

The slowing progress in what military officials have billed as the biggest operation in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion coincided with reports that a senior Taliban commander had been arrested in neighbouring Pakistan.

“We are advancing slowly because areas have been mined,” Afghan army chief of staff Besmillah Khan said on Tuesday on the fourth day of the massive offensive on Marjah, in the opium heartland of the southern province of Helmand.

The assault on the militant stronghold is the first major test of US President Barack Obama’s strategy to crush an eight-year insurgency launched after the Taliban were ousted from power.

A massive force of 15,000 Afghan, US and NATO troops are taking part in Operation Mushtarak (“Together” in Dari), seeking to drive out militants and allow the Western-backed Afghan government to re-establish control.

Thousands of people from at least 1,240 families have fled the area around Marjah, a cluster of villages with a population of about 80,000, and are sheltering with friends and relatives, said the provincial government.

While death tolls are impossible to confirm independently, officials have said that 30 Taliban, two NATO soldiers and at least 12 Afghan civilians have been killed in the Marjah battle.

Limiting civilian casualties is key to winning hearts and minds in the operation against a Taliban force estimated at up to 1,000 fighters.

Remote-controlled bombs have hampered the progress of the assault in an area controlled for years by militants and drug lords.

“Hundreds of mines have been discovered in different areas,” Khan said, referring to improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which are the principal killer of foreign troops in Afghanistan.

“We are definitely finding more than we expected,” said Lieutenant Josh Diddams, of Taskforce Leatherneck, adding: “It’s a slow process.”

Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, who commands the Marines in southern Afghanistan, expected the operation to last for 30 days, Diddams said.

An Afghan army officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that troops were meeting “more than a little resistance” inside Marjah from Taliban armed with anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades and 82mm mortars.

The Red Cross said IEDs planted on roads were preventing casualties from getting to hospital in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, 20km away from Marjah.

A NATO air strike elsewhere in Helmand killed a Taliban commander known as Sarraj-Uddin, said to have coordinated foreigners fighting for the militia, and four Arab fighters, the provincial government said.

But the Taliban sought to compete with the Western and Afghan militaries who have journalists “embedded” in units, inviting journalists on Tuesday to tour the battle lines to witness the assault “with their own eyes”.

Reversing the insurgency is an enormous challenge in Afghanistan, where the hardline militia is said to be present in most of the country and central government control is weak.

Obama has ordered more than 50,000 extra US troops to Afghanistan since taking office in January 2009, with the final reinforcements due to bring to 150,000 the total number of US and NATO-led troops in the country by August.

Despite Taliban denials, the New York Times and other US media reported that US and Pakistani spies had recently captured the Taliban’s top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in the Pakistani city of Karachi.

In Kandahar province, which is next to Helmand, a roadside bomb attack on Tuesday killed three policemen and wounded five, provincial police chief General Shair Mohammad Zazai said.

Xe Services aiming for Afghan police training deal

January 11, 2010

By RICHARD LARDNER, Associated Press Writer Richard Lardner, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – Blackwater Worldwide ‘s legal woes haven’t dimmed the company’s prospects in Afghanistan , where it’s a contender for an important role in the U.S. strategy for stabilizing the country.

Now called Xe Services, the company is in the running for a Pentagon contract potentially worth $1 billion to train Afghanistan’s troubled national police force. Xe has been shifting to training, aviation and logistics work after its security guards were accused of killing unarmed Iraqi civilians more than two years ago.

Yet even with a new name and focus, the expanded role would seem an unlikely one for Xe because Democrats have held such a negative opinion of the company following the Iraqi deaths.

During the White House campaign, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton , now President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, backed legislation to ban Blackwater and other private security contractors from Iraq .

Xe eventually lost its license to operate as guardian of U.S. diplomats in Iraq. Clinton’s State Department decided not to rehire the company when the contract expired in 2009. Delays in getting a new company in place led to a temporary extension of that contract.

A federal judge on New Year’s Eve dismissed criminal charges against five of the Blackwater guards, citing repeated missteps by federal prosecutors . The Iraqi government has promised to pursue the case, a new strain on relations between the U.S. and Iraq.

Xe on Wednesday reached a settlement in a series of civil lawsuits in which dozens of Iraqis accused the company of cultivating a reckless culture that allowed innocent civilians to be killed. On Thursday, however, two former Blackwater contractors were arrested on murder charges in the shootings of two Afghans after a traffic accident last year.

Despite the scrutiny, the U.S. relies heavily on Xe (pronounced “zee”) for support in Afghanistan; the workload may grow significantly.

Xe spokesman Mark Corallo declined comment on whether the Moyock, N.C.-based company is bidding for the Afghan police training contract. But a U.S. official knowledgeable of the deliberations said Xe is competing. The official requested anonymity to discuss sensitive information about the federal contracting process.

Xe provides security services in Afghanistan, though on a smaller scale than it did in Iraq. As of November, Xe had more than 200 security personnel on the ground in Afghanistan, according to documents highlighting Xe’s operations.

Two Xe guards were killed Dec. 30 during a suicide bombing attack at a CIA base in southeastern Afghanistan, again raising questions about services the company provides for the CIA.

Late last year, CIA Director Leon Panetta terminated the use of Xe personnel in loading and other logistics for airborne drones used to hunt militants in Pakistan .

Xe is also a prolific provider of aviation services in Afghanistan, where travel on land is complicated by the rugged terrain and roadside bombs. In airplanes and helicopters, Presidential Airways , a Xe subsidiary, has carried thousands of passengers and millions of pounds of cargo and mail under contracts with U.S. Transportation Command with a potential value of nearly $870 million, according to the command.

In 2009 alone, Xe projected total revenues at $669 million, the documents state, and three-quarters of the total stems from federal contracts to support U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

he Afghan national police training contract is expected to be awarded soon; Xe is among five companies eligible to compete.

Obama is ramping up efforts to expand and improve the Afghan army and national police into a force able to handle the security burden so U.S. troops can begin withdrawing in July 2011. The private sector’s help is needed because the U.S. doesn’t have a deep enough pool of trainers and mentors with law enforcement experience .

Under an existing defense contract, Xe already trains the Afghan border police – an arm of the national police – and drug interdiction units in volatile southern Afghanistan, according to the documents.

The Defense Department’s plan is to fold the border police training into the broader contract.

Charles Tiefer, a professor of government contracting at the University of Baltimore Law School, says Xe’s foothold in Afghanistan could give it an edge over other competitors.

“Blackwater ‘s current contract for the border police means it already has assets – experience, a proven record and existing capacity and personnel in Afghanistan – for a contract to train the Afghan national police,” said Tiefer, a member of the independent Commission on Wartime Contracting.

The top military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal , wants to build the Afghan national police to a force of 160,000 by 2013 – up from the roughly 94,000 now.

The Afghan army is in better shape than the national police, an organization riddled with corruption and generally unable to control crime or combat the Taliban .

Since 2003, DynCorp International of Falls Church, Va., has held a large State Department contract for training Afghanistan’s national police. The most recent installment of the training contract was awarded in August 2008 and it generates about $20 million in revenue a month for DynCorp , according to company spokesman Douglas Ebner.

