Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

Posts Tagged ‘Terror

New Razistan Slideshow up at Huff-Po

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The effort to launch Razistan, our collective of Afghanistan-based photographers, is going well. We’ve just had a new slideshow of our work go up at

Our work has also been featured on the New Yorker at and again at as well as on Tumblr’s new Story Board project at
As we work to launch Razistan, you can see more of our photos at and read about us. You can also watch a video at

We have another nine days to go to raise $965 through our Kickstarter drive to reach our goal of $12,500 – help us launch Razistan and fund more photo projects.

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


Written by johnwendle

May 31, 2012 at 9:52 am

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:


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

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

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?

Afghans use Facebook to Protest Kandahar Massacre

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By John Wendle / Kabul

Sunday, Apr. 01, 2012

The image is striking and heartbreaking. It captures a young teenage boy at the height of his grief. A tear streaks his cheek, his mouth drawn into a grimace and his eyes are swollen from crying. “Thank you USA And World For Killing My Complete Fmily and Helping My Tears to Shed [sic],” is the message written across the image in bright yellow letters. The internet meme of Afghan youth mourning the loss of family and neighbors after 17 Afghan civilians were murdered in Panjwai district on March 11 — allegedly by U.S. Army Staff Sgt Robert Bales — spread rapidly on social media networks among Afghans in and out of the country. It encapsulated the frustration of a generation that has grown up during the 10 year war that is finding its voice — albeit, on the internet.

“For me, as an Afghan, I was really angry. I could have done anything if I had seen an American soldier that day. But I knew how to use Facebook and I did. People were posting angry comments about what had happened, about the children being killed and about the Koran burnings,” an Afghan graphic designer from Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity, tells TIME. “This is the new way. This is the peaceful way. Not just going out and killing each other like happened during the Koran protests. Online social media can be used the same way here as it was during the Arab Spring. I think Afghanistan is becoming something like that. People are commenting on posts by friends and acquaintances. It’s connecting people,” the graphic designer says.

(MORE: Afghans: U.S. Paid $50K Per Massacre Death)

The killings and the meme generated a level of emotional connection and angry reaction — on Facebook in particular — that far surpassed anything seen by this correspondent in two and a half years in Afghanistan. Unlike the Koran burnings — which sparked violent street protests across the country that left around 30 dead — protests over the killings in Panjwai district were almost solely on the Internet, involving few public demonstrations.

“The killings in Panjwai were no different from other mass civilian killings — like with misguided airstrikes,” says an Afghan in Kandahar who spoke on condition of anonymity. The conventional perception among the majority of Afghan civilians is that NATO routinely kills civilians — either intentionally or accidentally — and so the deaths in Kandahar were nothing out of the ordinary. On the other hand, the burning of the Koran was the defamation of a sacred book held in high esteem in Afghanistan. Swept up by religious fervor or the mob, protests over the Koran burning were carried out by mostly poor and illiterate people. The online reaction to the Kandahar massacre however points to a interesting divide: social media is the protest sites of choice for a relatively affluent, urban segment of society that has access to the Internet and information.

“There is a big divide in education and between the literate and the illiterate. Generally there’s a large divide in terms of information flow. You can see this if you look at what kind of stuff people discuss and are interested in,” says Jes Kaliebe Petersen, the director of business development at Paywast, a mobile phone-based social networking service that is Afghanistan’s largest social network. “Literacy makes it much easier for people to access facts and get balanced information. That’s partially why you’re seeing what you’re seeing.”

(PHOTOS: The Afghan Massacre)

Right now, Petersen says only 3% to 4% of people have Internet in Afghanistan, while 50% have mobile phones. The Ministry of Communication and Information Technology claims that Internet penetration grew from 0.25% in 2005 to 10% in 2009 while the usage of mobile phones grew from 3% to 16% over the same period. Most likely, Paywast’s numbers are closer to the truth. The U.S. government estimates a current population of around 30.4 million Afghans.

Petersen says people use Paywast in the same way they use Facebook — voicing thoughts and opinions. “When something like this happens they talk about it in the same way they talk about things on Facebook,” Petersen says. But, if Facebook is any indication, anger ran higher about the Kandahar massacre among urban, educated Afghans — the very segment of the population it seems would be most supportive of NATO — since many are employed by the government or non-governmental organizations or by NATO itself.

