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October 30, 2010

Does the road to Kabul go through Kashmir?

(An Indian soldier stands near fresh graffiti in Srinagar on Saturday, Oct. 30)

Next week, after what is expected to be a humbling Election Day for Democrats, President Barack Obama will head to India at the start of his first post-election travels overseas.

Obama is expected to visit Mumbai and commemorate the devastating 2008 attacks that have recently been linked to Pakistan's ISI spy agency.

The attack was the work of Lashkar-e Taiba, the Pakistan-backed militant group fighting to force India to relinquish control of Kashmir.

While Obama is expected to discuss terrorism and regional insecurity, it appears as if the American president is likely to evade much discussion of Kashmir.

As Paul Beckett recently noted at the Wall Street Journal, Obama aides briefing White House reporters on the trip appeared to studiously avoid use of "the K-word."

Kashmir has been on a steady boil since June, when the death of a 17-year-old protester unleashed the most destabilizing series of protests in years.

Indian forces have killed more than 110 people since June. Stone throwing demonstrators routinely square off with Indian forces. Government officials regularly impose curfews on activist hotbeds. And opposition leaders call for prolonged strikes.

And, this weekend, opposition leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani issued a new call for demonstrators to intensify their protests during Obama's visit.

There are many reasons for Obama to avoid saying "the K-word."

First and foremost, Obama's Indian hosts have adamantly resisted repeated attempts by American leaders to act as mediators in the dispute.

Indian sensitivity about Kashmir was again on display this month when Indian officials threatened to arrest writer Arundhati Roy for sedition after she suggested that India had no historic claim to Kashmir.

In response, Roy issued a terse statement defending her position.

"Pity the nation that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds," she wrote. "Pity the nation that needs to jail those who ask for justice, while communal killers, mass murderers, corporate scamsters, looters, rapists, and those who prey on the poorest of the poor, roam free."

Since Obama is focused primarily on economic issues, he's unlikely to rile Indian leaders by bringing Kashmir to the forefront.

At the same time, there are many who argue that Kashmir is central to Obama's hopes of bringing a measure of stability to Afghanistan.

Kashmir has been the spark for two wars between India and Pakistan, and resolving the land dispute is central to assuaging concerns in both countries about the territorial ambitions of their longstanding rivals.

"The Road to Kabul Runs Through Kashmir," Newsweek argued earlier this year.

"The intifada that exploded this summer in Kashmir cannot be ignored by the president during the visit but any comments on it will be potentially explosive," Brookings Institution senior fellow Bruce Riedel recently noted.

Last month in The New York Review of Books, respected author and journalist Steve Coll argued for greater US involvement in Kashmir.

"The interests that the United States has in the Kashmir conflict are greater now than at any time in the postwar period," Coll wrote. "American efforts to prevent a second Taliban revolution in Afghanistan and to quell Islamist rebellion within Pakistan are unlikely to succeed if ISI continues its three-decade practice of using jihadi groups to wage their own brand of war against India."

But, in the wake of Election Day, it seems unlikely that Obama will trouble the waters in India.

October 29, 2010

Gorbachev: US victory in Afghanistan 'impossible'

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has told the BBC that a US victory in Afghanistan is 'impossible.'

"Victory is impossible in Afghanistan," Gorbachev said. "Obama is right to pull the troops out. No matter how difficult it will be."

Gorbachev was the Soviet leader who decided to pull his forces out of Afghanistan -- a process completed in 1989. Two years before announcing plans to pull all Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, Gorbachev referred to the country as a "bleeding wound."

Earlier this year, US Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal (ret.), then head of US-led forces in Afghanistan, referred to southern Afghanistan's Marjah operations as a "bleeding ulcer."

The AP's Todd Pitman recently spent time in Marjah assessing the progress and discovered that Marines there are still facing a "full-blown insurgency."

In his latest piece on Marjah, Pitman notes that the struggles in Helmand provide a grim picture of what the US and Afghan forces might face in Kandahar once the intensive military offensives wind down.