But a decision by McChrystal to give U.S. military officials control over all police training contracts is ending DynCorp’s run and creating a major opportunity for Xe and the other companies.

DynCorp has filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office, alleging that the approach is “procedurally and legally flawed,” according to company vice president Donald Ryder.

Face Down the Militarists and Get Out of Afghanistan

November 19, 2009

Simon Jenkins

Go to Washington any time in the past eight years and ask what influence Britain has over America’s Afghan policy. The answer is a thumb and forefinger joined in a simple zero. The same was true in Iraq. Ever since Tony Blair kowtowed to George Bush at Crawford in April 2002, Britain has been the patsy, the poodle, the dumb ally in Washington’s wars of ideological empire.

Britain’s military failures in Basra and Helmand, rescued in both by the Americans, increased this subservience. While French and German governments assess their nation’s interest, Blair and Gordon Brown have been me-too kids on the block, panting after Washington’s every wild venture. Despite 412 British soldiers dead, Brown indicated in his speech on Monday night that nothing had changed. The torture continues. London twitches only when Washington kicks.

Almost nothing Brown says on Afghanistan makes sense, and he seems painfully aware of it. He must say that soldiers are dying in Helmand to make Britain’s streets safe, even when intelligence reports say the opposite. He must remain obsessed with “training bases”, as if the 9/11 plotters had learned to fly in Tora Bora. He must believe that building an Afghan security force and ridding Hamid Karzai’s regime of corruption can be achieved, and that they hold the keys to a British withdrawal. Pigs will fly.

Brown must also know that his Foreign Office thinks the Afghan venture mad, and sets up its hapless boss, David Miliband, to repeat that counter-insurgency is counter-terrorism. It is not. It is counter-insurgency. To equate the two is like the Iranian leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, blaming foreign states for what is essentially a domestic threat – in Britain’s case from a tiny fraction of its Muslim community.

The favored military option said to be emerging from Obama’s agonizing review of Afghan policy is to “fall back on the cities”. This seems the only way of marrying the military’s desperation for ever more troops to the raw, bleeding fact that the Afghan war is hopeless. The killing can go on for ever, but the war is lost.

Falling back on cities was the last gasp of the Russians in Afghanistan and the Americans in Vietnam. It can work if you are a native population ceding countryside to an invader. But in Afghanistan Nato is the invader. Cede the country to the Taliban and you cede every city market place and street corner. It will not work. Nato has hi-tech weapons but it forgot to pack its rucksacks with an old-fashioned, mark one historian.

As for the even more desperate idea of “talking to the local Taliban”, what do you say to a tiger in mid-leap? Could you eat just an arm and a leg and leave me the rest? It is on a par with Boris Johnson’s brainless argument that to pull out would be to betray those who have given their lives so far. Nobody dares call a spade a spade. Were Osama bin Laden given to laughter, which I understand he is not, he would split his sides.

The suspense of Obama’s “decision” on Afghanistan is acquiring epic proportions. It recalls the Delphic oracle’s reply when Croesus asked if he should declare war on Persia. If he does, the oracle said, “He will destroy a mighty empire”. It turned out to be his own.

We assume Obama favours withdrawal because, if he had thought more troops would defeat the Taliban, it was criminal not to have sent them a year ago. His decision has thus become a trial of strength between his view and the massed ranks of America’s military/industrial complex, with its $1bn-a-day interest in the continuance of war.

If militarism wins and Obama commences a 10-year battle over the mountains and plains of Afghanistan, it will spell the end of America’s status as cold war victor and putative world policeman. The complex will have him trapped. The Taliban will have him cornered, as will Bin Laden. America’s democratic leadership will have been pitted against American militarism – an informal component of the republic since the founding fathers – and will have capitulated. So will Britain’s compliant party leaders as they continue to utter weekly banalities over the coffins of Wootton Bassett.

If, on the other hand, Obama takes courage in both hands and announces a withdrawal, by hook or by crook, next year, the impact will be dramatic. Enemies at home will declare that America’s first black president has led his country to defeat. But the boil will have been lanced. Afghanistan and its patchwork of tribal chiefs, warlords and Taliban commanders will have to write “the invaders” out of their script. Karzai must cash in the deals of the past seven years. The Taliban, no longer a monolith, would forge pacts and coalitions, as they were doing prior to 2001. Terrible things will happen in many places but, as in Iraq, they were bound to happen from the moment the west intervened.

An American withdrawal would force Pakistan once again to be the power broker and guarantor of regional stability, albeit on new terms. The Pashtun would lose interest in their al-Qaida guests, who in turn would lose their anti-American rallying cry and seek sanctuary elsewhere. The region would regain an equilibrium it can never achieve under western occupation.

Britain and America should demilitarize the war on terror, surely the most counterproductive main-force deployment in recent history. They need no longer rely on grand armies, popinjay generals and crippling budgets; on bringing death, destruction and exile to hundreds of thousands of foreigners in the faint belief that this might stop a few bombs going off back home. They would hand that job to the appropriate authorities; to the police and security services.

The modalities of withdrawal need obvious attention. Only idiots talk of leaving “overnight”, but only idiots make departure conditional on some unachievable objective, such as more European troops or an operational Afghan army or honesty in Kabul. Defeat must be spun as victory. Retreat must be covered by the smokescreen of a loya jirga or “surge, bribe and leave”. But it cannot be conditional on fantasy.

This war was never to be won, any more than that in Iraq. Both were neocon nation-building stunts that ran amok on too much money. Three million Iraqis, including almost all Iraq’s Christians, were driven into exile. The same is starting in Afghanistan and will become a flood as NATO retreats. That nation’s agony is not over yet, but the end cannot begin until the invaders depart. That will happen only when the pain outweighs the pride. The question is, how many corpses will that take?

This post originally appeared in the Guardian.

Who Are the Taliban?

October 27, 2009

Gilles Dorronsoro

In recent weeks, reporters have seized on intelligence analyses concluding that most of the Taliban in Afghanistan are economically motivated, and only a small percentage are actually committed to the fight on principle. After extensive travels in Afghanistan in the spring and summer of 2009, Gilles Dorronsoro discusses who the Taliban are and what motivates them.

We often hear that the Taliban are 90 percent hired hands. Is that accurate, and if not, why do people join the Taliban?

No. Analysts who describe a 90/10 split between the so-called “$10 Taliban,” who are said to fight for money, and committed core fighters are mistaking the fact that some Taliban are part-time, non-professional fighters to mean that they are non-committed. That’s not true.

Most of the fighters do not join the Taliban for money. They join because the Afghan government is unjust, corrupt, or simply not there. They also join because the Americans have bombed their houses or shown disrespect for their values. For young people, joining the Taliban is a way to earn social status.

The Taliban may give fighters money, for example, if they want to marry. And some part-time fighters may fight for money, though in my experience, that’s becoming increasingly rare. If you’re in an area where the Taliban are fully in control, they can also pressure a family member to join the group.

As for buying allegiances in the interest of fighting al-Qaeda, we have never been able to buy out the Taliban. It’s never worked. You can give them money, but that doesn’t mean you can split the movement, or bring about changes of strategic significance. They’ll accept your money simply because it’s in their interest at the moment to do so, but buying out these people is not a realistic option, because money is not their main objective.

