Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

Posts Tagged ‘Insurgent

Afghan Local Police – New Portfolio at www.johnwendle.com

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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 www.johnwendle.com.

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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

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

Civilian deaths down – assassinations on the rise

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An IED killed a district government chief and three bodyguards on Sunday in eastern Afghanistan. The assassination comes on the heels of a UN report released in the middle of last week showing that targeted killings of government officials has increased by 34% in the first six months of 2012 to 255, compared with 190 over the same period last year. Although there has been an increase in assassinations, the UN reported that civilian deaths have dropped by 15% year on year, to 3,099.

The United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) released their Afghanistan Mid-Year Report 2012 – Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict(download) report last week.

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Written by johnwendle

August 13, 2012 at 12:55 pm

Petting the dog.

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A little on Army jargon and slang –

When I asked Major Miller where the meeting was yesterday, he replied:

This is the MSC at BAF.

After reading back through the email chain, I realized I was in over my head when it comes to acronyms. The email was drowning in them and they were threatening to take me down with them. In just four emails to set up a meeting to talk about embeds (that’s another story), these were thrown at me:

SSG, ECP3, MSC, MAJ, MPAD, MSC, BAF. U/FOUO , OIC, DIV PAO

After a few years here, I know what all of these are, but its a shock to the system when you first land in Afghanistan and you’re trying to figure out what soldiers are talking about. They use acronyms all the time – not only because it makes a life befuddled by hierarchy and bureaucracy easier to understand – but also because all the soldiers have drunk the cool-aid – they all speak the same language. Besides worrying over whether you’ve put your helmet on backwards, dancing around like a fool trying to get at all the straps to tighten your body armor and picking up enough broken Dari to buy a round of nan in the morning, figuring out the acronyms is one of the biggest hurdles to reporting on the military in this country. You need one “terp” to talk to the Afghans, and another to talk to the military. “Terp” is short for interpreter – and is kind of a pejorative.

So, to sort out the above:

SSG is Staff Sergeant, ECP is a gate (though I still don’t know what it stands for), MSC is Media Support Center, OIC is Officer in Charge, DIV PAO is Division Public Affairs Officer, Maj is Major, MPAD is Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, BAF is Bagram Airfield and U/FOUO is Unclassified/For Official Use Only

That all has to be decoded just to set up a meeting on a Tuesday.

So, I’ve finally been picked up by the SSG at ECP3 for my meeting at the MSC with the MAJ who is the DIV PAO from the MPAD at BAF and we’re driving through the gate and Staff Sergeant Rutherford starts talking about “petting the dog.” They must have picked up on my silence from the backseat, because she quickly explained, “you know, going crazy.” Still lost, she said that after so much time stuck on base at BAF, she would be sent to the health unit to talk to a shrink and play with the puppy they have there to feel better. So, pet the dog is short hand for going nuts.

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Afghanistan Sacks Its Security Chiefs

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My latest story for TIME can be found at Afghanistan Sacks Its Security Chiefs: How Will That Affect U.S. Forces?

Some notable sections from the story:

The death notices that NATO e-mails to the press when a soldier is killed in action in Afghanistan are disturbing in their brevity and vary only in their basic details. One of the two issued on Tuesday read, “KABUL, Afghanistan (Aug. 7) — An International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) service member died following an improvised explosive device (IED) attack in southern Afghanistan today.” It is a common type: soldiers are mostly killed by roadside bombs and small-arms fire in Afghanistan’s south and east.

Over July, NATO issued 22 of those e-mails, accounting for 30 soldiers killed in action — meaning an average of almost one soldier killed every day of the month. And 11 NATO soldiers have been killed since Aug. 1. These are the statistics facing NATO command — numbers that point to an unweakened insurgency that has expanded to encircle Kabul — as it prepares to withdraw and hand over primary security duties to an Afghan army and national police that many fear are unprepared.

This fragile security mix became more volatile over the weekend when Afghanistan’s fractious parliament returned a vote of no confidence against Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, key security chiefs widely accepted by Western officials. On Tuesday, Aug. 7, Wardak announced he would step down rather than continue to hold his post as an acting Minister until President Hamid Karzai finds a replacement.

and

Though Lieut. General James Terry, the new leader of NATO’s international joint command, has tried to downplay the significance of the sacking of the two Ministers, longtime observers are worried about the future of the transition process. “This move is significant. [Wardak and Mohammadi] are heavily involved in the security forces of Afghanistan, in the making of the security forces and in the transition process. Any new Minister will need some time to familiarize himself, especially if he comes from the outside — if he hasn’t been involved in the Ministry of Defense and the Interior Ministry, in the army and police force,” says Mahmoud Saikal, a former Deputy Foreign Minister and a key member of the political opposition. He adds that this was “unfortunate because [Wardak and Mohammadi] are not too incompetent. They are O.K. They have seen the battlefield.”

At the same time, while the move has sent waves through the security and transition authorities, Saikal sees a positive side to the development: that the sacking is a positive indication of democracy working in Afghanistan. “The good news is that what parliament did was legal. It was orderly and went according to procedure. This was an exercise of democracy. Karzai did his best to tarnish the reputation of the Lower House and make them ineffective. Now we are seeing the re-emergence of the Lower House,” Saikal tells TIME.

The whole story can be read at http://world.time.com/2012/08/07/afghanistan-sacks-its-security-chiefs-how-will-that-affect-u-s-forces/

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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 http://battleland.blogs.time.com/2012/04/25/a-marine-two-star-why-afghanistan-is-like-vietnam/