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December 27, 2010

NATO attempt to stop Christmas attack draws blowback


(A bullet hole shattered the window at Tiger International, an Afghan armored car company hit by a Christmas Eve day NATO raid.)

Nawid Shah Sakhizada said he was hanging out with colleagues at his armored car company office when one of his security guards rushed in before dawn on Friday morning with confusing news.

NATO forces were outside -- and they were on the hunt.

There had been a brief gun battle and two other guards for Tiger International had been fatally wounded in the parking lot.

As Sakhizada headed downstairs to find out what was going on, he said the NATO forces opened fire through the wall of glass windows overlooking the parking lot. The guard leading him downstairs fell on the stairs as Sakhizada retreated to his office.

By the time the shooting was over, two Afghan guards were dead and two others were wounded.

The NATO forces, joined by Afghan colleagues, had converged on the parking lot at the Kabul office building because they had what they considered "credible" evidence that two vehicles parked there were packed with explosives in preparation for a Christmastime attempt to bomb the U.S. Embassy.

But the special forces team found no car bombs, no explosives and no indications that Tiger International was involved with any plot to attack American diplomats. Raid3

Sakhizada said the soldiers apologized for the deadly battle and cautioned him not to speak to the media.

But when he saw the official version of events, Sakhizada and other company officials decided to speak out.

“I asked them ‘What do we tell the families?’” Sakhizada told McClatchy Newspapers on Sunday. “I told them ‘you did not kill two cows. You killed two human beings. We have to answer to the families.”

NATO officials released little information to explain why they targeted the office complex and what information led them to suspect there were explosives in the vehicles out front.

Tiger International officials said the NATO team appeared to be focused on two of its ambulances in the parking lot.

But U.S. officials emphatically stated that the team opened fire only after the guards fired on them.

The incident drew the ire of Afghan government officials who accused NATO of failing to properly coordinate with Kabul security officials.

The Afghan Interior Ministry suspended one general and fired a colonel who helped NATO carry out the raid.

Night raids remain a polarizing tactic in Afghanistan. NATO officials say night raids are effective. Afghan President Hamid Karzai regularly criticizes night raids as counter-productive when they end with civilians killed in murky circumstances.

“Saying sorry is not so easy,” said Mohammed Faird Wafah, a friend of Sakhizada family who came to visit the office on Sunday. “Afghan blood is not so cheap. When something like this happens in the center of Kabul, what do you think happens in the more remote provinces?”

(Photo: Nawid Shah Sakhizada looks out the window where one of his company security guards was shot during a disputed NATO Special Forces night raid.)

December 26, 2010

The Leatherneck Grinch who jammed for Christmas


(The Grinch plays air guitar during, "Camp Leatherneck's Got Talent," a talent show hosted on Christmas Eve at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. Photo: Cpl. Megan Sindelar)

It has been an especially tough and deadly year in Afghanistan.

Tens of thousands of new U.S. forces arrived in 2010 to take part in a military surge. 2010 has been the most deadly year of the nine-year-old war. Nearly 500 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan this year. Of the 700 U.S.-led coalition fighters killed in Afghanistan, nearly 60 percent were killed by IEDs.

Of the 9,200 U.S. service members wounded in Afghanistan since 2001, nearly half were injured this year.

About 100,000 members of the U.S. military spent Christmas in Afghanistan, where Americans at remote bases tried their best to bring a touch of home to the war.

Camp Leatherneck, the main U.S. Marine Corps base in southern Afghanistan, was the site of "Camp Leatherneck's Got Talent," a talent show featuring an air guitar playing Grinch MC, some "Macarena" dancing, and a healthy dose of guitar crooners.

NPR's Quil Lawrence spent Christmas Eve at Bagram Air Field where medics worked to get wounded troops back home for Christmas.

NPR put together an emotional montage of stories from wounded U.S. service members spending Christmas in a hospital bed.

In the piece, USMC Sgt. Zachary Scoskie, who sustained minor injuries when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb, sends holiday greetings to the folks back home.

"Just Merry Christmas and happy holidays," says Scoskie. "And just make sure that people, you know, just kind of realize that there's still a lot of us over here."

December 24, 2010

Wikileaks: Un-rapped

Amid the ongoing Wikileaks Sturm und Drang, one young website is providing a provocative and unusual look at the evolving controversy.

