Ann Jones: Citizen’s revolt in Afghanistan

Soon after 9/11, Ann Jones went to Afghanistan to help in whatever way she could, “embedding” with civilians who had been battered by the rigors of that war-torn land.  Out of that experience, especially dealing with the crises of women, she wrote a powerful and moving book, Kabul in Winter. In 2010, she borrowed a flak jacket, put on her combat boots, and settled into a U.S. military outpost in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border to see what life was like for American soldiers.  (“Being outside the wire had filled me with sorrow as I watched earnest, heavily armed and armored boys try to win over white-bearded Afghans — men of extraordinary dignity — who have seen all this before and know the outcome.”) 

The following year, she returned again to Afghanistan, this time focused not on the “collateral damage” to Afghans from our endless war there, but on the true costs of such a war to Americans.  In a country that has never stopped talking about its “wounded warriors,” she alone, and not some young, hot-shot reporter from a major media outlet, followed American war wounded off the grim battlefields of that never-ending war all the way home.  She started at the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, then travelled with often desperately wounded Americans via C-17 to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and afterward on to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  Finally, she visited traumatized and wounded veterans back in their homes.  The book she wrote from this, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, is a one-of-a-kind odyssey on the up-close-and-personal costs of our global war on terror.  (“As I followed the sad trail of damaged veterans to write my new book, I came to see how much they and their families have suffered, like Afghans, from the delusions of this nation’s leaders — many running counter to international law — and of other influential Americans, in and out of the military, more powerful and less accountable than themselves.”)

On her latest trip to Afghanistan, she re-embedded with those who have born the brunt of and bear the deepest scars from the American war there: civilians, especially women, in a society that, after 35 years of Cold War combat, brutal civil war, and Washington’s war on terror, all involving religious and political extremism that should chill the soul, couldn’t be under more pressure.  The U.S. has, of course, sunk many billions of dollars into the promised “reconstruction” of the country, a process of failed nation-building that turned out to also be deeply corrupt.  Many more billions went into the kind of military-building that, across the Greater Middle East, has proven just as unsuccessful. 

With U.S. (and NATO) forces being reduced there, the American-built Afghan security forces are already suffering unsustainable casualties and may one day go the way of the American-built Iraqi Army in 2014.  With the war in Afghanistan going badly, the much-vaunted American “withdrawal” from the country has recently turned into a kind of dance in place, while a constitutionally challenged government in Kabul struggles seven months after coming into office to take control. More than 13 years after the U.S. “liberated” Afghanistan, that country’s main claim to fame may be that it’s become the narco capital of the globe.

Back in the streets of the Afghan capital, Jones now reports that its civilians, facing the nightmarish murder of a young woman, may be taking things heroically into their own hands.  She describes the stirrings of what might someday be thought of as an “Afghan Spring.” Of course, given the disastrous pushback against the various Arab Springs, that in itself is a daunting thought.  Still, hope has been in short supply in twenty-first-century Afghanistan, so consider this a potentially remarkable development. Tom Engelhardt

“Farkhunda is our sister”
A “martyr,” a murder, and the making of a new Afghanistan?
By Ann Jones

I went to Kabul, Afghanistan, in March to see old friends.  By chance, I arrived the day after a woman had been beaten to death and burned by a mob of young men.  The world would soon come to know her name: Farkhunda.  The name means “auspicious” or “jubilant.”  She was killed in the very heart of the Afghan capital, at a popular shrine, the burial place of an unnamed ghazi, a warrior martyred for Islam. Years ago, I worked only a few doors away.  I knew the neighborhood well as a crossroads for travelers and traders, a market street beside the Kabul River, busy with peddlers, beggars, drug addicts, thieves, and pigeons.  It was always a dodgy neighborhood. Now, it had become a crime scene.

In April, at the end of the traditional 40-day period of mourning for the dead woman, that crime scene became the stage for a reenactment of the murder by a group of citizens calling themselves the Committee for Justice for Farkhunda, which was pressing the government to arrest and punish the killers.  Shortly after the performance, the office of the attorney general announced formal chargesagainst 49 men: 30 suspected participants in the woman’s murder and 19 police officers accused of failing to try to stop it.  On May 2nd, a trial began at the Primary Court, carried live on Afghan television. Farkhunda is now dead and buried, but her story has had staying power.  It seems to mark the rise of something not seen in Afghanistan for a very long time: the power of people to renounce violence and peacefully reclaim themselves.  This makes it worth recalling just how events unfolded and what messages they might hold for Americans, in particular, who have been fighting so fruitlessly in Afghanistan for 13-plus years.