Whatever his initial motivations in joining the Taliban, once a fighter has seen a friend or family member killed by foreign forces, he becomes fully committed to the cause. The fighting builds solidarity with the Taliban. Recruits train with the Taliban, they live among the Taliban. And the way they fight shows that they’re serious about driving foreign troops out of Afghanistan. The Pashtuns made their point with the Soviets, and they are making it again with us. They do not surrender. They fight very, very courageously.

Fighters can stop fighting to work, or to tend to their families, but that doesn’t mean they want to work for the Karzai government. And loyalty is often not a matter of individual choice; it’s a matter of family honor to fight the people who’ve killed your father or your brother.

That’s why it’s difficult to divide the Taliban. The idea of jihad is a very strong one.

How many Taliban are there in Afghanistan?

U.S. estimates Taliban strength in Afghanistan at around 25,000. I’m skeptical of that figure, because there are part-time as well as full-time fighters. There are also seasonal variations. When fighting occurs, the Taliban leadership can send reinforcements from Pakistan or mobilize more locals. It’s not a regular army; there’s no formal payroll, even if they are increasingly professional. So it’s difficult to estimate their numbers.

What do the Taliban want?

To drive out the international coalition and reestablish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, with a Sharia-dominated society.

Are the Taliban local?

Yes, most of the Taliban fighters are local, and they are largely accepted by the Afghan population in Pashtun areas. There is an understanding that if you don’t mess with the Taliban, they won’t enter your house. They provide judges and Sharia-based justice. When people grow opium, they do not interfere, though they do collect taxes on it. I’ve never heard of people complaining because Taliban taxes were too high.

The Taliban are locally accepted in Pashtun areas because what they are doing makes sense. They say “we are waging a jihad against the foreigners,” and most of the Pashtuns agree.

Are the Taliban ideologues?

Most of the Afghan people are illiterate. They don’t have political education as we understand it. So they are not, in the modern sense of the term, “ideologues,” but they do have values. Traditional Pashtun values include protecting the honor of women, dressing modestly, and other conservative Muslim customs.

Many westerners interpret the Taliban’s lack of sophisticated ideological discourse as a lack of commitment. The fighters are basically farmers. Most of them are very young. Their world view is not very complex, but they certainly have one. It is a narrative of morality, justice, religion, and freedom from foreign forces. These values resonate deeply. The Pashtuns may be inarticulate in explaining it, but their way of life is still very much there.

They know what they stand for, and they view the foreigners as a threat to their families and their values.

Is there an economic and smuggling dimension to the Taliban’s work?

Yes, but while the Taliban have an economic dimension, they’re not driven by it. They need money to buy arms, food, and the like. So they levy taxes on opium and other agricultural produce.

It’s impossible to know exactly where and in what quantities the Taliban get their funding. This is a complex and fluid situation, and there are no open sources providing comprehensive information. In some places, Taliban funding clearly comes from outside the country, meaning from Pakistan, or from Arab countries by way of Pakistan, or from Afghan citizens in Pakistan. Right now, Helmand province is in a state of open war, so the Taliban have deployed professional, full-time fighters, and that takes money. In Badghis province, in the Northwest, it’s more low-key.

The Taliban also try to maintain control of contraband, like opium, or make deals with the people who control it. The networks running opium in the South of Afghanistan are linked to the Karzai government, and the Taliban merely take a cut of the business.

In the East of Afghanistan, in particular, Taliban commanders used to kidnap people like businessmen for ransom, and some of them kept the money for themselves, rather than for further Taliban operations. But Mullah Omar instructed fighters only to kidnap people for political objectives, and to stop kidnapping on an economic basis.

When a foreigner is kidnapped in Afghanistan, there’s no way of knowing how much money the interested parties have paid for his release, and they’re quite understandably reluctant to share that information. When countries want to recover their nationals, they have ways of making payment through third parties, and they can arrange prisoner exchanges. When Taliban fighters under the leadership of Mullah Dadullah captured Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo in early March 2007, the Italian government pressured the Afghan government to release five Taliban prisoners, including, apparently, Dadullah’s brother.

Are the Taliban less messianic now than they were before? Have they become more moderate at all?

To a certain extent, we’ve created the Taliban’s world view. Historically, the Taliban did not oppose Western countries. They were mostly a local, national movement, not very interested in Western countries, and with no real grievances against Westerners. The Taliban’s radicalization, or, I would say, their breakaway from the international system, came in 1998, with the bin Laden question, and the imposition of UN sanctions, which they believed were unjust. They came to believe that the Western countries would never accept them as the rulers of Afghanistan. That changed their perspective.

During the war with the United States, in 2001−2002, the Taliban also got the feeling they were considered subhuman, especially when it came to the way they were handled as prisoners. That deeply changed the nature of the relationships they can have with foreigners. They were not treated as enemies, with some kind of respect, they were treated as criminals. And they don’t see themselves as criminals. They see themselves as mujahideen-freedom fighters.

Now the Taliban are ready to make a deal with the United States, but only on the condition that we leave Afghanistan. That’s the only thing they want to discuss with us; the timetable for our withdrawal.

How are the Taliban different from al-Qaeda?

In every respect. Al-Qaeda fighters are mostly urban, have little religious training, and wage international jihad. Their objectives are global.

The Taliban, on the other hand, are mostly from the countryside, their leaders have more religious training, and they have mostly local objectives. They just want to take Afghanistan back.

How are the Taliban connected to al-Qaeda?

The Taliban inherited al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda was in Afghanistan before the Taliban were, as were all the Pakistani groups, the Uzbeks, the Chechens, you name it. The Taliban did not invite al-Qaeda into the country. Al-Qaeda was there, and was later connected to the Taliban through personal relationships-familial ties-between Mullah Omar and bin Laden. Their families are intermarried.

So they are connected in a certain way, they are also connected by people like Jalaluddin Haqqani, who has been in contact with the Arabs since the 1980s.

What is the likelihood that the Taliban will give safe haven to al-Qaeda if they win in Afghanistan?

The Taliban don’t need al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda doesn’t need the Taliban. If the Taliban takes the Afghan cities, al-Qaeda could again use them as a sanctuary. Beyond that, though, I don’t see a strong connection. For the most part, al-Qaeda works not with Afghan radical groups, but with Pakistani ones, like Lashkar-e-Taiba. Karachi, where some neighborhoods are clearly outside the control of the police and the army, is probably a better al-Qaeda sanctuary now than the Afghan mountains.

But if the Taliban win in Afghanistan, it will be extremely difficult to control whether al-Qaeda is there. Almost impossible. The Taliban are very secretive. Most of the time in Afghanistan, when you want to know something that is secret, you just ask. But when the Taliban were in control, nobody knew what they were thinking. It’s almost like a secret society. They have always worked like that. We cannot do much to infiltrate the Taliban movement.

How many of the Taliban are based in Pakistan?

It varies, depending on the season, but it’s somewhere in the thousands. It’s impossible to answer, but when Taliban fighters are close to the border, they go frequently to Pakistan.

