Some Good/Useful Reading About the War in Afghanistan


May 10, 2010

The front-burner news item this week is Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s four-day visit to Washington. The announced and rumored agendas include just about every conceivable subject. Karzai will be scolded about corruption and his silly threat to join the Taliban. He will be handled with kid gloves so that he gets respect at home. He will or won’t be pressured to go along with the soon-to-be assault on Kandahar, and he will or won’t receive support for his peace initiatives that include negotiations with the Taliban. One difficulty for the Obama team, as noted below, is that Karzai might be unable to control the “loya jirga” now scheduled for the end of May if his visit to DC shows him to be even more of a puppet than he already is. Of course this is a problem for Karzai also, finding the right balance between nationalist and client.

As several writers note below, the war on the ground is simply not going well. Not only does the offensive against Kandahar seem to be stalling before it gets started, but assessments of the warm-up attack on Marjah are not encouraging to the war managers. In fact, now that opium harvest/tax collecting is over, the Taliban is initiating a record number of armed attacks on both civilian and military targets. Moreover, whatever the US hoped for from hearts and minds that had been won by civic action programs, it has borne little fruit, as instanced by 94 percent against the war that a recent survey revealed in the Kandahar region. It also seems that disagreement within the military about the effectiveness of General McChrystal’s “surge” strategies is surfacing again, as it did last fall when the fundamental decisions were being made.

Irrespective of whether or not the Times Square bomber actually received training in North Waziristan � “Remember, use this kind of fertilizer,, not that other kind” � Washington is using the incident to renew its demands that Pakisstan go after Taliban fighters there. As shown by some of the articles linked below, Secretary of State Clinton and others are using Godfather language to convey their message. While this may get results, Pakistan is so unstable that any such attack on Pakistan sovereignty or national pride risks more problems than it solves.

Finally, I think the treatment of Karzai’s visit by the news media will be very important this week. As was the case in Iraq, perhaps the easiest path to winding down the war would be a political-elite consensus that Karzai and his team don’t deserve us, and their failure to save themselves from the Taliban leaves us no choice but to go home and let them stew in their own juice. The most important part of Karzai’s visit is not what actually happens in Washington, but what we think happened.

US Policy and the Bigger Picture

Public opinion turns against the war again

Q. All in all, considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits to the United States, do you think the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, or not? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?

-- Worth it -- -Not worth it-

NET Strongly NET Strongly

04/25/10 45 26 52 38

12/13/09 52 33 44 35

11/15/09 44 30 52 38

10/18/09 47 28 49 36

09/12/09 46 28 51 37

08/17/09 47 31 51 41

The Very Long View

The Ghosts of Gandamak

By William Dalrymple, New York Times

---- The name Gandamak means little in the West today. Yet this small Afghan village was once famous for the catastrophe that took place there during the First Anglo-Afghan War in January 1842, arguably the greatest humiliation ever suffered by a Western army in the East. The course of that distant Victorian war followed a trajectory that is beginning to seem distinctly familiar. Initially, the British conquest proved remarkably easy and bloodless; Kabul was captured within a few months and a pliable monarch, Shah Shuja, placed on the throne. Then an insurgency began which unraveled that first heady success, first among the Pashtuns of Kandahar and Helmand, then slowly moving northward until it reached the capital.

What happened next is a warning of how bad things could yet become: a full-scale rebellion against the British broke out in Kabul, and the two most senior British envoys were murdered, making the British occupation impossible to sustain.


President Karzai Goes to Washington

Obama to press Karzai on corruption fight - U.S. aides

By Matt Spetalnick, Reuters [May 8, 2010]

----Aides to U.S. President Barack Obama made clear on Friday he would keep pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai next week to do more to root out corruption but was not likely to push Karzai to sideline his controversial half-brother. Previewing Obama's White House talks with Karzai, U.S. officials played down tensions that flared last month between Kabul and Washington and insisted Wednesday's talks would focus on "shared objectives" in the eight-year-old Afghan war. Though U.S. officials have recently raised questions about whether Karzai can be a reliable ally, the Obama administration prepared for a visit it hopes will help restore trust as it pushes ahead with a military buildup in Afghanistan.

