The AfPak Reader

October 2, 2009

The Nancy A. Youssef File – McClatchy – AfPak Summer 2009

The Nancy A. Youssef File – McClatchy – AfPak Summer 2009
Posted on Mon, Jun. 08, 2009
Yet another review ordered of Afghan policy — fifth this year
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: August 24, 2009 07:49:58 PM


WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has given the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan 60 days to conduct another review of the American strategy there, the fifth since President Barack Obama took office less than five months ago.


The Defense Department announced Monday that Gates has ordered the new U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and his deputy, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, to submit a review of the U.S. strategy within 60 days of their arrival in Afghanistan.


The National Security Council, the U.S. Central Command and the Joint Chiefs of Staff each have already reviewed the U.S. Afghan strategy, and civilian departments conducted a separate interagency review. On March 27, shortly after those reviews were completed, the administration announced a new strategy that called for defeating al Qaida, reducing civilian casualties and eliminating terrorist safe havens.


The administration promised that within weeks it would establish benchmarks to measure progress in Afghanistan. On Monday, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters that the administration is still drafting those benchmarks.


Morrell said that Gates asked for the latest review to determine whether the commanders think the new strategy needs to be modified, but he said the review wouldn’t delay the deployment of an additional 17,500 U.S. troops and 4,000 trainers.


The need to review a strategy that hasn’t been implemented yet is being driven by U.S. domestic politics, as well as by developments on the ground.


The first five months of this year have seen a 59 percent increase in insurgent attacks in Afghanistan, a 62 percent increase in coalition deaths and a 64 percent increase in the use of improvised explosives compared to the same period last year, according to Defense Department statistics. Those are highest levels so far in the eight-year war.


Meanwhile, some congressional Democrats have begun to question the administration’s request for additional funds for the Afghan war and what they say is the absence of a clear exit strategy.


“As the mission has grown bigger, the policy has grown even more vague,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.


As a result, three defense officials told McClatchy, McChrystal’s clearest goal for the next year is to change the perception that the Afghan war is a potential quagmire in time for next year’s midterm congressional elections.


They point to the 2006 midterm elections, which became a referendum on the Bush administration and its Iraq policy. Then-president George W. Bush’s Republican Party lost control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years, and it lost six Senate seats.


“We are not even on the ground yet, but we hear the political clock ticking,” said one military officer, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the media. “We are trying to buy time, as well.”


With a fighting season already underway, Afghan elections scheduled for August, U.S. troops moving into new areas in southern Afghanistan and a new strategy and new leadership, however, defense officials think McChrystal will have little time to make a major impact.


“We have to buy more time,” a senior military officer told McClatchy, also speaking on the condition of anonymity because his remarks weren’t authorized. “We have to convince the Afghans that they are better off with us.”
(David Lightman contributed to this article.)


Posted on Mon, Jun. 15, 2009
Pentagon wavers on releasing report on Afghan attack
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: August 24, 2009 07:49:58 PM


WASHINGTON — Defense Department officials are debating whether to ignore an earlier promise and squelch the release of an investigation into a U.S. airstrike last month, out of fear that its findings would further enrage the Afghan public, Pentagon officials told McClatchy Monday.


The military promised to release the report shortly after the May 4 air attack, which killed dozens of Afghans, and the Pentagon reiterated that last week. U.S. officials also said they’d release a video that military officials said shows Taliban fighters attacking Afghan and U.S. forces and then running into a building. Shortly afterward, a U.S. aircraft dropped a bomb that destroyed the building.


However, a senior defense official told McClatchy Monday: “The decision (about what to release) is now in limbo.”


Pentagon leaders are divided about whether releasing the report would reflect a renewed push for openness and transparency about civilian casualties or whether it would only fan Afghan outrage and become a Taliban recruiting tool just as Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal takes command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.


Two U.S. military officials told McClatchy that the video shows that no one checked to see whether any women or children were in the building before it was bombed. The report acknowledges that mistakes were made and that U.S. forces didn’t always follow proper procedures, but it does little to reassure Afghans that the U.S. has done enough to avoid repeating those mistakes.


During his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month, McChrystal promised to review U.S tactics and what more could be done to minimize civilian casualties.


The chief investigator has briefed Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the report, and other top defense officials, including Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are reviewing an unclassified version of it for possible release.


The airstrike, in western Farah province, has drawn the ire of local and national leaders angered that U.S. forces may have killed as many as 140 civilians in pursuit of a band of Taliban fighters. Shortly after the attack, U.S. military officials told McClatchy that they thought the death toll had been roughly 50, some of them militants.


The U.S. use of airstrikes in Afghanistan, and the resulting civilian casualties and property damage, have strained relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan and become an issue in Afghanistan’s August elections.


“The airstrikes are not acceptable,” Afghan President Hamid Karzai said during his May visit to the U.S. “This is something that we’ve raised in the Afghan government very clearly, that terrorism is not in the Afghan villages, not in Afghan homes. And you cannot defeat terrorists by airstrikes.”


Lacking sufficient forces to patrol the vast Afghan countryside, the U.S. has relied heavily on airstrikes. The seven-hour incident on May 4 began when Afghan police were ambushed while they were patrolling a road. Some officers were killed, prompting the police to call in the Afghan army. The army then came under attack, too, and the provincial governor called in U.S. forces.


The U.S. forces eventually called in air support, military officials said, and after the airstrike began, the Taliban moved into two remote villages separated by poppy fields that were a source of heavy enemy fire, and the fight continued into the night.


The U.S. dropped 13 bombs on some buildings, military officials in Afghanistan have said.
The report found that an Air Force B-1 bomber had to circle overhead before dropping a 2,000-pound bomb on a site where suspected Taliban fighters had fled. While it was circling, civilians could’ve entered the building or Taliban could’ve left, but the military had no one in a position to observe that.


“There’s no way to determine whether or not that had anything to do with the fact that civilian casualties did occur in this incident, but they did note that as one of the problems associated with how this all took place,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said last week.


Posted on Fri, Jun. 19, 2009
U.S. admits Afghan airstrike may have killed 86 civilians
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: June 22, 2009 06:31:31 AM


WASHINGTON — An internal military investigation into an U.S. airstrike in western Afghanistan acknowledged that U.S. forces may have killed as many as 86 civilians and said the military needs to re-examine its rules to reduce future civilian casualties.
The report, which suggests that troops need a refresher on how to best use airpower, how to avoid civilian casualties and how to communicate with the Afghan civilians they’re being sent to protect, will probably do little to endear the coalition with the Afghans, a cornerstone of the U.S. counterinsurgency plan.


And its issuance raises questions about whether the U.S. should use a B-1B bomber — an expensive Cold War-era supersonic bomber originally designed to penetrate the former Soviet Union’s airspace and drop nuclear weapons — to rout out Taliban hiding among Afghan civilians.


The airstrike, in the western Farah province, has drawn the ire of local and national leaders, strained relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan and become an issue in August elections there. Afghan investigations have placed the civilian death toll as high as 140.


The report found 26 confirmed civilian casualties but concedes that it is impossible to determine a final number because some were buried before investigators arrived. However, it also cites an investigation by the Afghan Human Rights Commission shortly after the May 4 incident, which found 86 casualties. The report doesn’t say how many suspected Taliban fighters were killed in the offensive.


The eight-hour battle began when Afghan security forces discovered that as many as 300 Taliban were amassing nearby and threatening residents. A nearby U.S. Marine Special Operations team told the Afghan forces they should take a few days and plan an attack, but the Afghans decided to go after the Taliban, the report said, and U.S. forces agreed to be on call in case they needed additional help.


When the Afghans came under attack, the Marines deployed ground troops and eventually four F-18s. Despite that, the report said, “enemy direct fire subsided for a brief period, but never completely.” Those attacks didn’t lead to civilian casualties, it said.


When the fighting didn’t subside, the military decided to deploy B-1B bombers that launched three strikes. The report suggests that the criteria for launching attacks were vague.


The first attack occurred when the bomber “spotted a group of similarly-sized adults moving in a tactical manner — definitively and rapidly in evenly spaced intervals across difficult terrain in the dark — behind the enemy’s front lines. The ground force didn’t receive direct fire from this group at any time while the B-1B crew tracked and targeted them,” the report said.


The second strike took place near Afghan forces and targeted a building where suspected fighters had taken cover. However, no one confirmed whether civilian were inside the structure before the attack was launched, the report said. The third strike occurred inside a village, and again U.S. forces saw fighters run into a structure, but didn’t check if civilians were inside before striking it.


In some instances, forces didn’t follow guidance, and that “resulted in civilian casualties.” The report, however, didn’t recommend curtailing the use of the airstrikes.


The seven recommendations included improving coordination with non-governmental organizations, improving investigative skills, a review of U.S. rules governing airstrikes and better strategic communications.


“There are additional changes that I think that we’re going to clearly have to make to ensure that we do absolutely everything to make sure civilian casualties are eliminated, if possible, or certainly minimized in every situation,” said Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Thursday.
Pentagon leaders had wavered about whether to release the report’s findings.


Although the report has been complete and approved since June 8, U.S. military officials decided to not release it until late Friday. The military didn’t release a video of part of the incident, despite a promise from Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command, shortly after the incident.


Congress stuffs war-funding bill with cash for other items
David Lightman and Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: June 22, 2009 05:11:41 PM


WASHINGTON — The emergency war funding bill that President Barack Obama is expected to sign soon has mushroomed into a catch-all for many lawmakers’ favorite projects.


Obama originally sought $83.5 billion in April, mostly to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the time Congress rewrote the bill and passed it last week, the price had jumped to $105.9 billion.


That included money for a new $1 billion “cash for clunkers” auto trade-in program, $2.1 billion for eight C-17 Globemaster aircraft, $5 billion to help the International Monetary Fund and $500 million in earmarks, mostly for Mississippi.


“It’s politics as usual in Washington,” said Marc Goldwein, the policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group.


Few members of Congress objected to the spending surge. One dissenting Senate voice came from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who criticized the bill as a hodgepodge of favors for special interests and lawmakers eager to win political points back home.


In addition, McCain said, the bill is hardly in the spirit of the budget cutting and pay-as-you-go initiatives that Obama has touted.


“President Obama’s message to Congress was to keep funding focused on the needs of our troops,” McCain said, “and not to use the (bill) to pursue unnecessary spending and to keep earmarks and other extraneous spending out of the legislation.”


Supporters countered that the bill deals with all kinds of emergencies that can’t wait until regular budget bills are approved, probably in the fall.


“I do not like everything in this bill,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “Each one of us would write a different bill. But I will tell you what I like less: The loss of jobs, the threat of the swine flu, the threat of AIDS, the threat of world instability, the spread of weapons.”


In April, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates introduced a budget plan that cut from popular Pentagon programs, such as the C-17, and added money to create a more agile force that could better fight unconventional wars such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.


His proposed budget met loud resistance on Capitol Hill from lawmakers who didn’t want cuts in programs that support jobs their districts. The C-17 is produced predominantly in California; the Long Beach plant, for example, employs about 5,000 workers.


At the Pentagon, officials called the additional eight C-17s unnecessary but agreed to them in exchange for a deal to reduce the number of C-5As, the largest cargo aircraft of the fleet. The 50-year-old plus C-5As “are old, extraordinarily expensive to maintain and are rarely used,” said Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman.


Morrell said that “current and future demand” calls for 205 C-17s, but under the emergency bill, their total increases to 213. Morrell said that the military would cut at least eight C-5As “so the whole fleet is not unduly large.”


The emergency bill is one fast way that Capitol Hill can restore some of the programs on Gates’ hit list — and signal that it wants them to continue. The measure provides $79.9 billion to fight the two wars, as well as $10.4 billion for diplomatic and humanitarian efforts in the region. It also contains $7.7 billion to help fight swine flu.


It also includes 13 earmarks, or local projects inserted by members of Congress, a practice that Obama and congressional leaders have vowed to revamp.


Most expensive are two from Mississippi, one to repair a hurricane-damaged army ammunition plant and the other to help repair barrier islands. Total cost: $488 million.
“The barrier islands act as Mississippi’s first line of defense against the storm surge of a hurricane, and it is critical for their restoration to begin immediately,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.


Because most of the money funds the troops, it passed easily, 91-5; even McCain voted for it. Most “no” votes were a protest against the $5 billion for the IMF.


Still, lawmakers used the emergency bill as a quick, easy way to fund pet projects. Regular budget items must endure a lengthy hearing process, as well as committee and subcommittee scrutiny. Emergency bills are dealt with more quickly.


As a result, the bill contains items not sought by Obama, such as:
$488 million for military hospital construction
$287.5 million, $158 million more than requested, to improve border security
$350 million or state and local responses to the swine flu pandemic
$50 million for global efforts to track and contain swine flu
$13.2 million to help rural air carriers
$2 million for Congressional Budget Office salaries and expenses
Afghans blame U.S.-led coalition for police chief’s killing
Nancy A. Youssef and Hashim Shukoor | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: June 29, 2009 08:55:01 PM


KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government Monday blamed U.S.-led coalition forces for the killing of Kandahar’s police chief and criminal investigations director on coalition forces, saying the Afghan guards that shot them to death were working for and trained by the coalition.


U.S. officials in Washington, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because classified matters are involved, told McClatchy that American intelligence agencies are investigating whether some of the guards may have been among the Afghans whom the CIA has recruited, trained and paid to help fight the Taliban, al Qaida and drug trafficking.