In Helmand, for example, a small group will fight on the front line for a few weeks, then go back into the mountains or into Pakistan. In the eastern provinces, when there’s a lot of snow, they’ll stay a few months in Pakistan. And they’ll come back when there’s a big offensive or when it’s summer. So the numbers are still, to a certain extent, cyclical, but these days, that’s less and less true, because people tend to fight, even in winter.

Who are the “traveling Taliban?” Those who train local militias, then move on?

There are different types. First, there are the foot soldiers, who go to Pakistan either to rest or to work. Some go back to Pakistan because they have jobs there, or they need money, or it’s winter, or there’s not enough fighting. But fighting for six months at a time is very hard, so most Taliban take time off now and then.

Beneath the Quetta shura-the leadership of the Afghan Taliban-you have the middle ranks, who can move readily to Pakistan, and from Pakistan to other parts of Afghanistan. They tend to move a lot.

Then you have a third group, the foreign fighters. These are generally Pakistanis-Waziris, for example-who have been fighting in Helmand and also in Laghman province. They come to Afghanistan to fight, then they go back to Pakistan for a few months. The current Pakistani offensive in Waziristan could push hundreds, or even thousands of fighters into Afghanistan.

Can General Stanley McChrystal’s strategy succeed in Afghanistan?

No. If the White House heeds General McChrystal’s advice and sends more troops into the South and East of Afghanistan in hopes of retaking Pashtun population centers, American casualties could rise close to what they were in the worst years in Iraq-leaving President Obama worse choices, and fewer options.

As McChrystal tells it, the key element of U.S. policy in Afghanistan is to “secure the population.” The thinking is that the population centers of the Pashtun belt must be cleared of Taliban insurgents, and that a significant military force can win hearts and minds through development projects. But McChrystal’s report is ambiguous in its definition of a “population center.” My interpretation is that he uses “population center” in reference not to urban areas, but to more densely populated rural areas-clusters of villages-in the Pashtun countryside. So McChrystal’s strategy naturally requires reinforcements, because troops will have to be in contact with the population, patrolling constantly to make their presence felt and keep out the Taliban. Over time, the population will come to feel protected, and the insurgents will be marginalized. So goes the plan. But after eight years of war, this approach is surprisingly ignorant of the realities of Afghan society, and the limitations of America’s tolerance for casualties.

As I saw in Afghanistan over the summer, 20,000 coalition troops were unable to retake more than a third of Helmand province, which is only one of eleven provinces now under de facto Taliban control. Imagine how many troops-and how many casualties-it would take to secure every one of those provinces, even under the most promising circumstances.

And the circumstances are not so promising. In two centuries, the Pashtuns have never once desired a permanent presence of foreign fighters. Westerners rarely understand how unpopular they are in Afghanistan due to real grievances, from smaller matters like the road-hogging conduct of NATO patrols, to the mistreatment of prisoners and the killings of relatively small, but significant numbers of civilians.

In the countryside, Western countries are essentially perceived as corrupt and threatening to traditional Afghan or Muslim values. Contrary to our self-perception, the villagers see us as the main providers of insecurity. The presence of coalition troops means IEDs, ambushes, and air strikes, and consequently a higher probability of being killed, maimed, or robbed of a livelihood. Any incident quickly reinforces the divide between locals and outsiders, and the Afghan media provide extensive coverage of civilian casualties. In April of this year, the Afghan networks showed graphic coverage of children killed in a botched NATO air strike, with predictable effects.

Frankly, we don’t have the human resources to do the work General McChrystal envisions. Very few Westerners speak a local language, and it is too much to expect soldiers carrying 100-pound packs to have sustained contact with the population in hostile villages, where the threat of IEDs is always present.

What, then, of “an Afghan partner?” The Afghan police, the crucial element in any counterinsurgency strategy, remains weak, routinely infiltrated by the Taliban, and rarely able to help the coalition. Without local help, U.S. troops cannot distinguish between civilians and Taliban, most of whom are locals, anyway.

NATO’s current projections of building a 250,000-strong Afghan army in a few years are not realistic. To build an army of 150,000 by 2015 would be a good result. Afghanization is a long-term process. That means any strategy implying high casualties will be politically unsustainable for the coalition. So far this year, 130 coalition troops have died trying to implement the “clear, hold, and build” strategy in Helmand, with little to show for it. The same strategy, at a national level, and for an undetermined number of years, is politically unfeasible.

What strategy should the NATO coalition pursue instead?

To succeed, the coalition must control Afghanistan’s cities, where institution building can take place, and the population is neutral or even favorable to the coalition. The Afghan army and, in certain cases, small militias must protect cities, towns, and the roads linking them together. That will reduce the number of coalition troops who get killed. And fewer casualties will buy the coalition more of the resource it needs most-time-helping it build up the Afghan security forces to the point at which they can stabilize the country and keep out al-Qaeda.

A Third Surge?

October 26, 2009

The troops need a smarter vision.

By Fareed Zakaria

Dick Cheney has accused Barack Obama of “dithering” over Afghanistan. I suppose if the president were to quickly invade a country on the basis of half-baked intelligence, that would demonstrate his courage and decisiveness to Mr. Cheney. In fact, it’s not a bad idea for Obama to take his time, examine all the options, and watch how the post-election landscape in Afghanistan evolves.

The real question we should be asking in Afghanistan is not “Do we need a surge?” but rather “Do we need a third surge?” The number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in January 2008 was 26,607. Over the next six months, the Bush administration raised the total to 48,250. President Bush described this policy as “the quiet surge,” and he made the standard arguments about the need for a counterinsurgency capacity-the troops had to not only fight the Taliban but protect the Afghan population, strengthen and train the Afghan Army and police, and assist in development.

In January 2009, another 3,000 troops, originally ordered by President Bush, went to Afghanistan in the first days of the Obama presidency. In February, responding to a request from the commander in the field, Obama ordered an additional 17,000 troops into the country. In other words, over the past 18 months, troop levels in Afghanistan have almost tripled. An additional 40,000 troops sent in the next few months would mean an almost 400 percent increase in U.S. troops since 2008. (The total surge in Iraq, incidentally, was just over 20,000 troops.) It is not dithering to try to figure out why previous increases have not worked and why we think additional ones would.

In fact, focusing on the number of additional troops needed “misses the point entirely,” says a senior military officer who has studied Afghanistan up close. “The key takeaway” from his assessment “is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way we think and operate.” That officer is Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and that assessment is his now famous 66-page memo to the secretary of defense. The quotes are from the third paragraph. These changes in strategy have just begun.

To understand how U.S. troops had been fighting in Afghanistan, consider the Battle of Wanat. On July 13, 2008, a large number of Taliban fighters surrounded an American base in the village of Wanat in the southeastern corner of Afghanistan. After a few hours of fierce fighting, nine American soldiers lay dead, the largest number killed in a single engagement in years. The strategic question surely is, “Why were we in Wanat in the first place?” Tom Ricks, the superb defense expert, points out that the area around Wanat is a mountainous region with few people, many of them hostile to outsiders. So, he asks, “Why are we putting our fist in a hornet’s nest?”