The White House wants to use Karzai's visit, which follows Obama's visit to Kabul in March, to show a war-weary U.S. public and Congress the war is worth fighting and funding.

Obama makes personal diplomacy part of Afghan strategy

By Scott Wilson and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post [May 9, 2010]

---- President Obama has bluntly instructed his national security team to treat Afghan President Hamid Karzai with more public respect, after a recent round of heavy-handed statements by U.S. officials and other setbacks infuriated the Afghan leader and called into question his relationship with Washington.

During a White House meeting last month, Obama made clear that Karzai is the chief U.S. partner in the war effort -- which will be reflected in his visit to Washington that begins Monday, according to senior administration officials. In doing so, Obama is seeking to impose discipline on an administration that has sent mixed signals about Karzai's legitimacy and his value to the U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign. …. Karzai's meeting with Obama in the Oval Office on Wednesday will be the centerpiece of a rare extended visit. Over the next four days, Karzai and many of his senior cabinet ministers will be publicly embraced and privately reassured by Obama of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, which officials say will endure long after American forces begin leaving in July 2011. Karzai has been frightened by the deadline, U.S. officials acknowledge. Obama intends to devote much of his meeting with him to spelling out a long-term relationship that includes far fewer U.S. troops but deeper diplomatic and economic support. It is not certain whether the message discipline will be able to reset what has long been a complicated relationship. Despite Obama's edict that the Afghan leader receive public support, deep policy differences remain inside the administration, including among top U.S. officials in Afghanistan, over Karzai's commitment to the government and security reforms essential to the U.S. mission.

Karzai to promote new peace plan in visit to Washington

By Stephen Foley, The Independent [UK] [May 10, 2010]

---- Afghan president Hamid Karzai will arrive in Washington today with a new peace plan that he hopes will persuade a sceptical Barack Obama that it is time to negotiate with the Taliban. After months of criticising the Afghan leader, the visit is an opportunity for the US to attempt to improve a relationship that has dramatically worsened since President Obama came to power. It comes as diplomats prepare for a grand council of tribal leaders in Afghanistan. The US will hope to resolve some of the major disagreements that still dog the White House strategy in Afghanistan. As well as the question of how tightly to yoke US strategy to the personal leadership of Mr Karzai, whose administration stands accused of tolerating corruption, administration advisers are also split on how best to deal with moderate Taliban leaders.

Afghanistan appreciates its partnership with the U.S.

By Hamid Karzai, Washington Post Op-Ed, [May 9, 2010]

Negotiations with the Armed Opposition

Afghanistan: is it time to talk to the Taliban?

Jonathan Steele, The Guardian [UK] [May 4, 2010]

---- Eight years after they were overthrown by US air power, a drumbeat is starting to sound across Afghanistan in favour of talking to the Taliban, the country's once-hated former rulers. An idea that used to seem absurd, if not defeatist, is coming to be seen as the only credible way to end an ever-widening war. Moreover, the proposed agenda of negotiations is not a Taliban surrender, but an offer to share power in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai and other senior Afghan politicians support the idea. So too do a growing number of foreign governments, including Britain's � at least tentatively � now that Britritish troops are being killed at twice the rate they were in early 2009. Perhaps most surprisingly, even among Afghanistan's small but determined group of woman professionals, the notion of making a deal with the ultra-conservative men who forced them into burkas and denied them the right to work outside the home is no longer anathema. A desperate desire for peace is trumping concern over human rights. A similar calculus of security-versus-rights is re-emerging now.

Will Obama Say Yes to Afghan Peace Talks?