Another meme drew a similar deluge of angry comments on Facebook. This one showed the same youth next to an image of President Barack Obama over images of children killed in Panjwai. Written in English, the text read, “You! Killed Usama, removed Mulla Omar from black list, started negotiation with Taliban and handed over Bagram jail… Tell me WHAT WAS MY SIN??? Your whole United States can’t compensate my complete family loss… Thanks to your civilization, democracy and Human Rights for gifting me such…” The image garnered 885 likes, 510 shares and 340 comments with the most recent comment on Monday, two weeks after the killings.

Some of the comments just showed straight anger and rage. One Afghan wrote, “Shame on you, America. Soon you will be destroyed, God willing.” Another wrote, “I wonder if the F—— Americans are satisfied and happy with their army? God willing they will all burn in Hell!” Other comments were less incendiary – though no less angry. Some, though, called for action. “We have to do something, only talking aint gonna change anything,” wrote one. Another wrote, “This is the time to unite,” adding that Afghans should get together to have the issue brought before the UN and the international community. “So please unite. I am afraid we will lose everything. I swear, you cry in Kandahar and I cry in London.” The posts are mostly in English or in Dari or Pashto written in English script.

(MORE: Ten Is Enough)

But the Afghan graphic designer says that while the growth of Internet usage is mostly a good thing, he also sees some drawbacks. “It’s a good thing, but there could be problems as well. It can be good for public awareness, but if I want to spread propaganda, most people won’t think about whether it is true or not. If people use it for public awareness and to fight for their rights, then it will be a good thing, but if it is used for propaganda, it will be bad for society.”

Regardless, as the 2014 date for the withdrawal of foreign troops looms along with possible Taliban rule, the Afghans TIME spoke with fear that the freedom of expression and the life they have created online may be constrained — as it is in China and Iran — or disappear altogether. “I think the Internet itself will remain as important as it is now, but it won’t be as easy to find Internet connections. It will be controlled. In Iran, they have fast Internet connections, but people are not allowed to access too many outside websites,” says the graphic designer.

An Afghan journalist, who also asked not to be named, is worried about the decline of social media. “If the Taliban come to power in 2014, they will not come in like they did ten years ago. They will come back and be a bit more moderate in their government. But for social media and the press, we are so worried because the Taliban, they have such radical thinking, they don’t believe in press freedom, in the media.”

But an Iranian media professional working in Kabul feels that, like life, the Internet will find a way. “People’s ambition will not end, but their access to it might. I’m sure that Afghans will find a way to get around it. It’s one of the only ways to state what you feel, to feel that you exist,” she says. The sentiment is echoed by Petersen, who tells TIME, “Afghans are looking at what is going on everywhere in the world, 3G, Smartphones, etc, a lot of cool stuff; and if you take that away from people, its not going to be taken lightly. People would get very, very upset if you tried to take these things away from them.”

But the graphic designer has a gloomier, and possibly more realistic outlook. “I believe if the Taliban comes back then it’ll be like Iran. It will be an Islamic, Talib Internet.”

This article originally appeared in TIME at,8599,2110622,00.html.

Written by johnwendle

April 2, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Can the U.S. and NATO Win in Afghanistan Without Advisers in the Ministries?

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By John Wendle / Kabul

(A shorter version of this story can be found at at Advisers in Afghanistan Chafe at Security Restrictions on Their Work. This longer version contains all of the statistics and quotes.)

Amid the normal confusion on the grounds of the Ministry of Interior in Kabul two changes are immediately apparent: conspicuously absent are the usual contingent of foreign soldiers and police advisers rolling to meetings in armored SUVs, freshly pressed shirts, body armor, crew cuts and wraparound shades; today they seem to have been replaced with Afghan police armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles dotting the compound, standing a silent watch among the chaotic hustle of the ministry.