[Read more…]

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U.S. military personnel have been convicted of $50 million worth of crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan

Center for Public Integrity: U.S. Army Specialist Stephanie Charboneau sat at the center of a complex trucking network in Forward Operating Base Fenty, near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, that daily distributed tens of thousands of gallons of what soldiers called “liquid gold”: the refined petroleum that fueled the international coalition’s thirsty vehicles, planes, and generators.

A prominent sign in the base read: “The Army Won’t Go If The Fuel Don’t Flow.” But Charboneau, 31, a mother of two from Washington state, felt alienated after a supervisor’s harsh rebuke. Her work was a dreary routine of recording fuel deliveries in a computer and escorting trucks past a gate. But it was soon to take a dark turn into high-value crime.

She began an affair with a civilian, Jonathan Hightower, who worked for a Pentagon contractor that distributed fuel from Fenty, and one day in March 2010, he told her about “this thing going on” at other U.S. military bases around Afghanistan, she recalled in a recent telephone interview.

Soldiers were selling the U.S. military’s fuel to Afghan locals on the side, and pocketing the proceeds. When Hightower suggested they start doing the same, Charboneau said, she agreed.

In so doing, Charboneau contributed to thefts by U.S. military personnel of at least $15 million worth of fuel since the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. And eventually she became one of at least 115 enlisted personnel and military officers convicted since 2005 of committing theft, bribery, and contract rigging crimes valued at $52 million during their deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a comprehensive tally of court records by the Center for Public Integrity. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan novelist: ‘We live in a vacuum, lacking heroes and ideals’

Mujib Mashal writes: Four large clocks tick out of sync, puncturing the silence of his Soviet-built apartment. A half-burned candle sits next to a stack of books. A small television is covered in soot.

This is where Rahnaward Zaryab, Afghanistan’s most celebrated novelist, locks himself up for weeks at a time, lost in bottles of smuggled vodka and old memories of Kabul, a capital city long transformed by war and money.

“We live in a vacuum, lacking heroes and ideals,” Mr. Zaryab reads from his latest manuscript, handwritten on the back of used paper. The smoke from his Pine cigarette, a harsh South Korean brand, clings to yellowed walls. “The heroes lie in dust, the ideals are ridiculed.”

The product of a rare period of peace and tolerance in Afghan history, Mr. Zaryab’s work first flourished in the 1970s, before the country was unraveled by invasion and civil war. Afghanistan still had a vibrant music and theater scene, and writers had a broad readership that stretched beyond just the political elite.

“I would receive letters from girls that would smell of perfume when you opened them,” Mr. Zaryab, who is 70, remembered fondly.

Mr. Zaryab’s stories are informed by his readings of Western philosophy and literature, the writer Homaira Qaderi said. He was educated on scholarships in New Zealand and Britain. But his heroes are indigenous and modest, delicately questioning the dogma and superstitions of a conservative society.

“He is the first writer to focus on the structure of stories, with the eye of someone well read,” Ms. Qaderi said. “We call him the father of new storytelling in Afghanistan.”

But after he became the standard-bearer for Afghan literature, Mr. Zaryab was forced to watch as Kabul, the muse he idealized as a city of music and chivalry in most of his 17 books, fell into rubble and chaos.

Some of the chaos has eased over the past decade, but that has caused him even more pain. He loathes how Kabul has been rebuilt: on a foundation of American cash and foreign values, paving over Afghan culture.

“Money, money, money,” he said, cringing. “Everyone is urged to make money, in any way they can. Art, culture and literature have been forgotten completely.” [Continue reading…]

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Afghanistan’s defining fight: Technocrats vs. strongmen

The Washington Post reports: A massive portrait of a middle-aged man towers over the Ferris wheel and giant mushrooms at an amusement park here. At night, the image is bathed in an ethereal light, visible from a quarter-mile away.

His admirers call him “Ustad,” or “Teacher.” His critics call him the King.

Atta-Mohammad-NoorFor more than a decade, Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of Balkh province, has controlled this northern region with an iron hand, imbued with the authority of the freedom fighter he was and the ultra-rich businessman he has become. Guns, militias and guile, as well as his ability to provide security, have made him one of the country’s most formidable strongmen.

To many war-weary Afghans, former warlords such as Noor — who are accused of human rights abuses yet rule with impunity — have to be marginalized for the nation to move into a new era. To their supporters, these former warlords remain a bulwark against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and, possibly, the Islamic State, more vital than ever as the U.S. military mission edges to a close.

