Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

Posts Tagged ‘Conflict

Afghan Local Police – New Portfolio at

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I’ve posted a new portfolio of photos I took over a month spent embedded with US and Afghan troops in Arghandab in 2011. You can see the photos here: Afghan Local Police.

The story focuses on the Afghan Local Police. When General David Patraeus assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2010, one of his priorities was to launch a new country-wide program called the Afghan Local Police.

Overseen by American Special Operations Forces, the A.L.P. recruits, trains, arms, and pays Afghan men in rural communities to defend their home villages against insurgents. While the military claims the A.L.P. has had great success in clearing areas of Taliban, many experts and human-rights advocates have accused the program of empowering criminals and warlords who grossly abuse their authority.

The allegations of abuse have included charges of theft, kidnapping, rape, and murder. Many Afghans are alarmed by what the program might become once American oversight diminishes; they see it as a potentially regressive step toward the 1990s, when armed gangs ruled the country with impunity — a period still referred to by some Afghans as “the time of the men with guns.”

The whole website is available at

Afghanistan warrants no attention: NYT

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Interesting, in a story entitled “An Array of Relationships for Obama to Strengthen and Redefine” and speaking of “cliffs” in foreign policy – and not a single mention of Afghanistan, Karzai or any of it… Only China, Iran, Russia and the Middle East warrant concern and attention “for a leader seeking a statesman’s legacy.” NYT story here: An Array of Relationships for Obama to Strengthen and Redefine

Written by johnwendle

November 8, 2012 at 7:46 am

Will Afghanistan’s Artillery Corps learn to shoot before the US withdrawal?

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As the US and NATO begin to pull out of Afghanistan, much attention has been given to whether the Afghan military will be ready for the fight they may have on their hands. But few have looked in detail at the different parts that make up the Afghan National Army. This story tries to outline the specific problems facing Afghanistan’s artillery corps – an essential combat element in the mountainous country. Part of the story is below:

At Forward Operating Base Shank, with Wimberly, the challenge appears in starker relief. Standing behind a D-30 painted a light yellow, a crew of six loudly counts off in Pashto, only to have artilleryman number five shout “seven!” They start over and get it right, then lustily shout, “Enemy! Death! Enemy! Death! Enemy! Death!” Then organized chaos breaks out as they swarm their gun, trying to ready it for action in a minute and 10 seconds. They uncover the recoil system, unclip clips and crank cranks so fast their arms become blurs. Then one soldier cannot unclip a clip, and he just stands there. The commander comes over and shouts, and he hops to it again.

At the same time, across a gravel lot, Afghan officers who learned that morning how to use sight to calculate bearings and arcs for indirect fire — hitting a target they cannot see — teach junior officers and noncommissioned officers how to use it. One officer sat writing a cheat sheet on his palm. A majority of Afghans, though, cannot read, let alone decipher a map or do the trigonometry necessary for the exercise. Though not nonexistent, the technical exactitude, education and discipline needed for accurate artillery are all elements lacking in Afghanistan.

“Some of them, if you give them a map, they couldn’t point out where their house was. But if you showed them a terrain map, they would start to be able to use the terrain to show you where they live,” says Wimberly. “Depending on what level they’re at, they should be able to read and write. It takes them a long time to calculate. That’s the longest part.” But in artillery, delays can translate into infantry being overrun and killed.

Aside from the massive difficulty of teaching people complex mathematics in a foreign language through interpreters, there are other complications. U.S. trainers have had to teach Afghan officers that they need to have up-to-date maps and intelligence, so they do not shell civilian areas or compatriots they cannot see on the opposite slope of a mountain by mistake.

You can read the full story and see my photograph from the ANA training at Bombs Away: Will Afghanistan’s Artillerymen Learn How to Shoot Right? (As always, I did not write the headline.)

Written by johnwendle

November 3, 2012 at 10:56 am live

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Razistan is now live and can be seen at The site is dedicated to telling the untold stories of the war and the people of Afghanistan through in-depth photo stories documented by award winning international and Afghan photographers. You can take a look at the work by following the link.

Afghanistan’s Insider War Against the U.S.

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My latest story and photo are up on TIME:

John Wendle / Combat Outpost Garda, Wardak Province

Saturday marked the 2,000th U.S. military death in the war in Afghanistan. And it is the way in which the American soldier was reportedly killed – by a presumptive Afghan ally – that makes it significant. These so-called green-on-blue attacks are rarely spectacular – often carried out suddenly, by rifle. Even so, these insider attacks are proving to be the perfect weapon against coalition forces since they accomplish many of the insurgents’ goals with little planning, effort or cost.

