Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

New portfolio up – Azerbaijan: Oil, Islam and Elections

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A new portfolio of my photos are now live at called Azerbaijan: Oil, Islam and Elections. The photos represent more than a year and a half of work from 2005-2006 and bring together some of the first professional work I did. Take a look and please share.

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Written by johnwendle

September 18, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Innocent Detainees Still Held at Gitmo

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Death at Guantanamo Underscores Need to Close Facility
Adnan Latif’s Death Highlights Trauma of Indefinite Detention Without Trial

(Washington, DC, September 12, 2012) – The death of a detainee at Guantanamo Bay on September 8, 2012, underscores the need for the United States government to either charge detainees in civilian court or release them, Human Rights Watch said today. The death of Adnan Latif, a Yemeni who suffered severe emotional distress and had attempted suicide several times, highlights the suffering experienced by people serving long-term indefinite detention without trial.

“The death of yet another detainee should draw the world’s attention to the ongoing tragedy of indefinite detention without trial at Guantanamo,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The Obama administration should follow through on its longstanding promise to close Guantanamo.”

Latif was first detained by Pakistani military authorities in late 2001 and sent to Guantanamo in January 2002. In 2004, Latif told a US military review board that he went to Pakistan for medical treatment for injuries he had suffered in a car accident and later to Afghanistan. The board rejected his plea to search for medical records that would support his account. The medical records, later obtained by Latif’s lawyers and sent to Human Rights Watch, described acute head injuries and recommended that he seek an additional operation.

As early as 2004, US Defense Department officials recommended Latif’s release, acknowledging that he took no part in any terrorist training. In 2007, Bush administration officials also recommended his release. Yet Latif and his lawyers did not receive this information until it was disclosed in federal court proceedings in 2010.

During his detention, Latif indicated he was experiencing severe hardship. In May 2010, before he even knew about the prior release recommendations, he wrote to his lawyer: “You are still looking for justice and seeking hearings [while] I am being pushed toward death.” Latif frequently engaged in hunger strikes, during which military personnel would force-feed him through a tube forced down his nose. His lawyer described arriving for legal visits and finding him emaciated, wearing a protective “suicide smock.”

“It is hard to imagine the suffering these men undergo after 10 plus years of detention without an opportunity for a criminal trial,” Prasow said. “Whether US lawmakers realize it or not, Guantanamo remains a serious obstacle to promoting human rights abroad.”

Following a challenge to the lawfulness of Latif’s detention, in 2010 US district judge Henry Kennedy, Jr., ordered Latif released, finding his story “plausible.” But instead of returning Latif to his home country of Yemen or seeking his resettlement in a third country, the Obama administration appealed the order to the DC circuit court, which in 2011 reversed Judge Kennedy’s decision.

The DC appeals court’s ruling not only affected Latif’s case, but also severely undercut the ability of other Guantanamo detainees to challenge their detention. It held that government evidence should be afforded a “presumption of regularity” requiring lower court judges to presume the accuracy of evidence obtained by government officials. This included information obtained in chaotic battlefield settings, unless there was clear evidence to the contrary, effectively shifting the burden to the detainee to prove that the evidence was false or unreliable. In June 2012, the Supreme Court decided against hearing the case, leaving the appeals court’s ruling the law governing Guantanamo detainee cases.

Following Latif’s death, 167 detainees remain at Guantanamo. Only six of them are facing active charges. Previously, the Obama administration had approved 57 of the remaining detainees for transfer, with an additional 30 Yemenis conditionally approved for transfer. Forty-eight detainees were initially recommended for ongoing indefinite detention; two of those original 48 have since died. Information on which detainees were designated for transfer and which were designated for ongoing indefinite detention has not been made public. Following the so-called Christmas Day airliner bombing attempt in December 2009 by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who had trained in Yemen, the administration imposed a moratorium on transfers to Yemen.

In 2010 and 2011, Congress imposed restrictions on the transfer of detainees out of Guantanamo, requiring the administration to sign certifications detailing the release plans and indicating that appropriate steps had been taken in the receiving country to mitigate any risk the return might pose. The administration has yet to provide such a certification in any case. In April 2012, two Uighur detainees – previously determined to be detained unlawfully – were resettled to El Salvador and in July 2012 Ibrahim al Qosi was returned to his native Sudan under the terms of his plea agreement in a military commission. Both these transfers fell within statutory exemptions to the certification requirement.

The press release can be read here

And more can be read on these issues at

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Written by johnwendle

September 12, 2012 at 2:40 pm

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The Trouble With Vetting

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The recent spate of blue-on-green (or “insider”) attacks against US and NATO forces in Afghanistan prompted the Special Operations command to halt the training of its Afghan Local Police trainees this week – as part of a wider ranging implementation of more supposedly more stringent vetting and security measures across the Afghan army and police forces.