In fact, General McChrystal has since pulled U.S. forces out of Wanat. Washington Post reporter Greg Jaffe, reporting on the town a year later, concluded recently that “ceding territory to the Taliban is more effective than maintaining small, vulnerable bases in forbidding terrain. In the past several weeks, U.S. commanders, based about six miles outside the village, have detected growing friction between Wanat residents and the Taliban commanders responsible for last year’s attack.” In other words, let the Taliban try to set up bases in these remote areas with prickly locals. NATO forces can then periodically disrupt the Taliban rather than the other way around.

Advocates of a troop increase act as if counterinsurgency is applied physics. General McChrystal’s team, having done the mathematical calculations, has apparently arrived at the exact answer. There is no room for variation or middle courses. It’s 40,000 troops or no counterinsurgency. This is absurd, as is best demonstrated by the fact that senior military officers had assured me at various points over the past year that with the latest increase in troops (first to 42,000, then 68,000), they finally had enough forces to do counterinsurgency.

In fact, the crucial judgments that have to be made involve what the troops will do and how much of Afghanistan to cover. Ricks said to me, “Why not do the Petraeus plan [counterinsurgency] for the major population centers and the Biden plan [counterterrorism] for the rest of the country?” That sounds like a middle course that is smart and practical, which might need some more forces or perhaps can make do with the almost 100,000 already there. Obama should carefully consider these and other options before racing out to demonstrate how tough he is.

Obama’s Afghanistan strategy

October 19, 2009

David Ignatius

AFGHANISTAN could be the most important decision of Barack Obama’s presidency. Maybe that’s why he is, in effect, making it twice.

What’s odd about the administration’s review of Afghanistan policy is that it is revisiting issues that were analysed in great detail – and seemingly resolved – in the President’s March 27 announcement of a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The recent recommendations from General Stanley McChrystal were intended to implement that Af-Pak strategy – not send the debate back to first principles.

The March document stated that the basic goal was “to prevent Afghanistan from becoming the al-Qa’ida safe haven that it was before 9/11″.

But to accomplish this limited mission, the President endorsed a much broader effort to “reverse the Taliban’s gains, and promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government”. That gap between end and means has bedevilled the policy ever since.

So now the President is doing it again, slowly and carefully – as in last Friday’s three-hour White House meeting where, I’m told, he went around the table and quizzed his national security aides, one by one.

Obama’s deliberative pace is either heartening or maddening, depending on your perspective. Personally, I think he’s wise to take his time on an issue in which it’s so hard to know the right answer. But I worry that the White House approach will soften the edges so much that the policy itself will be fuzzy and doomed to failure.

As Obama’s advisers describe the decision-making process, it sounds a bit like a seminar. National Security Adviser Jim Jones gathers all the key people so that everyone gets a voice. A top official explains: “We don’t get marching orders from the President. He wants a debate. We take the competing views and collapse them toward the middle.”

This approach produced a consensus on Iran and missile defence, and as national security councils go, Obama’s seems to work pretty smoothly. Jones is now master of his own house, after a rocky start in which he clashed with an inner “politburo” of aides who had been with Obama during the campaign. Those younger aides are now out or in different jobs, putting Jones more firmly in charge. Obama will be happy to have a retired marine four-star general at the NSC when it comes time to sell his Afghanistan policy to the military.

Obama’s top advisers all stress how different his style is from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. And it’s true, occasionally to a fault.

One top aide draws the contrast this way: “Pragmatism versus ideology; thoroughness of review versus instant decisions; consensus versus go-it-alone.” On Afghanistan, this aide stresses, Obama wants to avoid any semblance of a “rush to war”. Nine months on, that doesn’t seem like a danger.

Where Bush was chief executive – with an approach that could be described as “decide or delegate” – Obama is more a chairman of the board.

Bush’s tendency to make snap judgments led to some disasters, but as James B. Stewart described in a recent New Yorker article, Bush correctly left key decisions in the September 2008 financial crisis to his Fed chairman and Treasury secretary, telling them: “If you think this has to be done, you have my blessing.” For better or worse, it’s hard to imagine Obama making a similar delegation of authority.

Obama’s challenge on Afghanistan is to identify a mission there that is achievable, and then to provide the necessary resources. He has already ruled out simply walking away from the Afghanistan war – which he rightly sees as a reckless course at a time when neighbouring Pakistan is facing its own brutal onslaught from the Taliban.

But what is an achievable goal for US forces? Stabilising the whole country is mission impossible, I’m afraid. But with some additional troops, the US could provide security for major population centres in the south and east. This would buy some time to train the Afghan army and encourage President Hamid Karzai’s efforts to reach a political reconciliation with the Taliban. How many troops would this mission take? That’s a question for the military commanders.

Washington Post Writers Group

What I Saw at the Afghan Election

October 6, 2009

By Peter W. Galbraith

Before firing me last week from my post as his deputy special representative in Afghanistan, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon conveyed one last instruction: Do not talk to the press. In effect, I was being told to remain a team player after being thrown off the team. Nonetheless, I agreed.

As my differences with my boss, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, had already been well publicized (through no fault of either of us), I asked only that the statement announcing my dismissal reflect the real reasons. Alain LeRoy, the head of U.N. peacekeeping and my immediate superior in New York, proposed that the United Nations say I was being recalled over a “disagreement as to how the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) would respond to electoral fraud.” Although this was not entirely accurate — the dispute was really about whether the U.N. mission would respond to the massive electoral fraud — I agreed.

Instead, the United Nations announced my recall as occurring “in the best interests of the mission,” and U.N. press officials told reporters on background that my firing was necessitated by a “personality clash” with Eide, a friend of 15 years who had introduced me to my future wife.

I might have tolerated even this last act of dishonesty in a dispute dating back many months if the stakes were not so high. For weeks, Eide had been denying or playing down the fraud in Afghanistan’s recent presidential election, telling me he was concerned that even discussing the fraud might inflame tensions in the country. But in my view, the fraud was a fact that the United Nations had to acknowledge or risk losing its credibility with the many Afghans who did not support President Hamid Karzai.

I also felt loyal to my U.N. colleagues who worked in a dangerous environment to help Afghans hold honest elections — at least five of whom have now told me they are leaving jobs they love in disgust over the events leading to my firing.

Afghanistan’s presidential election, held Aug. 20, should have been a milestone in the country’s transition from 30 years of war to stability and democracy. Instead, it was just the opposite. As many as 30 percent of Karzai’s votes were fraudulent, and lesser fraud was committed on behalf of other candidates. In several provinces, including Kandahar, four to 10 times as many votes were recorded as voters actually cast. The fraud has handed the Taliban its greatest strategic victory in eight years of fighting the United States and its Afghan partners.

The election was a foreseeable train wreck. Unlike the United Nations-run elections in 2004, this balloting was managed by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC). Despite its name, the commission is subservient to Karzai, who appointed its seven members. Even so, the international role was extensive. The United States and other Western nations paid the more than $300 million to hold the vote, and U.N. technical staff took the lead in organizing much of the process, including printing ballot papers, distributing election materials and designing safeguards against fraud.

Part of my job was to supervise all this U.N. support. In July, I learned that at least 1,500 polling centers (out of 7,000) were to be located in places so insecure that no one from the IEC, the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police had ever visited them. Clearly, these polling centers would not open on Election Day. At a minimum, their existence on the books would create large-scale confusion, but I was more concerned about the risk of fraud.