“If Ustad Atta is ever replaced as governor, there will be chaos here, and it will spread to other provinces,” declared Haji Abdul Wahab, a close friend who manages the park, which Noor built. “He’s got a special place in the hearts of Afghan people.”

Noor’s rise and endurance is a legacy of America’s longest war and an emblem of a fresh contest for influence. It pits the aspirations of Western-educated technocrats keen to transform Afghanistan against conservative ethnic and tribal strongmen determined to preserve the status quo. That struggle is becoming the definitive battle for the future of every aspect of the country’s affairs — from forming a new cabinet to tackling rampant corruption to engaging in peace talks with the Taliban. [Continue reading…]

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Anand Gopal: How to create an Afghan Blackwater

The other day, as I was reading through the New York Times, I came upon this headline: “Powerful Afghan Police Chief Killed in Kabul.” His name was Matiullah Khan.  He had once been “an illiterate highway patrol commander” in an obscure southern province of Afghanistan and was taken out in a “targeted suicide bombing” on the streets of the capital — and I realized that I knew him!  Since I’ve never been within a few thousand miles of Kabul, I certainly didn’t know him in the normal sense. I had, you might say, edited Matiullah Khan. He was one of a crop of new warlords who rose to wealth and power by hitching their ambitions to the American war and the U.S. military personnel sent to their country to fight it.  Khan, in particular, made staggering sums by essentially setting up an “Afghan Blackwater,” a hire-a-gun — in fact, so many guns — protection agency for American convoys delivering supplies to far-flung U.S. bases and outposts in southern Afghanistan.

He became the protector and benefactor of a remarkable Afghan woman who is a key character in Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, which I edited and published in the American Empire Project series I co-run for Metropolitan Books. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Gopal covered the Afghan War for years in a way no other Western journalist did. He spent time with crucial allies of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and with a Taliban commander, with warlords and American Special Ops guys, politicians and housewives. He traveled rural Afghanistan as few American reporters were capable of doing.  In the process, he made a discovery that was startling indeed and has yet to really sink in here.

In a nutshell, in 2001, the invading Americans put al-Qaeda to flight and crushed the Taliban.  From most of its top leadership to its foot soldiers, the Talibs were almost uniformly prepared, even eager, to put down their weapons, go back to their villages, and be left in peace. In other words, it was all over. There was just one problem. The Americans, on Washington’s mission to win the Global War on Terror, just couldn’t stop fighting. In their inability to grasp the situation, they essentially forced the Taliban back onto the battlefield and so created an insurgency and a war that they couldn’t win.

Reaction to Gopal’s book, published last April, was at first muted. That’s not so surprising, given that the news it brought to the table wasn’t exactly going to be a popular message here. In recent months, however, it’s gained real traction: the positive reviews began coming in; Rory Stewart made it his book of the year pick at the New Statesman (“Anand Gopal has produced the best piece of investigative journalism to come out of Afghanistan in the past 12 years”); it was a National Book Award finalist and is a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award For Excellence in Journalism. Most strikingly, it just received the prestigious Ridenhour Book Prize for 2015. (“Through a blend of intrepid reporting and clear-eyed — even beautiful prose — we see and can begin to truly understand the violence and tragedy of our longest war.”)

So today, with thanks to Metropolitan Books, I thought I would give you a taste of a work of reportage that turns the American narrative about the Afghan War on its head. Here, from No Good Men Among the Living, is what it felt like when the war that rural Afghans thought was over just wouldn’t end, when the Americans couldn’t stop shooting and that new crop of Afghan warlords began using Washington’s war on terror for their own ends. The toll in wrecked lives, including most recently that of Matiullah Khan, is now 13 years old and unending. Tom Engelhardt

The real Afghan war
How an American fantasy conflict created disaster in Afghanistan
By Anand Gopal

[This essay is taken from chapter five of Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes and appears at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of Metropolitan Books.]

The sky clotted gray and the winds gusted cold as the men crowded into an old roadside gas station. It was daybreak in Band-i-Timor, early December 2001, and hundreds of turbaned farmers sat pensively, weighing the choice before them. They had once been the backbone of the Taliban’s support; the movement had arisen not far from here, and many had sent their sons to fight on the front lines. But in 2000, Mullah Omar had decreed opium cultivation to be un-Islamic, and whip-wielding police saw to it that production was halted almost overnight. Band-i-Timor had been poppy country for as long as anyone could remember, but now the fields lay fallow and children were going hungry. With the Taliban’s days numbered after the U.S. invasion, the mood was ripe for a change. But could they trust the Americans? Or Hamid Karzai?