By Robert Naiman, Common Dreams [May 7, 2010]

---- Afghan President Hamid Karzai is coming to Washington next week to meet with President Obama. Afghan government officials have said that their top priority for these talks is to get President Obama to agree that the U.S. will fully back efforts of the Afghan government to reconcile with senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban insurgency in order to end the war. On the merits, saying yes to the Afghan government's request for US support for peace talks would seem like a no-brainer�. Every Western press report from Afghanistan that addrresses this issue says that the overwhelming consensus of public opinion in Afghanistan supports peace talks to end the war.

Afghanistan’s “Peace Jirga”

Afghanistan peace assembly on May 29
Reuters [5/8/2010]

---- Afghanistan will convene a national peace assembly from May 29 to discuss how to bring Taliban insurgents into peace talks, just weeks after President Hamid Karzai is due to return from Washington, the organisers said. The Taliban, ousted from power by US-backed Afghan force in late 2001 after ruling most of the country for five years, have repeatedly demanded the withdrawal of international troops before any peace talks can take place. The assembly, known as a “jirga”, was initially planned for earlier this month but was cancelled as the date clashed with Karzai’s trip to Washington from May 10-14. The main organiser of the three-day event, Education Minister Farooq Wardak, has said that postponement would allow Karzai to report to the jirga about US policy towards Afghan initiatives on negotiating with the insurgents. Karzai considers the event to be one of the major initiatives in his plans to reach out to insurgents this year, although Washington says it is still too early to expect a breakthrough in talks with the Taliban. More than 1,000 people, including tribal elders, provincial and districts chiefs, lawmakers and civil society members will gather in Kabul to discuss ways bring the Taliban into a peace deal. Insurgents themselves are not specifically invited, although organisers say there might be Taliban sympathisers among the tribal chiefs and district officials expected to attend.

Peace Jirga Hangs in Balance of Karzai-Obama Visit

By Jean MacKenzie, GlobalPost [Canada] [10 May 2010]

---- As Afghan President Hamid Karzai goes off to Washington for what promises to be a cordial meeting with his U.S. counterpart, he will be closely watched by his countrymen, who are expecting him to bring home major American concessions. The main topic of conversation at the Karzai-Obama summit is more than likely to be reconciliation with the Taliban, the subject of a large Peace Jirga to be held in Kabul later this month. While many have posited that the Afghan president is looking for direction from Washington, others argue that he will hold the Jirga like an unsheathed sword over the heads of his foreign backers.

"If Karzai comes home from Washington empty-handed, he can very easily turn the Jirga against the Americans," said Wahid Mojda, a political analyst and longtime government insider. "This will make things much more difficult for the United States."�. The National Consultative Peace Jirga, now scheduled foor May 29 in Kabul, will bring together 1,500 representatives from Afghan government and civil society, women's groups, tribal elders, business people and other groups. Conspicuously absent will be the Taliban and other armed opposition factions: they have not been invited to the table, although presumably they will be the major topic of conversation. The National Consultative Peace Jirga, now scheduled for May 29 in Kabul, will bring together 1,500 representatives from Afghan government and civil society, women's groups, tribal elders, business people and other groups. Conspicuously absent will be the Taliban and other armed opposition factions: they have not been invited to the table, although presumably they will be the major topic of conversation.


Overviews of the war

Attacks signal end of poppy harvest in Afghanistan

Sebastian Abbot, AP News [May 07, 2010]

---- The gunfire and explosions echoing across this Taliban-infested district in southern Afghanistan on Friday signaled the end of the opium poppy harvest as militants again turned their attention from agriculture to attacking NATO and Afghan forces. U.S. Army soldiers perched on this small hilltop base in Kandahar province's Zhari district had a ringside seat to the early morning fighting. It snapped a lull in violence that had lasted almost three weeks while the Taliban focused on taxing the poppy crop, one of its main sources of revenue.

