How many guns did the U.S. lose track of in Iraq and Afghanistan? Hundreds of thousands

C.J. Chivers reports: Early this year, a Facebook user in Baghdad using the name Hussein Mahyawi posted a photograph of a slightly worn M4 assault rifle he was offering for sale. Veterans of the latest war in Iraq immediately recognized it. It was a standard American carbine equipped with a holographic sight, a foregrip that was military-issue during the occupation and a sticker bearing a digital QR code used by American forces for inventory control. Except for one detail — an aftermarket pistol grip, the sort of accessory with which combatants of the current generation often pimp their guns — it was a dead ringer for any of the tens of thousands of M4s the Pentagon handed out to Iraqi security forces and various armed militias after toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003. And here it was on the open market, ready for bids.

Was this a surprise? No. A little more than four years after the United States withdrew all its military forces from Iraq, and not quite two years after a smaller number of American troops began returning to the country to help fight the Islamic State, the open sale of such an M4 was part of Iraq’s day-to-day arms-trafficking routine. Mahyawi’s carbine was another data point attesting to an extraordinary and dangerous failure of American arms-trafficking and public accountability and to a departure from a modern military’s most basic practice: keeping track of the guns.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the United States has handed out a vast but persistently uncountable quantity of military firearms to its many battlefield partners in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today the Pentagon has only a partial idea of how many weapons it issued, much less where these weapons are. Meanwhile, the effectively bottomless abundance of black-market weapons from American sources is one reason Iraq will not recover from its post-invasion woes anytime soon.

An inkling of just how expansive these arms transfers were, and how stubbornly resistant they are to precise measurement, is apparent in a new attempt at weapons-tallying compiled in a project led by Iain Overton. Overton is a former BBC journalist who is now the executive director of Action on Armed Violence, a charity based in London that researches and lobbies against weapons proliferation and violence against civilians; he is also the author of “The Way of the Gun,” a dark examination of some of the roles firearms play in modern society. With a string of Freedom of Information Act requests that began last year, he and his small team of researchers pooled 14 years’ worth of Pentagon contract information related to rifles, pistols, machine guns and their associated attachments and ammunition, both for American troops and for their partners and proxies. They then crosschecked the data against other public records. Overton is releasing the data and his analysis today. It covers 412 contracts and merits pause for reflection as the parties to the international Arms Trade Treaty gather this week in Geneva. The treaty, which took effect in 2014 and of which the United States is a signatory, is intended to promote transparency and responsible action in the transfer of conventional arms and to reduce their diversion to unintended hands — exactly what the United States often failed to do in recent wars. [Continue reading…]

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Kabul bombing adds new layers of agony for Afghanistan’s Hazaras

The New York Times reports: One after another, the bodies arrived on the steep hill in western Kabul.

For much of Sunday afternoon, an excavator was flattening the dusty area as men with shovels and pickaxes dug graves — four rows of 20 or so, packed so close that if the dead could stretch out their arms, they would touch those next to them.

In the hours that followed, nearly two dozen of the at least 80 protesters killed in a bombing claimed by the Islamic State on Saturday were buried here, in overlapping ceremonies that blurred into one large scene of public mourning. As the final prayer for one body lowered into a grave was being recited, dirt was shoveled onto another body at the next.

“Oh, brothers, slow! Slow!” one mourner at the grave of Muhammad Hassan, a 25-year-old construction worker killed in the bombing, urged the men piling dirt over the next grave. Dust covered the white turban of the mullah who crouched over Mr. Hassan’s headstone, reading from a little book of prayer.

The attack on peaceful protesters in Kabul — who were mostly from the Hazara ethnic minority — stirred an international outcry, in part because it was the first time that the Islamic State’s leadership in Syria had claimed responsibility for such a deadly strike in Afghanistan.