The creative minds behind Rap News, a button-pushing, year-old website, keep producing thought-provoking commentary on Wikileaks that is likely to rile as many people as it inspires.

The five-to-six-minute pieces feature "Robert Foster," the Rap News anchor with big glasses and a pompadour (or is it a bouffant?), who raps his way through a debate with alternate characters, including Pentagon spokesman General Baxter.

The most recent piece, "Wikileaks' Cablegate,' features Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi.

Robert Foster and the other main characters are played by Hugo Farrant, a British MC/spoken word artist who joined forces in Australia with Giordano Nanni, an Italian artist who writes, edits, directs and produces each piece.

In a recent interview the two described Rap News as a forum to challenge mainstream media, political apathy and government secrecy.

"It's not that all politicians are bastards," said Nanni, "but rather that most Americans seem to vote for the bastards rather than honest ones!"

Assange himself recently made a cameo appearance on Rap News alongside his alter ego.

December 18, 2010

Writing about Pakistan: Must have mangoes

In 2005, Granta published "How to Write About Africa," a satirical advice piece that offered tips for covering the continent.

The suggestions include helpful advice such as: "Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West."

The piece, which was featured in a video starring actor Djimon Hounsou, inspired one anonymous expat to pen "How to Write About Afghanistan."

1.1244692860.mangoesAmong the tips in the piece written earlier this year: "Always use the word ‘war-torn’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘tribal,’ ‘Taliban,’ ‘corrupt,’ and ‘Sharia.’"

Now, as part of its special issue on Pakistan, Granta has published "How to Write About Pakistan."

The Number One tip: "Must have mangoes."

Number Two? "Must have maids who serve mangoes."

The advice was put together by four contributors to the Pakistan issue, including Mohammed Hanif, author of "A Case of Exploding Mangoes."

December 15, 2010

Holbrooke's last words spur debate

Nm_richard_holbrooke_101210_ms It is no surprise that the death this week of Richard Holbrooke has created its own swirl of controversy.

Tributes have rolled in for the longtime diplomat who was lauded by President Barack Obama as "a true giant of foreign policy."

The Taliban even issued their own statement on Holbrooke's death.

The Taliban blamed the stress of trying to resolve problems in Afghanistan for creating too much stress for Holbrooke.

"The protracted Afghan war and the descending trajectory of the Americans’ handling of the warfare in the country had had a lethal dent on Holbrook[e]’s health as a high-ranking American official," the Taliban statement said. "He was grappling with a constant psychological stress."

At the same time, some critics of the war seized on reports that Holbrooke's last words to his doctors were: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

Various pundits took the words as a stark jolt of reality from inside an administration working furiously to start bringing American troops home this summer.

The debate over Holbrooke's words prompted the Obama administration to speak to the media to parse the late-diplomat's words.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley described Holbrooke's words as "humorous repartee."

Crowley said the comment "says two things about Richard Holbrooke in my mind. Number one, he always wanted to make sure he got the last word. And secondly, it just showed how he was singularly focused on pursuing and advancing the process and the policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan to bring them to a successful conclusion."

(Richard Holbrooke photo/AP)

December 12, 2010

CNN looks at life behind Taliban lines

Earlier this year, PBS aired "Behind Taliban Lines," a Frontline documentary by Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi about his 10-day embed with Afghan insurgents.

Over the weekend, CNN aired "Taliban," a similar hour-long special based on Norwegian freelance journalist Paul Refsdal's "embed" with Taliban fighters in October, 2009.

The Frontline piece provided viewers with some surreal moments as the Hezb-e-Islami fighters bickered over their bungled attempts to attack Western soldiers.

The Washington Post describes "Taliban" as more of a "day-in-the-life project" that focuses on a Taliban commander in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar Province as he plans attacks, plays with his kids and discusses the fight against American-led forces.

A month later, Refsdal and an Afghan colleague were held captive for six days by a different group of insurgents who suspected that the foreigner was a spy.

In the more absurd moments, insurgents gave Refsdal a phone so he could call around to try to raise money to secure his own release.

But things took an ominous turn when another group offered to buy Refsdal for $50,000.

In an attempt to secure his freedom, Refsdal agreed to immediately swear an oath to Islam, a conversion that he was told would lead to his freedom.