Local commission staff members were hardly experienced election professionals; in many instances they were simply agents of the local power brokers, usually aligned with Karzai. If no independent observers or candidate representatives, let alone voters, could even visit the listed location of a polling center, these IEC staffers could easily stuff ballot boxes without ever taking them to the assigned location. Or they could simply report results without any votes being in the ballot boxes.

Along with ambassadors from the United States and key allies, I met with the Afghan ministers of defense and the interior as well as the commission’s chief election officer. We urged them either to produce a credible plan to secure these polling centers (which the head of the Afghan army had told me was impossible) or to close them down. Not surprisingly, the ministers — who served a president benefiting from the fraud — complained that I had even raised the matter. Eide ordered me not to discuss the ghost polling centers any further. On Election Day, these sites produced hundreds of thousands of phony Karzai votes.

At other critical stages in the election process, I was similarly ordered not to pursue the issue of fraud. The U.N. mission set up a 24-hour election center during the voting and in the early stages of the counting. My staff collected evidence on hundreds of cases of fraud around the country and, more important, gathered information on turnout in key southern provinces where few voters showed up but large numbers of votes were being reported. Eide ordered us not to share this data with anyone, including the Electoral Complaints Commission, a U.N.-backed Afghan institution legally mandated to investigate fraud. Naturally, my colleagues wondered why they had taken the risks to collect this evidence if it was not to be used.

In early September, I got word that the IEC was about to abandon its published anti-fraud policies, allowing it to include enough fraudulent votes in the final tally to put Karzai over the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. After I called the chief electoral officer to urge him to stick with the original guidelines, Karzai issued a formal protest accusing me of foreign interference. My boss sided with Karzai.

Afghanistan is deeply divided ethnically and geographically. Both Karzai and the Taliban are Pashtun, Afghanistan’s dominant ethnic group, which makes up about 45 percent of the country’s population. Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s main challenger, is half Pashtun and half Tajik but is politically identified with the Tajiks, who dominate the north and are Afghanistan’s second largest ethnic group. If the Tajiks believe that fraud denied their candidate the chance to compete in a second round, they may respond by simply not recognizing the authority of the central government. The north already has de facto autonomy; these elections could add an ethnic fault line to a conflict between the Taliban and the government that to date has largely been a civil war among Pashtuns.

Since my disagreements with Eide went public, Eide and his supporters have argued that the United Nations had no mandate to interfere in the Afghan electoral process. This is not technically correct. The U.N. Security Council directed the U.N. mission to support Afghanistan’s electoral institutions in holding a “free, fair and transparent” vote, not a fraudulent one. And with so much at stake — and with more than 100,000 U.S. and coalition troops deployed in the country — the international community had an obvious interest in ensuring that Afghanistan’s election did not make the situation worse.

President Obama needs a legitimate Afghan partner to make any new strategy for the country work. However, the extensive fraud that took place on Aug. 20 virtually guarantees that a government emerging from the tainted vote will not be credible with many Afghans.

As I write, Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission is auditing 10 percent of the suspect polling boxes. If the audit shows this sample to be fraudulent, the commission will throw out some 3,000 suspect ballot boxes, which could lead to a runoff vote between Karzai and Abdullah. By itself, a runoff is no antidote for Afghanistan’s electoral challenges. The widespread problems that allowed for fraud in the first round of voting must be addressed. In particular, all ghost polling stations should be removed from the books (“closed” is not the right word since they never opened), and the election staff that facilitated the fraud must be replaced.

Afghanistan’s pro-Karzai election commission will not do this on its own. Fixing those problems will require resolve from the head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan — a quality that so far has been lacking.


Peter W. Galbraith served as deputy special representative of the United Nations in Afghanistan from June until last week.

NATO chief calls for engagement with Russia

September 17, 2009

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called on Wednesday for an “open-minded and unprecedented dialogue” with Russia to reduce security tensions in Europe and confront common threats.

Rasmussen acknowledged in an interview with Britain’s Financial Times that differences remained between NATO and Russia on issues including the aftermath of last year’s conflict in Georgia and the alliance’s possible enlargement to Georgia and Ukraine, both former Soviet republics.

The former Danish prime minister, who took over as NATO chief last month, said he would ask senior officials to visit Moscow to hear the Kremlin’s views on how NATO should develop strategically in the long term.

“We should engage Russia and listen to Russian positions,” said Rasmussen, who has made boosting ties with Russia a top priority since taking office.

But he said he wanted to begin an “open and frank conversation (with the Kremlin) that creates a new atmosphere”.

Rasmussen said he had a “vision” of a “true strategic partnership” with collaboration on Afghanistan, terrorism and piracy and was prepared to discuss Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal for a new security architecture in Europe.

“Russia should realise that NATO is here and that NATO is a framework for our transatlantic relationship,” he said.

“But we should also take into account that Russia has legitimate security concerns.”

In a video message on his blog (andersfogh.info) Rasmussen said he would soon put forward concrete proposals on boosting NATO’s ties with Russia.

He said they needed to cooperate to prevent nuclear proliferation, and pointed to North Korea and Iran.

“North Korea already is nuclear and Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons capability,” he said. “That kind of world is neither in NATO’s nor in Russia’s interests. We can do more to prevent it.”

Rasmussen said NATO and Moscow should look at how Russia could become more engaged in Afghanistan, where the alliance has been struggling to contain a widening Islamist insurgency.

He called again on NATO nations to step up contributions of military trainers, money and equipment to achieve the goal of eventually transferring responsibility for security to Afghan forces and allow Western troops to withdraw.

“We have to build a nation that is able to sustain itself before we can gradually reduce our presence,” he said. “The key message now is transition to Afghan lead (leadership). We need to show the light at the end of the tunnel.”

A NATO spokesman said earlier that the alliance would launch a mission taking control of training efforts for the Afghan army and police at the end of the month.

Obama faces backlash over Afghanistan

September 17, 2009

By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - Growing skepticism among key Democratic lawmakers about the United States commitment to the war in Afghanistan is certain to pose one of the most difficult political challenges faced by President Barack Obama in his first year in office.

With the military apparently preparing to press for a significant increase in the number of US troops deployed to combat an increasingly effective Taliban insurgency, Obama, who recently called the conflict a “war of necessity”, will soon be forced to decide whether to grant the request at the risk of alienating many in his own party.

Enthusiastic Republican backing for the military’s anticipated recommendations will likely not make his decision any easier. Neo-conservatives and other hawks have been arguing for weeks that anything less than “victory” in Afghanistan may well have catastrophic consequences for US national security not only in Afghanistan , but Pakistan and beyond.

“We are confident that not only is [the war] winnable, but that we have no choice,” wrote Republican Senators John McCain , Lindsey Graham and the hawkish independent Democrat Joseph Lieberman in the Wall Street Journal on Monday.

“We must prevail in Afghanistan ,” they went on, insisting that preventing a Taliban takeover “remains a clear, vital national interest of the United States”. Their column was entitled “Only Decisive Force Can Prevail in Afghanistan “.