But some here voiced skepticism that the terrorist group, whose fighters in Afghanistan are concentrated in the east, was behind it. The detail hardly seemed to matter to others, who see the bombing as another in a long procession of attacks born of a chaotic and unending war. Many of the mourners burying their dead on the hill, or continuing their protest near a convention center, bitterly accused the Afghan government of failing to protect its people no matter the threat. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan teenager who attacked passengers on German train ‘wanted revenge’ for friend’s death

BBC News reports: Prosecutors in Germany say a teenager who attacked train passengers with an axe in Wuerzburg had learnt that a friend had been killed in Afghanistan, and wanted to get revenge.

The 17 year-old, who arrived in Germany a year ago as an unaccompanied refugee, injured four people, two critically, in the attack on Monday evening.

He was shot dead by police as he fled. [Continue reading…]

Deutsche Welle reports: The Afghan teenager, who travelled to Germany unaccompanied to seek asylum, had been staying with a foster family in the town of Ochsenfurt. The assault sparked concerns among other Afghan asylum seekers in Germany who now fear it could further delay their asylum application process.

“I condemn the incident in the strongest of words. I also want to stress that it is an act of an individual and it should be treated as such,” said 19-year-old Abdullah, who has been living in Germany for six months.

Abdullah is worried that the situation for Afghan asylum seekers could deteriorate even further following a series of attacks by radicalized Muslims across the world.

“It is becoming worse for Afghan asylum seekers, especially after what happened recently in the US and France. People in Europe will now have a more skeptical view of the refugees,” said 27-year-old Jawid, another asylum seeker.

Jawid, who like many other Afghans has only one name, was referring to the recent terrorist attacks in these countries – the Orlando shooting in the US which killed 49 people, and the truck attack in the French city of Nice that claimed 84 lives. The Orlando shooter was also of Afghan origin.

But these incidents are isolated cases and should not be attributed to all Afghan migrants, said Zargar Haroon, a refugee. “The German people should understand that it is the same violence that made us flee our own country,” he added. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: Germany’s “welcoming culture” that defined 2015 has largely disappeared, and Monday’s attack could mark another significant new development in the country’s public debate about refugees.

Skepticism had particularly risen after the sexual assaults of about 1,200 women on New Year’s Eve, which put the country into a shock mode for weeks and sparked a backlash against refugees after authorities said that many of the suspects were asylum seekers from North Africa.

So far, concerns focused primarily on young male refugees who had come to the country alone. Monday’s axe-attack has raised new questions over whether German authorities are too overwhelmed to provide adequate support for those refugees, and particularly for unaccompanied minors.

Authorities in Bavaria, the southern German region where the attack occurred, said on Tuesday that they had put a particular focus on Salafist recruitment efforts of unaccompanied minors for months. It was unclear whether those efforts had been taken based on specific information indicating that recruiters were targeting minors, or whether they were part of more general precautions.

“Maybe we need to take care of unaccompanied minors even more so that they can overcome their trauma,” said Friedhelm Hofmann, the bishop of Würzburg, which is located in the proximity of where the attacker lived. Hofmann was quoted by local German newspapers as saying that it would be wrong to put all asylum seekers under general suspicion, following the attack. [Continue reading…]

At a time when there is a global refugee crisis — a crisis that has been exacerbated in the Middle East by Western interventionism and anti-interventionism — the Western attitude towards refugees fleeing conflict has ranged from compassionate, to charitable, to fearful.

There is a prevailing sentiment that to the extent that the needs of refugees are met, refugees themselves are expected to be grateful for whatever help they receive. No doubt, most are.

But suppose the Trump mentality — xenophobic, fearful, and mean-spirited — was applied to all people in need: to children with behavioral problems, teenagers in foster care, the homeless, drug addicts, victims of domestic violence, and so forth.

Suppose that whenever an individual from such a segment of the population committed an act of violence or other crime, the public and political response was to declare that we can’t help these people. There would be no social services. There would be no philosophy of care. The guiding principle upon which society would function would be that those in need should be shunned and cast aside. There would in effect be no such thing as society.

