Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

Posts Tagged ‘NATO

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.)

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Written by johnwendle

November 3, 2012 at 10:56 am

Razistan.org live

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Razistan is now live and can be seen at http://razistan.org/. 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

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Written by johnwendle

October 2, 2012 at 7:42 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

On NATO Press Releases

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Below is an unedited press release from NATO. While the story it tells is the heart stopping stuff of an action movie, I think there is added value in looking at the story, as it highlights NATO’s poor ability to tell its own story – part of the reason it is losing hearts and minds. And though some may say that soldiers shouldn’t be expected to both fight and write well, the marine who wrote this more than likely lives at a big base with expensive, imported food, air conditioning and flat screen televisions – another example of the waste and loss taking its toll here. So, the story:

UNCLASSIFIED

Attached is a press release from Combined Task Force Wings, Regional Command (South) Public Affairs Office.

For high resolution photos, please email your request and provide VIRIN.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE SR# 120530-01 May 30, 2012

MEDEVAC Crew Reacts to Dangerous Call

Story by Sgt. Daniel Schroeder & Capt. Richard Barker 25th Combat Aviation Brigade Public Affairs CAMP DWYER, Afghanistan

In the midst of combat, acts of valor and bravery are performed so often they are sometimes overlooked. This was almost the case with the story of the Soldiers who rescued Marine Lance Cpl. Winder Perez. This is a story that will finally be told, months after it occurred.

On Jan. 12, 2012, a call was passed over the radio to a MEDEVAC (Medical Evacuation) crew to rescue a 3-year-old Afghan girl who had suffered from a gunshot wound and shrapnel to the back. After dropping off personnel and equipment from their current mission, they headed back out to the location for pick-up. Upon contacting the ground crew on the directed frequency, the pick-up location had moved.

After verifying the MEDEVAC request and landing safely to retrieve the patient, the landing zone controller came over the radio with a loud, frantic voice, “the patient has unintelligible unexploded ordnance!”

The patient was no longer the girl, but Perez who had a rocket propelled grenade embedded in his leg extending to his lower abdomen. The RPG had not detonated yet meaning the slightest wrong move could set it off.

“That call will be in my mind all my life,” said Sgt. Robert Hardisty, a crew chief with Company C, 1st Battalion, 171st Aviation Regiment, New Mexico National Guard, who was attached to 25th Combat Aviation Brigade.

“First you land thinking it’s a little girl and the next thing it is a Marine with an unexploded RPG embedded in his body.” Specialist Mark Edens, a flight medic with C/1-171, was the first to see the RPG round visible in Perez. At this point the crew had to make a decision.

“Because of the level of danger, if the crew left Perez on the ground and decided not to take him, no one would have ever blamed them,” said Maj. Christopher Holland, C/1-171 Commander.

“We all would have understood.” Captain Kevin Doo, the pilot-in-command for this mission, the pilot of the crew decided they would only take Perez if the entire crew agreed. “There was no doubt to anyone that we were going to take this Marine and get him the medical attention needed to save his life,” said Doo. “When dealing with this, not knowing that any moment could be your last. 18 inches from the patient’s legs was about 360 gallons of aviation fuel.”

The crew transported Perez as quickly as they safely could landing at Forward Operating Base Edinburgh 24 minutes from the time the RPG hit Perez. “After Lance Cpl. Perez was loaded on the Black Hawk, it was a total of 11.2 minutes of flight time where every minute felt like an hour,” Doo said. “During that time, we were on the radio coordinating with our escorts, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, and medical personnel who were going to treat Perez.”

The crew’s coordination paid off, which included telling the armed escorts of the MEDEVAC helicopter to stay a good distance away for their safety, calling the EOD team to handle the disposal of the RPG, and ensuring medical personnel were aware of and prepared for the situation they were about to handle.

Upon hearing the news of the RPG, the medical team set a plan in motion to properly remove the round as they gathered necessary supplies and met the MEDEVAC at the landing zone. When Perez arrived at FOB Edinburgh, he was transported to a safe area to extract the round with only the necessary personnel present.

Lieutenant Commander James Gennari, Department Head, Surgical Company B, 2nd Supply Battalion, noticed the wounds Marine Cpl. Perez received were life threatening. If he had not been transported by the speed of MEDEVAC, then he would have died of those wounds. After removing the round and closing up the wounds, Perez was transported to Bastion Hospital for further care.

The same crew who evacuated him from the battlefield were the ones who transported him to the next higher medical facility. Although the RPG round was now miles away from Perez, other issues arose for him and the crew. His ventilator failed during the flight prohibiting his oxygen flow.

At this moment, Spc. Edens and Sgt. Hardisty acted rapidly manually giving oxygen and bringing the Marine back to a stable condition. “After stabilization, I witnessed Spc. Edens and Sgt. Hardisty work in a calm, cool and professional manner ensuring the safety of this patient who suffered a second near catastrophic event with the loss of the oxygen ventilation machine,” said Gennari. “I distinctly remember thinking that if Dustoff could risk their lives to bring this patient to us, the least I can do is take some risk and get that thing out of his leg.”

Stories of heroism like these happen more than we think. While the fog of war keeps most stories hidden so they will never be told, this one escaped from the mist so it could find a place in our hearts. As for Cpl. Perez, it was thanks to these heroic acts that allow him to read this story today from the comfortable safety of the United States.

Written by johnwendle

May 31, 2012 at 9:29 am

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 couchsurfing.org, 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 http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2113634,00.html?xid=fblike

Written by johnwendle

May 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm

A New U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership: Should the Taliban Be Afraid?

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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?