Afghanistan: 57 Insurgent Attacks a Day; Taliban Vow Major Campaign

By Juan Cole, Informed Comment [May 9, 2010]

---- The return to the battlefield is an annual late spring and summer ritual for those Pashtun groups and tribes that reject the presence in their country of foreign troops and oppose the government of Hamid Karzai. At the same time, Taliban commanders vocally announced their planned offensive, probably to divert the spotlight from President Hamid Karzai’s trip to the United States.

Pentagon Doubts Grow on McChrystal War Plan

By Gareth Porter, Inter Press Service [10 May 2010]

----- Although Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's plan for wresting the Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar from the Taliban is still in its early stages of implementation, there are already signs that setbacks and obstacles it has encountered have raised serious doubts among top military officials in Washington about whether the plan is going to work. Scepticism about McChrystal's ambitious aims was implicit in the way the Pentagon report on the war issued Apr. 26 assessed the progress of the campaign in Marja. Now, it has been given even more pointed expression by an unnamed "senior military official" quoted in a column in the Washington Post Sunday by David Ignatius. …The outlook at the Pentagon and the White House on the nascent Kandahar offensive is also pessimistic, judging from the comment to Ignatius by an unnamed "senior administration official". The official told Ignatius the operation is "still a work in progress", observing that McChrystal's command was still trying to decide how much of the local government the military could "salvage" and how much "you have to rebuild".

Reasons to be anxious about Afghanistan

By David Ignatius, Washington Post [May 9, 2010]

---- The Obama administration's strategy for Afghanistan is to gradually transfer responsibility to the Afghans, starting in July 2011. But on the eve of President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington, there's little evidence so far to demonstrate that this transfer process will actually work. The much-touted offensive in Marja in Helmand province in February succeeded in clearing that rural area temporarily of Taliban insurgents, at least by day. But plans for the Afghans to provide more security and better governance there are off to a shaky start, officials at the State Department and Pentagon say.

U.S. military runs into Afghan tribal politics after deal with Pashtuns

By Joshua Partlow and Greg Jaffe, Washington Post [May 10, 2010]

---- U.S. military officials in eastern Afghanistan thought they had come up with a novel way to stem the anger and disillusionment about government corruption that fuels the Taliban insurgency here. Instead, their plan to empower a large Pashtun tribe angered a local power broker, provoked a backlash from the Afghan government and was disavowed by the U.S. Embassy. The struggling U.S. military effort to give the Shinwari tribe more voice in its affairs shows the massive challenges the United States will face this summer in Kandahar province, as it prepares to launch what is being touted as one of the largest and most important military campaigns of the nine-year-old war. One of the main U.S. goals in Kandahar is to reduce the influence of local power brokers, widely seen as corrupt, and to give tribal alliances a stake in how the province is governed and how development contracts are parceled out. But the swirling controversy surrounding the American deal in eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar province demonstrates that efforts to alter the existing power structure can have unintended and unsettling effects.

The occupation of Marjah is not going well

US says too few Afghans to take control in Marjah

Anne Flaherty, AP News [May 06, 2010]

---- Not nearly enough trained Afghans are available to take control of key Taliban strongholds like Marjah after the military has pushed out the enemy, U.S. officials told a Senate panel on Thursday. The lack of competent local officials in southern Afghanistan could frustrate Washington's aims in the region, and keep the U.S. on the hook � financially and militarily � for several years to come. Presidentt Barack Obama has pledged that American forces will begin their exit next year. "The number of those civilians ... who are trained, capable, willing to go into (Taliban-controlled areas) does not match at all demand," David Sedney, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The assessment didn't sit well with lawmakers, who have grown tired of committing limited U.S. resources and lives to a war with an uncertain outcome. The hearing was the first devoted entirely to Marine operations in the southern Taliban stronghold of Marjah earlier this year. The assault was widely regarded as a test of Obama's new strategy for empowering the Afghan government.