Coalition officials in Afghanistan said only that no U.S. or coalition forces were involved in the killings, that the guards weren’t acting “on behalf of U.S. or international forces” and that the killings in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city and the heart of its opium poppy-growing region, were an “Afghan-on-Afghan” incident.


“These men acted on their own,” said Navy Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Kabul.


“I have nothing to add to the other statements made on this incident,” said CIA spokesman George Little.


Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack, and his younger brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of the Kandahar provincial council, and other officials in Kandahar charged that the guards worked for a private security company that had been hired by coalition forces, but offered no specifics.


Monday’s incident highlighted the challenge that the U.S. and its allies face when Afghan security forces they’re working with or training have their own agendas. The attack also made it clear that when that happens, Afghan officials will hold the coalition responsible, further upsetting the uncertain relationship between the Afghan government and its international allies.


The incident also raises questions about how much the coalition can rely on local forces, some of which have long histories of corruption and abuse, to quell the rising violence in Afghanistan’s most important province and the nation’s major Taliban stronghold, the crux of its security plan here.


The shooting began sometime after 11 a.m., when about a dozen vehicles carrying some 40 Afghan guards pulled up to the prosecutor’s office. The guards, whom Kandahar officials charge work with American Special Forces on counter terrorism raids, accosted the prosecutor, threatened him and demanded the release of a fellow guard named Assadullah, who’d been detained for producing counterfeit vehicle documents and plates, said Toryali Weesa, the province’s governor.


The prosecutor refused and called the provincial police chief, Matiullah Qati, who arrived with four police officers who serve as his guards and Abdul Khaliq, the province’s criminal investigations director.


A dispute arose, and the guards began shooting at Qati and Khaliq, according to Ahmed Wali Karzai. The shooting lasted for about 10 minutes, Karzai said, and left Qazi, his four police guards and Khaliq dead. Another six officers were injured. It was unclear whether any of the guards were killed.


Local police arrested at least 41 guards afterward, Weesa said. The governor promised an investigation.


(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


Posted on Wed, Jul. 01, 2009
Troops told to stop Taliban pursuit if civilians are at risk
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: August 24, 2009 07:49:58 PM


KABUL, Afghanistan — Beginning Thursday, American soldiers in Afghanistan will be under orders to back down when they’re chasing Taliban fighters whenever they think that civilians might be at risk.


Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, will issue the directive as part of an effort to cut down on civilian casualties, which have enraged the Afghan government and residents. Instead of calling in air support or firing into civilian homes where Taliban fighters have sought refuge, commanders will be instructed to reach out to tribal elders or undertake other efforts to dislodge the fighters.


The order is consistent with what National Security Adviser James L. Jones told McClatchy in Washington Wednesday was President Barack Obama’s concern about civilian casualties in Afghanistan.


“General McChrystal has been given instructions when he left here that, in all military operations, that we redouble our efforts to make sure that innocent loss of life is minimized, with zero being the goal,” Jones said, noting that, “In one mishap you can create thousands more terrorists than you had before the mishap.”


The new order, however, is likely to draw criticism from some U.S. troops, many of whom feel the rules that govern how they fight the war already are too restrictive.


Many soldiers here say they depend on air power and heavy weaponry because there aren’t enough ground troops to chase Taliban forces on foot. Jones said no additional ground troops will be sent this year, even though some ground commanders want them.


“Everybody had their day in court, so to speak, before the president made his decision,” he said. “We signed off on the strategy, and now we’re in the implementation phase.”


McChrystal’s order will instruct soldiers to “think about what else can we do,” said Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the military’s top spokesman in Afghanistan. “We cannot keep going down the path of putting civilians at risk. . . . People want to see changes in behavior.”
Airstrikes, which Afghans charge kill innocent people, won’t be eliminated, Smith said. “Air power will be as valuable after this directive is issued as it ever was,” he said.


The new order, however, will require troops to assume that civilians are present and back off when Taliban fighters escape into villagers’ houses, Smith said.


“The assumption must be there are civilians in those residences, and in those instances, he is asking commanders to think of other options in front of them,” Smith said.


Those options might include gathering intelligence and regrouping to fight another day; reaching out to a tribal leader or encouraging villagers to help coalition forces track down Taliban forces. In some cases, it could mean letting Taliban escape.


McChrystal’s order, an unclassified version of which is expected to be made public later this week, comes on the heels of a Pentagon report issued last month that acknowledged that as many as 86 civilians may have been killed in a May airstrike in Farah province.


The strike, by a B1B strategic bomber, was ordered after Afghan forces came under fire from the Taliban and sought U.S. help. The report faulted Americans on the ground for not determining whether civilians were present before the plane dropped a 2,000-pound bomb.


Since McChrystal took command here last month, he’s said reducing civilian casualties would be a top priority.


He repeated that concern Tuesday in an interview Tuesday with Radio Free Europe. “The most important thing is to not hurt the Afghan people because the most important thing is to win their support,” he said. “This fight is for the Afghan people, it’s not with the Afghan people.”


Civilian casualties have become a major source of tension between Afghans and U.S. and other coalition forces here. Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks out frequently against coalition forces and their use of airstrikes on campaign stops as he seeks re-election, and earlier this year, the parliament passed a resolution condemning the use of airstrikes.


“One mistake is OK. But every day there is a mistake. You start to lose sympathy,” said Khalid Pashtun, an Afghan-American member of parliament who represents Kandahar province, a Taliban stronghold. “Now, I am an American, and I feel this way. Imagine how the normal Afghan feels. He feels Afghan blood has become very cheap.”


McChrystal has briefed Karzai about the new directive and his response was “encouraging,” Smith said.


Top military officials here discount concerns that the Taliban will exploit the new order and step up their presence among civilians who often don’t reveal Taliban hiding locations, either because they support them or fear retribution.


Military officials, however, said that the Taliban already exploit the way the U.S. has been fighting and purposely flee to villages in anticipation that coalition actions will lead to civilian casualties, exacerbating tensions between the coalition and the civilians.


(Margaret Talev and Steven Thomma contributed to this article.)


Posted on Wed, Jul. 01, 2009
U.S. Marines launch offensive on Taliban in Afghan province
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: August 24, 2009 07:49:58 PM


KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. Marines early Thursday launched an operation in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province with the goal of driving the Taliban out of the country’s major opium-producing area.


The offensive, called Operation Khanjar, or “Strike of the Sword,” includes roughly 4,000 Marines and 650 Afghan security forces.


Besides securing one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous provinces, the operation also is intended to signal a renewed effort here by U.S. forces under its new commander, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who arrived last month. The military’s hope is that the operation will enable it begin building local governance.


The strategy is modeled in part after the “surge” in Iraq, where U.S. forces flooded a community with troops, cleared an area of insurgents, held it and stayed while local authorities built up governance and infrastructure.


McChrystal has said his plan is to change the focus from chasing after and killing Taliban to protecting the Afghan people so they won’t have to live under intimidation. In an interview with Radio Free Europe on June 30, McChrystal said that during a 10-day listening tour around the country, he found the Taliban weren’t popular and that residents often bended to their rule because they feared retribution.


Afghanistan, however, typically hasn’t had enough troops to conduct operations such as Khanjar. The Marines are part of the additional 21,000 troops and trainers the Obama administration ordered to Afghanistan. Once all the additional forces arrive, there will be 68,000 U.S. troops and another 32,000 from NATO countries.


The Marines began the offensive in the Helmand River valley, in the southern part of the province.


“What makes Operation Khanjar different from those that have occurred before is the massive size of the force introduced, the speed at which it will insert, and the fact that where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces,” said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the commanding general of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, said in a statement announcing the offensive.


The deteriorating security in Helmand province has been particularly frustrating to Afghans who regularly complain that the 8,000 British troops who’ve been stationed there since 2002 haven’t been able to root out the Taliban. Violence in the province is at its highest levels since 2001.


In the past 18 months, Marines have increased their presence in the region, and those forces generally cleared parts of it. Without enough U.S. troops, however, Taliban forces often worked around the areas the Marines were based.


Taliban forces now control several districts in Helmand province and regularly threaten local poppy farmers there to hand over their crops. Local poppy production provides at least $150 million in funds to the Taliban, according to United Nations estimates.


Soldier captured in Afghanistan may have left base alone
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: July 02, 2009 03:16:23 PM


KABUL, Afghanistan — A U.S. soldier who inexplicably walked off his barren military base earlier this week was captured by Taliban militants hours later, U.S. military officials said Thursday, in what is believed to be the first time insurgents here have captured a U.S. serviceman in the eight-year war.


The private first class, who was based in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, didn’t show up for formation on Tuesday. When fellow soldiers went to his quarters, they found his weapon, but his journal was missing, officials in Kabul told McClatchy. Hours later, U.S. military officials received a phone call saying that the soldier had been kidnapped outside of the base, a senior military official told McClatchy. It’s not clear whether any demands were made.


Soldiers at the base believe he may have walked off base, though a senior military officer told McClatchy no one saw him leave. Officials said they could think of no reason a soldier based in eastern Afghanistan would leave his base alone, especially with no one’s knowing in advance. Troops generally leave the base in groups and with the knowledge of their commanders.


“We’re incredulous,” a senior military officer said.


According to the AFP news agency, a commander from the Taliban network led by Afghan warlord Jalalludin Haqqani told a reporter that they had captured a U.S. serviceman in Paktika.


“One of our commanders named Mawlawi Sangin has captured a coalition soldier along with his three Afghan guards in Yousuf Khail district of Paktika province,” the AFP quoted a commander identified a Bahram.


“The coalition soldier has been taken to a safe place,” Bahram is quoted as saying. “Our leaders have not decided on the fate of this soldier. They will decide on his fate and soon we will present video tapes of the coalition soldier and our demand to media,” he said.


Officials said they delayed announcing the soldier’s capture in the hopes they would find him during a massive military search of the area. His family has been notified but the military did not release his name, which base he was stationed at or how long he has served in the Army. Officials told McClatchy they are not sure whether he was wearing his uniform when he left the base.


“We are exhausting all available resources to ascertain his whereabouts and provide for his safe return,” the military said in a statement.


The search will test the military’s intelligence resources in the region. While U.S. troops have only recently increased their presence in southern Afghanistan, where the Marines launched a major operation earlier this week, they’ve been based in eastern Afghanistan since 2001.


Marine offensive intended to show that Taliban can be beat
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: July 02, 2009 07:06:19 PM


KABUL, Afghanistan — The massive Marine assault launched Thursday in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province is intended to recapture an area that’s been under Taliban control for the past five years — a step officials think is critical to showing Afghan civilians that coalition forces can protect them from Islamist militants.


If the offensive is successful, 4,000 U.S. Marines and 600 Afghan troops, will clear the Helmand river valley, district by district, of Taliban fighters in roughly seven weeks, finishing around Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 presidential election. Then Afghan police will move in to sustain the security gains, and by the end of the year, residents will feel secure enough to return to abandoned communities and reopen businesses boarded up years ago.


Planners hope to see violent contact with the Taliban increase in the operation’s opening weeks, followed by a drop as coalition forces clear areas. That would be a sign that the plan is working.


If, however, violence falls throughout the operation, that would suggest the Taliban have fled, and would likely raise concerns among villagers that they could return. And if violence rises and doesn’t fall, that would indicate a failed strategy.


“We’re expecting a tough fight” at the beginning of the operation, a senior military official following the operation said, briefing a McClatchy reporter on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. “If the insurgents can keep bringing in supplies and plant (explosive devices) after seven weeks, we will be concerned,” he said.


Early casualty numbers suggests only modest Taliban resistance, with one Marine killed and several others wounded. Brig. Gen. Mahaiddin Ghori, the Afghan Army commander in Helmand, told McClatchy that as of 5 p.m. local time Thursday, none of his soldiers had been killed.


Violence in Helmand province is now at its worst levels since 2001. Ghori said there are about 500 foreign Taliban fighters in the province; he didn’t say how many Afghan Taliban operate in his district.


In addition, the Taliban extracts about $150 million a year from the booming poppy trade there, demanding payments from both Afghan farmers and the drivers who transport the crop.


The offensive, dubbed Operation Khanjar, is part of a promise by the recently arrived U.S. commander, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, of major changes in what the Obama administration considers a failing war.


McChrystal arrived only a month ago, but he’s already issued an order that troops not chase Taliban who flee into villages in an effort to reduce civilian casualties, a major source of tension between coalition forces and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.


He’s made a point of saying the U.S. goal is not to kill Taliban, but to secure the Afghan populace.


This week’s operation is part of that, though the plan itself is nothing new; it was first tried in May in the Gasmir District in the center of the Helmand valley.


In that operation, Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit fought the Taliban in a month-long battle that resulted in the deaths of nearly two dozen Marines and 400 Taliban. Marines declared victory as residents returned and reopened businesses after local security forces moved in.


There weren’t enough Marines, however, to expand the push, and the Taliban simply avoided the area as they brought weapons and explosives up the river valley from bordering Pakistan.


The Obama administration’s commitment earlier this year of an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, including the 4,000 Marines now in Helmand, should allow the expansion of the secure zone, planners think. When those 21,000 are fully deployed, there will be 68,000 American troops on the ground.