"The February assault on the poppy-growing hub in Helmand province was supposed to be the first stage here of the counterinsurgency strategy, 'clear, hold, build,'" Pitman writes. "But Capt. Chuck Anklam, who commands 2/9's Echo Company in a northern swathe of Marjah, said all three stages are now going on simultaneously -- and none of them is complete."

As Pitman notes, the traditional fighting season is winding down and weary insurgents may be returning to their sanctuaries in Pakistan. That could give US and Afghan leaders some breathing room to establish credible local governments in areas once dominated by Taliban forces. They will focus on shoring up weak Afghan forces that will be needed to retain control of the one-time Taliban hideouts.

As they did in Marjah, some local insurgents are fading into the background because they know they can't hold their own against US forces. If the US learned lessons from Marjah, chances are that the insurgents did as well.

October 23, 2010

'Bang-Bang Club' photog injured in Kandahar

Bang Joao Silva, one of the members of "The Bang-Bang Club," was seriously injured today when he stepped on an IED while on patrol with US soldiers in Kandahar's Arghandab Valley.

Silva was on assignment for The New York Times when he stepped on the hidden bomb.

Reports from Kandahar say that Silva, who was flown to the nearby Kandahar Air Field for emergency surgery, was in danger of losing both legs at the knees.

(There were also reports that doctors at the base were amazed that Silva had a smoke before surgery and called his wife to tell her the news...)

Silva's injuries underscore one of the grimmest dangers in Kandahar, where soldiers often have to rely on their wits to detect IEDs.

Some soldiers say the best way to detect the hidden bombs is "eyeballing" the terrain and looking for the unusual.

Bomb-detecting dogs only sniff out a small percentage of IEDs, and mine sweepers also aren't as reliable as one might hope.

(In this case, The New York Times reported, Silva was walking in an area that mine sweepers had gone over...)

Silva was co-author of "The Bang-Bang Club," a book about a group of four war photographers who covered the tumultuous transformation of South Africa in the 1990s.

In 1994, another member of "The Bang-Bang Club," Greg Oosterbroek, was killed while covering a township battle in Johannesburg.

Three months after Oosterbroek was killed, another member of "The Bang-Bang Club," Kevin Carter, committed suicide. (Carter, who battled his own personal demons, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for a stark and controversial photo of a vulture looming over a starving Sudanese girl.)

"The Bang-Bang Club" has recently been transformed into a movie starring Ryan Phillippe, the actor from "Crash," "Flags of Our Fathers," and "Stop-Loss."

Silva's injuries came one day after New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall, who had been working with Silva, reported that US forces were "routing" the Taliban in Kandahar.

October 21, 2010

On patrol in 'the devil's playground'

In August, McClatchy brought you the story of one US Army company's final few days in Afghanistan.

At the time, some members of the 82nd Airborne's Charlie Company in the Arghandab Valley were irate over the way their tour was coming to an end.

The company sustained heavy casualties-- and the young soldiers were openly disdainful of their replacements.

Charlie Company soldiers said that the new forces with the 101st Airborne weren't prepared or well trained for the fight in Afghanistan. And they blamed the new 101st Airborne soldiers for getting some of their guys killed and wounded in their final weeks in Afghanistan.

The accusations created an immediate furor in Arghandab, where the 101st Airborne commander in the area rejected the accusations and said that his men had seized ground the 82nd Airborne had never been able to hold.

This month, The Atlantic Monthly has a long, detailed piece -- titled "The Last Patrol" -- on the 82nd Airborne's final patrols and the handover to the 101st.

The multi-media piece examines the difficult days in Arghandab Valley, where the latest report from The New York Times suggests that US forces are "routing" the Taliban.

The Atlantic Monthly piece offers a minute-by-minute look at the fatal dangers facing US forces in Afghanistan as the patrol an area known as "The Devil's Playground." It's worth a read.

