Archive for April 2012
By Mark Thompson
After years of U.S. officials insisting Afghanistan is not turning into another Vietnam, a two-star U.S. Marine general — just back from a year-long combat tour there — says Afghanistan could well end up resembling the southeast Asian nation.
Major General John Toolan insisted Tuesday that while Afghanistan may not be “highly successful” in the short term, the arc of history requires U.S. and allied efforts there to cauterize the regional instability that threatens Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, That’s not so different, he suggested, from the way the U.S. war in Indochina halted the communists’ deeper push into southeast Asia, and nurtured the economic powerhouses there today.
Toolan is just back from a year in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. Over breakfast Tuesday, among the first words out of his mouth dealt with the lack of cooperation he got from the Pakistan military just across the border.
“Just on the other side on the other side of the Pakistani border they’ve got huge caches of IED-making material, et cetera,” he said. “My problem with [the Afghan border village of] Baramcha — right across Baramcha, in Pakistan, lethal aid is coming in, and drugs are going out. We saw it, we interdicted a lot…but it’s a pittance – it’s a really small percentage – I’m told by DEA that that’s probably less than 12% of the total amount of opium that’s moving across in and out of the border.”
So what’s happening just across that border, in Pakistan?
“The 12th Corps of the Pakistani army is right there and they’re not doing anything,” Toolan said forthrightly. “It’s frustrating.”
He acknowledged that Pakistan is leery of pressing insurgents on its side of the border too much for fear of angering Baluchistan rebels. So what should the U.S. and its allies do?
“I think that’s a question I really can’t answer,” he said. “From my perspective, as a military commander, having to deal with the problem, it’s like I can’t shut the water off — I can just keep mopping the floor, but I can’t turn the water off.”
Battleland began hearing echoes of the past. Building a house amid quicksand has always been a challenge. Toolan’s details of what’s happening along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier – after a decade of war – sounded familiar. The inability of the U.S. to stop the flow of men and materiel from flooding a nation the U.S. is trying to build led Battleland to ask: hey, is Pakistan the new North Vietnam? Are the Taliban the new Viet Cong?
Unlike many officers – who would have run from that question like a live hand grenade tossed into their lap – Toolan caught it, and studied it closely.
“Actually, I think I got that metaphor [shutting the water off, or mopping it up] from something I read about Vietnam, and the challenges that were associated in being able to reach out and suppress the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong,” he said. “If you take the short-term view of Afghanistan, or of Vietnam, for example, I think people might say we didn’t do very well, we’re very frustrated by the whole issue of communists having freedom of movement just outside the borders.”
But Toolan recalled what he’d overheard Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kwan Yew telling then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld several years ago when Toolan was on Rumsfeld’s staff:
Secretary, you need to stay the course in Iraq, because I’m telling you, the only reason why Singapore and Malaysia and Indonesia and all those tigers are doing well today is because you stayed the course 40 years ago.
Wait a minute. The U.S. left South Vietnam in 1973, and it fell to the North two years later.
“You may not see the benefits of what occurred in Vietnam back in ‘60s and ‘70s, but certainly people recognize it today…we stayed the course in Vietnam for 10 years, and I think those 10 years were a tough 10 years, but because of that, we wore down the threat – the threat to the rest of southeast Asia,” Toolan said. “I think that there’s a parallel, in that we may not see, in the short term, a highly-successful Afghanistan, but what we will see is some stability in the region.”
And why is that important?
“I remind some people that there is a lot of nuclear weapons pretty close around Afghanistan, and that maintaining stability in the region is as important as establishing stability in Afghanistan,” Toolan concluded. “I think in the long term we’ll see, so long as this regional stability is sustained and we don’t have nuclear conflagration and all that kind of stuff, what we did will pay off.”
This story originally ran at
After many months of wrangling and negotiations between Washington and Kabul, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta initialed the draft of a strategic partnership agreement that promises American support for Afghanistan for 10 years following the planned 2014 withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. However, like many recent agreements between the two countries, observers agree that although the document is being widely heralded, it will have little real impact and will remain a tool in a political shadow play.
“Our goal is an enduring partnership with Afghanistan that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability and prosperity and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates,” U.S. Embassy spokesman Gavin Sundwall told TIME. “We believe this agreement supports that goal.” He added that, “Both President Barack Obama and [Afghan] President Hamid Karzai have expressed their desire to have an agreement ready to sign before the NATO summit in Chicago [which begins May 15].” Sundwall tells TIME that the document will undergo an interagency review, a consultation with Congress as appropriate and a final review by the president. “Once these internal processes are complete, we expect to be in a position to sign the agreement,” Sundwall says, though he could not comment on details of the agreement.
Because of the lack of details or teeth, observers say the draft has little substance. “It’s an ineffectual PR move. They’re trying to have it both ways — to have their cake and eat it too,” a foreign observer says. “There seems to be some great optimism that this will convince other countries to pony up the money and take on more of the financial burden from the U.S. [to support the Afghan government and military]. But other countries will not be keen to whip out their checkbooks when the U.S. doesn’t talk about exact financial commitments.”