“We are hoping to recreate Gasmir on a larger scale,” the military officer said. “We are going to introduce development governance” throughout the river valley.


Although the strategy resembles the surge strategy employed in Iraq in 2007 and largely credited with bringing a modicum of calm there, officials here stress there are major differences.


They note that while Iraq is made up of large swaths controlled by a relatively few tribes, Afghanistan is a mosaic of tribes that control much smaller areas. That means many more players must be involved in negotiations.


While a half-hour fight against the Iraqi insurgency was considered a long battle, Marines based in Helmand often engage in eight-hour firefights.


Regardless, commanders here say they know they’re under the same pressure to change the perception of Afghanistan as Gen. David Petraeus was when he arrived in Iraq to command that war in early 2007.


“We know that have 12 to 18 months to turn Afghanistan around,” a second military officer said. “We have to make this work.”


Posted on Tue, Jul. 07, 2009
Afghans: Taliban have escaped Helmand and Marines
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: August 24, 2009 07:49:58 PM


KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters and their commanders have escaped the Marines’ big offensive in Afghanistan’s Helmand province and moved into areas to the west and north, prompting fears that the U.S. effort has just moved the Taliban problem elsewhere, Afghan defense officials have told McClatchy.


The movement of the Taliban into those areas has prompted complaints from German and Italian commanders, whose troops operate there, and have prompted questions about whether the United States has enough troops to pursue the Taliban while at the same time carrying out Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s plan to “clear, hold and build” in areas wrested from Taliban control.


Last week, National Security Adviser James L. Jones told McClatchy that no additional troops would be sent to Afghanistan this year, even as some NATO nations threaten to draw down their presence. Jones’ comments raised the ire of commanders here, who asked why the administration asked them to conduct a 60-day strategy review if such a major decision already has been made.


Violence here is at its highest levels since the Taliban fell in 2001. Even with the addition of 17,500 troops that President Barack Obama has ordered to Afghanistan, commanders fear they won’t have enough troops to clear large swaths of the country and then hold them.


Since the Marines began their offensive on Thursday, Taliban fighters have moved to northern Helmand province near Baghran, an area controlled by German forces, and the eastern edge of Farah province, largely under Italy’s control, said Gen. Zahir Azami, the Afghan Ministry of Defense spokesman.


In some cases, Taliban fighters donned burqas and held children’s hands to pass as women to get out of the Helmand River Valley, said Brig. Gen. Mahaiddin Ghori, the Afghan army commander in Helmand. U.S. and Afghan military officers said that in many cases, fighters hurriedly left roadside explosives as they fled, targeting the forces. So far, one Marine and one Afghan soldier have been killed in the operation, both by explosives.


Afghan defense officials said they believe the Taliban fighters stayed in the country and did not travel to nearby Pakistan, where they often take refuge, because they believe they can wait out the latest operation, even as U.S. officials have stressed that once they clear an area they will stay until the security situation has stabilized.


“They want to carry on fighting. They don’t want to escape during the summer. This is the height of fighting season,” said Azami.


The offensive, called Operation Khanjar, or “Strike of the Sword,” includes roughly 4,000 Marines and 750 Afghan security forces.


Besides clearing one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous provinces, the operation is intended to signal to local residents that the United States intends to stay behind to begin building local governance.


Azami said he had no estimates of how many Taliban fighters moved north and west. Ghori estimated that Helmand had roughly 500 foreign Taliban fighters and another 1,000 Afghan Taliban.


U.S. and NATO officials acknowledged that the Taliban fled Helmand ahead of the Marines. But the officials said they don’t believe the Taliban threaten nearby areas. Instead, they feel the Taliban are still contemplating how to respond to the operation. Some believe only a small portion moved west and north.


U.S. officials privately say they have seen less fighting during the one-week offensive than they originally had anticipated. But they stress the operation is in its early stages, adding that they think it will take roughly seven weeks to clear the valley.


“The sense is that many of the Taliban have left but they have not gone very far. They are not abandoning the Helmand River Valley,” said a senior coalition officer who agreed to speak only if he was not identified. “They have seen a lot of forces come and go, but we are not going anywhere.”


More than 90 percent of Afghanistan’s poppy production comes from Helmand province, making the area a major cash supplier for the Taliban.


McChrystal’s plan for Afghanistan is modeled after the 2007 surge strategy in Iraq, where the United States sent an additional 30,000 troops to secure Baghdad and the surrounding perimeter. At its peak, there were more than 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.


Posted on Tue, Jul. 07, 2009
Where’s Pentagon ‘terrorism suspect’? Talking to Karzai
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: August 24, 2009 07:49:55 PM


KABUL, Afghanistan — Haji Sahib Rohullah Wakil spends his days going from one high-level official meeting to another with the swagger of a tribal elder, advocating for the needs of Kunar province, his home region.


Each encounter — with President Hamid Karzai, with Karzai’s chief of staff or with one of Afghanistan’s other presidential candidates — begins the same: They thank him for his honorable service to the people of Kunar.


Despite those endorsements, the Pentagon says that Wakil is among 74 former Guantanamo Bay detainees who’ve returned to or are suspected of returning to terrorism after their release from the island prison camp.


Wakil scoffs at the suggestion. So do those who know him.


“How could he be a terrorist? He is never far off the government’s radar,” leading Afghan presidential candidate Mirwise Yaseeni said. “His family is here. I have never known him to do anything criminal.”


Pentagon officials didn’t respond to a request for comment on why Wakil was included in a report that was leaked in May. The report itself says only that Wakil has “associations with terrorist groups.”


The discovery that Wakil, far from being in hiding, operates openly among officials of Afghanistan’s U.S.-allied government raises questions about the report’s credibility, however. Despite his bravado, Wakil acknowledges that the report has him worried that he’ll be detained again.


Never out of his reach are a stack of legal documents, letters signed by scores of high-ranking officials and frayed newspaper clippings that he believes prove that he isn’t — and never has been — a terrorist. Documents in hand, he’s always prepared to make the case he was never given the opportunity to make at Guantanamo.


“For six years, I was ready to go to court and defend myself. They should show the world their proof against me,” Wakil said. “I am ready to answer any question.”


Unknown officials leaked the Pentagon report naming Wakil to The New York Times just as debate was peaking over President Barack Obama’s plans to shutter Guantanamo. On the same day that The Times published its story, former Vice President Dick Cheney cited the report in a speech blasting the idea of closing Guantanamo; that same day, Obama made his own presentation defending his plans.


In subsequent weeks, Congress rejected Obama’s request for $80 million to pay for the closure and restricted his ability to relocate Guantanamo detainees to the United States.
Since then, The New York Times has said that its initial news story made a crucial error, lumping together 27 former detainees who the Pentagon said were confirmed as having returned to terrorism — including several who were dead or in prison — with 47 others, including Wakil, who were suspected terrorists, defined in part as those whose activities were “unverified or single-source but plausible.”


Wakil’s case adds more questions about just what’s meant by “returning to terrorism.”


Wakil, who’s now 49, represented Kunar province in the grand assembly that helped name Karzai president in June 2002. Wakil met with American officials several times after they descended on Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.


At the time he was well-known as an anti-Taliban commander and was considered a potential candidate to serve as Kunar’s governor.


Wakil traces his detention to an August 2002 meeting he had with an American commander after U.S. troops shot a resident at a bazaar. Wakil said he went to the U.S. base in hopes of defusing tensions.


“‘Don’t take any direct action here. Coordinate your actions with the local forces. You don’t understand the local security.’ This is what I advised him,” Wakil said. “I talked to the Americans as an elder of the area. ‘If there is anything I can do, please let me know.'”


At the gate, as he was leaving the meeting, he and nearly a dozen others were detained and taken to Bagram air field. Within days, only he and Sabar Lal, his military commander, remained in custody. After seven months, he and Lal were transferred to Guantanamo, where for the next six years the tribal leader was known as detainee 798. Lal was released in October 2007, Wakil in April 2008.


“I told them I am a supporter of this government. Why am I detained?” Wakil said. “I said everyone in my province will fight for my release all the way up to the president. They told me no one will fight for you because you are a bad person.”


His uncle had formed Jama’at-ud-Da’wah Pakistan, a Sunni Muslim-based group created in the 1980s to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The State Department considered it a terrorist organization. While Wakil admits that he was a member of the group, he said he was never a fighter, that his group promoted a certain thread of Islam, not terrorism.


According to Defense Department documents from Wakil’s Combatant Status Review Board hearing at Guantanamo, the United States charged that Wakil helped members of al Qaida escape from Kunar into neighboring Pakistan. The U.S. also charged that he obtained weapons that were used in a rocket attack on the main military base in Kunar.
The charges, the documents say, were based on a source.


In response, Wakil told the review panel he thought that a political enemy, whom he didn’t identify, had set him up. He denied working on behalf of al Qaida; instead, he said he suspected that an al Qaida operative had assassinated his uncle.


Mohammed Roze, who directs the Afghan government’s peace and reconciliation commission in Kunar, said he thought that Malik Zarin, who was then the head of the rival Mushwani tribe, had turned Wakil in because the Mushwani tribe opposed a poppy-eradication program that Wakil had begun in Kunar around the time of his arrest. Zarin had built close ties with American forces in Kunar, Roze said. He said that Wakil was never a threat to American troops.


Wakil’s reputation in his province eventually helped his case. Fellow residents compiled hundreds of letters on his behalf. Politicians, including some who’d eventually seek his support, also wrote on his behalf.


“To some extent, he might have used his influence” to earn his release, said Mohammed Akram, the administrative director of the national peace and reconciliation commission, which help Kunar’s tribal leaders secure Wakil’s release.


Upon his release to Afghan authorities, Wakil met with Karzai, who he said apologized for his detention.


“He told me, ‘This was beyond my authority. I was very sad but I knew the people were fighting on your behalf,’ ” Wakil said. He’s since met with the defense and interior ministers and with Karzai’s chief of staff a half-dozen times.


Karzai’s government confirmed Wakil’s account. “Whatever Haji Rohullah says about meeting with Karzai and his chief of staff is true. He is an honorable man, so whatever he said happened is correct,” Karzai’s chief of staff, Omar Daudzai, told McClatchy.


Wakil calmly stroked his beard as he described rough treatment at Bagram and Guantanamo, though he prefers to refer to his treatment by his American captors as “disputes.” He said he was now working on behalf of his province and encouraging people to support the government and participate in the national election Aug. 20.


He raised his voice only once, as he described his anger that once again he’s facing accusations and no trial.


“Where is the justice? I am still being threatened because of this,” Wakil said, his arms flailing. “But I do not want to retaliate. People respect me now more than before because they know I am innocent. It is my job as a tribal elder to suffer on behalf of my people.”
(McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this article.)


Posted on Sun, Jul. 12, 2009
McChrystal says he won’t pull punches on Afghan proposals
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: August 24, 2009 07:49:58 PM


KABUL, Afghanistan — The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Sunday that when he gives his assessment to the Obama administration next month of what is needed to defeat the Taliban, he won’t be deterred by administration statements that he cannot have more U.S. troops.


In an interview with McClatchy, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal also said he won’t be guided by concerns in Washington over deficits and the cost of the current campaign in Afghanistan.


“If I change my calculus based on what I think economic or political things are, then they are not benefiting from an absolutely untainted recommendation from me,” McChrystal said.


“I am not uninformed about the realities of the world. But what I am trying to do is be able to say: ‘This is what I think it will take, my best military advice.’ And then, of course, that will be factored in with all the other realities.”


“The public can expect and should expect from me to give my best military advice on what I think is required. And I will do that. If I think it requires less forces, I’ll say that. If it requires more forces, I’ll say that. That’s what I think my responsibility is.”


McChrystal, who assumed command last month, was given 60 days to provide Defense Secretary Robert Gates with a fresh assessment of what is needed in Afghanistan — the fifth one the administration has sought this year.


But some of McChrystal’s advisers were miffed when shortly after McChrystal took command they were visited by National Security Adviser Marine Gen. James Jones, who told them the Obama administration would not allot any more than the 68,000 troops designated for Afghanistan this year.


McChrystal indicated Sunday that Jones’ comments, which Jones repeated to McClatchy in an interview after returning to Washington, would not color his recommendation.
Gates, McChrystal said, “directed me to do an assessment that said ‘Tell me what you think of the situation. Assess the situation. And tell me what you think you need to be effective in the missions that he has given me.’ ”


That includes the cost of supporting an expansion of the Afghan Army. The U.S. military has said it wants to expand the Afghan Army to roughly 134,000 from its current 85,000 at an estimated cost of $4 billion.


But some McChrystal advisers think the army should really be 270,000. Such an expansion would cost $8 billion — far more than Afghanistan, which generates only about $800 million in revenue annually, could afford. The additional cost would almost certainly be borne in part by U.S. taxpayers.


McChrystal said Western countries might well find it more attractive to spend money on expanding the Afghan Army than on keeping their own forces in Afghanistan. “”You could have a lot more Afghan national security-force capacity for the cost of coalition forces so far from home,” he said “So it will all be part of the final decision on which way to go.”


On other topics, McChrystal said:
— He doesn’t believe the rise in the use of roadside bombs – improvised explosive devices, or IEDs – is related to an order he issued two weeks ago requiring U.S. troops to break off contact with the Taliban if civilian lives are at risk. “It’s an evolution of tactics,” he said. “The Taliban are using IEDs for a number of reasons, the first of which is it is an effective technique.”