Yet, the continued absence of foreign advisers is more telling than the presence of new security a week and a half after two high-ranking U.S. officers were shot and killed at a secured office at the Ministry of Interior and riots swept the country over the burning of Korans and other religious materials at the American-run Bagram Airbase. Just hours after the killings of the officers, NATO pulled all of its military and civilian advisers out of the Afghan government’s ministries – and today they are still gone. The withdrawal sparked a firestorm on U.S. opinion pages, in congress and on the presidential campaign trail, with many asking how the U.S. will be able to withdraw from Afghanistan if advisers cannot work to improve the level of Afghan government and delivery of services. [Read more about the civilian surge here Whatever Happened to the Civilian Surge in Afghanistan? and here The Limits of the Surge: Petraeus’ Legacy in Afghanistan.] 

Many of the advisers working here in Kabul do not agree with the unilateral decision by General John Allen, the commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to withdraw them from their offices, even temporarily – as NATO has characterized the move. “Pulling all advisers from the ministries, as a blanket reaction to an incident at the Interior Ministry was an extreme reaction, giving the message that we don’t trust anyone,” says Santwana Dasgupta, an American support manager at the Ministry of Higher Education. “During these times, I believe it is even more important for the international community to reach out to the Afghans they know, express their dismay at the Koran burnings and express [their regrets], and not to hide in fear,” Dasgupta tells TIME. “I think it is a shame that internationals are asked to run and hide.” [Read more here: As Afghan Riots Subside, Anger over Koran Burning Simmers and here The Koran-Burning Riots: Can U.S. and Afghan Troops Work Together?]

“My beef is not that we were under lockdown (this has happened before for a variety of reasons), but more about the public way it was mandated that no Americans should visit any ministries – it smacked of tit-for-tat – and given the cordial relationships we at the Higher Education Project enjoy with the ministry and universities, this message was disappointing,” Dasgupta tells TIME, though she concedes that she would rather stay home than risk her Afghan colleagues getting injured if she were targeted.

But not all advisers were withdrawn – some of those not working in U.S. State Department or NATO programs have remained on. “We were never sent home. And, actually, I feel safer at my office than I do in my house because the security is quite good at the ministry. I haven’t received any updated security restrictions from my embassy,” says one European adviser who asked to remain anonymous, because he, like all of the foreign advisers interviewed for this story, did not have permission to speak to TIME. This adviser, who has only been here for a little over a month says that right now, “there’s no friction between the Afghan and foreign staff after the Koran burnings. They are all educated and know us and our customs, so they understood that it was a mistake. Also, I don’t advise the military, I work in development, so there is not as much of a threat.”

But, for right now, it looks as though many foreign advisers – particularly military advisers – will continue to work remotely from their bedrooms, guesthouses, dormitories and barracks as hundreds of them remain on lockdown fearing attack. “Due to force protection concerns, as we work through the current situation, we have not been identifying what ministries that have or have not had people return physically to their job sites. Because of that we do not have any advisers that are available right now [to talk],” said NATO spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings, Jr., when asked if TIME could speak with any of the military advisers. “Once the investigation is complete and security procedures have been reviewed and General Allen has made the decision for all to return, then I think they might be available.”

As NATO has struggled militarily and violence has risen in recent years, it has placed increasing emphasis on the training mission here and the raising of a capable Afghan army and police. If viable government and security institutions can be formed, the reasoning goes, then the U.S. and NATO can withdraw and leave the Afghans to their own problems, while still being able declare a kind of victory – or at least say that they did their best. The implication is that if advisers are not advising, then why is the U.S. still in Afghanistan? [Read more here Afghanistan After Petraeus: From Defeat to ‘Transition’ and here Are Afghan Security Forces Ready to Take Over? and here Fighting the Taliban: Afghan Army’s Attrition Crisis.]

But a June 2011 report for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee entitled “Evaluating U.S. Foreign Assistance to Afghanistan,” clearly shows the importance the Obama administration has placed on building the capacity of the Afghan government – though it paints the logic in a more positive light. “The administration’s fiscal year 2012 request for Afghanistan includes roughly $3.2 billion in foreign aid. This funding level reflects the pivotal role the State Department and USAID are expected to play to help consolidate our military gains and ensure a successful transition. It gives our Embassy and USAID Mission in Kabul the necessary resources to build basic Afghan capacity,” the report reads, adding that this request is a 22 percent decrease from fiscal year 2010-enacted levels.