Increasingly, coalition troops feel they cannot trust the Afghan soldiers and police with whom they live and serve. The killings drive a wedge of mistrust deeper between foreign and Afghan forces and they also cause the American public to question why Washington is helping the Afghan government and military at all. And these doubts and questions are critical because, in order for the U.S. to declare any kind of victory after the 2014 withdrawal, it has to train and mentor a viable Afghan security force that will respect human rights and prevent a much-feared civil war or Taliban takeover.

The mistrust and tension was visible during a recent trip to Combat Outpost Garda, in northern Wardak Province. As a U.S. patrol wound its way back over barren, brown hills and through the sunny orchards of apples that make this valley famous among Afghans, word passed back through the soldiers that an Afghan National Army (ANA) patrol would be heading out as they headed in. One soldier joked that he hoped the Afghans would not shoot the patrol as they came in.Some laughed. Soon after, an American lieutenant’s voice crackled through the leaves of the trees from the communications devices carried by all troops, telling the patrol to keep a sharp eye as they returned. Not such a joke, after all.

Read the whole story at Afghanistan’s Insider War Against the U.S.: A Matter of No Trust

Follow John on Twitter at @johnwendle

Written by johnwendle

October 2, 2012 at 7:42 am

A bit off the well-beaten path

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I was reading through the news this morning and besides news about the Pentagon trying to shape coverage of green-on-blue (Afghan security forces killing US or NATO soldiers) by rebranding them as “insider killings” and news about the wave of bombings and shootings that left around 47 dead and 130 wounded yesterday – and wounding another nine who were praying in a mosque this morning when they had three grenades thrown at them, I also found these stories:

Armed uprising against Taliban forces insurgents from 50 Afghan villages

An uprising against the Taliban has evicted the gunmen from 50 villages in eastern Afghanistan, according to local leaders, beginning a revolt that Kabul hopes will spread across insurgent-held territory.

Afghan Princelings: Are the Children of the Mujahedin Ready to Rule? (I got good and scooped on that one – as was planning on writing the same story in the next few weeks…)

Educated in some of the best schools in the world, the scion of commanders involved in four decades of war return to a country at the crossroads. Can they transform the future of Afghanistan?

Have Obama and Romney Forgotten Afghanistan?

How’s this for a conspiracy of silence? With less than three months to go until Election Day, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have successfully avoided saying almost anything about America’s war in Afghanistan. Remember that war? You will at some point, however little the two candidates talk about it.

Afghanistan war: Can the US gains last?

Almost 11 years into the US-led war in Afghanistan, the situation still remains so tenuous in some parts of Afghanistan that locals worry about the safety of accepting aid from the West.

I’m not saying these are more interesting or news worthy, just that they are a bit off the well worn 24-hour news cycle path. Worth a read.

For more, follow at

Written by johnwendle

August 15, 2012 at 10:04 am

Hidden in Afghanistan: Soviet Veterans of a Previous War Compare and Tremble

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My latest story and photos are now available at TIME at: Hidden in Afghanistan: Soviet Veterans of a Previous War Compare and Tremble*

There are only a few of them left — deserters and MIAs of the huge Soviet Red Army divisions sent in to control Afghanistan. But they still remember how it all ended — and worry that the American war will end the same way

Even after three decades, Gennady Tseuma remembers the wavering call to prayer that went up clear over the hillside village. It floated out over the fields and river and pierced the early morning hush on the Bangi Bridge. Tseuma, then a Soviet soldier assigned to a small force guarding the river crossing in northern Afghanistan’s Kunduz province, recalls a feeling of dread when he heard the sound. Like many of the conscripts serving in the Red Army in Afghanistan, Tseuma was bored and undisciplined, and after 10 months of service, curiosity finally got the best of him.

The decision to investigate the call to prayer cost him the life he had known up to that point. “Our checkpoint was close to the village. Every morning the mullah did the call to prayer. It was totally new to me. I didn’t understand what was going on. I thought maybe they were killing people or something,” Tseuma tells TIME. “So, one day, early in the morning, I got off my base to take a look. When I got close to the mosque there was an old man sitting there. Then suddenly men with guns surrounded me and captured me. After that, the mujahedin told me to convert to Islam or they would kill me. I decided it was better to live than to die, so I became a Muslim.”


Possibly the most chilling comparison of all is made by Ahmad, the taxi driver, who reaches back into the history he has seen in Afghanistan, saying: “When the Soviet army left it was peaceful until the Soviet government stopped giving the Afghan communist government money. When the money stopped, the war started. Everyone only fights and works for money. People do everything for money.”