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With a hint of regret, Obama describes new kind of endless quasi-war

The Washington Post reports: President Obama, who had pledged to end America’s wars, described the landscape he was leaving to his successor as a state of quasi-war that could extend for years to come.

Obama, who was speaking Saturday to reporters at the NATO summit here, noted with pride that he has cut the size of the U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan from 180,000 troops to fewer than 15,000.

But U.S. drones and fighter jets are striking targets in seven countries on a regular basis, a span of geography that is virtually unprecedented in American history outside of major wars. U.S. Special Operations forces are still conducting dangerous raids in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s latest move to delay end of war in Afghanistan

The Daily Beast reports: President Obama announced Wednesday yet another delay in his plan to wind down the war in Afghanistan, saying 8,400 troops would remain there for a list of enemies that has grown from al Qaeda to the Taliban and now to the so-called Islamic State.

But many in the Pentagon are concerned that the president’s new plan isn’t much of a strategy at all. It’s just a holding action, to hopefully keep a lid on Afghanistan until after the election.

“There is no desire to end the war in Afghanistan. There is a desire to keep it off the front pages and make it a problem for the next administration,” as one Pentagon official explained to The Daily Beast.

The U.S. had planned to keep 5,500 troops through the end of the year. At first glance, the change in number may not have seemed particularly significant; the president added only 2,400 troops to the number of forces that will be in Afghanistan by the end of his presidency. But the fact the U.S. had to slow down its withdrawal from its longest war ever was a major acknowledgement by the administration that the U.S. has yet to train local forces that can successfully stop a burgeoning Taliban and the jihadists protected by them. In other words, the cornerstone of the American effort in Afghanistan was still shaky, a decade and a half into the war. [Continue reading…]

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The graves of the Marines I lost

J. Kael Weston writes: Created after the Civil War, Memorial Day is an odd holiday, at once a solemn commemoration of those killed in war and a day of beach outings and backyard barbecues celebrating the start of summer. Rarely does it serve as a time to reflect on the policies that led to all those deaths.

While in Iraq and Afghanistan, I witnessed military officers and enlisted soldiers, at all ranks, being held accountable for their decisions. I have yet to see that happen with Washington policy makers who, far removed from the battlefields, benefit from our collective amnesia about past military and foreign policy failures.

The commander in chief and the senior military brass should leave the manicured grounds of Arlington and visit some of those places where most of America’s war dead are buried: farm towns, immigrant neighborhoods and working-class suburbs. At a time when fewer and fewer of us have any real ties to the military, how better to remind the nation that our troops are not just faceless volunteers, but people who live next door? [Continue reading…]

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‘My grandsons’ fight to avenge their father’: Child soldiers in Afghanistan

The Guardian reports: When Firoza handed her two grandsons Kalashnikovs and enlisted them in her militia, it was, she says, to give them a chance to avenge their father who was killed by the Taliban.

Known in Helmand by her nom de guerre – Hajani – 54-year-old Firoza fought for years to repel the militants from Sistani, in Marjah district, commanding a unit of the US-backed government militia called the Afghan Local Police (ALP). During the war, in which she lost three of her six adult sons, she armed most of her male family members, including two children.

The eldest, Nabi*, a shy boy with bags under his eyes, echoes his grandmother. “The enemy killed my father so I am also fighting,” he says.

According to Firoza, the government pays Nabi the standard 9,500 afghanis (£100) local police salary; his younger brother, Habib, is not paid.

Firoza says Nabi is 18. Many Afghans don’t know their age, but that claim seems improbable. Face smooth, voice unbroken, he looks perhaps 14. Firoza says she gave her grandsons weapons five years ago.

Despite government pledges to rid its armed forces of children, a growing number of minors are recruited to fight in the intensifying war, according to experts. [Continue reading…]

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Did Obama just carry out an experimental execution?

Reuters reports: U.S. President Barack Obama approved the drone strike that killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour because the Taliban leader was overseeing plans for new attacks on American targets in Kabul, the Afghan capital, U.S. officials said on Monday. [Continue reading…]

Drone strikes are always carried out in the name of necessity. From the president on down, everyone wants to be able to claim that the decision to launch a deadly attack was driven by an imminent threat, there being no legal basis for indiscriminate killing or vengeance.

In the case of the assassination of the Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in Pakistan over the weekend, Obama’s comments on the killing suggest that this actually had less to do with preventing an imminent attack, than it was a kind of experiment.

No one knows what the consequence of killing Mansour will be, but Obama apparently thought that the potential benefits outweighed the risks.

An otherwise risk-averse president always seems confident about the bets he places when they involve Hellfire missiles.

The Wall Street Journal reports: Mr. Obama, speaking Monday during a visit to Hanoi, said the drone strike against Mr. Mansour did not constitute a “shift” in the U.S. mission. “We are not re-entering the day-to-day combat operations that are currently being conducted by Afghan forces,” he said.

He stressed Saturday’s airstrike was an opportunity for the Taliban to shift direction in favor of reconciliation talks, because Mr. Mansour for months has been against those talks.

Whether Mr. Mansour’s death changes things remains to be seen, according to those who track the group. Some believe his death could lead to a power struggle, accelerating the Taliban’s breakup. A main breakaway group already is being funded by the Afghan government as part of an effort to splinter the movement, The Wall Street Journal reported.

It was disclosed last year that the former Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had died two years earlier.

However, the infighting is unlikely to encourage the group to negotiate with the Afghan government, according to those familiar with its operations. Mr. Mansour’s death actually may make it difficult for moderates among the Taliban to negotiate. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan government secretly fosters Taliban splinter groups

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Afghan government is giving financial and military support to a breakaway Taliban faction, according to some Afghan and U.S. coalition officials, in an effort to sow rifts within the insurgency and nudge some of its leaders toward peace talks.

The effort comes as the U.S. military conducted an airstrike inside Pakistan that American officials said likely killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, potentially setting the stage for another leadership struggle that could fragment the group further in the coming days. The Taliban, which usually respond promptly to requests for comment, hadn’t issued a statement by late Sunday.

Senior Afghan and U.S. diplomatic, military and intelligence officials, including several who had roles in creating the program, described its details and said that resources provided by the U.S. were used to support it.

The Afghan intelligence agency is leading the drive to recruit new Taliban assets, Afghan and U.S. officials said. The agency relies on the U.S. for most of its funding and is still mentored by the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA declined to comment for this article.

Despite billions invested in reconstruction, Afghanistan still relies on aid for most of its funding and the U.S. pays more than $4 billion a year for its security forces.

The program’s goal, Afghan and U.S. officials said, is to exploit divisions that emerged after the Taliban’s longtime leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was revealed last July to have been dead for years, a disclosure that stunned local Taliban leaders and threw the group into disarray.

It targets southern Zabul, Helmand, eastern Paktika and western Farah and Herat provinces, where groups of insurgents and their commanders, unhappy with the Taliban’s leadership, have defected to a commander named Mullah Mohammad Rasool.

Afghan and U.S. officials said Mullah Rasool’s faction and other fractious Taliban groups have been receiving cash, ammunition and weapons from the Afghan government. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. takes war back to Pakistan with drone strike aimed at Taliban leader

The Washington Post reports: The U.S. drone strike that killed Taliban chief Akhtar ­Mo­hammad Mansour represents another escalation of U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan by trying to cripple an insurgent group that has for years found refuge on Pakistani soil.

The strike early Saturday marks the most aggressive U.S. military action in Pakistan since the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It is also thought to be the first time that the U.S. military has directly targeted the top leader of the Afghan Taliban, a potentially destabilizing action that could leave the group violently lashing out as it seeks to find a new leader.

