The Afghanistan abyss

The Afghanistan abyss

President Obama has already dispatched an additional 21,000 American troops to Afghanistan and soon will decide whether to send thousands more. That would be a fateful decision for his presidency, and a group of former intelligence officials and other experts is now reluctantly going public to warn that more troops would be a historic mistake.

The group’s concern — dead right, in my view — is that sending more American troops into ethnic Pashtun areas in the Afghan south may only galvanize local people to back the Taliban in repelling the infidels.

“Our policy makers do not understand that the very presence of our forces in the Pashtun areas is the problem,” the group said in a statement to me. “The more troops we put in, the greater the opposition. We do not mitigate the opposition by increasing troop levels, but rather we increase the opposition and prove to the Pashtuns that the Taliban are correct.

“The basic ignorance by our leadership is going to cause the deaths of many fine American troops with no positive outcome,” the statement said. [continued…]

Can victory for President Karzai be taken as legitimate?

Western diplomats have been afraid of this predicament ever since the poll results began to come in, with an apparent lead for President Karzai accompanied by a torrent of allegations of fraud. Mr Karzai is now within a whisker of the 50 per cent that would allow him to him claim victory and prevent a run-off vote. But the huge number of serious allegations of fraud — in the thousands, but with at least 600 material to the outcome of the election — mean that it is hard to take his victory as legitimate.

That, certainly, is the view of Abdullah Abdullah, his main rival, and Abdullah supporters. They are threatening to challenge the result through legal appeals and through violence if necessary. The studied position of British and US officials for the past week — that it is for Afghans to decide whether or not the polls produce a credible and legitimate result — is about to shatter. If substantial numbers of Afghans decide that the vote was rigged, what do other governments do then? They have had no answer, hoping not to be in that position. They had better find one now. [continued…]

Fake Afghan poll sites favored Karzai, officials assert

Afghans loyal to President Hamid Karzai set up hundreds of fictitious polling sites where no one voted but where hundreds of thousands of ballots were still recorded toward the president’s re-election, according to senior Western and Afghan officials here.

The fake sites, as many as 800, existed only on paper, said a senior Western diplomat in Afghanistan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political delicacy of the vote. Local workers reported that hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of votes for Mr. Karzai in the election last month came from each of those places. That pattern was confirmed by another Western official based in Afghanistan.

“We think that about 15 percent of the polling sites never opened on Election Day,” the senior Western diplomat said. “But they still managed to report thousands of ballots for Karzai.”

Besides creating the fake sites, Mr. Karzai’s supporters also took over approximately 800 legitimate polling centers and used them to fraudulently report tens of thousands of additional ballots for Mr. Karzai, the officials said. [continued…]

Sole informant guided decision on Afghan strike

To the German commander, it seemed to be a fortuitous target: More than 100 Taliban insurgents were gathering around two hijacked fuel tankers that had become stuck in the mud near this small farming village.

The grainy live video transmitted from an American F-15E fighter jet circling overhead, which was projected on a screen in a German tactical operations center four miles north of here, showed numerous black dots around the trucks — each of them a thermal image of a human but without enough detail to confirm whether they were carrying weapons. An Afghan informant was on the phone with an intelligence officer at the center, however, insisting that everybody at the site was an insurgent, according to an account that German officers here provided to NATO officials.

Based largely on that informant’s assessment, the commander ordered a 500-pound, satellite-guided bomb to be dropped on each truck early Friday. The vehicles exploded in a fireball that lit up the night sky for miles, incinerating many of those standing nearby.

A NATO fact-finding team estimated Saturday that about 125 people were killed in the bombing, at least two dozen of whom — but perhaps many more — were not insurgents. To the team, which is trying to sort out this complicated incident, mindful that the fallout could further sap public support in Afghanistan for NATO’s security mission here, the target appeared to be far less clear-cut than it had to the Germans.

One survivor, convalescing from abdominal wounds at a hospital in the nearby city of Kunduz, said he went to the site because he thought he could get free fuel. Another patient, a 10-year-old boy with shrapnel in his left leg, said he went to gawk, against his father’s advice. In Kabul, the Afghan capital, relatives of two severely burned survivors being treated at an intensive-care unit said Taliban fighters forced dozens of villagers to assist in moving the bogged-down tankers.

“They came to everyone’s house asking for help,” said Mirajuddin, a shopkeeper who lost six of his cousins in the bombing — none of whom, he said, was an insurgent. “They started beating people and pointing guns. They said, ‘Bring your tractors and help us.’ What could we do?” [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The striking gap in this account is the absence of testimony from the pilots who released the 500-pound bombs. It’s as though they were merely small cogs in a military machine within which they had little control. Yet we do learn one thing: one of the F-15 pilots recommended dropping 2000-pound bombs. Based on the thermal images he could see, there was little he could discern about the individuals gathered around the fuel trucks yet in his mind the best thing to do would be to kill the maximum number of people in the area.

As the story has been told, the fuel was being dispersed because the trucks couldn’t reach their intended destination. What seems more likely? That the insurgents hoped to later re-collect hundreds of gallons of kerosene stowed away in kitchen jugs, or that the stolen fuel was destined to be used cooking beans over hand-pumped kerosene burners?

“Who goes out at 2 in the morning for fuel? These were bad people, and this was a good operation,” a key local official told the Post.

In the clear mountain air of Afghanistan, the full-moon late last week would have provided surprisingly good light – certainly good enough to make the prospect of some free fuel appealing to more than just the bad people.

Europeans seek to shift security role to Afghan government

The leaders of France, Germany and Britain called Sunday night for an international conference to work out a plan to shift responsibility for security in Afghanistan to the Afghan government.

The call by the three governments, the largest contributors of troops to the war in Afghanistan after the United States, came as mounting military casualties and doubts about the mission there have fueled growing public opposition to the war in Europe.

In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman, Megan Mattson, said the department had no immediate comment on the proposed conference. [continued…]

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