The mystery of a CIA border base in Afghanistan

In this part of the world, America's cloak-and-dagger agency is sometimes better known as the "OGA," aka "Other Government Agency." Afghan

Last week, NPR's Quil Lawrence and photographer David Gilkey unexpectedly found themselves standing amid the ruins of an OGA base that had been inexplicably abandoned along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The US soldiers, dispatched to the area to recover a helicopter destroyed by an insurgent RPG, were both irked and perplexed.

As they told NPR, the OGA base had been abandoned with little notice while forces in the area were searching for kidnapped British aid worker Linda Norgrove.

While puzzling over the fate of the OGA base, the US patrol, with the NPR team in tow, crossed into Pakistan for lunch with that nation's paramilitary border forces. They chatted, ate and then split after being warned that some of the armed onlookers were probably Taliban spies...

Make sure to check out David Gilkey's slide show of Pakistani forces serving tea to US soldiers over the concertina wire and stark images of the ruins of the OGA base...

(Photo/David Gilkey-NPR)

Life in 'Badistan' breeds resentment of the West

"I can't find the right words to explain my feelings when I read comments of the readership of some of the American newspapers. You call us cockroaches, crooks, savage, uncivilized, and so on. But have you ever asked yourself what caused the Badistanis to be bad and savage, or why we are uncivilized?"

This question is raised this week in a piece at The Huffington Post by an Afghan journalist writing under a pseudonym.

In "Why the Badistans Are Right to be Angry," the writer raises provocative and pointed questions for the US, its Western allies, and expats living in Afghanistan.

"If your soldiers behave like occupying forces, keeping human body parts for trophies, how can you expect us to respect them and treat them as our guardians?" the author writes.

"Your soldiers are not here to make life better for us," he writes. The are here "to protect your countries' interests, not to improve human rights and democracy in Afghanistan."

The passionate critique of US foreign policy makes a lot of sweeping generalizations that sometimes miss the mark. At one point, the author's argument could be read as a justification for suicide bombings, though one suspects the writer doesn't condone these kinds of attacks.

"What would an American do if Afghan soldiers establish a base next to a school in New York City?" the journalist writes. "What would for example, a Brit... do if Afghan soldiers raid[ed] his house in the middle of night and kill[ed] his pregnant wife and small children. It is common sense, isn't it? I am sure the very people who call themselves the civilized human beings, the Americans and Europeans, will do exactly what the Afghans do if they were forced to suffer the occupation that Afghans endure."


October 19, 2010

US military again chokes off media access to front-lines

Arghblog Last month, when reporter Saeed Shah and photographer David Belluz went on an embed for McClatchy in Kandahar, their trip was slated to coincide with the kickoff of one phase of the expanding military campaign to hobble the Taliban in their spiritual heartland.

When the operation was delayed, the US military made no accommodations to allow journalists to stay longer to see how the early days of the military campaign unfolded.

(One journalist tried to quietly stay on, but was quickly kicked out when the commanding officer discovered that he was still at a small base trying to cover the military action.)

This week, journalist Ben Gilbert reports at GlobalPost that the US military again kept reporters from being on-hand to witness the early days of another phase of the military campaign.

David Belluz is back in Kandahar province for McClatchy and, after several days of delays, he is now in the risky Arghandab Valley with the 101st.

In August, I spent two weeks in the Arghandab Valley, where the commanding officers were open and accessible.

When the 101st Airborne seized a Taliban stronghold in the northwest part of the Arghandab Valley, Lt. Col. David Flynn took me along in his armored vehicle to cover the operation.

At the time, ISAF was saying very little about the unfolding operations.

When I ran into UK Maj. Gen. Nick Carter (the commander of ISAF forces in southern Afghanistan) in Arghandab and asked him why they weren't talking about the military push, he said, very candidly, that they were trying to under-promise and over-perform.

Military logistics are a constant headache in Afghanistan, so it can be difficult to distinguish legitimate problems from fabricated ones designed to contain media access.

Despite the challenges and restrictions, persistent journalists have been getting access to the most dangerous places in southern Afghanistan. (Several journalists have had close calls while covering the war in recent months...)