As dusk closed around Nek Mohammad’s village on the edge of Kunduz city, he invited us to stay for dinner, but he was worried about our security. “This is an Afghan village, so I can’t say anything. I don’t know what will happen here. Anything could happen. You’ll leave late and this place is unreliable for foreigners,” he says, mixing Dari and Russian. “I’m afraid. I’d be very happy for you to eat here, but …” Walking us out of the house in the gathering gloom, he recited a Russian saying, “We need to pull our claws out of here” — meaning, We need to run away from here, he explains. Says the old soldier: “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

*I don’t have final say on my headlines. There was no trembling involved.

Written by johnwendle

July 12, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Extreme Tourism: Couch Surfing Arrives in Afghanistan

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By John Wendle / Kabul

The patio of the one-floor ranch house was packed. Smoke drifted from the grill and everyone seemed to have a red Solo cup in his or her hand. Were it not for the babel of languages and high walls topped with barbwire, it could have been a weekend BBQ anywhere in the world. But this was Kabul, and the voices were those of aid workers, security contractors and journalists. They only died down when one of the guests began talking about hitchhiking to Khost.

A heated debate erupted between the Dutch tourist who uttered the remark and an aid worker who basically called the traveler crazy. With a mix of anger and shock in his voice, the aid worker tried to explain that Khost — in the heartland of the dreaded Haqqani network, the group that carried out the recent wave of coordinated attacks in Kabul — is a war zone and not somewhere to wander around with no plan. “They’ll shoot you,” he said. To which the Dutch traveler replied, “Why would [the Taliban] waste a bullet on me?”

The Dutchman had gone to Afghanistan through, social media’s answer to corporate travel sites. If you do not see yourself as a tourist, want to live like a local for a while or simply do not have the cash for a hotel, then couch surfing is the way to go. The website puts a face on a place by allowing travelers and hosts to set up profiles and swap messages about travel arrangements. Visiting Moscow and looking to meet up with a local for a cappuccino and a chat? Hitting up Rio for Mardi Gras and need a free place to crash? These are the normal exchanges — and they usually result in staying at a person’s house. But when it comes to couch surfing in Afghanistan, “usual” is out the window.

The question is: Who would want to live like a local when local is Afghanistan? Of the more than 4 million “couch surfers” on the site representing 251 countries and territories and 366 languages, the answer is, at the moment, around 381. That is the number of people who are members of the Afghanistan group on the Couch Surfing site. As the website continues to grow, it has expanded into stranger and stranger travel destinations: Afghanistan has become one of these, representing what could be described as extreme couch surfing, with tourists with no experience of combat zones staying with hosts whose profiles are as likely to feature “armed guards” or “razor wire” (apart from the more usual caveats of “no dogs” or “foldout couch”).

Of those 381, few will actually make it — for good reason. “I’m on the Afghanistan couch-surfing forum because I was thinking of going to Afghanistan this summer, but due to recent events, it doesn’t seem like a good idea for a solo white woman to go now,” says Elisabet Sole, a Spanish member. But some still go — drawn by the beauty of the Hindu Kush mountains, the destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan, natural wonders like the Band-e Amir lakes and the remote Wakhan Corridor. Others are drawn by quasi-philosophical cravings, want to find the truth behind the news, are attracted to the danger or simply want to prove their own courage.

Still, couch surfing in Afghanistan cannot be considered a 2.0 version of the hippie trail of the 1960s and ’70s. Today, fighting has dragged much of the country’s population to the depths of poverty and despair. A U.N. report released in February said that 3,021 civilians were killed in 2011, representing an 8% increase from ’10. This is the fifth consecutive year that the number of deaths has increased. The country is routinely ranked as one of the most dangerous in the world for violent death. The past months have not been kind: a bombing in December left scores dead at a religious ceremony in central Kabul, and the burning of Korans and the massacre of civilians in Kandahar has strained relations between Westerners and locals to the breaking point.

(MORE: Three Days in Afghanistan: The Making of a War Reporter)

Years ago, the first time this correspondent looked at the Afghanistan Lonely Planet guide’s “When to Go” section, the advice was blunt: “Never.” Today, that’s changed little. The latest edition’s section on “Getting In” to Afghanistan from Pakistan advises: “Before leaving Peshawar you must go to the Khyber Political Agent [Stadium Road] to collect your gunman. Without him you’ll be turned back at the first checkpoint. There’s plenty to see as you drive through the Khyber.” Though a tourist brochure that featured words like firefight, land mine, bad roads, poverty, kidnapping and insurgency would deter your average traveler, the couch surfers who do make it are not your average travelers. They are the ones that have Libya, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Syria, North Korea and Colombia listed as places they want to go to next on their Couch Surfing profile pages.