— He wasn’t concerned by claims from Afghan officials that Taliban fighters had fled ahead of a recent Marine offensive in Helmand province to other parts of Afghanistan.
“The further they move from where they are or where they were raised or where they have operated for a given time, the more they’ve got to readjust themselves and . . . establish connections. I think they have an effectiveness challenge when they do that,” he said.


McChrystal also acknowledged that eight years into the war in Afghanistan, U.S. officials here still don’t how many Taliban fighters coalition forces face in Helmand province, scene of the Marines offensive.


“It’s a difficult number to come by,” he said. “If you talk about local Taliban, those who are part time, that rises and falls with conditions. If we do a good job, the number of part-time Taliban should decrease. In terms of irreconcilables . . . I am not confident that I know that number with the kind of clarity that would give you a good solid figure.”


Posted on Tue, Jul. 14, 2009
Karzai opponents hope to beat him in second round
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: July 14, 2009 06:09:47 PM


KABUL, Afghanistan — In an effort to offset Afghan President Hamid Kazai’s deals with various tribal factions, his rival presidential candidates are hoping to deny him a majority in the Aug. 20 election, then coalesce around one leading opposition candidate in a runoff.
By announcing their strategy, Karzai’s rivals hope to counteract the widespread belief here that the vote inevitably will be rigged in his favor — despite the colorful campaign posters that plaster blast walls, doorways and car windows with pithy slogans.


Whether the runoff plan will work is anything but clear. There are 41 presidential candidates, including two women, a former Taliban commander, several former Karzai cabinet ministers, and an Afghan-American who volunteered for President Barack Obama’s election campaign. Political parties here are weak, and the candidates’ agendas show little agreement.


Indeed, some candidates already are hinting that they won’t throw their support to a rival unconditionally. The coalition “can only happen if they agree with my agenda for change,” said Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s former foreign minister and a leading presidential candidate.


The strategy makes the election a referendum on Karzai’s tenure, one that even American officials, who once were among his strongest backers, characterize as ineffective and corrupt.


“We have one competitor, and we are focused on the one competitor,” said another leading presidential candidate and potential Karzai rival in a runoff, Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister.


In the past three months, Karzai has reached deals around the country with a bevy of influential tribal leaders and elders, making various promises in exchange for them pushing for their followers to vote for him. Some think he’s also made deals with Taliban leaders.
“Karzai is trying to win in the first round because he knows the risk that comes with the second round,” said Wahed Mughzada, a political analyst. “He has a lot of tricks, and he is using them now.”


Karzai won election in 2004 in the first round with 56 percent of the vote. One of the few national polls held here, conducted in early May by the German-funded National Centre for Policy Research at Kabul University, found that Karzai has 23 percent support; then Karzai’s former Minister of Planning Ramzan Bashardost, with 12 percent; and Abdullah next, with 10 percent. Ghani has the backing of 4 percent.


“The reasons people give for supporting Karzai is that while there are difficulties in Afghanistan there is not a better alternative,” said Hamidullah Noor Ehad the center’s director.


American officials, tired of what they think is Karzai’s unwillingness to crack down on corruption and his criticism of U.S. military actions, feel much the same way.


Candidates are either too close to Iran or Pakistan, too affiliated with Karzai’s government, show no promise of ending corruption or don’t enjoy enough tribal support. Publicly, American officials stress the U.S. isn’t backing any candidate; privately they’re resigned to a Karzai victory.


Despite the vast number of candidates, some here think there won’t even be a runoff. As Aug. 20 nears, they expect candidates to drop out, leaving the ballot with something like 10 candidates, not 41.


If that happens, voters are likely to vote for Karzai. Even in a runoff, Karzai benefits from a sense of inevitability.


“Everyone will run to who they think will win,” said Abdul Hamid Mobarez, a political analyst and president of the Afghanistan National Journalists Union. “Even in the second round.”


Most of the candidates are “really only running to make deals” for themselves and their interest groups, said Nasrallah Starikzay, a political science professor at Kabul University. “Only the serious ones will have enough election money to stay until the end. . . . And if that happens, Karzai will likely win.”


Ironically, a Karzai victory in the first round could create problems, some analysts said. Few people here believe Karzai enjoys enough support to win in the first round. If he does, many will cry fraud.


“If there is no runoff, it could create a crisis, and if there is a run off, there could be crisis as the Taliban and other people try to influence the election,” said Mughzada, the political analyst.


The Independent Electoral Commission has set aside $223 million for next month’s election, allotting some of that money for a runoff. They concede, however, that holding the first round alone will be challenging. Some areas are too dangerous for voters and observers to go. Also, there are allegations of voter fraud and strong-arming. So far, voters and politicians alike already are charging that the process isn’t legitimate.


“We are limited in what we can do. We will try to do our best to have the best election,” said IEC President Azizulah Lodin. “In the end, one person will be happy and 40 will make allegations” of fraud.


Posted on Fri, Jul. 17, 2009
U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan tests McChrystal’s new order
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: July 17, 2009 05:58:38 PM


KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — An airstrike that Afghan officials allege killed at least four civilians Wednesday is the first test of a new U.S. directive that American troops let Taliban fighters flee if civilian lives are at risk.


U.S. officials said Friday that it wasn’t at all clear that the civilians had been killed in an airstrike in southern Afghanistan, saying the casualties appear to have been victims of small arms fires.


However, the quick denunciation of the deaths by the governor of Kandahar province, an ally of President Hamid Karzai, shows how sensitive the issue of civilian casualties has become, even as the American military vows to reduce them and to investigate the latest allegation.


Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, ordered American ground troops two weeks ago to avoid calling in airstrikes if civilian lives are at risk, in an effort to avoid casualties and to show the local population that U.S. forces are here to protect them.


In a community in which technology and literacy are scarce, however, the first version of events usually prevails, and that appeared to be the case Friday.


Throughout Kandahar, residents charged that their relatives were missing or injured at the hands of an overzealous foreign force, even though the facts weren’t clear.


The mayor of Kandahar city, Toryalai Weesa, joined the governor, charging that an airstrike that U.S. forces launched Wednesday night in the village of Shawalikot, about 20 miles north of Kandahar, killed four civilians and injured 13, including women and children.


American ground troops called in the airstrike, the Afghan officials said, during a battle with Taliban gunmen. Shawalikot is a known Taliban stronghold.


U.S. officials have said that McChrystal’s directive, which was posted on the American military’s Afghanistan Facebook page as well as distributed to troops and commanders, doesn’t prohibit airstrikes. However, it does call for troops to weigh carefully whether to call them in, and not to do so if civilian lives are at risk and U.S. troops can employ other tactics safely.


The directive immediately became part of Afghanistan’s presidential campaign, which culminates Aug. 20. Some politicians, including Karzai, took credit for the change.


Weesa didn’t know how many Taliban had been killed but said that the soldiers’ actions had cost them local support. Weesa, who’s lived in the United States, was appointed by Karzai.


Local officials allowed reporters to film the scene in a hospital where some of the injured were being treated. Many were wrapped in bandages, but there was no way to tell from the images how they’d been injured.


U.S. military officials acknowledged that they’d launched an air attack in the area but said they hadn’t confirmed reports of deaths or injuries due to the strike.


“We have not been able to independently verify reports of civilian deaths and are working with local officials to determine the cause of these reported injuries,” according to a senior coalition military officer in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to journalists. “Coalition forces continue to engage insurgents in the area.”


Ron Hoffmann, the outgoing Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan, said Friday that Karzai had raised the issue with him during their farewell meeting. Karzai, he said, was troubled by the incident.


“The operational plan in place does allow them to call in (air) support. It’s still a war, and sometime these things are going to happen and civilian casualties are going to happen,” Hoffmann said. “The president recognizes this.”


(McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this report.)


Posted on Thu, Jul. 23, 2009
As security rises in Kabul, residents feel less safe instead
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: August 24, 2009 07:49:58 PM


KABUL, Afghanistan — As the United States steps up its civilian presence in Kabul, residents of the ancient capital say they’re beginning to feel like a city under siege.


Huge intimidating convoys of armored SUVs now are common sights in the city’s growing traffic jams. Newly erected concrete barriers block off many buildings from nearby thoroughfares. Nearly every day, there’s some incident involving security teams pointing guns out of windows at frightened commuters.


“I have not faced an incident myself, but in front of me I saw foreigners shoot and kill two people in a small bus. We feel like we are condemned in our own country. They came from thousands of miles away, and my car can’t go in front of them. We are not happy about this situation,” said Mohammad Aziz Azizi, age 45, the head of a cultural society.


For anyone who’s visited Baghdad in recent years, the feeling is familiar: the tension of never knowing when violence might break out, when a wrong turn or a moment of inattention might bring one face-to-face with a security guard whose first priority is to protect the life of the person he’s assigned to.


The irony is that most people agree that Kabul is safer now than it was a few months ago, when criminal gangs were targeting the wealthy for kidnapping. Some officials say that crime is down by 40 percent, thanks to new leadership at the police department’s criminal investigations directorate.


“The security has gotten better than last year,” said Zulfiqar, a 24-year-old shopkeeper who asked not to be identified further for security reasons. Still, he acknowledged discomfort at what’s become of his city as hundreds of American officials arrive, bringing with them civilian contractors, nongovernment organizations and security teams.


“When I see the foreigners I feel bad,” Zulfiqar said. “My Afghan compatriot cannot drive on the road. The Americans honk their horn, take out a pistol and tell you not to move.”


Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, concedes that providing security has its costs. The key is to have the new measures in place for as short a time as possible.


“Sometimes the trappings of security can be a two-edge sword,” McChrystal said. “On the one hand, the presence of lots of security guards, the presence of blast walls, the presence of things can make people understand that there is security.”


However, the goal, McChrystal said, is that “over time, what you really want is for life to get back to normal. Over time, you really want to get them to a point where you don’t need blast walls and you don’t need weapon-toting military. You want to go to regular police. … The more normalcy we can get, I think, is really important for the psyche of the nation.”


In the meantime, Afghans find a disturbing new reality: In their own city, they’re often seen as the threat.


It’s not just State Department employees who come with their own security details outfitted with huge SUVs and pointed weapons. Afghan government officials now travel in similar fashion, leaving drivers flummoxed about what to do to get out of the way.
Some convoys pull up to sedans and point guns at the drivers, others set up checkpoints with varying rules on how not to get shot and still others simply close off roads that Afghans once traveled freely on.


Three of the six major roadways in central Kabul are no longer open; each closed after a major bombing targeting foreigners since the war began in late 2001. The latest closing happened in January, after a bombing outside a coalition base and the German Embassy killed four Afghan civilians and wounded 19.


To take that road now, an Afghan must have an official identification card, either from the government or coalition forces. Two police guards stand at the beginning of the road, waving in those who flash the appropriate cards. The rest take a circuitous route to get to the other side of town.


What worked yesterday may not work today, however, making travel in the city a maze of rules.


Earlier this month, the driver of a 1995 Toyota Corolla found that his ID was enough to get him past the police officer. He sped swiftly through the checkpoint, only to be stopped again behind a long line of cars. Someone from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was leaving, and everyone had to wait 20 minutes for the armored convoy to pass. In the back of each vehicle, a man brandishing a rifle pointed it at the stopped cars.


The next day, the same police officer told the same driver of the Corolla that he couldn’t pass because the rules had changed, and now he had to have a placard posted in his windshield. The driver cajoled the officer and eventually passed.


As he drove on, an armored SUV came from around the corner and screeched to a halt in front of the Corolla, the grill of the SUV meeting the eyes of the driver. A Western-looking man leered at the driver even from behind his sunglasses, a telltale sign that a foreigner was behind the wheel.


The driver cursed. “We call these GMCs,” an Afghan passenger said to an American in the car. “What do you call them? S-U what? They are so big.”


Some of those who ride in the convoys say that they have no choice, noting that colleagues have been kidnapped and a threat can pop up anytime. Some privately grimace that security contractors who worked in Iraq are bringing their practices here, even though the security situation doesn’t warrant it.


Besides affecting the capital’s psyche, the unpredictable encounters with the convoys are shaping how people view democracy, observers said.


“In the mind of the Afghan people, democracy is tied to the arrival of the foreign forces,” said Wahed Mughzada, a political analyst. “They don’t like it.”


That’s contributing to growing calls for a timetable for U.S. forces to withdraw, said Ashraf Ghani, a leading candidate in next month’s presidential elections. He’s suggesting that the U.S. withdraw in seven years.


“The Afghans want the use of forces to be predictable. They feel they are not being heard,” Ghani said. “The pre-eminent issue is justice.”


A few days after passing the police checkpoint, the Corolla made its way to southern Kabul. On the way back, traffic had come to a standstill. As the cars crept closer, it became clear why: A large bulldozer was planted in the middle of the road as an Afghan man directed its driver where to drop a blast wall.


A few hours later, the Corolla was headed home. The driver came to a concrete-block wall, topped with barbed wire. A man stood guard with a rifle. The driver turned around to find an alternative road.
(McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this report.)


Posted on Mon, Aug. 10, 2009
McChrystal wants huge boost in U.S. civilians in Afghanistan
Nancy A. Youssef and Warren P. Strobel | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: August 24, 2009 07:49:58 PM


KABUL, Afghanistan — In addition to possibly requesting thousands of additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the country’s top American military commander will ask the Obama administration to double the number of U.S. government civilian workers who are in the country.