Losing Afghan hearts and minds
By Julien Mercille, Asia Times [May 7, 2010]
---- The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is losing hearts and minds in Afghanistan, according to a report by the International Council on
Security and Development (ICOS) that gives a clear signal of the dangers of the military operation against Kandahar planned for this summer. Contrary to its stated objectives of protecting the population from insurgents, NATO is actually raising the likelihood that poor Afghans will join the Taliban - not a great report card for General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, whose strategies seem to be backfiring. The report, entitled Operation Moshtarak: Lessons Learned, is based on interviews conducted last month with over 400 Afghan men from Marjah, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar to investigate their views on the military operation to drive out the Taliban, launched in February in Helmand province, and its aftermath.

Getting ready for the summer offensive in Kandahar

Kandahar braces itself for a bloody summer offensive

John Boone, Washington Post

---- The coming of spring always brings an influx of Taliban fighters to the district of Zhari, where the young leaves on the grapevines and fruit orchards provide cover so thick that Nato's hi-tech thermal imaging cameras struggle to see the insurgents hiding within. But this year things are different. The Taliban are back once again, but the locals who live in the area on the western doorstep of the city of Kandahar say they have arrived in far higher numbers than in previous years. "Two months ago there were only around 30 in the area, but it has increased dramatically in the last two weeks," said Faiz Mohammad, a shopkeeper from the town of Sanzari in Zhari district. "We now see hundreds of them, young teenage boys, led by older commanders. They are clean shaven and look like everyone else, except they carry good weapons and communications equipment." It is a similar story in the nearby villages of Pashmol and Ashgho, locals say. According to one farmer, the fighters operate within just a few hundred metres of Nato bases. "They just come up and check we haven't met government officials and demand we give them food and money," said Bari Dad. The young fighters, fresh from over the border in Pakistan, appear to be mustering in exactly the places where Nato expects to do some of its heaviest fighting this summer. As they did before the major February operation in Marjah in Helmand, the insurgents are preparing for the onslaught by laying roadside bombs and mines in the areas where they expect to fight. But, unlike in the past, they now rarely tell the locals where they are buried, Dad said.

(Video) Afghanistan readies for Kandahar 'operation'

From AlJazeeraEnglish [May 06, 2010] [3 minutes]

---- Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, is heading to Washington in a few days, as Nato prepares for a military operation in Kandahar. Nato forces and the country's government have been warning of the offensive against the Taliban for months now. But locals aren't sure it will work.

Taliban gears up for Western offensive in Kandahar

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times [May 9, 2010]

---- As the offensive looms, Kandahar has been shaken by an intensifying wave of suicide bombings, assassinations and threats against anyone associated with foreign forces or the government. Scarcely a day passes without the assassination of a prominent tribal elder or local official in the city and its surrounding districts. The latest such death was reported Saturday: A member of the tribal shura, or council, was gunned down in the district of Argandab, just outside Kandahar city. In a message e-mailed to journalists Saturday, Taliban officials promised more such killings. The statement announced a new offensive to expel "foreign invaders," coinciding with the start Monday of a visit to Washington by President Hamid Karzai.

Civilian Casualties

Shootings of Afghans on Rise at Checkpoints

By Richard A. Oppel, Jr., New York Times

---- Shootings of Afghan civilians by American and NATO convoys and at military checkpoints have spiked sharply this year, becoming the leading cause of combined civilian deaths and injuries at the hands of Western forces, American officials say. The steep rise in these convoy and checkpoint attacks � which the militaryy calls “escalation of force incidents” � has prompted millitary commanders to issue new troop guidelines in recent weeks that include soliciting local Afghan village and tribal elders and other leaders for help preventing convoy and checkpoint shootings. These shootings are a major reason civilian casualties in Afghanistan are soaring after a much-publicized period of decline.