A U.S. official tells TIME that the signing “locks in” the text for now, but “the final text is pending the internal review processes of both countries.” The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the deal “will provide the general framework governing our bilateral relationship with the government and people of Afghanistan going forward.” He added that, “once agreed, specifics that go beyond the scope of the framework will need to be discussed and addressed in future memorandum of understanding, agreements or other arrangements as appropriate.”
Even with no specifics, Afghan National Security Adviser Spanta announced that, “The document finalized [on Sunday] provides a strong foundation for the security of Afghanistan, the region and the world and is a document for the development of the region.” Western diplomats have speculated that a more detailed security agreement would possibly come sometime next year, once European nations make it clear how much they can give to fund Afghan national security forces.
Still, the very presence of a draft agreement is important to the goals of both the U.S. and Afghan governments. The U.S. needs to show the American people it is working on an exit strategy while Kabul needs to reassure international donors there is a future in Afghanistan and the Afghan people that they will not be left to fend for themselves against the Taliban’s expected attempt to take over after the 2014 pull out. The agreement could also be seen as a possible application of pressure against the Taliban, since many have speculated that they will wait for a U.S. withdrawal before staging a power-grab.
Also, it is remarkable that any sort of agreement has been reached at all after a year when relations between the two countries have been strained by U.S. troops mugging with the body parts of suicide bombers, urinating on the corpses of dead insurgents, burning Korans and massacring civilians coupled with Afghan troops killing their foreign mentors. Even in light of these hurdles, the draft comes on the heels of further movement in moving toward a post-U.S. Afghanistan, including memoranda of understanding for the handover of control of night raids to Afghan forces and a detention facility.
Read more about the handover of night raids at Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: What the End of U.S. Night Raids Means for Afghanistan about the Koran burning riots at The Koran-Burning Riots: Can U.S. and Afghan Troops Work Together? and the massacre in Panjwai, Kandahar at Timing and Location of an Afghan Massacre Threatens U.S. Strategy
Yet, even this momentum is limited. Because the U.S. Congress must vote on yearly budgets, there is no way for lump sums of cash to be allotted in advance to the Afghan government to run its military and ministries — even within the framework of this strategic partnership agreement. Though Karzai called for just that last week — asking the U.S. to make a written commitment to pay a minimum of $2 billion to support the Afghan military. A $2.7 billion a year price tag has also been discussed. It is round figures like these that Western leaders will try to hash out at the Chicago NATO summit. It is estimated that it will cost about $4 billion a year to support the 352,000 strong national army and national police — of which the Afghan government will contribute around $500 million a year.
And while these figures are orders of magnitude smaller than the $110 billion to $120 billion the Congressional Research Service says the U.S. has spent in Afghanistan every year since the troop surge began in 2010, no specific amounts have been set by Sunday’s draft signing — which makes many observers wonder at the purpose of such an announcement. “My sense is that it will soon become clear where the U.S. stands and that this is quite a noncommittal agreement,” says long-time Afghanistan observer and expert Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “This agreement won’t convince the Taliban or anyone else that there’s going to be solid and sustained U.S. support, or clarify what that support will be. It is quite clear that the U.S. and other countries are quite conflicted and this agreement does nothing to clarify what their stance is.”
The foreign observer amplified this analysis, saying, “The agreement coming through doesn’t surprise me. The Bagram [detention facility] and night raids memoranda of understanding were where Karzai got almost everything he wanted and the U.S. gave and gave. This is the agreement where the U.S. gave nothing, in spite of Karzai’s statements a few weeks ago about how much he wanted specific figures — which it sounds like he got none of.” The source added that, “In terms of what this agreement says about the U.S.’s commitment to continuing financial support, it doesn’t give us any information. It leaves the U.S. free to provide a lot of support, or very little, as it sees fit, year-by-year. Basically, it’s an agreement to be friends. And without any other details, does it send a clear message to Pakistan and Iran? Does it send a clear message to the Taliban? Does it send a clear message to the U.S.’s partner nations? I don’t think so. And without these details there’s no difference in the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan today than there was yesterday.”
Read more about past negotiations at A U.S. Peace with the Taliban? Don’t Hold Your Breath
This story originally appeared in TIME at A New U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership: Should the Taliban Be Afraid?
By Ishaan Tharoor
The 18-hour Taliban-led onslaught on Sunday that rocked parts of Afghanistan, including the heavily fortified heart of its capital, Kabul, is being spun in different directions by those locked in the struggle over the war-torn country. Taliban elders crowed that the audacious attacks were just the latest evidence of their fighters’ ability to hoodwink the local and international forces arrayed against them—landing yet another psychological blow against an occupying army heading out the door by 2014 with no clear victory in sight.
Adding to the unease, Afghan President Hamid Karzai blamed the raid on intelligence failures “especially [on the part of] NATO”—hardly a ringing endorsement of his would-be protectors. Reporters in Kabul, including TIME’s John Wendle, detailed the resignation and fatalism of some Afghans, who see the continued conflict as a direct outcome of foreign occupation. When asked if the attacks were carried out by Taliban combatants or agents of the notorious Pakistan-based Haqqani network, one Afghan official told TIME: “There is no difference. They are all enemy. They are all on the same side, fighting us. They fight because the U.S. and NATO are here.”