The proposed civilian “surge” is the fourth leg of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s emerging strategy to rebuild Afghanistan’s economy and government, along with more American troops, vastly expanded Afghan security forces and closer cooperation between U.S. and Afghan troops, including posting troops from both countries at the same bases.


The request for additional civilian resources will be part of a 60-day assessment of the strategy in Afghanistan. McChrystal’s plan also will outline how the military wants to revamp the relationship between civilians and the military so that soldiers shift economic and political development work to civilians.


It’s not clear, however, whether the State Department can deploy enough civilians fast enough to make progress in an economically backward nation that remains plagued by an Islamist insurgency, internal rivalries, inadequate infrastructure, official corruption and a booming opium trade. What’s more, nearly eight years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, one thing that many of its people have in common is growing discontent with the presence of foreign forces.


The assessment was to be released later this week, but the Pentagon has announced that it won’t be made public until early September. The plan is already a race against time in Afghanistan and in Washington, where the administration is eager to demonstrate significant progress before the 2010 congressional elections.


A State Department official said that there were 560 to 570 U.S. government civilian employees in Afghanistan at the end of last year, and that by the end of this year there’ll be about 1,000.


Only 75 of the new arrivals are in Afghanistan so far. “We’re doing this in a planned way. We have to balance getting the right people out there, as opposed to just deploying them quickly,” said the official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, as the official wasn’t authorized to speak for the record. “We fully expect to be able to get them all out there by the end of the year.”


Many of the new arrivals will join provincial reconstruction teams, which work with provincial and local officials across Afghanistan. Not all of them are coming from the State Department. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is sending 55 employees into the field as part of an effort to rejuvenate Afghanistan’s once-rich agriculture.


It may be difficult, however, to convince some disheartened American troops to work with civilians, whom they think haven’t had much impact in the places where they’ve been.


In Kabul, though, military officials called the proposal a central part of their plan, saying that rebuilding Afghanistan’s shattered economy and cleaning up its corrupt government are key to the U.S. strategy.


The military will move to population centers and wrest control from the Taliban, and civilians will move in afterward to rebuild communities. In many places now, the Taliban not only control areas by force but also have established local courts, government centers and businesses and have run government officials out of their communities.


“Government is the key, and you will see that in General McChrystal’s strategy,” said a senior military official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to speak to the news media. “If all we achieve is security, then this won’t work.”


However, even if the surge occurs, “it might not arrive until early 2010,” said Andrew Exum, who’s at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, a national-security policy research center, and who serves as an adviser to McChrystal. “For the near term, the military needs to be prepared to take on responsibilities better executed by civilians. . . . We’re on a very short timeline in Afghanistan with respect to shifting momentum, and by the time the civilians arrive in any significant numbers or capabilities, it might be quite late in the game.”


As for the provincial reconstruction teams, he said, there’s no standardization. “What (each one does) depends on their relationship with the Afghan people and their guidance from their home country,” Exum said.


Many of the new employees are being hired under a special provision of the law that allows the government to hire temporary personnel on an expedited basis. Aside from the new hires, it’s not clear where the additional personnel will come from. Some could come from Iraq, where a State Department inspector general’s report recently recommended that the U.S. Embassy be downsized significantly and provincial reconstruction teams be phased out.


The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has alerted the State Department that hundreds more civilians beyond the total of 1,000 now planned probably will be needed in 2010 and 2011, officials said. The total could end up reaching 1,350, with about 800 in Kabul and about 550 outside the capital.


Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, dismissed criticism that the civilian buildup has been insufficient so far.


“We have a very sustained plan. This is not like taking an existing military unit out of Fort Bragg and training them and then sending them out,” Holbrooke said at a briefing last month. “We have hundreds of people in the pipeline.”


(Youssef reported from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Washington; Strobel reported from Washington. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Kabul.)


Posted on Wed, Aug. 12, 2009
U.S. mulls pulling troops from remote Afghan outposts
Jonathan S. Landay and Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: August 24, 2009 07:49:58 PM


KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. military commander in Afghanistan is considering pulling American troops out of some remote outposts on the country’s mountainous eastern border with Pakistan, where local guerrillas are allied with the Taliban and al Qaida, U.S. officials told McClatchy.


Abandoning U.S. forward outposts, and possibly turning them over to Afghan forces, would be a tacit admission that the presence of American troops has fueled insecurity by embroiling them in local feuds and driving some local tribes to align with the Taliban.


“These (outposts) are costly and dangerous and not doing much to bring security to the people or connect the people to their government,” said a U.S. official who’s familiar with the region. “The terrain is too rugged, the infrastructure and especially roads do not exist and couldn’t be built on short order, and the population is too low and too dispersed.”


American commanders had hoped that sending more troops to the border area, coupled with a new Pakistani drive against the militants on its side of the border, could deprive al Qaida and the Taliban of a sanctuary and end infiltration from Pakistan.


However, two senior U.S. officials said, there’s no sign that the Pakistani military is prepared to move against the militants, and as one of them put it: “There’s no point swinging a hammer if there’s no anvil there.”


Instead, American forces have found themselves tied down in costly clashes with insurgents, and it now may make more sense to move them to more populated areas to bolster security for a redoubled effort to rebuild the war-torn country, U.S. officials said.


Although no final decision has been made, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, is reviewing the idea as he finalizes a new strategy for containing the expanding Taliban-led insurgency nearly eight years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked McChrystal, who took command in July, to submit the strategy by sometime next month.


Eight U.S. officials in Kabul and Washington who discussed the issue spoke only on the condition of anonymity, because McChrystal and his commanders are still debating it.


Freeing resources that are tied up in outposts in thinly populated areas of eastern Nuristan and Kunar provinces, such as the Korengal and Pech valleys, also would reflect what many American commanders think is a shortage of foreign forces supporting the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.


Despite President Barack Obama’s decision to boost the American contingent to 68,000 troops by this fall, there’s uncertainty about further increases next year given the continued instability in Iraq and public angst over rising casualties in Afghanistan and federal spending at home.


Given these limitations, the officials said, McChrystal wants to focus the troops he has on Afghanistan’s population centers.


“It’s a concession that we don’t have enough troops,” said a U.S. military officer at the Pentagon. “It may seem counterintuitive to move the fight closer to population centers, but being farther away hasn’t worked.”


The American-led counterinsurgency campaign, which includes 32,000 troops from 42 other countries, remains “an economy of force mission,” a senior American defense official said.


The U.S. official said that discussions on withdrawing from remote outposts were under way before McChrystal assumed command, driven by the deaths of nine American soldiers in a July 2008 insurgent assault on their base in Wanat, in Nuristan’s far eastern Waygal district.


It was the largest loss of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in a single incident since 2005, and American and Afghan troops abandoned the base. A subsequent investigation found that the local police and the district administrator had aided the insurgents.


Abandoning more outposts where U.S. forces have suffered significant casualties would be a boon to the propaganda-savvy Taliban and their patron, al Qaida, which almost certainly would trumpet any redeployment as an American retreat.


It also would shift the war in Afghanistan from fighting al Qaida and other terrorists, which soldiers are trained to do and which the American public continues to support, to protecting the Afghan population and training local forces, which may be harder for the Obama administration to defend in Congress and during next year’s congressional elections.


Several U.S. officials, however, said that the advantage gained by redeploying forces probably would outweigh any short-term Taliban propaganda victory.


“The redeployment of troops may be an information tactical setback, but it is thinking and actions like these that may just bring strategic success,” a U.S. military official said.


“The bad guys are going to spin everything as a victory for them,” the official said. “The way to deal with it is an effective message campaign that pre-emptively explains what is being done and demonstrates that the withdrawal is on our initiative, not theirs.”


“Should we withdraw and the bad guys move into the highlands in large numbers, then the challenge will be to contain them there,” the official continued. “I’d wager that if we could make significant progress in the areas with higher population concentration, which are easier to defend, then the problem in the remote and inaccessible areas will diminish. The bad guys aren’t interested in setting up little Islamic emirates in isolated valleys. They’re interested in seizing the reins of power.”


Troops redeployed from border areas would be used to bolster security in more populated areas where building support for the Afghan government and its international backers is considered more crucial to defeating the Taliban-led insurgency, the officials said.


Commanders on the ground know they must show some kind of progress in time for next year’s elections, which the Obama administration already fears could become a referendum on the Afghan war, much as the 2006 congressional elections were a referendum on the war in Iraq.


McChrystal’s new strategy is expected to call for additional increases in American and Afghan forces and a major hike in internationally funded efforts for improving and extending local governance, building roads, schools and clinics, and curbing pervasive corruption and narcotics trafficking.
(Youssef reported from Washington.)


Posted on Thu, Aug. 13, 2009
In Taliban heartland, coalition’s made little headway after 8 years
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: August 24, 2009 07:49:58 PM


ZHARI DISTRICT, Afghanistan — Two miles from the gates of an isolated Canadian military base in southern Afghanistan lies Sangsar, the village where the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of Islam was born.


A few miles farther east is Siah Choy, where students learn to build roadside bombs for passing U.S. and Afghan troops. About six miles further east, in Nakhonay, the Taliban store thousands of weapons to distribute in the region.


This fertile part of southern Afghanistan is the front line of the war between the American-led coalition and the Taliban. Yet neither the U.S. nor its coalition partners have any troops stationed in these villages.


The Taliban’s grip here is so strong that Afghan government leaders can’t live in their own villages, so the farmers turn to the militants to settle local disputes. When Afghans go to the polls next Thursday to pick a president, no one here will vote because the Taliban have ordered them to stay home.


The coalition’s precarious position in Kandahar province after nearly eight years of a war that’s claimed more than 775 American lives is a warning that the new U.S. campaign to subdue the Taliban in the Islamists’ heartland will be, at best, an uphill struggle.


Later this month, soldiers from the 5th Brigade of the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division out of Fort Lewis, Wash., will take control of this base, part of an American troop increase that Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has said is key to wresting control from the Taliban.


But the tactics the U.S. honed in Iraq will be of little or no use here, where roadways are either dusty, unpaved tracks or simply dry creek beds and where the terrian is lush, Vietnam-like, capable of growing grapes, opium poppies and marijuana, yet fiercely hot — temperatures easily reach 130 degrees in the summer and soldiers walk a few hundred yards and collapse before a shot is fired.


And the Canadians who have been here for the past three years are openly skeptical that their U.S. brethren, with huge eight-wheeled Stryker armored fighting vehicles in the lush waist-high grape vines, will have any better luck subduing the Taliban than they did.


The Americans “need to understand this is the toughest environment” they’ll face, said Capt. Chris Blouin of Canada’s Royal 22nd Regiment. “It’s not complicated. Expect everything.”


For three years, a Canadian force of a few hundred has faced as many as 15,000 Taliban here. In those three years, however, the Canadians acknowledge that they’ve had little more than a “finger in the dike strategy” aimed at preventing Taliban forces from capturing Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, 20 miles to the east. With few resources, stalemate was the Canadians’ strategy.


America’s allies have no territorial gains to show for the effort. The schools they built were destroyed after the Taliban took them over and used them to stage ambushes. The small outposts they established, including the one in Sangsar, were abandoned in 2007 under constant Taliban attack.


“All we were really able to do, and have been able to do, is keep the insurgency sufficiently at bay that it doesn’t become a real challenge to the state,” said Canadian Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance, who commands 2,800 troops in Kandahar province, about 300 of them based in Sangsar. “And it’s not a real challenge to the state.”


The Canadians’ efforts to guide and train their Afghan counterparts who share this base have been equally frustrating.


At a meeting of local elders last month on the Afghan side of the base, Canadian and Afghan soldiers and police officers sat around a table laden with Oreos and pretzels mixed with dried apricots and figs.


The local police chief, Bizmullah Jan, asked for more help from the Canadians. The Canadians’ lack of troops, however, makes it hard for them to support the Afghans the way the Afghans would like.


“Your troops need to understand that they are better fighters than the Taliban, and the Taliban are not good fighters. . . . The Taliban have an ammo issue as well,” said Blouin, 31, of Quebec, who’s assigned to the Bravo Company in the 2nd Battalion of Canada’s Royal 22nd Regiment. “Don’t shoot everywhere. This is your country, and you need to be out the wire (in front) first.”


The local Afghan army chief, Lt. Col Miranwar, who like many Afghans uses only one name, chimed in: “You have the technology, the best technology, but every time the Taliban fight, you cannot find them. . . . You say you are here to help and support us, so we need support and help from you.”


Blouin didn’t budge. “It is chaotic on the ground, and there are too many people, so I cannot see who is the enemy. . . . It is a mistake to count too much on the technology because the Taliban doesn’t have technology.”


“Yes, but the Taliban have the authority over the whole area,” Miranwar replied.


The Canadians are bitter about their role. They’ve lost 125 soldiers — the highest proportionally of any coalition partner — and have killed thousands of Taliban fighters and hundreds more civilians in short bursts of operations, usually lasting a few days.


Now they feel the clock ticking: They have two years to make a lasting difference before political pressure probably will force them to go home. Canada’s politicians have said that their combat forces will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2011.