The impact of the Times Square “bombing” on the war

Debate on Expanded Presence in Pakistan

By Mark Mazzetti and Mark Landler, New York Times [May 6, 2010]

---- The evidence of ties between the man accused of being the Times Square bomber and Pakistani militants has intensified debate inside the Obama administration about expanding America’s military presence in Pakistan, with some officials making the case to increase the number of Special Operations troops working with Pakistani forces in the country’s western mountains. The American military presence in Pakistan has already grown substantially over the past year, and now totals more than two hundred troops, part of a largely secret program to share intelligence with Pakistani Army and paramilitary troops and train them to battle militant groups. But the failed bombing in Times Square, and evidence that the accused man, Faisal Shahzad, received training in a camp run by the Pakistani Taliban, has given support to those who want to expand the mission

U.S. Urges Action in Pakistan After Failed Bombing

By Jane Perlez, New York Times [May 9, 2010]

---- The Obama administration has delivered new and stiff warnings to Pakistan after the failed Times Square car bombing that it must urgently move against the nexus of Islamic militancy in the country’s lawless tribal regions, American and Pakistani officials said. The American military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, met with the Pakistani military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, at his headquarters here on Friday and urged Pakistan to move more quickly in beginning a military offensive against the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda in North Waziristan, Americans and Pakistanis familiar with the visit said. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of continuing diplomatic efforts here.

Times Square Rorschach Test

Stephan Salibury, Informed Comment [

---- In the smoke roiling up from the street of a busy Saturday night in Times Square can be found traces of endless fantasies and obsessions lurking in the nation’s post-9/11 primordial lobes. The stages of the theater district are audience to this particular drama and a smoldering SUV illegally parked on 45th Street has emerged as a vague but dramatic Rorschach epic � almost anything can be seen in its smokyy clouds.

Actually the response to the Times Square car bomb incident is only the latest iteration of one of the most disconcerting and persistent features of the American landscape since Sept. 11. “I am concerned,” Robert Mueller, head of the FBI, told a Senate intelligence panel a few years ago, “about what we are not seeing.” In former times � before 9/11 changed everything � there was a notion that what we cannot see iss not there. Now, what we cannot see is trumped by what we can imagine, and what can be imagined becomes what is.

Pakistan and the Afghanistan War

US takes the war into Pakistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzadm, Asia Times
---- The approval given to the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by the administration of President Barack Obama to expand drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal regions is on face value a declaration of war by the US inside Pakistan. The move comes at a time when Pakistan is trying to win some breathing space to delay an all-out operation in North Waziristan, home to powerful militant groups and an al-Qaeda headquarters. The CIA was given authority on Wednesday to expand strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles against low-level combatants, even if their identities are not known. Obama had previously said drone strikes were necessary to "take out high-level terrorist targets". However, official figures show that more than 90% of the 500 people killed by drones since mid-2008 were lower-level fighters; in effect, the new approval simply legitimizes the current situation.

War on the Pakistan Frontier

Ahmed Rashid, BBC

[FB � Ahmed Rashid is the author of several books on the Taaliban and on Pakistan, most recently Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.]

---- North Waziristan is controlled by the Afghan Taliban leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and a Pakistani Taliban leader, Gul Bahadur. Both claim to attack US forces across the border in Afghanistan but not the Pakistan army. The US and Nato have urged the army to launch an offensive in North Waziristan but so far it has declined, saying it is over-stretched already. All but two of some 30 drone missile strikes launched by the US so far this year have been aimed at North Waziristan . It is here that Faisal Shahzad - who's accused of planting a car bomb to explode in New York last week - is alleged to have received his training in bomb making. Meanwhile North Waziristan has become the biggest haven for militant groups. Groups resident there include Central Asians, Chechens, Arabs, Kashmiris and numerous Punjabi groups from southern Pakistan as well as the more regular Pakistani Taliban made up of Pashtun tribesmen. The local Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, who was presumed killed on January in a drone strike, re-emerged last week alive and well, after apparently hiding out in North Waziristan. There is increasing anarchy in North Waziristan as the authority of Haqqani and others seems to be ignored by the plethora of groups and splinter factions now operating there, especially the ruthless Punjabi militants. The truth is that there is still no coherent counter-insurgency strategy or doctrine that by now should have been jointly formulated by the Pakistani army and civilian government and should be guiding their actions.

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