And the stories and photos coming out of southern Afghanistan paint a stark picture that contrasts in many ways with the optimistic views coming from top commanders...

October 18, 2010

The US is winning/losing the war in Afghanistan

For the three percent of Americans who apparently think Afghanistan is a major issue this election season, there have been some dissonant messages coming out about the state of the war.

If you ask Gen. David Petraeus and officials at his fortified headquarters in Kabul, they will say that ISAF is winning. Checkpoint4

Sort of.

“We define winning as making progress, and, in that sense, I believe that, in recent months, during which we have begun to make important progress, again, I don’t want to overstate this, this is progress in key areas, but areas that matter enormously -- Helmand Province, Kandahar now, Badghis in the northwest, and a few other places -- and that, in those areas in particular, each of which is very important to the Taliban, as well as to Afghanistan, the enemy is now responding to us rather than us responding to the enemy,” Petraeus recently told David Frost on Al Jazeera English. “So I think, in that sense, I think it is arguable, at least, that we are winning.”

Winning... with significant caveats.

American officials got a prominent platform for their message on Sunday in The Washington Post, which reported that top US leaders in Afghanistan were touting "concrete progress" in the war.

In essence, US officials are arguing that the military surge (which reached its peak late in the summer) has done enough damage to the insurgent leadership to force them, in a weakened state, to the negotiating table.

"After nine years of war, the endgame here has finally begun" veteran war correspondent Dexter Filkins wrote this weekend in The New York Times. "But exactly when the endgame itself will end is anybody's guess."

The positive meCheckpoint1ssaging appears to be part of a concerted new effort to portray the war as reaching a turning point in favor of the US-led coalition.

One top NATO official is known for stating that perception is reality, and that, in short, part of the problem here is convincing people that the glass is half-full, not half-empty.

So far, the message of success is being met with considerable skepticism.

"Even as U.S. officials here echo Gates's assessment [of progress in the war], they have offered relatively little evidence to back up their claims of progress, and many still hesitate to say that successes against the Taliban in certain pockets add up to the war's pendulum swinging their way," reporter Josh Partlow wrote in The Washington Post.

The spate of stories was stoked by a flurry of reports of intensified talks between Afghan officials and top Taliban leaders. Reports that, many people in the know argued, were overblown.

"Indeed, the biggest change last week seemed to be the heightened sense of urgency among American officials to accelerate the pace of events — not just on the ground and in the calculations of the Taliban’s leaders, but also in the minds of the American people, whose patience, by the lights of public opinion polls, is rapidly draining away," Filkins wrote.

The reports of progress coming from the NATO HQ in Kabul contrast sharply with reports from the front-lines.

The BBC's Paul Wood recently reported that progress for the US-led coalition was being hampered by widespread desertion in the Afghan army, insubordination, drug use and corruption. Checkpoint3

In Marjah, the AP's Todd Pittman recently reported that the one-time Taliban stronghold that was meant to serve as a showcase for success when Marines seized the area in February is still the scene of "a full-blown guerrilla insurgency."

"I've been working here for nine years and it has become worse and worse," veteran photographer Tyler Hicks recently said on The New York Times At War blog.

Over the weekend, the Taliban staged a public, daylight execution in a crowded market in Wardak Province, about a half hour from the Afghan capital.

Carlotta Gall in The New York Times reported that US soldiers were facing a "frustrated and disillusioned" population in the south.

Folks who have been spending time in Kandahar Province, where the US military is continually ratcheting up pressure on Taliban fighters, are coming back with grim reports that suggest more struggle than success.

One person described decimated platoons as combat-ineffective because they have lost so many men to hidden bombs. The observer likened one small US base in Kandahar province to the "Lord of the Flies."

But probably the most negative assessment of the state of affairs came from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, a private group that analyzes security risks for aid workers in the country.

The Taliban "counter-offensive is increasingly mature, complex and effective," ANSO writes in its latest quarterly report. "Country wide attacks have grown by 59 percent while sophisticated recruitment techniques have helped activate networks of fighters in the north where European NATO contributors have failed to provide an adequate deterrent. Some provinces here are experiencing double the country average growth rate and their districts are in danger of slipping beyond any control."