“We are proud to have been here. This is the heart of the insurgency,” said Capt. Christian Maranda, 30, of Quebec and of Bravo Company. “But of course it’s frustrating, because we lose ground every time we lose an area.”


The local population has lost hope that the coalition can wrest control from the Taliban fighters who hide in their fields and take over their homes. Afghans resent the Canadians for making their lives more difficult. They’ve seen civilians killed. Their districts aren’t safe. Canadian soldiers often have driven off the roads and destroyed farmers’ 100-year-old grapevines in an effort to dodge the explosives that are waiting for them.


“Every yard is a trench for the enemy. . . . The people don’t think about government and elections. The people now are just trying to save themselves,” said district leader Naiz Mohammed Abdul Sarahadi, who splits his time between the base and Kandahar city because his district is too dangerous for him.


“Whenever there are more coalition forces, there are more deaths. These operations should have a result. We have an operation, and the Taliban move back in.”


Taliban wearing flip-flops and carrying AK-47 rifles and rocket launchers have the small Canadian forward operating base near Zhari surrounded, but how many of them there are is anyone’s guess. Blouin has heard 15,000. Harassment fire is common, usually beginning in midmorning, from men a few hundred yards from the base.


Every time the Taliban appear, Canadian medics who’ve grown accustomed to the routine put on their bright blue plastic gloves and booties, stand in front of stretchers laid out in a barren outdoor medical center and await the inevitable casualties.


The Taliban have no chance of overrunning the base, but they’re sending a message to the villagers: They, not the foreign forces, are in charge of this area. They’ll launch another two attacks outside the base before the week is over.


The longest land battle of this Afghan war took place just south of here in September 2006. The Canadians call it the Battle of Medusa, and they say that hundreds of Taliban were killed, along with 12 Canadian soldiers. Some think that battle, the most conventional fight between the Canadian Forces and the Taliban, stopped the Taliban from moving toward the city of Kandahar.


It was the apex of the Canadian effort here. The Canadians tried to keep the momentum going, but they lost it quickly because they didn’t have enough troops.


Throughout their time here, the Canadians have pleaded for more troops and resources. They asked for more helicopters but never got them. They pleaded with the Americans to send a new Marine brigade here, only to see it go to neighboring Helmand and Farah provinces.’


Their only reinforcements came last year, when a Canadian commission found that Canada couldn’t continue its mission without another 1,000 soldiers. The Americans sent 750 troops plus logistical support to the neighboring Maiwand district and the Canadians agreed to stay for another three years.


They built schools in the community, but NATO destroyed them after the Taliban took them over and used them to stage ambushes. They then set up small outposts, including the one in Sangsar. The Canadians found that they spent most of their effort protecting the outposts, so by early 2007 they moved back to their main base near Zhari.


No coalition soldier has been stationed in the birthplace of the Taliban since then.


Instead, the Canadians have launched one small operation after another, sweeping through the district village by village, operation by operation, back and forth. They’ve hit each of the district’s villages at least twice, once before and once after the warm-weather fighting season. The aim is to capture enough weapons to force the Taliban to search for more instead of driving toward Kandahar.


“We have to hit certain places several times just to keep them off balance,” said Cpl. Gary-James Johnston, 27, of Montreal.


Canadian soldiers serve six-month tours in Afghanistan, half as long as the Americans’ tours. Since the 22nd Regiment arrived in late March, it’s launched 15 operations. In July, the Canadians conducted three operations, each lasting two to three days.


They struck Taliban staging areas toward Kandahar city, accompanied by Afghan forces. During one operation, word leaked out and the Taliban fled. During the others, the militants simply dropped their weapons and went back to farming. In the last operation in July, the Canadians found one of the largest weapons caches of the war, enough rifles, grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition to fill a small building.
Still, they’ve made only a small dent in the insurgency.


“Yeah, they will be back,” Canadian Lt. Col. Michael Patrick said after the latest operation. “We know that.”


Together, the Canadian troops and the newly arriving 5th Brigade of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division will tackle the area’s population centers. The Americans will come to Zhari, and the Canadians will move south to neighboring Panjaway district to reinforce their presence there.


“If we adequately secure 80 percent of the population, and the Taliban become irrelevant to 80 percent of the population, then we are well on our way to winning,” said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the international force’s deputy regional south commander and the highest-ranking American military officer in southern Afghanistan.


But McChrystal’s advisers quietly concede that the new U.S. strategy may not work, either, and that if more troops are needed, they’ll have to be American troops who are leaving Iraq.


“Even today, we don’t have enough,” a senior military adviser to McChrystal said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity in order to talk more candidly about the situation in Kandahar. “This is all the reality of an under-resourced war, and that’s the impact of Iraq.”


“We kept a lid on this as best we could, and successfully. The insurgency didn’t win,” said Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance, the Canadian commander in Kandahar province.


“Woulda, shoulda, coulda, there would have been more troops here, and there would have been right from the beginning,” Vance continued. “But there weren’t. So we did exactly what we had to do. Now we have an opportunity. . . . We have two years” before the Canadians are expected to leave Afghanistan. “In two years, you can do a lot.”


Posted on Tue, Aug. 25, 2009
U.S. deaths in Afghanistan headed for another record
Nancy A. Youssef and Jonathan S. Landay | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: August 26, 2009 07:55:52 AM


WASHINGTON — With the deaths of four U.S. soldiers Tuesday, the U.S.-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan now has lost more troops this year than in all of 2008, and August is on track to be the deadliest month for American troops there since U.S. operations began nearly eight years ago.


The numbers reflect the rising pace of combat in Afghanistan and come at a difficult time, just as Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is considering asking for more U.S. troops even as opinion polls show that a majority of Americans think the war in Afghanistan isn’t worth the cost.


Underscoring the deteriorating situation, a massive explosion late Tuesday shook the southern city of Kandahar, leveling dozens of businesses as people were breaking the daylong fast of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.


Local officials said at least 37 civilians were killed and another 100 were injured.


Afghans also are awaiting results from the Aug. 20 presidential election as the top candidates claim the lead. A runoff will be held if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the nationwide vote; the protracted uncertainty could lead to more violence. Partial results released Tuesday showed President Hamid Karzai running slightly ahead of his nearest competitor, with 40 percent of the counted votes.


In July, 45 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan, the highest monthly toll this year. So far in August, 40 Americans have died, many in the south, and Pentagon officials say privately that with nearly a week left in the month, they expect August to exceed July’s number. Americans make up the majority of the 63 coalition troops killed so far this month; 75 coalition soldiers died in July.


In 2008, total coalition deaths were 294, 155 of whom were Americans; the 2009 total through Tuesday was 295, of whom 172 were Americans.


There are currently 63,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.


The four Americans who died Tuesday were killed when an explosion hit a convoy in Kandahar province. U.S. officials didn’t disclose the identities of the soldiers or of their unit and did not say where the convoy was precisely when it was struck.


Senior U.S. military leaders have warned that troop deaths were likely to rise as the Obama administration sent an additional 17,500 troops and 4,000 trainers to Afghanistan. Those forces began arriving in Afghanistan earlier this summer, including thousands of Marines who launched a major offensive in southern Helmand province. Roughly 6,000 of those forces are still en route.


Under McChrystal, the U.S. is expanding its presence into parts of southern Afghanistan, including Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where coalition forces have never had enough troops to displace the Taliban.


Kandahar city is the country’s second-largest and the spiritual capital of the Pashtuns, the ethnic group that comprises virtually all of the Taliban. And more than 90 percent of Afghanistan poppy production comes out of Helmand.


“We are not surprised,” said a senior Pentagon officer who asked for anonymity so that he could discuss the casualty figures candidly. “We knew this would happen.”


The increase in casualties comes at a time that public support for the war appears to be eroding. A Washington Post-ABC News polls released last week found that for the first time, a majority of Americans don’t think the war is worth fighting.


Members of Congress are expressing concerns about U.S. progress in a country known as the graveyard of empires.


Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a proponent of sending more troops to Afghanistan on Sunday called the trends in Afghanistan “very alarming and disturbing” on ABC News, while Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a member on the Foreign Relations Committee, told his home state’s Appleton Post-Crescent newspaper that he wants a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.


“I think it is time we ought to start discussing a flexible timetable when people in America and Afghanistan and around the world can see where we intend and when we intend to bring our troops out,” Feingold said, according to the paper.


Interviews with Afghans show that they are fed up as well. Many say they don’t want help from the U.S., the Taliban or their central government; they just want to be left alone.


Haji Agha Lalai, the head of the provincial peace and reconciliation commission and a Kandahar provincial council member, visited the scene shortly after Tuesday night’s bombing. In a telephone interview, he said he was told by a police officer that a large tanker truck was moving through the neighborhood when the explosion occurred.
“The houses along a 20-meter (66 foot) section of roadway were completely destroyed,” he said.


The bombing happened as there are growing charges of massive fraud in the presidential election, which the U.S. and its allies had hoped would produce a stable government that would cooperate closely on the Obama administration’s new strategy for defeating the Taliban-led insurgency.


Preliminary results released Tuesday by the Independent Election Commission showed that with 10 percent of polling stations counted, President Hamid Karzai was running slightly ahead of his closest challenger and former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, 40.6 percent to 38.7 percent.


Just before the IEC announced the results, Abdullah intensified his charges that Karzai had used his control over the government to orchestrate a campaign of “wide-scale fraud.”
Using stronger language than in previous days, Abdullah warned that he’d “not allow a big fraud to determine the outcome of the election” and would “not make deals” in return for dropping his charges, like accepting a top post in the new government.


Six other candidates issued a joint statement warning that the volume of rigging complaints had many people “seriously questioning the legitimacy and credibility of the results.”
(Youssef reported from Washington and Landay reported from Kabul. McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor in Kabul contributed to this article.)


Posted on Mon, Aug. 31, 2009
Pentagon worried about Obama’s commitment to Afghanistan
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: September 02, 2009 03:30:11 PM


WASHINGTON — The prospect that U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal may ask for as many as 45,000 additional American troops in Afghanistan is fueling growing tension within President Barack Obama’s administration over the U.S. commitment to the war there.


On Monday, McChrystal sent his assessment of the situation in Afghanistan to the Pentagon, the U.S. Central Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and NATO. Although the assessment didn’t include any request for more troops, senior military officials said they expect McChrystal later in September to seek between 21,000 and 45,000 more troops. There currently are 62,000 American troops in Afghanistan.


However, administration officials said that amid rising violence and casualties, polls that show a majority of Americans now think the war in Afghanistan isn’t worth fighting. With tough battles ahead on health care, the budget and other issues, Vice President Joe Biden and other officials are increasingly anxious about how the American public would respond to sending additional troops.


The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the media, said Biden has argued that without sustained support from the American people, the U.S. can’t make the long-term commitment that would be needed to stabilize Afghanistan and dismantle al Qaida. Biden’s office declined to comment.


“I think they (the Obama administration) thought this would be more popular and easier,” a senior Pentagon official said. “We are not getting a Bush-like commitment to this war.”


Monday’s assessment initially was to include troop recommendations, but political concerns prompted White House and Pentagon officials to agree that those recommendations would come later, advisers to McChrystal said. Although the White House took a hands-off approach toward Afghanistan earlier this summer, Pentagon officials said they’re now getting more questions about how many troops might be needed and for how long.


Some White House officials said the administration feels it was pressured to send the additional 17,500 combat troops and 4,000 trainers earlier this year, before the administration was comfortable with its plan for Afghanistan, because of the country’s election in August.


Obama now feels that McChrystal and his superior, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the Central Command, are pressuring him to commit still more troops to Afghanistan, a senior military official said. The official said that retired Marine Gen. James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, told McChrystal last month not to ask for more troops, but that McChrystal went ahead anyway and indicated in interviews that he may need more.


McChrystal’s new assessment is the fifth one ordered since Obama’s inauguration. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that no details of the assessment would be released. Other officials called it a “political hot potato.”


Advisers to McChrystal, who spoke to McClatchy on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity, said the document is just over 10 pages and broadly spells out McChrystal’s assessment of conditions on the ground:
“It says that this could get much worse unless we invest ourselves in this now,” one adviser said. “Then it says, ‘This is what we propose to do.'”


On Monday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that the Obama administration inherited an under-resourced war in Afghanistan, but he stopped short of promising more troops.


Administration officials said that the White House is planning a series of “quiet discussions” among top advisers over the next six weeks or so about the way ahead.


“What the president is going to want to do is review the report and then discuss and talk with all of those that have equities in it to get their viewpoints and to ensure that each and every person is heard on this, and that’s what the president intends to do,” Gibbs said Monday.


McChrystal’s latest assessment calls for redistributing troops to focus more on protecting population centers and less on chasing Taliban fighters. It also says it will take several years to build a more professional and capable Afghan security force, without saying how large that force should be.


The assessment also calls for more U.S. government civilians to be sent to Afghanistan and for the streamlining of the military’s command structure, saying that too much bureaucracy is making it difficult for commanders to make decisions on the ground.


“The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort,” McChrystal said in a statement Monday.


Since Obama’s inauguration, when the war was hailed as a just cause, the administration has been bombarded by signs of a deteriorating situation.


The deaths of 304 U.S. and NATO forces, including 179 Americans, so far this year makes 2009 the deadliest year for both U.S. and NATO forces since the war began eight years ago — and there are still four months to go.