[Read more…]

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Dilip Hiro: Afghanistan’s China card

In June 2014, as he was preparing to send 300 U.S. military advisers back to Iraq, President Obama hailed the American counterterror campaign in Yemen — Special Operations advisers (and CIA operatives) on the ground, drones in the air — as a “model” for what he hoped to do against the Islamic State. In September, as Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post wrote, President Obama “cited his Yemen strategy as a template for confronting jihadist threats in other places, including Iraq and Syria.” He was still making reference to its “success” this January when discussing what had become Iraq War 3.0.

Last week, however, with al-Qaeda militants taking a nearby town, Washington withdrew its final 100 Special Operations advisers in Yemen from a southern air base where U.S. drones had been stationed and halted all military operations in the country. By then, the U.S. embassy in Sana’a, the capital, had been shuttered for a month. Meanwhile $500 million in U.S. weaponry had reportedly gone missing in that country and might be in the hands of almost anyone, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the local branch of the terror franchise. That group had only grown stronger under years of American drone strikes.

Iranian-backed Houthi rebels now control the north of the country, including Sana’a, and recently seized its third largest city and headed south toward the port of Aden. Yemen seems at the edge of civil war and backers of the Islamic State may even have a foothold there. Strikes from U.S. drones based in Saudi Arabia, among other places, will undoubtedly continue, though assumedly with even less on-the-ground intelligence from Yemeni sources. In sum, as with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the intervention in Libya, hopes in Washington that once were so high have been dashed. This is, by now, a commonplace experience:  the early moments of any U.S. military campaign seem so successful — and then, with the passage of time, the verdict comes in: another failure for the twenty-first-century American way of war.

Today, TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro considers one of those failed efforts — in Afghanistan, where the planet’s former “sole superpower” now seems to be losing out not only to local Taliban militants, whose strength has been on the upswing, but to the power it may fear most: an economically rising China. In these years, from the Middle East to Africa, that country has had an uncanny ability to sweep up the imperial spoils, especially local energy resources, without sending a soldier into battle. Now, it seems, China may be in the process of doing just that in Afghanistan.

On this subject and the associated contest between Pakistan and India for influence in Afghanistan, Hiro, whom Jeremy Scahill has called “the quintessential non-aligned journalist… the master chronicler of some of history’s most epic battles,” knows a thing or two. His monumental new book, The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan, is the first definitive history of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. With a desperate Obama administration struggling over just how many U.S. military personnel to leave in Afghanistan for how endlessly and fruitlessly long, it makes sense to put Washington’s perspective aside for a moment and try to get a bead on what’s really happening in South Asia and Afghanistan through a different lens. Tom Engelhardt

The Great Game in Afghanistan (twenty-first-century update)
And the U.S. is losing out
By Dilip Hiro

Call it an irony, if you will, but as the Obama administration struggles to slow down or halt its scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan, newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is performing a withdrawal operation of his own. He seems to be in the process of trying to sideline the country’s major patron of the last 13 years — and as happened in Iraq after the American invasion and occupation there, Chinese resource companies are again picking up the pieces.

[Read more…]

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Afghan militia leaders, empowered by U.S. to fight Taliban, inspire fear in villages

The New York Times reports: Rahimullah used to be a farmer — just a “normal person living an ordinary life,” as he put it. Then he formed his own militia last year and found himself swept up in America’s exit strategy from Afghanistan.

With about 20 men loyal to him, Rahimullah, 56, soon discovered a patron in the United States Special Forces, who provided everything he needed: rifles, ammunition, cash, even sandbags for a guard post in Aghu Jan, a remote village in Ghazni Province.

Then the Americans pulled out, leaving Rahimullah behind as the local strongman, and as his village’s only defense against a Taliban takeover.

“We are shivering with fear,” said one resident, Abdul Ahad. Then he explained: He and his neighbors did not fear the Taliban nearly as much as they did their protectors, Rahimullah’s militiamen, who have turned to kidnappings and extortion. [Continue reading…]

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CIA cash ended up in coffers of Al Qaeda

The New York Times reports: In the spring of 2010, Afghan officials struck a deal to free an Afghan diplomat held hostage by Al Qaeda. But the price was steep — $5 million — and senior security officials were scrambling to come up with the money.

They first turned to a secret fund that the Central Intelligence Agency bankrolled with monthly cash deliveries to the presidential palace in Kabul, according to several Afghan officials involved in the episode. The Afghan government, they said, had already squirreled away about $1 million from that fund.