NATO officials in Brussels had to sing from a completely different song sheet, though, emphasizing the role Afghan troops played in repelling the raid. Briefing the press on Monday, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said: “These attacks were planned, coordinated and they grabbed the headlines, but they did not cause mass casualties and we have the Afghan forces to thank for that.” Lungescu went on praise the “growing capabilities” of the Afghan security forces, whose ability to tackle the longstanding Taliban insurgency is still very much in question.
In Brussels, it’s clear to all that the future and legacy of NATO’s decade-long mission in Afghanistan hinge on the integrity and strength of the Afghan army. To compensate for the impending departures of coalition forces, NATO plans to help Afghan troop numbers “surge” to an expected 352,000 men by October this year. Afghan forces have been handed direct control of large swathes of the country, including Kabul province. And, at least in NATO’s messaging, confidence in the Afghan security establishment has never been higher.
Addressing a handful of reporters on Monday, a senior top-ranking NATO official spoke of the challenge ahead. “It’s not surprising to us that there is still a determined adversary in Afghanistan, determined to cause maximum havoc and maximum harm,” he said. “But what happened [Sunday] in many ways is a reaffirmation that the strategy we are on is a strategy that is working.”
The official went on: “The kind of thing that we saw in Kabul [Sunday] is very different than the occupation and holding of territory that used to be the case [earlier in Helmand province and other parts of the country]. We are shifting the fight from a fight over territory to a fight of dealing with people who are trying to use terrorist methods. We see that as progress over time, and [a reflection] of Afghans taking the measure of their own security.”
Yet, as NATO prepares for a pivotal summit in Chicago this May, serious doubts hover over the alliance and its mission in Afghanistan. By the time of the conference, France, a key member state, may have elected a new President who has said he will withdraw his country’s soldiers ahead of schedule from their West Asian deployment. An internal report reviewing the alliance’s campaign in Libya — hailed by some in Brussels as proof positive of the NATO’s vitality — spotlighted the organization’s continued over-reliance on American capabilities; Washington tried to disguise its involvement in the 2011 intervention as that of a back-seat driver. Europe’s new era of austerity has accelerated the continent’s already waning interest in foreign imbroglios. Shrinking defense budgets have forced NATO officials to start peddling the term “smart defense” — a scheme for shared security strategies that optimistically aims to do more with less.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, it remains hard to see any resolution of the war with the Taliban without peace talks and political reconciliation — a subject that was conspicuously absent in a number of briefings in Brussels on the situation in Afghanistan. Even as NATO praises the Afghan security forces its member states have now spent years training, “green on blue” shootings of coalition soldiers by rogue Afghan personnel continue. That’s a symptom not only of years of conflict and agony in a nation, but of a quagmire NATO and its partners are now fitfully trying to escape.
This story originally appeared at
Just a few hours after my story on night raids went live on TIME.com, I got an email from a person who describes himself as: “an active duty field grade officer with a small amount of experience in conducting the operations you are discussing.” He makes some interesting points, both about night raids and also about journalism in general. I’ve posted his email and my response below. I will update this post if he responds.
Not sure if you will read this, or respond, but I want you to know I am a bit disappointed in your reporting. I happen to be an active duty field grade officer with a small amount of experience in conducting the operations you are discussing in the article above, serving as a officer in those units generally conducting those operations. I write this to you with the understanding my comments may be used, but are not attributable, so I may speak more frankly with you.
You cite the following facts in your story: “…97% of night raids involve Afghan forces, 40% are led by Afghan troops, 89% occur without a shot fired and less than 1% result in civilian casualties…” yet you claim regarding night raids: “…the night raid is altogether more miserable, resulting often in civilian deaths….”. Where are your statics to support the claim that ISAF night raids result in a higher level of collateral damage than comparable day time raids? I would argue there are none, as we both know that night raids not only aid in protecting our force, but also tend to limit damage as non-combatants are not moving around in the battle space nearly as much and tend to occur with an element of surprise to them.
Additionally, you miss the boat on the consequences. While it is admirable you are attempting to highlight the problems strategically these raids have caused, I none-the-less find your reporting a bit on the lazy side, no insult intended. As you and I both know, for the most part the “A” and even “B” team targets are well hidden and mostly inaccessible to ISAF forces, namely hiding out in other countries. The targets the night raids tend overwhelmingly to be “C” team and below targets that are really just pawns in the larger picture — important to fill out the ranks, but their effect on the battle space is negligible in the grand picture. Killing or capturing them provides space and time by keeping the enemy disorganized, but is not, as you quote, “the magic bullet.” And, as you know, we did not pull out of Iraq — we were kicked out. For the minor price of forgoing these operations, we have strategically gained the ability to keep freedom of action at some level in Afghanistan past our self-imposed drawn down date, helped shore up Karzai (better to work with the known you know that the unknown you don’t), and generally have advanced the strategic ends at the expense of a “tactical” win.
