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May 29, 2010

Kabul street scene: Guard in a dust storm


An Afghan police officer outside a Kabul supermarket on Friday, May 28, 2010 as dust storms roll through the city.

When shown the picture of himself, the officer joked: "Al Qaeda."

May 28, 2010

Gorbachev's history lesson for McChrystal

As several McClatchy readers inside and outside the U.S. government have pointed out, there may be a particular reason that U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his team were especially perturbed by the "bleeding ulcer" headline of McClatchy's recent story about the general's battlefield assessment in Helmand Province.

The "bleeding ulcer" phrase, as Andrew Sullivan noted at The Daily Dish, hearkens back to the Soviet era when USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev referred to Afghanistan as a "bleeding wound" (about six years into the occupation). Two years later, Gorbachev announced plans to pull all Soviet forces out of Afghanistan.

May 27, 2010

McChrystal v. McClatchy

Last week, US Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's office extended a rare invitation to McClatchy to join the top military commander in Afghanistan on a day-long assessment of the situation in Helmand.

KandsmalleThe Marjah military campaign has come under increasing criticism in the media. And political leaders in DC and Europe gave McChrystal an ear full of concerns about the pace of progress in Helmand and its impact on the unfolding plans in neighboring Kandahar.

McChrystal and his team gave McClatchy privileged access throughout the day. McClatchy was allowed into every briefing, save one short meeting at the beginning of the day when McChrystal first arrived in southern Afghanistan at Camp Bastion.

The result was this story, titled "McChrystal calls Marjah a 'bleeding ulcer' of Afghan campaign."

The story, especially the headline, sparked an immediate furor as the US military called the headline "intellectually dishonest" and strongly requested that the on-line headline be changed.

In response, McClatchy Foreign Editor Roy Gutman defended the article and said there appeared to be no need to change the headline.

"Good headlines always pick the most salient point of a story in order to grab reader's attention, and this one did its job," Gutman wrote.

As might be expected, the "bleeding ulcer" quote came up during a Pentagon briefing yesterday with UK Major-Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan.

As we noted in the story, Carter told Pentagon reporters in February that it would take about 90 days to assess the success in Marjah.

"I guess it will take us another 25 to 30 days to be entirely sure that we have secured that which needs to be secured," Carter said in February.  "And we probably won't know, for about 120 days, whether or not the population is entirely convinced by the degree of commitment that their government is showing to them. So I guess looking downstream, in three months' time or thereabouts, we should have a pretty fair idea about whether we've been successful. But I would be very cautious about any triumphalism just yet."

About 100 days after making that prediction, Carter again appeared via satellite to talk with Pentagon reporters yesterday about the state of affairs in southern Afghanistan.

One of the first questions Carter fielded was about the "bleeding ulcer" quote.

"When General McChrystal referred to Marja as a bleeding ulcer, he was talking about the perception of the outside world," Carter told the Pentagon reporters. "And of course, in the same way that it's important that Afghan perceptions go in the right direction, it's important that the outside world also has the right perceptions. And I think his feeling was that some people in the outside world would regard Marja as being a bleeding ulcer. That's not the way he sees it in theater, nor, indeed, is that the way that the Afghans see it. It's very important, I think, that things are set properly in context."

In short, McChrystal's folks felt as if the headline and structure of the story made it appear as if McChrystal was pessimistic about the way things were going in Marjah when he was merely trying to light a fire under his commanders.

But McChrystal wasn't just talking about public perceptions in the outside world. He raised significant questions about the pace of progress and suggested that more troops at the start might have done a better job of securing the area.

The story made it clear from the opening anecdote that McChrystal was trying to convey to his commanders that political impatience was growing in Washington and Europe. And the full "bleeding ulcer" quote included in the story made that point clear.

Because of the extraordinary access given to McClatchy to classified briefings in Helmand, all quotes used in the story -- including the contested "bleeding ulcer" quote -- were run by McChrystal's team before being published.

In fact, because of the delicate political dynamics, McClatchy went back a second time to make sure that McChrystal's folks had no objections to McClatchy printing any of the quotes used in the piece - including the "bleeding ulcer" line.

Again, McChrystal's media folks gave the go-ahead to use the information.

The only thing McChrystal's folks asked to make clear was that McChrystal was joking when he told Carter it was "your plan" when they debated troop strength.

At no point before the article was published did McChrystal's team object to using the "bleeding ulcer" quote.

Now, Gen. McChrystal's folks are accusing McClatchy of intellectual dishonesty.

Readers of the story, and the exchange of letters, can judge for themselves.