Within weeks, that money and $4 million more provided from other countries was handed over to Al Qaeda, replenishing its coffers after a relentless C.I.A. campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan had decimated the militant network’s upper ranks.

“God blessed us with a good amount of money this month,” Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, the group’s general manager, wrote in a letter to Osama bin Laden in June 2010, noting that the cash would be used for weapons and other operational needs. [Continue reading…]

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Unsettled at home, veterans volunteer to fight ISIS

The New York Times reports: In the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniya, [Patrick] Maxwell [a 29-year-old Iraq war veteran from Austin, Texas] was greeted at the airport by the Kurdish lieutenant. Soon after, he befriended one of the few foreign volunteers there, a Canadian veteran named Dillon Hillier, who had served in Afghanistan.

“We both thought it was important to help, to not sit back and watch it happen,” Mr. Hillier said in a phone interview from his home in Ontario.

The pair ended up in a ragtag infantry battalion on the front lines near Kirkuk, eating meals of rice and flatbread, traveling in beat-up, sometimes bullet-pocked trucks and sleeping on the floors of shipping containers.

“This is just like back in Al Anbar Province,” Mr. Maxwell said with a laugh in a video he made while speeding to the front lines in the back of a Ford pickup, holding a belt-fed machine gun. “Except we have no safety gear, no medical support and no air support.”

Much of the time he was kept away from the fighting, providing security for pesh merga generals, while occasionally manning sniper positions on the front line.

Mr. Maxwell said fighting was rare during his time on the Kurdish lines. “It was more like a World War I standoff,” he said.

In the seven weeks he was in Iraq, he became disenchanted as he watched a procession of American outcasts come to volunteer, including a man kicked out of the Marines who had arrest warrants in the United States and a biker with lip piercings, implanted fangs and “necromancer” written across his black leather jacket.

“Guys who had nothing to live for and just wanted to lay down bodies,” Mr. Maxwell said.

His time with the pesh merga abruptly ended in mid-January, he said, when American Special Operations forces advising the Kurds spotted him at a base near Kirkuk and State Department officials told pesh merga leaders that American civilians should not be in combat.

Mr. Maxwell said that he was removed from the front and that a few days later he and Mr. Hillier flew home in frustration.

“There was no point being there,” he said. “Politics had gotten in the way.”

In January when Mr. Maxwell arrived at Kennedy International Airport in New York with more than 100 pounds of military gear, he assumed he might be detained and possibly charged for fighting with the pesh merga, but no one stopped him. [Continue reading..]

The Daily Beast spoke to another American volunteer, referred to as “Patrick” — not his real name: Patrick’s journey to Syria started when he contacted a recruiter affiliated with the Lions of Rojava Facebook page, which specializes in recruiting foreigners for the YPG. The YPG is an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and is perhaps best known in the West for its defense of Kobani and the use of its all-female YPJ units. Though both are Kurdish and have at times fought together, the YPG and YPJ are not the Peshmerga of neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan.

“I decided to join the fight against ISIS because…at a certain point in my life I made a promise to defend my nation against enemies foreign and domestic, and I decided that ISIS presents a clear threat not only to the people of Kurdistan, not only to the people of the Middle East, but eventually will threaten our national security at home,” Patrick said.

He added that some of the foreign fighters he met had previous military experience, though he wouldn’t say whether he did. He said he doesn’t have an exact count of just how many foreigners are with the YPG but that it could be as many as 100-plus — now. When he initially arrived in Syria, the YPG was seeking to form all-Western units, but Patrick said these units were later broken apart to allow the YPG command to structure message control, and some of the foreigners even had their passports and phones taken away. Patrick said the YPG told the fighters this was because they feared ISIS might gain a propaganda victory if they killed or captured a foreigner and discovered their passport. He said he believed, however, it might have had just as much to do with ensuring the fighters couldn’t leave at will or speak to anyone on the outside without a YPG minder present.

From there, Patrick said, the foreigners were trained on the YPG’s aging weapons systems and occasionally manned checkpoints and went on patrols, but they never participated in any real battles.

“The Western fighters who spend time with YPG soon realize they’re not going to fight. I did not meet one single person, one single Westerner, that didn’t catch on to the fact that they were never intended to fight and they were being used as propaganda,” he said.

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The enigma of survival

Sally Satel writes: The evil hour descended on David Morris in the summer of 2009. The former marine and war reporter was in a theater watching a movie with his then girlfriend and suddenly found himself pacing the lobby with no memory of having left his seat. Later, his girlfriend explained that Morris had fled after an explosion occurred onscreen.