As you have identified, should a meaningful target emerge, you can be sure there will be a sizable presence of ISAF or U.S. SOF advisers on-hand to aid in the capture because Afghan forces are unlikely to be able to mount an operation like that without U.S. pressure and logistics, including lift assets. The whole “Afghans conducting night raids and the problems that might cause” line is a straw man argument. Afghans rarely have the will or capacity to conduct those operations without some sort of U.S. assistance. If you doubt that, look at how much assistance our good friends the British need to conduct night operations, when they do at all.
I understand your need to sell stories, and overall I am pleased the the efforts you took to make it balanced, but honestly, you missed the boat, and your use of sensationalism colors what might have been a good story. I hope you will keep that in mind in the future. As a freelancer, your access is everything in your line of work, and your access is many times dependent on the type of character you are judged to have.
My response was this:
Thanks for writing. This is one of the most thoughtful emails I’ve gotten on my stories. So, I’ll respond point-by-point. The line “resulting often in civilian deaths” was added by an editor in New York at 1AM our time. I should have caught it, but didn’t. It was not my writing, but my responsibility to take out errors introduced into my stories by people thousands of miles away. I’ll see if I can get it taken out – since all of my reporting and examination of statistics has shown that the opposite is true. Thanks for calling me out on that.
Regarding magic bullets, what you say is extremely interesting. However, if you re-read my story, you’ll see that I write, “Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. political analyst and sometime adviser to the U.S. Special Operations Command, agrees with the U.S. Army captain and Felter, but adds that “night [and day] raids are useful, but they are not a magic bullet.” First, I didn’t know that only C-level targets are being removed from the battle space by SF night raids. I’ll explain why shortly – and it links in with my second point. Secondly, true, reporting is “dependent on the type of character you are judged to have,” but also, the opposite is true, ie what I report is dependent on the character I judge others to have. So, linking the two points together: You say my reporting is lazy. To a certain extent that is true. I tried to interview families and targets of night raids. All of those contacts fell through as the deadline approached. I am still working on contacting families. But I can’t have a rolling deadline. Secondly, friends of mine and myself, all freelancers and all living outside the wire in Kabul have all tried to get in touch with JSOC. There has been a stone wall. OR, in the field a lot of distrust. Also, even when trust has formed between journalists and SF in the field, high level commanders at HQ in Kabul have closed the door. So, what you see as lazy is partly a result of doors being closed and because doors are closed to the source, I can’t tell what is true. As a result I get spun by guys like Jones and Felter who have experience and speak out. If I had been in touch with you before the story, I might have been able to report a more true picture. Chicken and the egg I guess. Trust goes both ways.
Also, from what you said, I’m not sure what you mean by missed the boat on consequences of the agreement on night raids being handed over to Afghan control. Can you clarify? Your paragraph was too complicated with too many points and too many blank spots for me to follow. Sorry and I’d appreciate it.
Your comment that “‘Afghans conducting night raids and the problems that might cause’ line is a straw man argument’” is extremely interesting to me. I didn’t see it that way, but now that I look at it from your point of view, I see what you mean. I suspected this, because of what I’ve seen in the field with regular Afghan troops (I’ve spent more than seven months in the field – Helmand, Kandahar, Kunar, RC-N). At the same time, like I say two paragraphs above, I can only report what people tell me. If no one talks, you get shit stories.
I hope this clarifies the accusations of sensationalism, laziness and lack of foresight. I did try to make it balanced, but three factors: the closed-mouthedness of JSOC and SF operators in the field; lack of access; and the ferocious spin being put on this by ISAF and the US made it difficult to write the story. I hope you understand.
Finally, thanks for writing. Its good to be called out. However, is there any way you can prove who you are? And what does “small amount of experience” mean? Also, I would like to keep this channel open. I hope we can do that.
Night raid. The phrase bears with it images of both daring and terror — from a SEAL team taking down Osama bin Laden to a sinister midnight knock on the door in Soviet times. In Afghanistan, attitudes toward night raids are altogether less clear cut, resulting often in civilian deaths and worsening relations between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. The collateral damage of coalition raids has also been a stumbling block toward an accord over the nature of the announced U.S. troop withdrawal at the end of 2014. Early Sunday evening that obstacle was removed with a stroke of the pen when General John Allen, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and General Abdul Rahim Wardak, the Afghan Defense Minister, signed an agreement that only Afghan forces can raid homes at night.
Now, along with the transfer of the Parwan Detention Facility on March 8 to Afghan control, two of the final barriers preventing an agreement over a post-2014 strategic partnership have been removed. This has left the White House, Pentagon and Afghan officials all heralding another milestone toward Afghan sovereignty, which will pave the way toward an eventual U.S. withdrawal. But according to some observers, this hasty American pullback may have far less rosy consequences. A closer look at the memorandum of understanding on night raids obtained by TIME shows that the U.S. gets nothing out of the agreement. What this could mean in the long run is that Karzai may have shot himself in the foot — since he may no longer be able to trade access to intelligence gathered through raids for foreign aid money. It also points to the White House’s waning appetite to fight the war in Afghanistan.