But, after noting this massive spending cut and claiming that State and USAID will play a “pivotal role,” the report makes the stark point that, eventually, foreign advisers will leave permanently, and with so much handholding going on right now, the Afghan ministries may not be ready to stand on their own – though this may just be a veiled excuse to cut funding. “The U.S. strategy is focused on building the capacity of Afghan institutions to deliver basic services. The State Department and USAID are currently spending approximately $1.25 billion on such efforts. But our overreliance on international technical advisors to build Afghan capacity may undermine these efforts. Our aid projects need to focus more on sustainability so that Afghans can absorb our programs when donor funds recede.”

When the Soviets withdrew in defeat from Afghanistan, the U.S. withdrew covert and overt funding – and this helped lead to a civil war whose chaos led to the rise of the Taliban. The Foreign Relations Committee report issues a stark and sobering warning on the planned withdrawal of advisers, saying, “As we draw down our troops in Afghanistan, our civilians will have to absorb missions currently performed by the military. The State Department and USAID will need adequate resources to ensure a smooth transition and avoid repeating the mistakes we made in Iraq. Transition planning should find the right balance between avoiding a sudden dropoff in aid, which could trigger a major economic recession, and a long-term phaseout from current levels of donor spending.” [The report can be downloaded here Evaluating U.S. Foreign Assistance to Afghanistan.]

But, the real risk remains that if the advisers are kept out of the ministries – either now, because of security, or in the future, because of funding – then more than ten years of work at building the abilities of the Afghan bureaucracy stand in jeopardy. “I understand why the military advisers were pulled as they are a definite target, but where this all went wrong was pulling out the civilian advisers,” says Alison Rhind, the senior adviser to the minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock – a key ministry in a mostly rural country. “I don’t think it was right to pull the civilian advisors out of the ministries for two reasons: first, it encourages similar attacks when Taliban etc. see they can easily disrupt the government by attacking the international staff; and second, the disruption caused to our work by not being on site was huge. We cannot be active advisors and capacity builders of the Afghan government from a distance,” Rhind tells TIME, echoing a sentiment shared by many other long-term advisers in country. “We must be able to interact with our national colleagues and should not appear to be more precious than them.”

Anger over Koran Burning Simmers As Afghan Riots Subside

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The Afghan landlord urgently banged on the flimsy steel gate topped with barbwire. As he entered the small compound adjacent to his own, he told the aid worker renting the house, “If anything happens, I will hide you in my house. And if anyone comes looking for you, I will tell them there are no foreigners here, just my family.” Such statements may sound melodramatic — like something out of a World War II movie — but there was real fear in Kabul on Friday on the part of both Afghans and foreigners that demonstrations would get wildly out of hand and lead to horrific bloodshed on a fourth day of protests over the burning of Korans by the U.S. military at Bagram Airbase earlier this week.

“Today was quite crucial because [the Koran burning and protests] are still fresh. You had frustration and outrage, and you had people manipulating those feelings. So the big question was: who was going to capture that outrage and frustration and how bad was it going to get,” says Martine van Bijlert, a founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

But as the sun began to set and temperatures again dropped below freezing, fears of more extreme violence and chaos have proven unfounded. Death tolls ranged from four to 12 across the country, the higher number pushing the fatalities into the 20s for the duration of the protests. While tragic, the numbers did not approach what some observers had feared. And though embassies and international aid agencies around Kabul remain on lockdown, and many shops remain shuttered, foreigners, security providers, ordinary Afghans and the Afghan government are beginning to breathe a sigh of relief. “The protests are fizzling out,” one security contractor with years of experience in Afghanistan tells TIME. But it remains unclear whether this is because protesters were disorganized or because calls for calm were heeded.

For their part, most Afghans interviewed by TIME today said they are simply tired of violence. “We want peace, not violence, not war. Afghans are tired of war and killing each other,” says Elyas, 23. “The protests today were small because the protests over the last few days did notghing but kill and injure Afghans.”