A Washington Post-ABC News poll released in August found that for the first time since the war began, a majority of Americans don’t think the war is worth fighting.
Pentagon officials said that White House officials have told them they fear that McChrystal’s expected request for more troops won’t be his last.


The additional troops are “only a down payment on what would be required to turn things around, and everyone knows that,” said another senior military official, who said that’s true in part because estimates of what the Afghan forces can do and when they’ll be fully capable of handling security threats are being downgraded.


Meanwhile, U.S. military commanders in Kabul feel the political clock ticking, saying they think they have no more than 18 months to show some kind of progress, even as most agree that they don’t have enough troops.


Success could mean as little as making the levels of violence plateau, two military officials told McClatchy.


Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said any discussion about what the Pentagon is proposing and the White House response is premature.


“We are not there yet,” Morrell said. “Let’s see what Gen. McChrystal comes back and asks for.”


Posted on Thu, Sep. 03, 2009
Military leaders: U.S. effort in Afghanistan just beginning
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: September 04, 2009 04:12:43 PM


WASHINGTON — Top Pentagon leaders Thursday insisted that despite an expected request for more American troops in Afghanistan, the U.S. isn’t engaged in nation building there and that although violence is increasing, the military effort there is “only now beginning.”


In a news conference Thursday at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded to mounting criticism that the Obama administration can’t define success in Afghanistan.


Critics charge that the administration’s effort to build a stable and secure nation are unachievable because of rampant corruption in the Afghan central government, a disjointed coalition force structure, a resurgent Taliban and the absence of cooperation from neighboring Pakistan.


Gates, in response to a question, said the war is “not slipping through the administration’s fingers.”


Instead, the secretary, who earlier this year fired Army Gen. David McKiernan, the Afghanistan commander, and replaced him with Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said he thinks that the U.S. policy in Afghanistan is clear and on the right track.


Gates said he’d read McChrystal’s 60-day assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and plans to “informally forward” his recommendations to President Barack Obama next week. McChrystal is expected to ask for as many as 45,000 more troops in a separate report later this month.


Earlier this year, the administration agreed to send another 17,500 troops and 4,000 trainers to Afghanistan; so far all but 8,000 have arrived. There currently are 62,000 U.S. troops and 39,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan.


Gates and Mullen acknowledged, however, that public support for the war is waning. With four months to go, 2009 already is the deadliest year of the war. At least 308 U.S. and Nato troops have been killed this year, and a McClatchy/Ipsos poll released this week found that 54 percent of Americans don’t think the U.S. military is winning in Afghanistan.
Gates and Mullen Thursday pleaded for more time.


“The fact that Americans would be tired of having their sons and daughters at risk and in battle is not surprising,” Gates said. “I think what is important is for us to be able to show, over the months to come, that the president’s strategy is succeeding. We understand the concerns on the part of many Americans in this area, and — but we think that we now have the resources and the right approach to begin making some headway in turning around a situation that, as many have indicated, has been deteriorating.”


Mullen and Gates responded to critics who fear that the war in Afghanistan is becoming a quagmire and that the U.S. military shouldn’t engage in nation building, particularly in a country with such weak infrastructure and no history of a viable central government.


In addition, Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 presidential election, which the administration initially hailed as a success, appears to be headed toward a run-off. U.S. commanders in Kabul fear that widespread charges of fraud and vote rigging and uncertainty about who’ll be the next president could lead to more violence.


Although no one had compared Afghanistan to Vietnam, Mullen reminded reporters that, “I am a Vietnam veteran” and said, “We have a mission that we’re doing the best we possibly can to carry out.”


In an apparent attempt to argue that America’s security is at stake in Afghanistan, Gates said that before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Taliban not only provided al Qaida refuge, but also “cooperated and collaborated” with the terrorist group. Because of that, he said, the U.S. must ensure that a stable government exists in Afghanistan so the Taliban — and ultimately al Qaida — can’t return.


Although no one asked Gates whether the U.S. was engaged in nation building in Afghanistan, he said that the U.S. effort to train Afghan security forces and support local governance isn’t that.


“It seems to me that we’re in Afghanistan less for nation building than we are for giving Afghanistan the capacity to oppose al Qaida; to oppose the use of their territory by other violent extremists,” Gates said.


On Thursday, Gates finessed his position on whether the U.S. footprint could become too large. Until now, he’s fretted about sending more than 100,000 troops to Afghanistan — roughly the number the Soviet Union had during its war in Afghanistan — out of fear that the U.S. and its allies would appear to be another occupying force.


According to Pentagon figures, there currently are 101,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan.
On Thursday, Gates said the number isn’t as important as how the troops conduct themselves.


Posted on Mon, Sep. 07, 2009
Military leery of Afghanistan escalation with no clear goals
Nancy A. Youssef, Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: September 08, 2009 07:03:59 PM


WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration and Congress begin a heated debate about how many more American troops to send to Afghanistan, military observers, soldiers on the ground there and some top Pentagon officials are warning that dispatching even tens of thousands more soldiers and Marines might not ensure success.


Some even fear that deploying more U.S. troops, especially in the wake of a U.S. airstrike last week that killed and wounded scores of Afghan civilians, would convince more Afghans that the Americans are occupiers rather than allies and relieve the pressure on the Afghan government to improve its own security forces.


The heart of the problem, soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and some officials in Washington told McClatchy, is that neither Barack Obama’s White House nor the Pentagon has clearly defined America’s mission in Afghanistan. As a result, some soldiers in the field said, they aren’t sure what their objectives are.


Current officials and military officers who’re wary of escalation refused to speak on the record because they aren’t authorized to talk to the media and because doing so would be hazardous to their careers.


“Gen. McChrystal’s latest assessment reportedly indicates that the situation in Afghanistan is ‘serious,’ ” said former deputy secretary of state and Pentagon official Richard Armitage, referring to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan.
“President Obama needs to define, more clearly than he has so far, what our country’s objectives in Afghanistan are and his strategy for achieving them. Without that, it’s impossible to assess whether the mission requires additional troops.”


The administration’s stated goals in Afghanistan have ranged from eliminating the threat posed by al Qaida — which is based in neighboring Pakistan, not in Afghanistan — and building a stable democratic state, depending on what administration official is speaking and when.


On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates attempted to define the administration’s strategy. He said that before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Taliban not only provided al Qaida refuge, but also “cooperated and collaborated” with the terrorist group. Because of that, he said, the U.S. must ensure that a stable government exists in Afghanistan so the Taliban — and ultimately al Qaida — can’t return.


The situation in Afghanistan, including last month’s still-inconclusive election and McChrystal’s review, have made it hard for the president to speak out more definitively, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the center-left Brookings Institution who was in Afghanistan for the August election.


Obama must do so soon, however, O’Hanlon said: “He can’t expect the country to continue to tolerate a mission that he himself has not explained.”


Obama may explain it soon, although the timing and format haven’t been decided, administration officials said.


His choices are problematic. A withdrawal from Afghanistan would bring disastrous foreign policy consequences, but adding troops is no guarantee of success.


Although recent polls have found public support for the war in Afghanistan ebbing, aides said the president is committed to the effort but aware of the need to avoid wading into a quagmire.


“Momentum is a terrible way to make decisions,” said a senior White House official who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Obama will avoid decisions that “will bind the country forever,” he said.


Obama, of course, inherited a war without a strategy. George H.W. Bush turned his back on Afghanistan after the Soviet Union withdrew; Bill Clinton never confronted the growing al Qaida threat there despite a series of terrorist attacks; and George W. Bush chose to invade Iraq rather than concentrate on the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan.


The White House is due to send a series of benchmarks for measuring progress in Afghanistan to Congress by Sept. 24, where support for the effort is eroding among liberal Democrats and even some conservatives.


Officials, however, concede that no amount of additional American force can by itself ensure success.


Even the limited goal of eradicating al Qaida requires substantially more cooperation from Pakistan than the country has provided so far — or than U.S. military and intelligence officials and diplomats privately say they expect amid mounting anti-Americanism there.


U.S. officials say the electronic components for improvised explosives are being assembled and smuggled in from Pakistan, and cross-border infiltration continues unchecked, including now into northern Afghanistan. Mullah Mohammed Omar and other Taliban leaders based in Quetta, Pakistan, and allied with al Qaida remain free to direct the insurgency, and other insurgents continue to shuttle young Islamist recruits from radical mosques and schools in Pakistan to training camps near the Afghan border and then into Afghanistan.


Critics worry that a likely middle course — sending more American troops to train and expand the Afghan security forces — can’t assure success, either, because those forces are controlled by a government that’s riddled with corruption and more feared than respected by its people. Widespread allegations of fraud in last month’s presidential election have only compounded the problem, officials conceded.


While analogies between Vietnam and Afghanistan are overdrawn, O’Hanlon said, there’s one similarity: the need for a strong local partner, which the United States didn’t have in South Vietnam.


“We’re in a heap of trouble if we don’t have a good local partner,” he said.


To complicate matters, several senior officials said, curbing drug trafficking, rooting out official corruption, improving women’s rights and creating a central government that’s widely accepted as legitimate are all political, not military, objectives.


The corruption extends from police who resell U.S.-supplied gasoline and water, to mid-level Afghan military commanders who siphon off money that’s intended to purchase food for their troops, to the top of the Karzai government. And it has denied ordinary Afghans the opportunity to have their grievances addressed, except by local Taliban kangaroo courts and shadow governments. Many Afghans have all but given up on corrupt government security officials, instead turning to local warlords and Taliban leaders to help them survive.


U.S. officers in Afghanistan said Afghan security forces also are helping smuggle weapons the Taliban use to attack U.S.-led troops from Pakistan into Afghanistan. In addition, said a senior Afghan officer, weapons and ammunition supplied to the Afghan army and police are also being stolen and sold to the Taliban.


“There is great corruption in the Ministry of Defense,” the officer said. “Everyone is looking for money.”


Despite the Obama administration’s decision to send 17,500 more troops and 4,000 trainers in this year, violence is at its highest level of the eight-year war. Attacks against coalition forces are at their highest, too, with at least 308 troops killed in 2009, which last month became the deadliest year of the war.


Military leaders and some in the administration and Congress concede that the situation is deteriorating and that the options aren’t appealing. However, they argue, doing nothing would be worse.


O’Hanlon said the steady drumbeat of bad news, while real, has overshadowed other factors.


“In the places where we have added troops, there is at least some hopefulness,” he said. In addition, he said, not all the additional troops, civilian resources and strategy changes that Obama approved in March have come fully into play.


“I tend to believe in the strategy,” O’Hanlon said. “But I think it’s important to acknowledge that . . . even if we do everything right, we could still fail.”


In an interview last week with Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, U.S. Central Command commander Gen. David Petraeus said: “I don’t think anyone can guarantee that it will work out even if we apply a lot more resources. But it won’t work out if we don’t.”


Officials who’ve read McChrystal’s assessment say it doesn’t ask for more troops directly, which is expected in a separate document later this month.


However, they said, the U.S. commander spells out a dire scenario that all but says he needs more troops. The Afghan forces need more training, the assessment says, without saying how many; the mission needs more civilians; and the coalition needs to move its forces out of remote outposts and toward population centers.


The request could be for as many as 45,000 troops; a compromise would send about 21,000 more. There are now 62,000 U.S. troops and 39,000 NATO forces in Afghanistan.


The addition of more troops, some U.S. experts and officers said, will mean more targets for the Taliban to attack. That in turn will likely produce more civilian casualties, which would fuel greater disdain for the U.S.-led military presence and the Kabul government, creating more recruits for the insurgents.


The additional U.S. and allied casualties also would produce political consequences in Washington and other NATO capitals, which are already confronting rising popular opposition to the war. Those tensions in turn could further strain the already troubled trans-Atlantic alliance.
(Landay reported from Afghanistan.)

Posted on Tue, Sep. 15, 2009
Top U.S. officer: Afghan war ‘probably’ needs more troops
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: September 16, 2009 07:53:53 AM


WASHINGTON — Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that the U.S. “probably” needs to send more troops to Afghanistan to support the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which he called a large part of the problem there.


Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of his reconfirmation as chairman, Mullen asked the public for more time to consider whether to send more American troops, but six months after the administration announced its plan for Afghanistan, he also said there should be a sense of urgency about Afghanistan.


His mixed messages appeared to reflect the Obama administration’s difficulty defining a strategy for Afghanistan amid declining political and public support, mounting U.S. casualties, evidence that Karzai rigged his re-election last month, pervasive official corruption, a resurgent Taliban and halfhearted assistance from neighboring Pakistan.


If Karzai is re-elected, as appears likely, and the outcome is seen as illegitimate, it could further undercut domestic support for the Afghanistan war, and leave the White House hitched to an unpopular leader in Kabul.


Referring to Karzai, one senior defense official told McClatchy: “We are chained to a disaster.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.


Nevertheless, the administration is contemplating sending more troops to Afghanistan, and Mullen said that while the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, won’t request more troops for another two weeks, he already thinks the war will require more troops based on a 60-day assessment that McChrystal submitted last month.


“A properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces,” Mullen told the committee, without offering any specifics. It was the strongest signal yet from the administration that it will increase its forces there.


He also said that it would take two to three years for the Afghan forces to become strong enough to change the momentum on their own.