The agreement signed Sunday says that only an all-Afghan body called the Afghan Operational Coordination Group can approve night raids and that these raids will be carried out only by the Afghan Special Operations Unit, which will be made up of Afghan army, police and intelligence personnel. Searches of houses must be done in accordance with Afghan law, and houses will only be searched by Afghan forces. Importantly, the document also says that U.S. forces can support “only as required or requested.” Afghan judicial and investigative mechanisms will be established to issue “timely and operationally secure judicial authorizations.” And, besides promising to help train and improve the Afghan raid squads, the U.S. will also be expected to cooperate in a full range of support roles from intelligence sharing to air support and transport. Finally, the agreement says that any Afghans detained outside of these Afghan raids are to be released or transferred to Afghan authorities.
All of this means that night raids are not going to end anytime soon — regardless of the outcry from Afghan civilians or rights groups, who have in the past complained of U.S. and NATO troops running roughshod over the lives and rights of innocent civilians during such nocturnal missions. Night raids “are very useful and remove the irreconcilable insurgents, allowing more time and space for moderates on all sides to find a middle ground,” says a U.S. Army captain with experience in southern Afghanistan, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Besides taking radical, mid- and high-ranking Taliban off the battlefield, “night raids, and the threat of these raids, force Taliban leaders and support elements to take significant security precautions to avoid detection, which makes it more difficult to plan, coordinate and direct attacks and other subversive activities,” says Joseph Felter, the commander of the NATO counterinsurgency advisory and assistance team from 2010 to ’11 and current professor at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. political analyst and sometime adviser to the U.S. Special Operations Command, agrees with the U.S. Army captain and Felter, but adds that “night [and day] raids are useful, but they are not a magic bullet.”
For the most part, everyone TIME spoke to agreed that the Afghan Special Operations Unit is indeed ready to take over from U.S. Special Forces. “The Afghan Special Operations Unit that has partnered with U.S. Special Operations Forces has become better in conducting night raids — in planning operations, collecting intelligence and conducting tactical maneuvers,” says Jones. “In addition, other Afghan forces — such as the Afghan Army Commandos and Afghan Army Special Forces — can also conduct direct action and other missions.” Felter tells TIME that the U.S. Special Forces members he talked to in 2010-11 were “very impressed with the quality and readiness of these [commandos].” He adds that Afghan commandos lead “close to half” of night raids already. Altogether, 97% of night raids involve Afghan forces, 40% are led by Afghan troops, 89% occur without a shot fired and less than 1% result in civilian casualties, says Pentagon press secretary George Little.
But at the same time, problems are just around the corner. Says Felter: “Fielding forces capable of carrying out these complex missions requires significant investments in the training, leadership and human capital of these forces. If night raids are carried out by less well-trained and equipped Afghan national security forces, or the quality of the commandos is compromised, we can expect poorer performance. Also, even the commandos will need significant coalition intelligence and mobility support to execute these raids effectively.”
When asked what problems could arise if the Afghan Special Operations Unit proves to not be up to the task, Felter says that “if these raids result in a significant amount of collateral damage and/or civilian casualties and fail to effectively interdict their intended targets, then Afghan forces will lose credibility and provide the Taliban with greater opportunity to discredit them in the eyes of the local population.”
At the same time, Rand’s Jones says he does not believe “the relationship between NATO and U.S. forces and Afghan civilians has ever hinged on one factor, including night raids.” He adds that this “will not significantly change the relationship. The United States will continue to conduct night and day raids. The Afghan Special Operations Unit will take over the lead responsibility for conducting them. In reality, this will likely be more of a political than a military shift.”
Indeed, says one Afghan rights activist who spoke on condition of anonymity, the whole outcry over night raids is “nothing more from President Karzai than a populist gesture to show the Afghan people that he’s standing against the international forces — that he is not a puppet but a President.”
But, in the end, a valuable trade mechanism may have been broken by Karzai’s insistence on this deal. Currently, some 90% of the government’s budget depends on foreign funding and about 97% of the country’s GDP depends on foreign aid and international military spending. One foreign observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says that now that the U.S.’s direct access to intelligence from detainees has been effectively cut off by these agreements, Washington will be less likely to continue funding the Afghan government. In effect, it seems to the observer that by getting nothing out of this agreement and losing so much control, the U.S. may be signaling that it has had enough and is giving up on the war. The observer says that a lack of new funds offered at the upcoming donor conference in Tokyo in July could be an indication not only of tough economic times, but also that the U.S. sees it cannot get anything useful out of its relationship with Afghanistan.
Even if such speculation proves true, the U.S. will continue to have a strong Special Forces footprint in Afghanistan — especially as high-profile jihadists remain at large. Felter believes the agreement on night raids “is an important gesture and precedent. We’ll be turning over many, many more missions to Afghan security forces in the coming months and years. I think we will be impressed with the Afghan Army Commandos, and they’ll perform well if we can maintain their current quality and level of intelligence and mobility support.” But the U.S.’s cowboys aren’t riding into the sunset. “That said, I anticipate that certain targets — should they present themselves — would warrant stacking the deck with the ‘varsity team’ [U.S. Special Forces] as long as they are available — should a guy like [Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad] Omar or [al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-]Zawahiri stray across the border.” For some jobs, Washington will still stalk the dark.