He began having dreams of his buddies being ripped apart. When awake, he would imagine innocent items—an apple or a container of Chinese takeout—blowing up. Pathological vigilance took root: “Preparing for bed was like getting ready for a night patrol.” The dreams persisted. “Part of me,” he admits, “was ashamed of the dreams, of the realization that I was trapped inside a cliché: the veteran so obsessed with his own past that even his unconscious made love to it every night.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder is the subject of two new books, one by Morris and another by war reporter Mac McClelland. The symptoms are crippling: relentless nightmares, unbidden waking images, hyperarousal, sleeplessness, and phobias. As a diagnosis, it has existed colloquially for generations—“shell shock” is one name that survives in the modern idiom—and it has particular resonance because of this generation’s wars. (Most soldiers are spared it, though the public tends to think they are not. A 2012 poll found that most people believe that most post-9/11 veterans suffer from PTSD. The actual rate has been estimated at between two and 17 percent.)

Morris thinks the symptoms—a body and mind reacting in fear long after the threat to life and limb is gone—hardly encompass the experience of PTSD. Historically, we might have sought out not only shrinks but also “poetry, our families, or the clergy for solace post horror.” Profitably, Morris turns to everyone: the Greeks, the great poets of World War I, historians, anthropologists, and yes, psychiatrists and psychologists.

From such wide consultation comes a masterful synthesis. The Evil Hours interweaves memoir with a cultural history of war’s psychic aftermath. Morris chronicles the development of PTSD as an official diagnosis and its earlier incarnations in other wars. From Homer’s Odyssey to the venerated war poets, from the crusade for recognition by organized psychiatry to the modern science of fear and resilience, Morris gives a sweeping view of the condition, illuminated by meditation on sacrifice and danger and, in his words, “the enigma of survival.” [Continue reading…]

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Afghan officials: ISIS operating in volatile southern Helmand province

Associated Press: Afghan officials confirmed for the first time Monday that the extremist Islamic State group is active in the south, recruiting fighters, flying black flags and, according to some sources, even battling Taliban militants.

The sources, including an Afghan general and a provincial governor, said a man identified as Mullah Abdul Rauf was actively recruiting fighters for the group, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

Gen. Mahmood Khan, the deputy commander of the army’s 215 Corps, said that within the past week residents of a number of districts in the southern Helmand province have said Rauf’s representatives are fanning out to recruit people.

“A number of tribal leaders, jihadi commanders and some ulema (religious council members) and other people have contacted me to tell me that Mullah Rauf had contacted them and invited them to join him,” Khan said.

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Kabul was eerie and dangerous under the Taliban. It feels that way again

Pamela Constable reports: Many winters ago, I stood in a vast, empty intersection of central Kabul. The only sounds were the jingle of passing horse carts and the ticking spokes of old bicycles. There were no other Westerners on the streets, and all eyes were upon me. Despite being wrapped in many layers of modest clothing, I felt naked.

Much has changed in the Afghan capital since those haunted days under Taliban rule. Bombed-out ruins have been replaced by multi-story apartment buildings and ornate mansions. The populace has quintupled and traffic jams are constant. Cellphone and computer shops with picture windows line the streets, and beauty parlor signs feature women with pouting lips and geisha makeup.

But this winter, even as a frequent foreign visitor to Kabul, dressed modestly and with my head covered, I feel naked once again. Almost every Westerner I once knew here has left the country for good, their missions suspended or shut down, and several of my longtime Afghan acquaintances and colleagues have fled abroad and sought asylum. [Continue reading…]

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Taliban sees U.S. defeat as troops leave Afghanistan

Foreign Policy reports: A day after the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force held a low-key ceremony in a heavily guarded military compound to mark the formal end of its combat mission in Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents on Monday mockingly accused the United States and its NATO allies of leaving the country in defeat after a long and costly 13-year military campaign.

“Today ISAF rolled up its flag in an atmosphere of failure and disappointment without having achieved anything substantial or tangible,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in a statement Monday, using the acronym for the American-led coalition. “We consider this step a clear indication of their defeat and disappointment.”

In the lengthy statement, Mujahid said the war had exacted a heavy toll from the United States and its allies while leaving them precious little to show for their human and financial losses. [Continue reading…]

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James Fallows and the chickenhawks

James Fallows writes: Every institution has problems, and at every stage of U.S. history, some critics have considered the U.S. military overfunded, underprepared, too insular and self-regarding, or flawed in some other way. The difference now, I contend, is that these modern distortions all flow in one way or another from the chickenhawk basis of today’s defense strategy.