May 26, 2010

A US Marine's Facebook faux pas

Lionel garcia screencap

Enterprising Internet trollers have come across a provocative post on Facebook that's said to be from a young US Marine in Afghanistan who boasts of humilitating an Afghan by taking a photo of him with a sign that reads: "I'm a faggot."

The reported boasting, in a post put up yesterday, is said to come from a US Marine from Washington state named Lionel Garcia.

"Well I feel my work here is done," Garcia wrote. "I officially made an afghani hold up a sign that says 'I'm A Faggot' while I took a picture of him, for every else there's master card."

Officials with the ISAF press office said they were looking into it.

The provocative post, which reportedly appeared yesterday afternoon, has already been taken down.

May 25, 2010

McChrystal lights fire under Marjah commanders


(U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal aboard a helicopter in southern Afghanistan during a day-long assessment of progress in Helmand on Thursday, May 20, 2010.)

The questions were deliberately provocative. The discussions sometimes grew animated as generals and civilians verbally sparred with U.S, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as he oversaw a 10-hour, high-level assessment last week of progress in Helmand.

In meeting after meeting last Thursday, McChrystal worked to light a fire under U.S. generals, British commanders and Western strategists working to transform Marjah into a success.

After his recent visits to DC and Europe, McChrystal returned with a renewed appreciation for the political anxiety in the global capitals.

"People are asking: Are we failing?" McChrystal said in one briefing.

Throughout the day, McChrystal tried to impress upon the top military and civilian strategists that they needed to kick it into high gear.

"This is a bleeding ulcer right now," McChrystal told strategists at one point on the trip.  "You don't feel it here, but I'll tell you, it's a bleeding ulcer outside."

Perhaps the most animated discussion of the day took place in the Helmand PRT where civilian and military leaders are working together to secure Marjah and Nad Ali.

"I think the pace of progress is satisfactory," said Ghulam Gilani Popal, the Afghan head of the independent directorate of local governance. "Some of the things we cannot expedite. Like how to restore the confidence of the people. That needs time. But the rest of the things are good."

"I have a slightly different view," McChrystal replied as his top commanders looked on. "I think that we’ve done well, but I think that the pace of security has been slower… I’m thinking that, had we put more force in there, we could have locked that place down better. That’s a bleeding ulcer right now. You don’t feel it here, but I’ll tell you, it’s a bleeding ulcer outside. We’re making progress. I have no doubt about that. But Kandahar is being judged through the lens of Marjah and that lens may not be fair, but that’s the lens…"

"In 2001, we were viewed as omniscient and omnipotent," said McChrystal. "That has decreased every year since. When we can’t secure, I think there’s a perception that we don’t want to secure or there’s a perception that we’re not what they thought we were."

McChrystal's deliberately provocative attempts to spark a debate about troop levels did exactly that.

U.S. Major-Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, challenged McChrystal.

"I don’t agree with you about putting more forces in there," said Carter. "I agree with Director Popal. This is about convincing people."

"You’re going to feel that," McChyrstal cut in in with a deadpan joke "It’s your plan."

"I am, sir," Carter replied. "You would have to put about five brigades in to achieve the effect you’re talking about and, even then, I bet the Taliban would get through because it’s in the minds of people. And I really don’t think, in Marjah in particular, it would have made much difference. I think what’s going to make the difference, whether we marketed it right or not at the beginning, is time. And it’s about persuading people."

"I think we have let too much move along without overwhelming enough security, and I think we are paying the price for it," said McChrystal.

Later, McChrystal explained his thinking more.

"What we have done, in my view, we have given the insurgency a chance to be a little bit credible because we’ve put in more forces than ever in an area with a unique situation. We said: We’re taking it back. We came in to take it back, and we haven’t been completely convincing."

McChrystal's staff invited McClatchy along for the day-long strategic assessment in an apparent attempt to convey the challenges strategists are facing and spotlight the progress they are making in Helmand.

To McChrystal's team, the progress in Marjah is "mixed" and there is no need to panic.

On the flight back to Kabul, McChrystal expressed confidence with the plans in southern Afghanistan.

McChrystal's view was backed by Mark Sedwill, the former UK ambassador to Afghanistan who is now NATO's senior civilian representative in the country.

Marjah, Sedwill conceded in an interview with McClatchy "is taking longer, frankly, than any of us would have hoped."

"Have they changed as fast as was reasonable to expect?" Sedwill said. "I don’t know. It was a long way gone, therefore I think patience is necessary. But I can quite understand why the sheer amount of attention created a sense of expectations that’s hard to fulfill. I think it wasn’t really until we started holding these shuras that we realized, not how bad it was under the Taliban, because in a sense that was fairly obvious. But actually, what we hadn't really appreciated was how bad things had been beforehand and why the Taliban found fertile ground into which they could move and do well enough to raise their flags over it. You can only do that with the support of the people. And none of us, including the Afghans, had really understood why that had happened and quite how appalling the circumstances had been beforehand."