Mullen said the U.S. wants to expand the Afghan National Army to 134,000 troops by the end of 2011. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the armed services committee, called for expanding the Army to 250,000 by the end of 2012. Mullen said that whatever its size, the Army alone wouldn’t improve security.


“I don’t argue for a strong central government in Afghanistan,” Mullen told Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.


Some senators asked whether the Taliban or a failing government was Afghanistan’s biggest problem.


“The biggest threat, in my opinion, is not the Taliban, it’s the governance. The only reason they (the Taliban) possibly could have come back is because there’s been a vacuum created,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “We could send a million troops, and that will not restore legitimacy to their government. Would you agree with that?


“That is a fact,” Mullen replied.


The senior defense official told McClatchy that the administration refuses to be rushed into a decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, calling it “probably the most important foreign policy decision (President Barack Obama) will make.”


Last spring, the Obama administration authorized an additional 17,500 troops and 4,000 trainers in a rush to get additional forces on the ground in time for the presidential election. The rest of those troops are expected to arrive by November, bringing the U.S. troop commitment there to 68,000.


Mullen said Tuesday that the administration would need time to consider whether to send more troops, and reflecting that caution, it declined to send witnesses to testify at Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings this week on Afghanistan.


The administration’s review will continue “for some time,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday.


That cautious approach drew the ire of Arizona Sen. John McCain, the leading Republican member of the committee. “I am frustrated and curious as to why the president’s spokesperson yesterday should say it takes weeks and weeks,” McCain said. “We’re restating a strategy. We know what the resources are and — that are required, and yet it would take weeks and weeks. There are more and more Americans who are at great risk. And that is really, really bothersome.”


By the end of August, 2009 became the deadliest year of the war for U.S. troops. So far, 22 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan in September. In all, 742 troops have been killed in Afghanistan since the war began nearly eight years ago.


Despite the differences over Afghan policy, senators assured Mullen that his reappointment as chairman of the Joint Chiefs was all but certain, and instead used the nearly three-hour session to press the administration to explain its policy in Afghanistan.
Mullen’s two-year appointment expires on Sept. 30.


(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article.)


Posted on Wed, Sep. 16, 2009
White House issues yardsticks for success in Afghanistan
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: September 16, 2009 08:38:26 PM


WASHINGTON — The White House Wednesday presented Congress with eight general yardsticks to measure success in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but didn’t say how they’d help the administration determine how well U.S. policy in the region is working.


Indeed, White House officials said they weren’t sure if they’d use the metrics to help President Barack Obama decide whether to send more American troops to Afghanistan, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters Wednesday.


Instead, the administration official, who spoke with reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the White House devised the metrics to hold itself accountable. A senior defense official, however, said the metrics also are designed to help guide the White House as it begins what could be weeks of deliberations about the way ahead in Afghanistan and Pakistan, six months after it first laid out its goals there.


During a press conference Wednesday with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Obama said that he refused to be rushed on whether to send more troops, despite declining political and public support, mounting U.S. casualties, evidence that U.S.-backed Afghan Pres. Hamid Karzai rigged his re-election last month, pervasive official corruption, a resurgent Taliban and halfhearted assistance from neighboring Pakistan.


If Karzai claims another term as president, as appears likely, and the outcome is considered illegitimate, it could further undercut domestic public and political support for the Afghan war and leave the White House hitched to an unpopular leader in Kabul.


Obama said Wednesday that he wants “absolute clarity about what the strategy is going to be.”


It’s not clear, however, that the metrics presented Wednesday will provide that clarity. Some metrics could be measured using statistics such as polls or economic variables, but about half of them are subjective, and each metric has between four and 14 sub-metrics. Two that are classified weren’t released.


One metric, for example, calls for the U.S. and its allies to defeat extremist insurgencies, “secure the Afghan populace, and develop increasingly self-reliant Afghan security forces that can lead the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism fight with reduced U.S. assistance.”


The 14 sub-metrics for that goal include: measure the level of corruption within the Afghan security forces; public perceptions of the security forces; the capability and size of the Afghan police and army; and percent of the population living under insurgent-controlled or government-controlled communities.


Others yardsticks include economic and political development in Afghanistan and Pakistan and improved security forces in both nations.


Other goals, especially those directed at Pakistan, might be difficult for the United States to reach, since it has few troops and little leverage in that country, where anti-Americanism has been rising.


For example, one metric calls for the development of “Pakistan’s counterinsurgency capabilities,” adding the United States should “continue to support Pakistan’s efforts to defeat terrorist and insurgent groups.”


The senior administration official stressed that the United States isn’t engaged in nation building in Afghanistan, even though one of the sub-metrics calls for measuring “public perception of Afghanistan’s justice sector and commitment to providing the rule of law at the national, provincial, and local levels.”


If the Afghans and Pakistanis achieve the goals with U.S. support, the United States will meet its goal of “disrupting, dismantling and defeating” al Qaida, the official said.
“The metrics are the strategy,” he said.


The White House said it would review the metrics quarterly and present its findings to Congress by March, as Congress requested. It will determine success on a scale, White House officials said. In addition, it will appoint a team of experts to review progress in Afghanistan using the White House metrics so there’s an independent analysis.


Congress demanded the benchmarks from the White House by Sept. 24 as concern grows that the U.S. may be committing itself to an escalating war with little prospect of success.


Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday that the United States “probably” will send more troops to Afghanistan in addition to the additional 17,700 troops and 4,000 trainers that Obama ordered this spring. There currently are 64,000 troops in Afghanistan.


McChrystal’s formal request for troops is expected later this month, Mullen said.


Posted on Fri, Sep. 18, 2009
Military growing impatient with Obama on Afghanistan
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: September 19, 2009 11:10:12 AM


WASHINGTON — Six months after it announced its strategy for Afghanistan, the Obama administration is sending mixed signals about its objectives there and how many troops are needed to achieve them.


The conflicting messages are drawing increasing ire from U.S. commanders in Afghanistan and frustrating military leaders, who’re trying to figure out how to demonstrate that they’re making progress in the 12-18 months that the administration has given them.


Adding to the frustration, according to officials in Kabul and Washington, are White House and Pentagon directives made over the last six weeks that Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, not submit his request for as many as 45,000 additional troops because the administration isn’t ready for it.


In the last two weeks, top administration leaders have suggested that more American troops will be sent to Afghanistan, and then called that suggestion “premature.” Earlier this month, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that “time is not on our side”; on Thursday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urged the public “to take a deep breath.”


The White House didn’t respond to requests for comment. Officials willing to speak did so only on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.


In Kabul, some members of McChrystal’s staff said they don’t understand why Obama called Afghanistan a “war of necessity” but still hasn’t given them the resources they need to turn things around quickly.


Three officers at the Pentagon and in Kabul told McClatchy that the McChrystal they know would resign before he’d stand behind a faltering policy that he thought would endanger his forces or the strategy.


“Yes, he’ll be a good soldier, but he will only go so far,” a senior official in Kabul said. “He’ll hold his ground. He’s not going to bend to political pressure.”


On Thursday, Gates danced around the question of when the administration would be ready to receive McChrystal’s request, which was completed in late August. “We’re working through the process by which we want that submitted,” he said.


There now are 62,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan; the rest of the additional troops Obama ordered are expected to arrive by November, bringing the total to 68,000.


Violence is at its highest levels of the war as the resurgent Taliban take over more of the country. Since Obama took office, 197 U.S. service members have been killed in Afghanistan, as of Friday. In August, 2009 became the deadliest year of the nearly eight-year war for American troops. So far, at least 25 have been killed this month.


A troop increase appeared likely earlier this month. Gates, who’d cautioned against sending too many troops to Afghanistan out of fear that Afghans would view the U.S. as an occupying power similar to the Soviet Union, began to distinguish between the “size of the footprint” and the “behavior of those troops and their attitudes and their interactions with the Afghans.”


Mullen said Tuesday on Capitol Hill that the United States “probably” would send more troops. By Thursday, however, Gates was calling for more time, and in an interview with CNN, Vice President Joe Biden said it was “premature” to assume that more troops would be sent to Afghanistan.


The administration’s seeming indecisiveness may be due to late realization of just how big a commitment would be required to pacify Afghanistan, a senior defense official told McClatchy.


Last March, the administration declared that it had a strategy for Afghanistan. Within days of taking office, it gave Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, 60 days to craft an Afghanistan strategy. He outlined a policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which officials now refer to as “AfPak,” and called for the United States to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al Qaida.


The administration, however, never considered what resources Riedel’s policy would require, the senior military official said.


As violence soared, it became clear that the administration’s commitment of 17,700 more combat troops and 4,000 trainers to Afghanistan would not be enough to calm the country.


The cost of the war also soared. According to Defense Department figures, the Afghan war was costing the Pentagon $2 billion a month as of last October. By June, that cost had climbed to $6.7 billion a month — and that was before most of the additional troops had arrived.


The Pentagon estimates that maintaining a 134,000-strong Afghan army would cost about $3 billion a year in a country that generates $800 million a year in total revenue, meaning that the United States and its allies may be making an indefinite financial commitment.


Now the administration is fully considering the war costs, in resources and political capital, White House and defense officials said. It’s laid out eight broad metrics for success and begun a debate about whether the United States has the resources to sustain the strategy in Riedel’s report.


It’s also asking whether it’s wise to build an Afghan National Army that’s likely to serve President Hamid Karzai, whose administration is riddled with corruption and whose legitimacy would be open to question if he claims victory in the Aug. 20 election whose results still have not been decided amid allegations of fraud.


“There has been a sense of ownership (within the White House) in the last six months . . . an awakening,” one senior defense official said. At this stage, the administration is asking itself whether it wants to “commit the troops, civilians, dollars and itself to Afghanistan.”


The White House still hasn’t decided how much political capital it wants to invest in Afghanistan, and it considers a health care overhaul, financial regulatory revisions and energy policy its priorities, the senior defense official said.


In Kabul, however, U.S. commanders said they thought that Obama’s strategy was based on McChrystal’s assessment of what he needs. “We thought that bringing McChrystal here was their strategy,” one said.


Those officials said that taking time could be costly because the U.S. risked losing the Afghans’ support. “Dithering is just as destructive as 10 car bombs,” the senior official in Kabul said. “They have seen us leave before. They are really good at picking the right side to ally with.”


Posted on Fri, Sep. 25, 2009
U.S. commander in Afghanistan submits request for more troops
Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: September 25, 2009 08:17:04 PM


WASHINGTON — Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, hand-delivered his request for as many as 45,000 more troops to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Germany Friday and made his case for why he needs more forces to fight an increasingly unpopular war.


Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to Ramstein Air Base in Germany to meet with McChrystal and get “a better understanding of the pending resource requirement,” a Pentagon official told McClatchy. The official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.


Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wouldn’t share McChrystal’s troop request with anyone until the administration completes its review of the situation in Afghanistan. Only then will other top Pentagon officials review the request and make comments before submitting it to the White House for President Barack Obama to consider, he said.


“It will not be worked in this building by anyone until the assessment process is complete,” Morrell said.


McChrystal submitted his assessment of the situation in Afghanistan in August, calling the situation dire but saying the U.S. and its allies still have a chance to succeed if more troops are committed. The White House, however, asked him to not submit a request for more troops until it had time to review his assessment.


Obama and his top national security advisers are locked in a heated debate about the way forward in Afghanistan. The administration announced in March that it had a strategy for Afghanistan, but it’s had a difficult time defining the strategy amid declining political and public support, mounting U.S. casualties, evidence that Afghan President Hamid Karzai rigged his re-election last month, pervasive official corruption, a resurgent Taliban and halfhearted assistance from neighboring Pakistan.


A CBS News/New York Times poll released Friday found that 29 percent of Americans think the U.S. should send more troops to Afghanistan, compared with 42 percent in February.


Five more American service members were killed Thursday in southern Afghanistan, three of them from an improvised explosive device, according to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. By mid-August, 2009 became the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the war began eight years ago. At least 33 troops have been killed this month.


Top administration officials have vacillated between committing more resources and redefining their objectives. Earlier this month, Mullen said that the U.S. “probably” would send more troops to Afghanistan, but a day later Vice President Joe Biden called any discussion of future troop deployments premature.


Defense officials told McClatchy that they think Obama is now “leaning” toward Biden’s position that the U.S. should begin to shift away from the counterinsurgency strategy championed by McChrystal and his immediate boss, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command, which the administration embraced earlier this year.


Instead of sending more troops to secure Afghanistan and bolster the country’s unpopular central government, the advocates of a change in strategy argue, the U.S. should make deals with local warlords to use their turf to monitor Taliban and al Qaida activity and launch more unmanned drone attacks on terrorist targets in Afghanistan and the border areas of Pakistan.


If Karzai is re-elected, as appears likely, but his election is considered illegitimate, they argue, that could further undercut domestic support for the Afghanistan war and leave the White House hitched to an unpopular leader in Kabul. In addition, it would mean that the U.S. exit strategy would become training 134,000 Afghan soldiers to serve a government that the U.S. considers corrupt and incompetent.


Earlier this year, Obama approved sending 17,700 more combat troops and 4,000 trainers for Afghanistan. They all should arrive by November, bringing the U.S. troop total in Afghanistan to 68,000. There currently are 65,000 U.S. troops and 39,000 NATO troops.


(Hal Bernton of The Seattle Times contributed to this article from Kandahar, Afghanistan.)


Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: