January 4, 2011

'Tom and Jerry' in Afghanistan

An anonymous U.S. military official in southern Afghanistan says that the war resembles a never-ending "Tom and Jerry" cartoon. 

The paraphrased comment was made to Afghanistan's Tolo News.

"A US military commander told a TOLOnews reporter in southern Helmand province that he has come to know that Afghan war is more like 'Tom and Jerry' cartoon which never ends," the report states. "The only difference is the cartoon does not claim lives, but here we lose men every day. But what hurts is that we are not able to capture sanctuaries where they sketch attacks against us, the US military commander said on condition of anonymity."Tom-and-jerry-tom-and-jerry

It's not clear what the military official meant by making the comparison.

According to Wikipedia, "Tom and Jerry" shows "usually center on Tom's numerous attempts to capture Jerry and the mayhem and destruction that ensues."

"Tom rarely succeeds in catching Jerry, mainly because of Jerry's cleverness, cunning abilities, and luck," Wikipedia writes.

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 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)

November 25, 2010

How not to get punk'd by the Taliban

After weeks of trumpeting their role in facilitating "high level" talks between the Taliban and Afghan government, NATO officials were embarrassed this week when it became clear that the man they thought was the #2 Taliban leader in exile was actually an impostor.

While NATO officials and Afghan leaders are trying to figure out who took them for a ride, Foreign Policy has devised a handy Top Ten List to help them distinguish real Taliban leaders from the impostors.

Hint: If the "Taliban leader" keeps asking for the talks to be held in the Maldives and runs up massive mini bar bills, you may not be on the right track...

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 3, 2010

US military finds no fault with disputed night raid


(Friends and relatives of three Afghan students killed in a recent raid by US Special Forces pray during a memorial for the trio earlier this month in Kabul.)

Last month, US special forces hunting for Taliban insurgents staged a questionable night raid in Afghanistan that ended with the force killing three young brothers -- two of them English-speaking college students.

The shootings immediately sparked vitriolic anti-American protests and put the spotlight on the dramatic rise in special forces raids that have become a critical component of the US military strategy in Afghanistan.

As NPR's Quil Lawrence noted at the time, there was no evidence that the three brothers -- two of them university students in Kabul -- were Taliban insurgents.

In fact, friends of the shooting victims said one of the brothers was afraid that he might run into the Taliban while heading home to be with his family for the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Initially, the US military put on a vague press release that served to obscure the details of the raid.

After fielding repeated questioning about the raid, the US military admitted that they had captured no Taliban insurgents in the compound where the three boys were killed. In the end, military officials conceded that their initial claim that they captured a local Taliban leader appeared to be unfounded.

As the US military decribed the shootings, the US-led force targeted the compound, ordered people to come out and then discovered the three brothers in a cramped room.

There, the US military said, one brother was shot as he picked up a lone AK-47. Then, the US military said, the second brother was shot as he went for the gun. Then, with two brothers fatally wounded, the US military said the third brother was killed as he, too, reached for the lone AK.

Family members challenged that story and said they had no weapons on the compound.

Nearly a month after the raid, the US military told McClatchy this weekend that an internal investigation had cleared the US forces of any wrongdoing.

"The rules of engagement were followed by the entry force and there will be no further investigation," said US Maj. Sunset Belinsky, a spokeswoman for the US-led international military coalition in Afghanistan.

August 21, 2010

Who killed Tom Little?

Tom Little and Dan Terry were laid to rest today in Afghanistan, more than two weeks after they were killed, along with eight colleagues, as they made their way through eastern Afghanistan at the tail end of an unusual three week mission to provide medical care to remote villages in Nuristan.

As the first reports of the merciless killings began to surface, a leading Taliban spokesman was quick to claim responsibility. Aidworkers

Friends and relatives of those on the medical trek, which included eight international staff and two Afghans, were dubious.

The Taliban are known for their methodical, destabilizing attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians in the past six months alone.

But they had never deliberately targeted such a large group of international medical workers.

The International Assistance Mission, the Christian-based group behind the Nuristan medical trek, quickly came to the conclusion that the attack "was an opportunistic ambush by a group of non-local fighters."

The focus turned away from the Afghan Taliban and towards Pakistan.

In recent days, two Taliban leaders in the region have come forward to condemn the killings and deny responsibility for the attack.

"We regret these killings and strongly assert that this is not the work of the Taliban who will never do harm to genuine aid workers… as soon as we manage to apprehend those responsible for this act, we shall subject them to whatever punishment our laws prescribe,” Qari Malang, a Taliban leader in Nuristan, told Kate Clark, a former BBC correspondent and close friend of the families, who has been trying to figure out who was responsible for the attack.

In a piece for the BBC, Kate called these "dark and disturbing times."

Dan and Tom were hardly foreigners in Afghanistan.

Both men had come here in the 1970s, both raised their children here, both learned to speak the local languages, and they both devoted their lives to helping this country through invasions, coups, civil war, Taliban rule, and America's nine-year-old war.

That's why both were buried in Afghanistan, the country they loved.

The premeditated attack was jarring.

In an opinion piece days after the assault, Michael Semple, a specialist in this region, described the attack as a ominous event.

"Perhaps the best way to understand the politics of the killing of the eye camp team is that it is the product of the social breakdown caused by two competing systems failing to control Afghanistan,"  Semple wrote. "The internationally backed government has failed to deliver security, has limited projection beyond administrative centers and long ago compromised on the idea of enforcing law and order. The Taliban movement boasts a shadow administration and tries to brand itself as an enforcer of tough justice. The Taliban grip on territory is not firm enough for its administration to fill the gap left by a struggling government. But the movement’s willingness to use extreme violence, even against the civilian population, prevents the emergence of the kind of tribal-village republics that Afghans dream of as an alternative to government."

The FBI is investigating the incident, though there is widespread skepticism in Kabul about the ability of the U.S. government investigators to figure out who was behind the attack.

As Deb Riechmann and Amir Shah reported for AP, the lone survivor (one of the group's drivers) thought the leader of the group was Pakistani because of the language he used.

That has fueled speculation that the attack was the work of the Taliban in Pakistan, not the Taliban from Afghanistan.

Along with the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami, the insurgent Taliban ally, also reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack. Led by the widely reviled Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Hezb-e-Islami has launched tentative peace talks with the Afghan government and it's hard to see how killing a group of international medical aid workers would help their strategy.

Finding out who is responsible for these killings could serve as a barometer for the state of the insurgency in the region and where things are heading.

August 16, 2010

US Embassy warning: Alarming dangers ahead

Over the weekend, the US Embassy in Afghanistan issued an updated travel warning.

Chances are good that few people are considering a holiday in Afghanistan these days, but the latest travel warning offers some stark reflections on life in the war zone, especially in the wake of the brutal murder of eight Westerners and two of their Afghan colleagues taking part in a medical trek in Nuristan.

Here's some highlights:

"No part of Afghanistan should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, either targeted or random, against American and other Western nationals at any time."

"Afghan authorities have a limited ability to maintain order and ensure the security of Afghan citizens and visitors. Travel in all areas of Afghanistan is unsafe due to military combat operations, landmines, banditry, armed rivalry between political and tribal groups, and the possibility of terrorist attacks, including attacks using vehicular or other improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The security environment remains volatile and unpredictable."

"In Kandahar, the assassination of government officials, their associates, or anyone notably linked to the government has become alarming. The number of attacks throughout the south and southeastern areas of the country is growing as a result of insurgent and drug-related activity, and no part of Afghanistan is immune from violence."

"Ambushes, robberies, and violent crime remain a problem. U.S. citizens involved in property disputes -- a common legal problem -- have reported that their adversaries in the disputes have threatened their lives. U.S. citizens who find themselves in such situations cannot assume that either local law enforcement or the U.S. Embassy will be able to assist them."

"The U.S. Embassy's ability to provide emergency consular services to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is limited, particularly for those persons outside the capital."

July 30, 2010

A jarring pic sparks debate about Afghan women


Time Magazine's cover this week features a jarring image of Aisha, an 18-year-old Afghan who had her nose and ears cut off, per Taliban orders, after trying to flee abusive in-laws.

The photo by Jodi Bieber is joined with a cover feature by Aryn Baker that looks into the plight of Afghan women who are concerned that President Karzai's plans for peace talks with the Taliban will roll back the gains they have made since 2001.

In an editor's note about the decision to use the photo, Richard Stengel wrote: "In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban's treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan."


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

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