The increasingly polarized debate was on display Tuesday during the reconfirmation hearings of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , Admiral Mike Mullen, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Washington will likely have to send more troops to Afghanistan if its new counter-insurgency strategy led by US Army General Stanley McChrystal was to have any hope for success.

“A properly resourced counter-insurgency probably means more forces, and, without question, more time and more commitment to the protection of the Afghan people and to the development of good governance,” he said, although he declined to cite the number of additional troops he intends to request.

McCain quickly agreed. “We will need more US combat forces in Afghanistan , not less or the same amount we have today,” he asserted, arguing that, much like the so-called “surge” in Iraq, more US troops were needed to hold off the insurgents until the indigenous forces could carry the burden.

But Senator Carl Levin, the committee chairman, insisted that Washington and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies should first accelerate the training and equipping of Afghan forces before additional US troops should be sent to the theater.

Such an effort, said Levin, who returned from a visit to Afghanistan just last week, “would demonstrate our commitment to the success of the mission that is in our national security interest, while avoiding the risks associated with a larger US footprint”.

“[T]hese steps should be urgently implemented before we consider a further increase in US ground combat troops, beyond what is already planned to be deployed by the end of the year,” he said.

Shortly after taking office, Obama, who had argued during his presidential campaign that the administration of his predecessor, George W Bush, had made a major strategic mistake by diverting resources from Afghanistan to Iraq after the Taliban’s ouster in late 2001, authorized the deployment of 17,500 more US combat troops and 4,000 trainers to Afghanistan .

That deployment is expected to be completed by the end of this month, bringing the total number of US troops in Afghanistan to some 68,000. Some 39,000 NATO forces are also deployed there.
This year’s increase in troop strength, however, has not yet translated into a more secure environment; indeed, attacks against US and NATO forces – and against Afghan civilian targets – have steadily increased since the spring. Well over 300 US and NATO troops have been killed so far in 2009, the highest toll for any year in a war that is now eight years old.

In addition to the mounting casualties and war fatigue, the increasingly notorious corruption of the government of President Hamid Karzai and the widespread fraud apparently committed to secure his re-election have contributed to a distinct shift in public opinion over the past couple of months, a trend that appears to have accelerated in recent weeks.

A CNN poll taken late last month found that 57% of the public now opposes the war, up from 46% in April. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Tuesday, only one-in-four respondents – and less than one-in-five self-identified Democrats – favor Mullen’s appeal to send more troops to Afghanistan .

Moreover, for the first time the percentage of those respondents who said they believed that winning in Afghanistan was essential for success in the “war on terrorism” fell to below 50%.

Leading Democratic lawmakers, who until now have tried to avoid any criticism of the war Obama has made a top priority, appear to be following the public’s lead, especially in the last week.

“I don’t think there’s a great deal of support sending more troops to Afghanistan in the country or in the Congress,” noted the powerful speaker of the House of Representatives , Nancy Pelosi, last Thursday, a statement whose truth was underlined by a confidential National Journal survey of Democratic lawmakers that found that only 13% supported increasing the number of troops.

“I think at this point sending additional troops would not be the right thing to do,” said Senator Dick Durbin, a staunch and long-time supporter of the president, over the weekend. “[L]et the Afghans bring stability to their own country. Let’s work with them to make that happen.”

A major emerging theme among the war’s critics, particularly Democrats, is that Obama could meet a similar fate in Afghanistan as former president Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam. Like Johnson 40 years ago, Obama has an ambitious domestic reform agenda that risks, in the view of some observers, being undone by an increasingly unpopular and costly war.

In an interview with the New York Times and CNBC Monday, Obama rejected the parallel but confessed he was concerned about “the dangers of overreach and not having clear goals and not having strong support from the American people”.

McChrystal, who is reportedly putting the final touches on his recommendations to Obama, is expected to echo the Democrats’ calls for accelerating the buildup of the Afghan army and policy, in part by sending more US trainers, and to request more combat troops, as well.

While commanders in the field have suggested as many as 45,000 more troops in order to contain and begin reclaiming territory from the Taliban, most observers believe McChrystal and the military brass, in recognition of the growing public skepticism, will request at most half that number.

Jim Lobe’s blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.

More in Congress question Afghanistan policy

September 15, 2009

By MATTHEW LEE, Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee

WASHINGTON – Congressional skepticism over the Obama administration’s plans for Afghanistan mounted Sunday as four senators questioned whether more troops should head there and one lawmaker called for a withdrawal timeline.

German ISAF soldiers look out of their jeep during a patrol in a convoy in the area of Feyzabad, east of Kunduz, Afghanistan, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

Democrats Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Diane Feinstein of California and Dick Durbin of Illinois along with Republican Susan Collins of Maine said they shared colleagues’ concerns about boosting troop levels before substantial bolstering of the Afghan military and police.

“I just don’t know that more troops is the answer. We clearly need more American civilians to help build up institutions. We need to grow the size of the Afghan army. But we’re dealing with widespread corruption, a very difficult terrain, and I’m just wondering where this ends and how we’ll know if this succeeded,” said Collins, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee .

The committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin , D-Mich., has urged the White House to avoid escalating the war and speed up training for Afghan security forces instead of sending more U.S. troops into combat.

Durbin said he agreed with Levin.

“I think at this point sending additional troops would not be the right thing to do,” he said. “At this point we should follow Sen. Levin’s suggestion. Let’s get it right on the ground, let the Afghans bring stability to their own country. Let’s work with them to make that happen.”

Shaheen, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee , said she understood Levin’s concerns but stressed that she wanted more information on the administration’s Afghanistan policy from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces there . He recently submitted a broad review of Afghan strategy to President Barack Obama .

“I think we need to get the measurements that Congress has mandated from the White House on how we’re going to determine progress in Afghanistan,” she said.

She added that “while I appreciate Sen. Levin’s concerns and think they’re very real, I think it’s too soon to be able to make that determination. We need to assess these reports.”

Feinstein, who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she supported training the Afghan security forces but did not believe U.S. goals in Afghanistan had been outlined clearly.

“My view is that the mission has to be very clear. I believe it is not now,” she said. “I do not believe we can build a democratic state in Afghanistan. I believe it will remain a tribal entity.”

She called for a specific date for the withdrawal of American forces.

“I believe the mission should be time-limited, that there should be no, `Well, we’ll let you know in a year and a half, depending on how we do.’ I think the Congress is entitled to know, after Iraq , exactly how long are we going to be in Afghanistan.”

Their comments came as the administration considers whether to boost the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the 68,000 approved to be there by the end of the year. Congressional leaders are expected to be briefed this week on McChrystal’s review.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expected to request additional forces to address what he sees as shortfalls in the military’s ability to deal with a rising threat from roadside bombs in Afghanistan. That would not necessarily mean more forces above the current 68,000, but might mean replacing some existing forces with others specializing in bomb detection and removal and medical response.