At enormous cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.

I have met serious people who claim that the military’s set-apart existence is best for its own interests, and for the nation’s. “Since the time of the Romans there have been people, mostly men but increasingly women, who have volunteered to be the praetorian guard,” John A. Nagl told me. Nagl is a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who was a combat commander in Iraq and has written two influential books about the modern military. He left the Army as a lieutenant colonel and now, in his late 40s, is the head of the Haverford prep school, near Philadelphia.

“They know what they are signing up for,” Nagl said of today’s troops. “They are proud to do it, and in exchange they expect a reasonable living, and pensions and health care if they are hurt or fall sick. The American public is completely willing to let this professional class of volunteers serve where they should, for wise purpose. This gives the president much greater freedom of action to make decisions in the national interest, with troops who will salute sharply and do what needs to be done.”

I like and respect Nagl, but I completely disagree. As we’ve seen, public inattention to the military, born of having no direct interest in what happens to it, has allowed both strategic and institutional problems to fester.

“A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are far less likely to care about it,” Andrew Bacevich wrote in 2012. Bacevich himself fought in Vietnam; his son was killed in Iraq. “Persuaded that they have no skin in the game, they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes to do.”

[Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Mike Mullen thinks that one way to reengage Americans with the military is to shrink the active-duty force, a process already under way. “The next time we go to war,” he said, “the American people should have to say yes. And that would mean that half a million people who weren’t planning to do this would have to be involved in some way. They would have to be inconvenienced. That would bring America in. America hasn’t been in these previous wars. And we are paying dearly for that.” [Continue reading…]

Mullen says “inconvenienced” — presumably that’s a euphemism for drafted — but Fallows claims that reintroduction of the draft would be “unimaginable.”

Perhaps the draft is not so unimaginable as a policy recommendation as much as it is unimaginable coming from Fallows.

During the Vietnam War, Fallows dodged the draft rather than resisting it, an option he made because, as he wrote in 1975: “What I wanted was to go to graduate school, to get married, and to enjoy those bright prospects I had been taught that life owed me.”

Having told an examining doctor at his Cambridge draft board that he had contemplated suicide, and having thus been deemed “unqualified” for military service, Fallows said: “I was overcome by a wave of relief, which for the first time revealed to me how great my terror had been, and by the beginning of the sense of shame which remains with me to this day.”

No doubt that sense of shame would now make it impossible for Fallows to be an advocate for the draft.

But by now dodging this issue, he avoids drilling deeply into the most basic questions about the role of the military in America.

Fallow’s war-weariness and that of many other Americans seems to stem not so much from the fact that the United States has engaged in so much unnecessary war over the last decade or so, than the fact that its military efforts have been such a colossal and expensive failure.

Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years. No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.

Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion; Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Lindsey, was forced to resign for telling The Wall Street Journal that the all-in costs might be as high as $100 billion to $200 billion, or less than the U.S. has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan in many individual years.

Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned. “At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq,” a former military intelligence officer named Jim Gourley wrote recently for Thomas E. Ricks’s blog, Best Defense. “Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces.” In 13 years of continuous combat under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the longest stretch of warfare in American history, U.S. forces have achieved one clear strategic success: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

That Fallows views the killing of bin Laden as the “one clear strategic success” — without his intention — goes right to the heart of his polemic on America’s chickenhawk culture.

The celebration of bin Laden’s death is no less cowardly than support for wars triggered by 9/11.

If this killing could have served America in any way, it might conceivably have functioned as the symbolic end to an era. Clearly it did not have that effect.

A strategic success would be defined by its effect — by its ability to forestall undesirable outcomes and create a better future. Killing bin Laden had no such effect. Had he been captured and put on trial, it is conceivable that justice would have been served in a constructive way.

The willingness of Americans to support or acquiesce to a succession of military misadventures after 9/11 flowed very much from the fact that so few people were willing to question America’s need for vengeance. Moreover, America’s need to look strong was the product much less of the magnitude of the threat it faced than of a fear of looking weak.

Fallows hopes that America might be able to choose its wars more wisely and win them, but in that hope lies the most basic fallacy: that war should be a matter of choice.

In a war of true necessity, a nation goes to war because it has no choice. It fights not because it is convinced it will win but because the alternative would be worse than war.

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Is the influence of the Taliban’s elusive leader waning?

The New York Times reports: If the Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, were ever to assert himself more publicly, this would have been the year to do it.

