December 12, 2010

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.”

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 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.)


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

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