This story was originally published at Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: What the End of U.S. Night Raids Means for Afghanistan
By Jack Wendle
I was watching a heron out back a few minutes ago. As so many times before, in about six inches of water it was doing its slow walk about five yards from one mangrove to the other. This is how it gets dinner. About half way there it suddenly turned and slowly walked back the other way. To me this was a rational act: “Facts” were gathered through its senses, processed in its little “bird brain” to a reasonable level of understanding, thereby causing the change of direction and apparently — though not apparent to me — a different objective. I’m not a scientist and do not know this from scientific know-how. But it seems obvious that rational acts are run-of-the-mill behavior throughout the animal kingdom — even where the brain is quite small.
Then I came in for the evening news. I tuned in when a story was running on Indonesia. A young man had lost his leg in a tsunami. His mother or grandmother was quite upset because, to her, this meant he had been evil in his previous life. (And “thinking” like this prevails throughout the world.) To me the beliefs we humans come up with and the passion we devote to the faith we have in these “ideas” is utterly irrational. Somehow the superior brain power we humans posses that fosters imagination, creates wealth, engineers and builds wonderful products, inspires great art and produces scientific achievement also seems to allow “gut feelings” about existence to prevail in our thinking — at least for most of us.
Some animals are cunning loners. Some mastered hunting in packs. Some communicate danger to others of their kind. I have read about the caring nature of a flock of crows. I have “owned” dogs that have loved me back as much as I loved them. I have watched primates amuse us for the pleasure they appear to receive from our joy. Without being too anthropomorphic I find it reasonable to conclude brains throughout the animal kingdom are rational. But somehow ours also allows for a level of irrationality that fosters everything from mystical beliefs about past lives and future heavens to crusades to impose religious or political beliefs on others. To preach that we humans were deservedly put here on earth to reign over creation is not only irrational it is so full of hubris it should alienate every thoughtful person.
I have long ago given up belief in Jesus as God. I am a Jeffersonian Christian. The stories I find convincing are those wherein Jesus teaches us that the good life is lead by following the Golden Rule. That’s rational.
Although professor Bart Ehrman (below) didn’t influence how my views have been shaped, I find — particularly toward the end of this interview — that they are nearly a perfect match to what I believe and how I feel.
Some claim that Jesus is a myth, created for nefarious or altruistic purposes. Some truly believed that Jesus lived and breathed. But did he really? Is there any historical evidence? Historian and religious studies professor Bart Ehrman answers these questions in his new book, Did Jesus Exist?.
By John Wendle / Kabul
Monday, Mar. 19, 2012
It was mid-October 2011 and first platoon had already been fighting for its life for a few days. The 10 Afghans and 26 Americans had withstood repeated assaults by an estimated 300 to 500 insurgents who had crossed the border from bases in Pakistan. Fighters got within five meters of the platoon’s battle positions — with some coming through the perimeter wire. They almost overran the position four times — something that has happened before in Kunar province, with deadly consequences. Now the insurgents had the position dialed in on their 82mm mortars.
“Sgt. Sanes got hit with two rounds simultaneously on his position within five meters,” platoon Staff Sgt. Anthony Fuentes told TIME a few days after the fight. The rounds landed just as an Afghan Army sergeant was firing a recoilless rifle. The blast knocked him to the ground and his round exploded inside their position. After that, “our weapons squad leader [Sanes] was giving fire commands to a rock. That’s what happened in our case. They got nauseous, they couldn’t vomit (but they wanted to), they couldn’t focus and they had double vision,” says Fuentes.
His eyes still somewhat glassy after coming off the mountaintop position of Outpost Shal just four days before, Staff Sgt. Michael Sanes said, “I was a little out of it and I was screaming for my [machine] gunner to get back on the gun and shoot. I was like… ‘shoot and shoot,’ and he was already shooting. I was a little out of it from the blast. I got my bell rung.” It was Sanes’ third combat tour. The heavy fighting to take the mountaintop position lasted some eight days and the platoon had to call in multiple danger close artillery missions and airstrikes in which heavy ordnance was dropped within 300 meters of their positions. VIDEO: New Hope for Brain Trauma Victims
The pounding that Sanes and his men took may have been intense but multiply it by hundreds and thousands of incidents over a range of severity and you have the potential causes for what may be a murkily diagnosed set of symptoms affecting U.S. servicemen and veterans. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), co-chairman of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, has called Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) “the signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Though no clear statistics exist for TBI, it is estimated that there are between 115,000 and 400,000 veterans who now suffer from at least mild versions of it.
TBI may have a role in the case of staff sergeant Robert Bales who allegedly killed 16 civilians. According to his Seattle lawyer, Bales supposedly suffered a concussive brain injury. He reportedly lost part of a foot in another battle-sustained injury. The sergeant was averse to returning to duty, said the lawyer, who described his client as “decorated.” Bales, the lawyer said, had just seen his best friend lose a leg the day before. Sources talking to the New York Times described the suspect as having marriage, alcohol and stress related problems and “just snapped.” The lawyer, however, denied that alcohol and marital issues were involved in the incident.