“Today was a test case, since it’s Friday [when worshippers gather at mosques] and things were much more likely to get out of hand today. Since they haven’t, we know that the worst has passed,” van Biljert tells TIME. “The worst case scenario was that the whole city would erupt in violence. With the mosques emptying all at once, it could have created a volatile situation. If you want to stir up a mob, you do it during a sermon. If you want to organize violence, you get as many mullahs to stir up their people as possible and set them on fire,” van Bijlert says of Afghanistan, a country that is still much more dependent on word of mouth than on the internet, television, radio or mobile phones.

“The government has had days to get ready and the Civil Order Police are better trained than they were,” says the Western security expert. Yet, even aside from better preparedness on the part of the police and disorganization among the protesters, “several local journalists say that mullahs’ sermons were moderate,” van Bijlert tells TIME.

Friday saw multiple small protests across Kabul and in provincial capitals across the country. The news reports on casualties were not consistent. Four people were killed (including a police officer) and around 10 were wounded in Herat, local television reports. Reuters said 12 killed throughout the country today. Other counts have seven killed in Herat and one dead in Kabul. News that 500 people had stormed the U.S. consulate in Herat were later denied by the consulate. The anger behind the protests is “beginning to fizzle,” as one foreign security contractor put it. Sediq Sediqi, Interior Ministry spokesman says there was, “no major violence today,” adding that three civilians and two policemen were wounded.

Late in the afternoon, protests did flare up around the Pul-e-Charkhi Prison — along Jalalabad Road, the site of the first big protest in Kabul on Wednesday. Observers reported between 300 and 400 people at the gates. Earlier in the day Reuters reported crowds throwing stones and shouting, “Death to America!” and “Long live Islam!” after leaving a city mosque. But, for the most part, protests across the country were relatively peaceful and the mood in the capital was subdued — with a heavy police presence on the streets. “I think this is really it. This one on Jalalabad Road is the only one that had any violence to it and today’s protest was massively smaller than anyone thought it would be,” says a Western security expert.

It will be surprising if the protests prove to last only a few days because Afghans have a lot to be angry about — a sentiment the Taliban has cashed in on, calling for, “all the youth in the security apparatus of the Kabul regime to fulfill their religious and national duty … by turning their guns on the foreign infidel invaders instead of their own people as part of their Islamic conscience, brotherhood and as part of their national honor in order to take revenge for the decade old oppression of our nation by the infidel occupiers and to record their names in the ranks of warriors of Islam.”

The Taliban’s mood was echoed at a mosque in Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, an enclave of embassies and aid organizations. “The Afghan government should ask President Obama if he supports the Americans who committed this crime,” says Imam Mawlawee Ayaaz Niazai. “If he says ‘yes’ then no questions asked and all of America is our enenmy. If he says ‘no’ then hand over those Americans to the Afghan government and the government should deal with them using Islamic law.”

Feeding on the anger, on Wednesday, members of the lower house of parliament called for the punishment of the U.S. soldiers who burned the copies of the Koran. Overcome by emotion, parliamentarian Abdul Sattar Khawasi, demanded harsh punishment for the soldiers and proclaimed, “death to America and the people who allowed them in,” according to reports in the Afghan media.

At the same time, NATO and the U.S. military have been quick to apologize and call for calm. In a statement on Friday, General John Allen, Commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force called on “everyone throughout the country — International Security Assistance Force members and Afghans — to exercise patience and restraint as we continue to gather the facts surrounding Sunday night’s incident.” Allen said an investigation by a joint NATO-Afghan commission was continuing. On Thursday, in a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, President Barack Obama expressed “regret and apologies” over the incident. (Obama’s remarks were criticized by Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, after two NATO soldiers were killed by an Afghan soldier on Thursday.)

Regardless of apologies and requests for patience, anger remained high Friday evening — even if it was not manifested through extreme violence. But it  could have been a lot worse. Van Bijlert cannot say conclusively what contained the outrage and frustration on Friday but she says that the fact that the violence did not spiral completely out of control, “tells us something about where Afghan society is heading, particularly in regards to the willingness to release violence. You have politicians who are willing to unleash violence versus politicians who are trying to mitigate violence.” Today, for the most part, at least, leaders with cooler heads prevailed. “If it stays quiet, we’ll see which voice has won out.”

With reporting by Walid Fazly

This story originally appeared at,8599,2107607,00.html

Written by johnwendle

February 27, 2012 at 12:06 pm