“My first day in Kabul was September 13 [of 2011]. I was walking past Massoud Circle, around the corner and east of the U.S. embassy, when an Afghan man came up to me and said something that sounded urgent, but that I didn’t understand,” says a couch surfer from Alaska, who did not want to give his name because he did not want his family to know he had gone to Afghanistan. “Moments later I heard a small blast, followed by a huge explosion and then automatic gunfire as militants began an attack on the embassy and other targets in Wazir [Akbar Khan, a heavily fortified neighborhood of Western embassies and NATO bases]. I had to run for cover. If I had walked a few minutes more in the direction I was going, I would have been in a world of trouble,” he tells TIME. “I was petrified, mostly about the idea of abduction. After getting caught up in the attack in Kabul, in what was supposed to be one of the most secure areas of the country, I worried more about getting injured or killed.” But, he adds, “Kabul was Kabul — how could a tourist not be fascinated by the real thing? It’s like the anti-Paris of tourism.”

(MORE: Inside the Kabul Firefight: Can Afghanistan Take On the Taliban Alone?)

Most, however, have more prosaic experiences. “I wanted to talk to people and hang out with them, get a sense of what it’s like to be an Afghan,” Tashi Bucinel, a European couch surfer, tells TIME. “I was scared the first couple of days. I wasn’t sure what to expect and I didn’t know how trustworthy the people are, so I was very apprehensive.” On her first morning in Kabul, she decided to walk to meet the Dutch couch surfer. “When I was walking down the street, I was looking at the people around me and my heart was beating fast. I thought of the warnings I’d heard before like, ‘Don’t walk, take a taxi’ or ‘You never know who is a potential suicide bomber,’ and regretted not taking a taxi. I saw every bearded man in a shalwar kameez [men's traditional clothing] as a suicide attacker and was just waiting to hear a bomb blast somewhere. I was so scared!”

After a few days, she wrote in an e-mail to TIME, she began to relax. “I was still apprehensive, but less scared than the first day. I realized how friendly the locals are and that they are actually very honest and trustworthy people. After a few days I lost my initial fear and felt like I was in any normal city in Central Asia.” In the end, she says there was not much to do in Kabul — partially a result of more than three decades of war — and she ended up visiting a few tourist sites nearby and hanging out with some foreign workers. “Kabul is generally pretty boring. There’s not much to do. I was lucky to have met wonderful people, whom I had a lot of fun with. We spent many fun afternoons and evenings together, but if it wasn’t for them, I’d be pretty bored I guess.”

Still, Bucinel’s experience “outside the wire” — as NATO soldiers call leaving a secured compound — is more interaction with Afghanistan and its people than most foreign government employees, soldiers and many aid workers will ever have. Most will remain hidden and safe behind their blast walls and barbwire during their time in Afghanistan, impeding their ability to understand life in the country and to effectively aid its development. At the same time, it is hard to say what the benefit of Bucinel’s experience is: since she is not in Afghanistan to work, is she simply a goodwill ambassador?

Indeed, when an Indian couch surfer wrote on the Afghanistan Couch Surfing forum that “I want to come to Afghanistan and I want to see the war-affected areas. Which areas should I visit and what is the perfect time to come?” a storm of incredulous replies shouted him down, including one surfer who wrote, “I can’t believe what I am reading … traveling to war affected areas??? Do you think it’s funny? Do you want to prove how brave you are? I think it’s very disrespectful toward people who suffer under such conditions! Shame on you!”

Couch surfers will have to begin questioning the wisdom of visiting Afghanistan as security worsens in parallel to the drawdown of U.S. and NATO troops that will be completed in 2014. But, for now, many will continue coming to pursue their own particular brand of tourism. “I guess the principle of couch surfing is the same wherever you go. It has to do with trust, and trust always, and everywhere, contains risk,” says an Austrian hostess who spoke on condition of anonymity because her organization did not give her permission to speak. “And, if we finally give up on trust, then conflict, war and distrust have already won.”

This story originally appeared in TIME at,8599,2113634,00.html?xid=fblike

Written by johnwendle

May 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm

A Marine Two-Star: Why Afghanistan Is Like Vietnam

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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


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I have joined together with other Afghanistan based photojournalists, videographers and reporters recently to help launch a new reporting platform focused on Afghanistan.

Last year, the war in Afghanistan accounted for roughly two percent of the news content published in the United States. Razistan aims to help give Afghanistan the attention it demands.

Our core project is a website of unique photo essays and short video documentaries that bring into vivid relief not only the war and its participants but also the country and its people.

Contributors include both award-winning Kabul-based photojournalists from around the world and local Afghan photographers and videographers. There is much more to the war than the mainstream media has shown. The purpose of Razistan — or “land of secrets” — is to reveal these untold stories.

View previously unseen work by these photographers at and follow us as photos are updated daily.

To learn more about Razistan, watch the video at and donate to our kickstarter page. Certain levels of pledges will receive limited addition or one of a kind photographic prints from our photographers.

The war is not over. Help us tell the story.

Thanks for your support.


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