In a season of immense upheaval in the jihadist world, the Taliban gained ground in new Afghan offensives, endured a bloody internal power struggle and had to contend with the rise of the Islamic State militant group as an ideological rival. Through it all, Mullah Omar has remained silent.

Further, though he has stayed completely out of the public eye since he fled American airstrikes in late 2001, his reclusiveness became even more pronounced in the past year: Now, all but two of the Taliban’s leaders who had direct access to Mullah Omar have been cut off, according to senior Taliban figures and Afghan and Western officials, all of whom say a significant power shift is underway.

“I have not seen Mullah Omar in a very long time,” Maulvi Najibullah, a senior Taliban military commander, said in a telephone interview from Peshawar, in northern Pakistan.

The invisibility of Mullah Omar has been accentuated by the visible role of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, reinforcing the Taliban’s increasingly secondary role in the world of Islamist militants, Afghan and Western officials said.

So, is the influence of the elusive mullah waning? [Continue reading…]

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A dubious history of targeted killings in Afghanistan

Der Spiegel reports: Death is circling above Helmand Province on the morning of Feb. 7, 2011, in the form of a British Apache combat helicopter named “Ugly 50.” Its crew is searching for an Afghan named Mullah Niaz Mohammed. The pilot has orders to kill him.

The Afghan, who has been given the code name “Doody,” is a “mid-level commander” in the Taliban, according to a secret NATO list. The document lists enemy combatants the alliance has approved for targeted killings. “Doody” is number 3,673 on the list and NATO has assigned him a priority level of three on a scale of one to four. In other words, he isn’t particularly important within the Taliban leadership structure.

The operations center identified “Doody” at 10:17 a.m. But visibility is poor and the helicopter is forced to circle another time. Then the gunner fires a “Hellfire” missile. But he has lost sight of the mullah during the maneuver, and the missile strikes a man and his child instead. The boy is killed instantly and the father is severely wounded. When the pilot realizes that the wrong man has been targeted, he fires 100 rounds at “Doody” with his 30-mm gun, critically injuring the mullah.

The child and his father are two of the many victims of the dirty secret operations that NATO conducted for years in Afghanistan. Their fate is described in secret documents to which SPIEGEL was given access. Some of the documents concerning the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the NSA and GCHQ intelligence services are from the archive of whistleblower Edward Snowden. Included is the first known complete list of the Western alliance’s “targeted killings” in Afghanistan. The documents show that the deadly missions were not just viewed as a last resort to prevent attacks, but were in fact part of everyday life in the guerilla war in Afghanistan. [Continue reading…]

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War in Afghanistan ends — except for the fighting

Reuters reports: The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan formally ended its combat mission on Sunday, more than 13 years after an international alliance ousted the Taliban government for sheltering the planners of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on American cities.

About 13,000 foreign troops, mostly Americans, will remain in the country under a new, two-year mission named “Resolute Support” that will continue the coalition’s training of Afghan security forces.

The Afghan army and police are struggling to fight against Taliban militants who this year killed record numbers of Afghans.

“Today marks an end of an era and the beginning of a new one,” said U.S. General John Campbell, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), at the ceremony marking the end of the mission held at the ISAF headquarters in Kabul. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: In a large swath of the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan, government centers are facing a long-dormant concern this winter: Four years after the American troop surge helped make such places relatively secure, they are back under threat from the insurgents.

The fighting in Helmand Province in the south has been particularly deadly, with over 1,300 security force members killed between June and November. And the insurgents’ siege of several key districts has continued long after the traditional end of the fighting season.

It has been so bad that the 90-bed hospital for war wounded run in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, by the international aid group Emergency was still running nearly full in early December, according to Emanuele Nannini, the group’s coordinator. While the group keeps no statistics on how many of its patients are fighters, and treats all sides, a rough estimate is that half of the patients are Afghan police officers, from both national and local forces. Soldiers are treated in military hospitals, which do not divulge their statistics.

“This year is much worse than previous years,” said Dr. Abdul Hamidi, a police colonel who is head of medical services for the national police in Helmand. “We’ve heard that the Quetta Shura has a big push to raise their flags over three districts by January, and has ordered their people to keep fighting until they do,” he said, referring to the exiled Taliban leadership council in Pakistan.

One of the differences is that this year, the American forces, and their close air support, have been almost completely absent from the field. And though the Afghan forces are holding on, for the most part, they are taking punishingly heavy losses. [Continue reading…]

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Jim Gant: ‘Lawrence of Afghanistan’

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