On Tuesday, Rep. Pascrell sent a letter on Tuesday to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta seeking information on the staff sergeant’s injury, diagnosis and treatment. “Over the years I have become increasingly concerned about that the [Defense] Department’s system for identifying service members with traumatic brain injuries has not been working,” Pascrell wrote. “It is critical that we know whether the systems the Department has in place to identify these injuries and provide treatment are adequate and that the needs of our injured soldiers are being properly met,” The Star-Ledger reported.
Though the military has made some improvements over the past decade in diagnosing and treating TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), much more needs to be done, particularly because President Barack Obama has made it clear that the U.S. will stay in Afghanistan until scheduled 2014 deadline, ensuring that thousands more soldiers will suffer physical and emotional trauma.
The Veterans Affairs Department says that because protective and lifesaving technologies have advanced, soldiers who would have died from their wounds are living today — but they are living with TBI and PTSD. The VA defines TBI as the result of something striking the head with “significant force.” This can happen, for example, after an improvised explosive device explodes under a vehicle. The VA says, “individuals who sustain a TBI may experience a variety of effects, such as an inability to concentrate, an alteration of the senses, difficulty speaking, and emotional and behavioral changes.” The VA defines PTSD as an anxiety disorder occurring after living through a life-threatening or traumatic event. Symptoms include flashbacks, avoiding situations that remind the survivor of the event, feeling emotionally numb or feeling keyed up and jittery. All of these have led veterans to higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and relationship and employment problems.
“The military has a long way to go in addressing the mental health needs of soldiers. Young people come into the military at an age when mental health problems are often first emerging, and then are thrust into situations that even the healthiest person would find traumatic and destabilizing,” says Heather Barr, Human Rights Watch’s researcher in Afghanistan, who spent seven years working with mentally impaired prisoners in the U.S.
Part of the failure comes from a simple lack of mental health professionals in theater. Captain David Weller, a social worker in Regional Command East, the war torn area that covers most of Afghanistan’s violent border with Pakistan, was flown from his offices at Jalalabad Airbase to Combat Outpost Monti to counsel the Sgt. Sanes’ platoon just days after the battle to take OP Shal. Weller tells TIME that, besides himself, there is one psychiatrist, one psychologist, a second social worker and four technicians to look after the mental health of around 33,000 troops at 21 forward operating bases and combat outposts in one of Afghanistan’s most violent commands. “There are only a few of us for a big area.” By mid-October 2011, Cpt. Weller had seen close to 200 people one-on-one and “a lot more off the cuff.” He had been deployed for two months at that point. “I spend all my time counseling soldiers. But they need it.”
When asked if the soldiers could be scarred for their whole lives, Weller said, “if they don’t deal with it and they don’t learn how to deal with the emotional side of everything and learn how to process that. That’s why we have the stress team and we’re forward deployed. We try to get out there as quickly as possible and talk to them about what they’ve seen. Cause it doesn’t take a six day or ten day event. It could be one event. A rollover. An explosion. Seeing somebody dying. We don’t know what will trigger it. Everybody’s different.” Says Weller, “a lot of [first platoon's soldiers] were very overwhelmed with what they’ve seen and what they’ve experienced. The adrenaline rush. What we experience on a normal basis lasts 30 seconds to a couple minutes here and there. And they went through days of it at a time.”
Cpt. Weller says he sees, “issues related to insomnia and nightmares, a lot of guys that tend to avoid crowds. They feel like they’ve always got to check their surroundings. They feel like they need to check places where an IED might be, or they might check places where a sniper might be. And this could all be going on while they’re sitting in a restaurant back home. Or sitting at a ballgame, if they go to a ballgame. You see a lot of avoidance. We see a lot of people turn to drugs and alcohol, just cause its so difficult to deal with. And, if it’s bad enough, we see paranoia, and different things like that.”
Back in October 2011, Fuentes said that his soldiers were “having a hard time sleeping. It was our sister element who took the casualty, [when a helicopter's rotor blade beheaded a medic who came in to collect the wounded Afghan sergeant and others], and it was our guys who stepped in and cleaned up all the… aftermath, and they’re having some problems with that. Not being able to wind down. Winding down’s the hardest thing.” Staff Sgt. Everett Bracey said, “just being in such a high stress environment for nine days has definitely taken its toll on everybody in this platoon.” Captain Michael Kolton, the company commander, said he had already evacuated around 25 soldiers diagnosed with TBI out of around 200 in the company by mid-October, just seven months into a yearlong deployment.
This article originally appeared at TIME at
By John Wendle / Kabul
Wednesday, Mar. 14, 2012
The Panjwai massacre may not affect the U.S. schedule for withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it has dealt a major blow to the Obama Administration’s plan to slowly shift the military burden there from conventional units to Special Forces who rely on cooperation from the civilian population. And the setback occurred in an area that had become a key focus of the counterinsurgency effort.
“The relations between the U.S. forces and the Afghan people have been greatly affected by the massacre,” the head of the quasi-governmental Panjwai District Development Assembly, Hajji Niak Mohammad, tells TIME. “It has caused a big gap to form between the U.S. military and the Afghans. [The Americans] had come to fight against the insurgency and to bring peace and stability. People did not expect such a wild action.”