You can read about some of it here –

Seemingly simple questions often have no good answer in Afghanistan. When asked where he lived, Gul only said that “there are four or five houses between my home and the mosque.” Asked in what direction from the mosque, he, like many uneducated Afghans, did not know the meaning of north, south, east and west. He guessed his age as being “between 28 and 30.” His secondhand motorcycle was unregistered. He had no mobile number. It was even unclear at which mosque he worshipped, since he could not read a map and Staff Sergeant John Fox did not know the names of all the mosques in the area. Fox, working with experienced interpreter Aziz Mohammad Shirzada, was finally able to narrow it down to only: “Right there, when we come around that corner going into Bala Tabin.”

The answers were crucial since NATO and the U.S. uses registration numbers and interviews with mullahs and village-council members to find out more about the men who apply for positions with the ALP, as well as the army and the police. The vetting process was deemed critical after members of extremist militias in Iraq were inadvertently armed by the U.S. in a similar effort called the Sons of Iraq, put into place in 2005, after being insufficiently screened. But with no contact details, little verifiable history and no address or registration number, the Americans were running out of ways to figure out who exactly the young man was. Doing proper background checks to ascertain if recruits could have Taliban affiliations or sympathies is just one of the many challenges facing the U.S. and NATO as they prepare for withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

My full story can be read at: Can the U.S. and NATO Prevent ‘Green on Blue’ Attacks in Afghanistan?

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Written by johnwendle

September 5, 2012 at 10:27 am

Afghanistan’s Only Paralympian

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Despite having millions of people wounded and maimed by landmines and UXO, Afghanistan has sent only one competitor to the 2012 London Paralympics. Power lifter Mohammad Fahim Rahimi will compete tomorrow. Though he doesn’t expect to win, Fahim has great pride in representing Afghanistan.

     You can watch the short video the UK’s Channel 4 aired yesterday at From Afghan taxi-driver to Paralympian.

The weightlifter lost his right leg to a landmine – a continuing problem in this country – during the civil war. The loss depressed him, but, with the encouragement of friends, he pulled himself out of his depression by taking up weightlifting. He became so obsessed that he never missed a day throughout Taliban rule – partly because life was boring without something to do. He even carried his 40 lbs. bicycle up and down the mountainside he lived on, strapped to his back with only one good leg in the snow, just to get to the gym.

Today, the dedication has paid off. But even with his second trip to a Paralympics, his problems are not over. To compensate for a small government stipend (around $450 a year) he works as a minibus taxi driver, making around $20 a day. On these wages and benefits, he, his wife and their three young children live in a single room in a ramshackle house built on a mountainside overlooking Kabul.

He is afraid that as the US and NATO wind down their involvement in Afghanistan, the small stipend that helps them get through the winter will evaporate.

If you are interested in helping Fahim and his family, please contact me through this blog or send me a direct message on Twitter. Dozens of people who saw the report this week are donating money, which I will get to Fahim when he gets back.

To see more, follow @johnwendle on Twitter.

Written by johnwendle

September 2, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Insider attack

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NATO has reported yet another green on bluE incident, or “insider attack” as they’re now calling them. NATO’s press release is below:

ISAF casualty

KABUL, Afghanistan (Aug. 27) – Two International Security Assistance Force service members died when a member of the Afghan National Army turned his weapon against ISAF service members in eastern Afghanistan today.

ISAF troops returned fire, killing the ANA soldier who committed the attack.

Afghan and ISAF officials are investigating the incident.

This is what the NYT wrote:

So far, Afghan soldiers or police officers have killed 53 of their comrades and wounded at least 22 others in 35 separate attacks this year, according to NATO data provided to The New York Times by officials in Kabul. By comparison, at least 40 NATO service members were reported killed by Afghan security forces or others working with them.

Both figures fall under what officials call insider attacks, and both numbers have climbed sharply over the past two years, Western officials say. But while officials say that a vast majority of attacks on Western forces are born out of outrage or personal disputes, the Afghan-on-Afghan numbers are said in larger part to reflect a Greater vulnerability to infiltration by the Taliban.

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Written by johnwendle

August 27, 2012 at 10:19 am

Inside Baseball

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This op-ed by Sarah Chayes – As Afghanistan Turns – is a little inside basebally – but it is an interesting read on the ethnic dynamic within Afghanistan – particularly as it plays out at high political levels and what it could mean for Afghanistan post-2014.

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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.

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Written by johnwendle

August 15, 2012 at 10:04 am