ANSO predicted that the US-led fight against the Taliban would "become increasingly peripheral to the strategic direction of the country" and urged aid groups to "start developing strategies for engaging with [insurgents] rather than avoiding them."

(Photos/Chuck Liddy)

October 15, 2010

Politics ensnare US-backed kite runners

Kiterunner20080324-1AW Who in their right mind would be against handing out kites to impoverished Afghan children?

This afternoon in Herat, USAID is sponsoring a "Rule of Law Kite Festival" where aid workers and Afghan leaders will hand out special kites to promote justice in Afghanistan.

As Rod Nordland recently noted in The New York Times when he covered a similar event in Kabul: "What could possibly go wrong?"

At the Kabul "Rule of Law Kite Festival" last month, Afghan police officers absconded with kites meant for the kids and pummeled boys trying to get kites for themselves.

"We are not taking them, we are flying them ourselves," the local police chief said, with no apparent trace of irony.

This week, when USAID put out word that it was bringing the event to Herat, one local journalist publicly blasted the idea and called for a boycott.

"It would seem that there are better ways to spend American tax payer money than on kites and comic books," Haroon Yahya wrote in a mass e-mail to journalists and others. "Afghans for the most part can not read. The children are happy to have the kites, but to market this as a rule of law event is one more elaborate way of wasting resources which could be used for Afghan children's education, health care or even direct food assistance."

Yahya is a volunteer at Radio Free Herat, an aspiring radio station in western Afghanistan.

Here's a slightly abridged version of the rest of his email:

"Our children are asked to fly kites when they go hungry all day. I'm sure (today) we will have more of the same: speeches by so called important officials, selected children of these important officials and their powerful connected families there for a day of fun and frivolity contributing nothing to Afghanistan nor the Afghan people.

"All of this will be taking place behind security lines, and in our stadium after nine years of war declaring rule of law when we can not even walk the streets our own beloved land without running into some security contractor ready to fire on us! What is wrong with this picture?

"This event might play well for the people back home in Europe or America when they see children flying kites, to perhaps give memories of the 'Kite Runner' so they can feel good about their money being spent here in Afghanistan, but the reality is quite different.

"We all know that. Afghanistan is not a movie. If it is, it is more like a horror movie than a romanticized 'Lawrence of Afghanistan' or 'Kite Runner' melodrama. As journalists I am wondering how American and European journalists feel about pushing stories on your audience which do not convey the full context of what is happening in Afghanistan?

"In less than ten years, the international community has done nothing but contribute to the pockets of a select few in Kabul and here in Herat, and have compounded our problems and now there is talk of withdrawal next year. This is always the gift Afghans receive: occupation, then abandonment.

"Despite all these media efforts by the American govt. I'm sure that someday the peoples of the world will realize that 'The Emperor' has no clothes!

"At the original kite event in Kabul the children sold some of the kites in the market for food money! But the stories that were reported by many journalists did not include this sad reality. The greatest danger facing Afghanistan is the lack of engagement by the peoples of the world."

An Afghan icon's new face

_48666537_aisha_time_224299 Earlier this year, Aisha became an international icon when Time Magazine featured  a stark photo of the teenage Afghan girl whose n_49486056_3486826b-dcc1-4400-adf1-2ebee62ac690ose had been cut off by her abusive husband, with Taliban consent.

The issue generated intense debate, mostly because of the headline the editors chose to go with the photo: "What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan."

As many critics noted, Aisha was brutally disfigured while the US-backed government was in power, not when the country was ruled by the Taliban.

Whatever the case, humanitarian groups around the world galvanized to help Aisha start a new life.

This week, Aisha, now 19, received a prosthetic nose in California.

 Aisha was honored with an Enduring Heart Award from the Grossman Burn Foundation, an LA-based humanitarian group.

You can see video of her accepting the award here.


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

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