No matter how many times President Obama apologizes for the mass killing of civilians by an American soldier early Sunday morning, the damage has already been done. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, visiting Camp Leatherneck in the desert in southern Helmand province while on a previously scheduled visit to Afghanistan, told Marines Wednesday that “Each of these incidents is deeply troubling” and that “We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve.” But, to the villagers in Panjwai district, in war-wracked Kandahar province, apologies are beside the point — “individual incidents” are defining how Afghans see the U.S. presence, and fueling demands for it to end.
“At the beginning, when [the Americans] first came to Afghanistan, people were really optimistic,” says Hajji Mohammad. “People believed in them. People thought they had come to rebuild Afghanistan, to bring peace and stability, to contribute people and economic support. But, slowly, slowly this belief has faded and been destroyed. The people don’t trust the U.S. military anymore.”
That erosion of trust underscores the flaw at the very heart of U.S. policy in in Afghanistan, regardless of Panetta telling the Marines at Camp Leatherneck that “our strategy is working”. Effective counterinsurgency depends on winning the support of the civilian population, but that becomes impossible when the locals lose trust and respect — not only because of egregious crimes like the murder of 16 civilians, but also through the small offenses and disappointments meted out daily by a poorly-informed military force from an alien culture that only spends six months to a year in an area before rotating home.
The Panjwai murders happened in villages adjacent to a U.S. Special Forces compound, where the accused perpetrator was part of a static security detail for the forces expected to take on more of the responsibility for waging the war. Special Forces are deemed better able to build strong relationships with villagers through their Village Stabilization Operations (VSOs) and their setting up and training of Afghan Local Police (ALP) forces.
Says Seth Jones, a Rand Corporation political analyst and sometime-adviser to the U.S. Special Operations Command, “U.S. and Afghan Special Operations Forces have played a growing role in pushing into rural parts of Kandahar (and other provinces) to help local communities improve their security, governance (mostly informal governance through jirgas) and development. Unlike efforts to train Afghan National Security Forces and improve the formal justice system, Village Stability Operations are inherently bottom-up programs.”
Jones explains that Panjwai, along with several other districts outside of Kandahar City such as Shah Wali Kot, Maiwand, and Khakrez, have become a focus of U.S. and Afghan counterinsurgency efforts because of their strategic importance. “Over the past several years, Panjwai has not been pacified by either the Taliban or Afghan and NATO forces, but has repeatedly changed hands following intense and extremely violent fighting.”
In order to tip the balance, Special Forces groups called Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) units began setting up VSOs and ALP units and carrying out night raids to round up Taliban suspects. The massacre poses a challenge to their work. The impact of the Panjwai killings “could be devastating or could be minimal and quickly resolved through skillful diplomacy on the part of the team — it really depends on if these were villages which were cooperating with the ODA or if they were not,” says a foreign observer with extensive counterinsurgency experience in Afghanistan, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If this is a worst-case scenario and the villages in question were active VSO villages with a good level of cooperation, [and if] those killed were truly indiscriminately targeted and they were respected people in the villages, then I think the ODAs will have a hard time recovering from this.”
Adds Adrian Melendez, a development worker who spent nine months working on agricultural stabilization projects in Marjah district in Helmand, the local culture is not conducive to easily resolving the issue. “For the Pashtuns, forgiveness is not a value — on the contrary, revenge is valued, and for hard Pashtuns it is an obligation,” he says. “So I’m guessing that the people affected will try to get revenge as an act of justice.”
Indeed, justice has been the rallying cry for many Afghans — both in Panjwai and across the country and the internet where images of the murdered children have proliferated and sparked angry and impassioned statements by young, urban Afghans who are more typically apolitical or supportive of the Western military mission — even as General John Allen, commander of all NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has said the gunman will be punished according to the law. “They should bring the murderer, or murderers, to justice,” says Hajji Mohammad. “People should see with their own eyes that the perpetrators are punished — in Afghanistan, according to Afghan law. This is the only way to deal with the anger of the Afghans, to bring calmness to their anger.” But U.S. soldiers are exempt from Afghan law and it is most likely the killer will be tried back on home soil, under U.S. law — despite calls from the Afghan parliament for the accused to be tried in public in Afghanistan.
Justice being seen to be done is the key to restoring trust in Panjwai, warns Jones: “A lot will depend on how swiftly and transparently the Americans move on punishing the soldier responsible, as well as local sentiments toward the Taliban in the area.”
Regardless of how deftly — or otherwise — U.S. forces deal with the challenges raised by the massacre, they will face an escalation of hostilities in the coming weeks and months, as spring heralds a new fighting season. “I anticipate that there will be a big, big fight not only in Panjwai, but in most parts of Afghanistan in the spring and summer when the weather becomes warmer,” warns Hajji Mohammad. “These killings could increase anti-Americanism and more people will join the Taliban and other radical groups. On the other hand, the Taliban have already sworn they will double their attacks against the U.S. military and they will get revenge for this massacre. People are also sad and angry, so I anticipate that there will be more attacks against the US military and their allies in Panjwai.” One sign of what to expect will come within days, when many urban Afghans gather at mosques for Friday prayers for the first time since the massacre — many local and foreign observers are bracing for trouble.
This story originally appeared at