While another insurgent group sought to buy Refsdal, Taliban leaders in Pakistan were pressing the group to free the foreigner.

On the sixth day, Refsdal and his Afghan colleague were released.

Taliban PTSD: Why it matters

Do Taliban fighters get Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?

According to a Newsweek's Ron Moreau, the answer is yes.

Taliban leaders told Moreau that they and their fighters are facing intense pressure from American-led forces in Afghanistan. And it is taking a psychological toll.

“We are humans,” Mullah Mohammad, a Taliban commander in Helmand, told Newsweek. “An animal couldn’t withstand the strains we are under.”

While many Westerners are unlikely to have much sympathy for the plight of the anti-Western fighters, spreading PTSD among the Taliban may be a sign that the U.S.-military offensive has taken a distinct toll.

“I’d say 100 percent of Taliban have suffered and seen enough death and destruction to become mentally sick,” one senior Taliban intelligence officer told Newsweek. “There is no Taliban member who has not suffered a big mental shock from combat, explosions, the loss of fellow fighters and friends."

One Taliban member who looks after the insurgents with PTSD told Newsweek that at least two militants had snapped and turned their weapons on their comrades.

PTSD is not just a problem for Taliban fighters. It extends to much of the Afghan population that has endured decades of invasion, occupation, insurgency and civil war.

“It’s alarming, but not surprising, that there are so many psychologically disturbed people in Afghanistan,” Dr. Wahab Yousafzai, a Pakistani psychiatrist who runs training courses for Afghan physicians, told Newsweek. “Common people feel helpless. Death can come at any minute from U.S. and NATO forces or the Taliban.”

December 10, 2010

A rocky road for women's rights in Afghanistan

In one small victory for women's rights this week in Afghanistan, local police arrested Sulaiman, the Afghan man accused of helping to cut his daughter-in-law's nose off in a brutal attack that has become a potent symbol of the deep-rooted problems facing women in Afghanistan.

Bibi-Aisha-composite-NEW-001 With the help of aid groups, the woman, Bibi Aisha, recently traveled to the US for reconstructive  surgery.

This month, National Geographic is carrying "Veiled Rebellion," a powerful story-photo essay about the uphill battles Afghan women face in trying to secure the most basic of rights.

On Friday, the United Nations released a jarring new report that offers a stark look at how far Afghan women have to go.

"There are hundreds of Bibi Aishas in our country," said Ahmad Fahim Hakim, deputy chairman of Afghanistan's independent human rights commission.

Among the key findings:

* "Law enforcement authorities often are unwilling or unable to apply laws that protect women’s rights."

* Half the women in Afghan prisons -- about 300 -- are held for nebulous "moral crimes" such as "running away" with the intent to commit adultery.

"The police and judiciary often fail to enforce laws that respect women’s rights and take a selective rather than impartial approach to administering justice," the report states. "They often pursue cases where women are perceived to have transgressed social norms and fail to act when women report violence or in cases of child marriage claiming these are 'private matters.'"

* Baad, the practice of giving girls away to settle disputes, is widespread across Afghanistan.

"The practice of baad or giving away of girls to settle disputes, forms one of the most egregious types of violence against women in Afghanistan," the report states. "Baad allows communities or families to settle crimes such as murder, in theory to restore peace and order between the conflicting parties, by transferring punishment for the crime to a woman or girl. The 'honor' of the aggrieved family is “restored” through punishing the woman for a crime she did not commit."

* A majority of Afghan girls are forced to marry before they turn 17.

In 2009, the Afghan government enacted the Elimination of Violence Against Women law in an attempt to institutionalize broad protections for women.

But, the report states, many Afghan officials, especially in remote areas, don't even know about the law. And those charged with enforcing the law often take a selective approach.

The United Nations "believes that little meaningful and sustainable progress for women’s rights can be achieved in Afghanistan as long as women and girls are subject to practices that harm, degrade, humiliate and deny them their basic human rights," the report states. "Ensuring rights for Afghan women – such as their participation in public life including in the current peace, reconciliation and reintegration process; their access to adequate health care; and equal opportunities in education and employment – require not only legal and constitutional safeguards on paper, but also, more importantly, adequate implementation."