In a recent speech at London's Chatham House, Sedwill laid out a sobering picture of success in Afghanistan.

"If we succeed in regaining the initiative, resolving political tensions and transitioning responsibility, what will Afghanistan look like by 2014 when President Karzai's second term concludes and history begins the judgment of the legacy he hands his successor?" Sedwill asked in the address.

"Afghanistan will still be poor and rough, especially to the western eye," he said. "Illiteracy will still be rife, worse among women and worse still in the rural areas. Respect for human rights, especially women's and children's, will still be patchy. Corruption will still be entrenched – getting Afghanistan up the Transparency Index to the levels of much of Africa will be a dramatic success. To Western eyes, the levels of violence, mostly tribal, land and water disputes, might seem eye-watering, punctuated by eye-catching terrorist attacks from whatever remains of the insurgency."

"I know that doesn't sound as inspiring as some of the early nation-building rhetoric, but think how much we will have achieved," Sedwill argued at the end of his speech. "Afghanistan will be stable enough that the integrity of the nation is assured. Afghanistan's territory will not be a safe haven for al-Qaeda or other groups to attack us or disrupt Pakistan. Afghanistan's kaleidoscope of ethnic groups will be working together through authentically Afghan and thus to the western eye confusing parliamentary, shura and jirga mechanisms to share political power and the economic benefits of Afghanistan's huge mineral resources. President Karzai will be the first democratic Afghan leader to hand power to a democratic successor, and one of very few to hand over his country in a dramatically better condition than he inherited."

In the interview on Sunday, Sedwill conceded that the military coalition may have a difficult time at year's end demonstrating concrete progress.

If all goes well, Sedwill argued, the international coalition will be able to point to a series of positive benchmarks: From beginning to stabilize Marjah and holding a successful international conference this July in Kabul to helping to hold comparatively fair parliamentary elections and containing Taliban control in Kandahar.

"Personally, I'm probably slightly more confident than I am saying, but I'm not willing to jump ahead of where the evidence lies," said Sedwill. "The raw data I many areas will not look dramatically different by the end of the year, but I do believe that we will be able to show that the direction is positive... It's a hard argument, but it has to be good enough, because nobody every promised that it was going to be better than that."


(A U.S. military helicopter flies over a military base in southern Afghanistan.)

May 20, 2010

President Karzai set to boost brother's power in Kandahar


(Ruhullah at his Kandahar compound)

Is President Karzai poised to sign off on a lucrative new business deal that could boost the power of his controversial half-brother's in Kandahar?

Karzai is weighing approval of an expansive new business deal that could give Ahmed Wali Karzai increased influence over the lucrative security business that protects supply convoys for U.S.-led forces in southern Afghanistan.

Kandahar leaders and the Afghan Interior Ministry are pushing the plan as a way to unite rival security companies and bring some measure of control to the volatile convoy security business in the region.

But critics say the deal will only solidify Ahmed Wali Karzai's hold on power by elevating one of his allies to head the new company.

Under the plan, the new security firm will be run by Ruhullah, a Kandahar strongman who already controls long stretches of the supply route.

Ruhullah, who got his start in the field by offering protection to CNN and CBS crews back in 2001/02, says the deal will allow him to create a formidable force of about 2,500 people.

Interior Ministry regulators said Ruhullah will only be able to start with 500.

Either way, the deal would give Ruhullah expansive new clout in Kandahar.

Ahmed Wali Karzai said he would help the company, but would have no direct role in running the business.

But the close links between Ruhullah and Ahmed Wali Karzai were evident last week when we went to speak to the two in back-to-back interviews.

After meeting Ruhullah at his dusty compound on the outskirts of Kandahar, we drove into the city center 15 minutes away for an interview with Ahmed Wali Karzai at his fortified compound.

When we emerged from the interview an hour later, Ruhullah was standing there in the anteroom, waiting to meet with Ahmed Wali Karzai.

You can get details on the deal here.

May 18, 2010

Kabul blast hits NATO convoy near COIN academy

The attacker hit just after 8 a.m. and detonated more than a half ton of explosives as a NATO convoy made its way through early morning traffic on the edge of the Afghan capital.

From a few miles away, outside the presidential palace, the car bomb sounded like a large, hollow trucking container being dropped on a nearby street.

But the explosives, which one investigator estimated to be about 1,300 pounds, sent armored SUVs aloft and blew a massive hole in the cement wall alongside the road.

Afghan officials said 12 Afghan civilians were killed and four dozen more were injured. Many of them were riding on a public bus that was hit squarely by the nearby blast.