Shaheen, Feinstein and Collins senators spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union .” Durbin spoke on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Obama’s Next Move in Afghanistan

September 3, 2009

By Joe Klein

The early returns from Afghanistan’s presidential election had the smell of a decorous massage job. With 10% of districts reporting, the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, the former Foreign Minister, were tied, with about 40% each. But few of those votes came from Karzai’s Pashtun strongholds in the south, where turnout was light – owing to Taliban threats – but heavily managed. “It’s not exactly one man, one vote out in the rural areas,” a Western diplomat told me. “The tribal leader gathers everyone together and says, ‘We’re voting for Candidate X.’” In some cases, apparently, tribal leaders have simply stamped all the ballots themselves; with literacy rates running at less than 10% in many rural areas, that’s not considered fraud but business as usual. And so it seems likely that Karzai will “win” re-election. Whether he has won anything worth winning remains to be seen. (See pictures of the battle against the Taliban.)

The absurdity of holding an election in an impoverished country with a central government that barely governs and a guerrilla insurgency that has threatened to kill anyone caught voting is illustrative of our current Afghan dilemma. We have been prodding the Afghans to run, from Kabul, a country that has always been governed from the bottom up, valley by valley, tribe by tribe. Karzai has many attributes, but a desire to provide effective governance is off his radar screen. He is good at the traditional form of Afghan politics, creating alliances among tribal and ethnic factions. The money distributed by the central government – inevitably, money contributed by the international community – is routinely received as tribute by Karzai’s local allies, to be disbursed, or not, as they wish; a government job is assumed by many, especially the police, to be a license to collect money for themselves. (An exception appears to be in the effective, if fledgling, Afghan army.) “I have yet to meet an Afghan civilian who has anything positive to say about the central government,” a senior U.S. official told me. “They don’t like the Taliban very much, but the Taliban at least provide a system of justice, plus some goods and services, and they’ll go with that.”

That is why Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, says the military situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. “Last week I spoke to a couple of Army Rangers who had just engaged the enemy,” Mullen told me. “They said it was like fighting the Marines. The Taliban were well trained, better organized, much tougher fighters than they’d been in the past.” And that is why it is widely expected that General Stanley McChrystal will be requesting more troops when his review of the situation on the ground is completed in a few weeks. I’m told that President Obama will make a decision about whether to accede to McChrystal’s request, in whole or in part, by November. That will probably be about the same time as the health-care-reform debate comes to a head. By the end of November, we should have a much clearer sense of the trajectory of the Obama presidency.

So what should Obama do about Afghanistan? His dilemma isn’t as stark as has been posed in recent press accounts, with screamers on the right demanding slavish devotion to the military’s wish list and screamers on the left demanding a withdrawal. The U.S. military has become far more … nuanced when it comes to making requests of Presidents. The negotiations about what McChrystal can officially request will not take place anywhere near the public eye. It is very likely that more troops will be sent – to build and train the Afghan security forces, it will be said. Obama’s problems on the left will be mitigated by the fact that most Democrats have also supported this war – as opposed to Iraq’s – and have little desire to reverse themselves. They don’t want to hurt the President, and they don’t want to be perceived as weak on defense come election time.

Which still leaves the nagging question: What is the right thing to do in Afghanistan? It should be remembered that we invaded with cause: the Taliban government was providing safe havens for al-Qaeda, from which the Sept. 11 attacks were launched. Having routed the existing Afghan government, we had a responsibility to restore order. We have bungled that responsibility for eight years, attempting a Western version of order: central governance, the appearance of democracy – but largely ignoring traditional Afghan ways of social organization. The national-security challenge still exists, although its locus has shifted across the border to Pakistan.

Even if we help the Afghans establish a brilliant government in Kabul, that threat will remain – and it’s legitimate to ask whether pouring our resources into Afghan nation-building is the best way to confront al-Qaeda. Unless the new Karzai government quickly changes course, the only reasonable answer is no. The question then becomes, What’s Plan B? And is anyone working on that?

Indian Weapons In Swat & FATA

June 18, 2009

While the Pakistani government is reluctant to confront the Americans about the activities of America’s Indian allies, the Pakistani military has given the Americans solid evidence about the activities of Indian intelligence in Pakistan’s tribal belt and Swat. These activities appear to be facilitated by the Karzai regime and the U.S. military and intelligence. The latest discovery of Indian weapons inside Pakistan is the Indian army standard issue Vicker-Berthier light machine gun.

A AhmedQuraishi.com Report

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan-The Pakistani military through its own channels has shared evidence with the U.S. military about Indian support for terrorism in Pakistan’s tribal belt and Swat. [continued below].

Indian weapons used in terrorism in Pakistan
Exclusive picture courtesy of BRASSTACKS

The evidence was embarrassing for the Americans because they have been defending Indian presence in Afghanistan and have also been defending the opening up of Indian consulates in areas close to the Pakistani border.

More embarrassing for the Americans is that besides some Indian weapons and the proof on the presence of Indian-origin special forces personnel and assets, a large amount of standard issue U.S. military weapons have been confiscated by the Pakistanis from dead terrorists. Washington is explaining this by saying these weapons were sold on the black market by the U.S.-trained new Afghan army. But the quality of the weapons – including anti-aircraft guns and launchers – and their quantity eliminates the possibility that smuggling is the only explanation.

The Pakistani government is reluctant to make the evidence public, possibly because it does not want a confrontation with the Indians and the Americans. But the Pakistani military has made its strategic red lines clear.

This is one explanation for why U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns raised for the first time in New Delhi last week the need to “trim” the Indian consulates working in Afghanistan, among other things.

A number of the Indian army standard issue Vickers-Berthier (VB) light machine gun , manufactured in India, have been found by the Pakistani military in the hands of the terrorists in Swat. This LMG has a 30-round box magazine and a bipod stand, and is sometimes mistaken for the Bren. Apart from India, it was only sold to a few Baltic and South American states. The picture here has been procured by BRASSTACKS from its own sources in Swat.

In addition to weapons and local assets, a large number of trained special operations personnel working for intelligence agencies are believed to be moving along with the local recruits of the Pakistani Taliban. These foreign operators pose as ‘Islamic fighters’. These foreigners are in addition to foreign fighters that have existed in the area before 2001. The mysterious new foreigners are believed to have introduced in Pakistan actions such as group throat slittings, mass executions, brutal murders, and kidnapping, molesting and raping of women of the poor villagers in the tribal belt in the name of religion. Pakistani soldiers have been consistently discovering uncircumcised dead terrorist fighters in the area over the past three years, something unusual for a militia fighting in the name of Islam. Pictures were posted on this forum of the latest discovery of such fighters. Click here to see the pictures .

The bulk of the heavy weapons, communications equipment and huge stacks of cash owned by the so-called Pakistani Taliban are all supplied by unknown sources in Afghanistan. The size of this entire enterprise precludes the possibility that this is the work of unorganized elements. Supporting evidence suggests that there is more than one intelligence agency in Afghanistan involved in this operation.

It is unthinkable that the Indians would risk sending Indian-made weapons to terrorists. It is believed that these weapons were sent in small numbers to a select group of operatives who slipped from Afghanistan to Pakistan’s tribal belt. The most probable thinking might have been that the agents operating these weapons will not fight on the front lines and will not be captured. Obviously the foreign backers of the so-called Pakistani Taliban did not anticipate that the Pakistani military might at some go for an all-out war against these terrorists by draining the swamp, which means emptying up Swat from its civilian population in order to have a free hand against the terrorists.


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