December 9, 2010

A top general's revised history of Taliban peace talks

It was one of the most embarrassing political incidents of the year in Afghanistan: Widely touted reports that Karzai had met with a high-level Taliban leader proved to be a debacle.

The high-level Taliban leader, it turned out, was an impostor.

Obama_Afghanistan.sff-bbaaf24d-8b00-4c02-9066-daa4bd86f831 When the news broke, Afghan and Western officials began deflecting blame and pointing their finger at others.

Some accused the UK of bringing the impostor to the table. Others said it was the US military leadership that approved the discussions.

NATO officials told The New York Times that they were actively helping the Taliban leader by providing him with safe passage and flights into Afghanistan.

This week, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, told ABC News that he and the US military always had doubts about the man professing to be a top Taliban official.

George Stephanopoulos: There was that embarrassing-- that embarrassing episode a couple of weeks ago, where it turned out-- supposedly a top level Taliban who was negotiating with the Afghan government turned out to be an impostor. How could that happen?

Gen. David Petraeus: Well, it was not a surprise, George-- that the--

George Stephanopoulos: Not a surprise?

Gen. David Petraeus: Not at all. That's the—

George Stephanopoulos: Well, then why--

Gen. David Petraeus: There was doubt—

George Stephanopoulos: --the person let in?

Gen. David Petraeus: This was-- there was enormous doubt about this individual from the very beginning. And decisions were made to go ahead and pursue that just to see where it leads. Partly because it-- maybe he actually proves to be who he is. But more than likely, even if he doesn't, you-- you see what dynamics that creates-- see how it evolves. And there was-- there was-- healthy skepticism about that individual...

George Stephanopoulos: But you decided to give it a chance?

Gen. David Petraeus: Well, again, this is not our decision. This reconciliation is an action that the Afghan government carries out in some cases with the-- some degree of at least knowledge or assistance of international elements.

George Stephanopoulos: Are there any serious talks going on right now?

Gen. David Petraeus: If there were, I wouldn't tell you about them. But I think that observers have noted that there are various strands of outreach that are out there.

But the ABC News interview neglected to touch on an important point: It was Petraeus himself who generated much of the international media attention by repeatedly trumpeting the talks when he spoke to reporters.

Petraeus began telling reporters about the talks in the fall.

“The prospect for reconciliation with senior Taliban leaders certainly looms out there, and there have been approaches at [the] very senior level that hold some promise,” Petraeus said in early September.

A few weeks later, Petraeus made the same point during a visit to Bagram Air Base.

“There are very high-level Taliban leaders who have sought to reach out to the highest levels of the Afghan government and, indeed, have done that,” Petraeus told reporters in late September.

The stories generated significant political buoyancy for Petraeus in the lead up to the December review and helped to create a perception that the American military surge had pushed battered Taliban leaders to the bargaining table.

When the story fell apart, Petraeus and other US military officials suggested that they had long had doubts about the credibility of the Taliban leader.

Why, then, did Petraeus repeatedly talk up the dubious talks with reporters as he was preparing to present his assessment of the war to President Barack Obama?

(AP Photo/Gen. David Petraeus introduces President Barack Obama at Bagram Air Base on Friday, Dec. 3, 2010)

December 8, 2010

How fares the war? A look at some numbers

How fares the war?

Everyone from US Defense Secretary Robert Gates to political pundits from across the ideological spectrum are pouring into Afghanistan to take stock of the war one year after US President Barack Obama agreed to send 30,000 more U.S. forces to this country in a bid to turn the tide.

The latest chart from Indicium Consulting provides some hard numbers for perpsective.


The chart shows the steady rise in violence since 2007, and the major spike this year as the new forces pushed into southern Afghanistan.

The numbers are a starting point for an ongoing debate about what they mean. US military strategists argue that the spike in violence is the expected result of the military surge. Some analysts say that concurrent insurgent "surge" is responsible for more of the violence.

Most everyone expects the violence to drop off now that winter is setting in and insurgents are likely to retreat, recharge and restock for next spring, when many analysts expect to truly assess the impact of the Obama military surge on Taliban-led fighters.

Notes on chart:

CH: Central Highlands

ER: Eastern Region

SER: Southeastern Region

SR: Southern Region

WR: Western Region

NER: Northeastern Region

NR: Northern Region

CR: Central Region


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

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