NATO said six service members, including five Americans, had been killed by the bomber.

Bombblog1 A few yards from the crater, American soldiers used a camouflage blanket to cover one body alongside a ravaged Suburban that appeared to be part of the NATO convoy.

Blood soaked into the dirt road and shrapnel could be found in fields hundreds of yards from the blast site.

The attack took place on a crowded, dusty, pothole-riddled street running from central Kabul out towards the Afghan parliament, and an Afghan army base nestled in the valley below Kabul's Darul Aman Palace, the iconic hilltop palace built in the 1920s by King Amanullah Khan.

(The bullet-riddled, bomb-scarred, abandoned palace has become a longstanding symbol of the ravages of decades of war in Afghanistan.)

The valley is also home to the U.S. military's counter-insurgency academy, the intelligence center meant to push the dominant military thinking in Afghanistan that puts protecting the civilian population as the priority ahead of killing insurgents.

Tuesday's attack took place two hours before Afghan President Hamid Karzai held a palace press conference meant to showcase his successful Washington visit that was engineered to rebuild his brittle relationship with the Obama administration.

His press conference was largely overshadowed by the morning's attack.

Karzai's half-brother linked to illegal land grabs

Ahmed Wali Karzai, the controversial half-brother of President Hamid Karzai, has led a political strike in Kandahar to protest a new military report -- obtained by McClatchy Newspapers -- that accuses him of blocking Afghan officials for reclaiming public land illegally seized by his allies.

Ahmed Wali Karzai vowed to keep the Kandahar provincial council shut down until his half-brother's government in Kabul sends a special delegation to investigate the claims.

"The shura is not going to do anything until this thing is cleared up," he told McClatchy in a telephone interview Monday, referring to the 14-member council. "If they can find one thing in this report that is true, I am ready to accept any kind of punishment."

The eight-page, handwritten report details several cases in which Ahmed Wali Karzai's relatives, friends, and allies are building lucrative projects on military land.

In one case, the report said, Ahmed Wali Karzai personally intervened to prevent military officials from reclaiming government land being illegally used by two of the Kandahar kingpin's allies who control much of the security business in the area.

"When the delegation asked these officials why they had neglected their work, they told them, 'We were told orally by Ahmed Wali not to touch these guys; let them work,' " said Maj. Gen. Sher Mohammed Zazai, the Afghan army corps commander in Kandahar, who ordered the investigation.

But Ahmed Wali Karzai characterized the charges as politically motivated allegations from critics who resent his vast power in southern Afghanistan.

"There are more than 100,000 Popalzai in Kandahar, so I am responsible for anything they do?" he said. "If an American commits a crime in Afghanistan, should we blame it on Obama?"

May 14, 2010

Ahmed Wali Karzai declares victory in Kandahar

There may be an ongoing assassination campaign unfolding in Kandahar. And there may be unfolding plans to send 20,000 Afghan and U.S. forces into the Taliban spiritual capital.

But Ahmed Wali Karzai, the polarizing half brother of President Hamid Karzai, has already declared victory.

"We've already won," Ahmed Wali Karzai told McClatchy this week. "We are picking up the pieces now." Ahmedwali

Karzai's boast comes as the plan to seize Kandahar this summer has become the incredible shrinking operation.

At the prodding of Afghan officials, US leaders have stopped calling it an operation and instead dubbed it "Cooperation for Kandahar."

Time lines are being pushed back. Efforts to build up the Afghan government are off to a slow start. And local leaders are being targeted by assassination squads.

But Ahmed Wali Karzai dismissed the concerns as overblown.

"Bombs happen in London, bombs happen in the USA, bombs happen in Israel, bombs happen in Pakistan," he said. "Bombs happen in every country. This is something you cannot control. It's not only happening in Kandahar."

May 12, 2010

After going Gaga in Afghanistan, US soldiers in Iraq go Ke$ha

First there was the Lady Gaga homage viral video hit by US soldiers in Afghanistan.

Now, there is this retort from US soldiers in Iraq:

This latest video is said to be the work of North Carolina native Codey Wilson, who is no doubt hoping that this will become a viral video sensation like the Lady Gaga video....

"Don't give us a hard time for this, please?" Wilson writes on the YouTube page. "We're just a few good men trying to enjoy ourselves and get this deployment over with. No one is gay... that we know of. Not that there is anything wrong with that! (political correctness) As a young aspiring film maker I was forced to release this early due to our friend in Afghans high school lip sinked music video. You know you love it. Enjoy it. Spread it. Live it. Lastly, ignore the copy cats that will soon follow and keep your taste for original creativity."


Checkpoint Kabul is written by McClatchy journalists covering Afghanistan and south Asia.

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