President Obama called Mansour’s death “an important milestone.”

“We have a high-profile leader who has been consistently part of operations and plans to potentially harm U.S. personnel and has been resistant to the kinds of peace talks and reconciliation that could ultimately bring an end to decades of war in Afghanistan,” he said during a visit to Vietnam.

While Obama denied that the attack represented a shift in the U.S. approach, analysts see it as an escalation.

“This is an unprecedented move to decapitate the Taliban leadership in its safe haven of Pakistan,” said Bruce Riedel, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution. “It exposes Pakistan’s role in promoting and protecting the Taliban, and will provoke a crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations.”

But unlike the bin Laden raid, which prompted outrage in Pakistan, the reported strike on Mansour drew a fairly muted reaction Sunday from Pakistani government and military leaders, even as Afghan officials cheered and described the attack as proof of the Afghan Taliban’s deep presence in Pakistan. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: The killing of Mansoor represents a remarkable expansion of the programme because it happened well outside the tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan where nearly all known strikes have taken place, usually focusing on al-Qaida and allied groups.

US officials said the attack took place near Ahmad Wal, suggesting it was the first ever known strike in the vast southern province of Balochistan, where the insurgency’s “Quetta Shura” leadership council is thought to be based, and one of very few to target a senior member of the Afghan Taliban.

The drones were described as having been piloted by US special forces – suggesting it was not a CIA operation, as is usually the case with attacks inside Pakistan. [Continue reading…]

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Afghanistan paid 11,000 militants to lay down their arms. Now the money has run out

The Washington Post reports: Faridoon Hanafi says he probably killed American soldiers as a Taliban commander in eastern Afghanistan from 2009 through 2014. And he’s certainly killed some Afghan troops.

But since then, Hanafi has joined a rare demographic here: reformed, de-radicalized Islamist militants.

After he handed over his assault rifles and grenade launchers to intelligence agents, Hanafi settled into a safe house and started collecting $200 a month. In return for those payments, funded with foreign aid, Hanafi worked with local officials in Nangahar province to try to lure other militants away from the fight.

Now, the money is drying up, and a central goal of the U.S.-led effort to rebuild Afghanistan — that Islamist militants can be rehabilitated or paid to reintegrate into the law-abiding public — is at a crossroads as the war drags into its 15th year.

“If the government stops paying, these people will find another way to get money, and negotiations will fail,” Hanafi said in an interview. [Continue reading…]

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While Obama portrays their combat role as over, American forces are increasingly being called on to fight

The New York Times reports: The Taliban attacked the Afghan police compound at first light, coming from all sides at the American Green Berets holed up inside. The insurgents fired assault rifles, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. They came in what a soldier called “human waves.”

Not even strafing runs by American F-16 fighters stopped the assault. The elite American soldiers — whose mission was only to train and advise Afghan troops — had never seen a firefight as intense.

Holding the compound, another soldier said, took an “Alamo defense.”

On the morning of Oct. 1, about 30 soldiers were in close-quarters combat against Taliban fighters — even though White House and Pentagon officials have repeatedly insisted that American troops no longer play that role.

The Americans were not ambushed while advising local forces behind the front lines or struck by rocket fire while manning a fortified base. Nine months after President Obama declared an end to the American combat mission in Afghanistan, these Green Berets were at the leading edge of an offensive to retake Kunduz, where Afghan forces had melted away as insurgents attacked, leaving an entire city in the Taliban’s grip for the first time since 2001.

The fight for the police compound proved crucial in rallying Afghan forces to retake the city.

It also offered the starkest example to date of a blurry line in Afghanistan and Iraq between the missions that American forces are supposed to be fulfilling — military training and advising — and combat. Mr. Obama has portrayed that combat role as over. But as the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State in Iraq have threatened the delicate stability he hoped to leave behind, American forces are increasingly being called on to fight. [Continue reading…]

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