Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

from Photographers' Blog:

Destination: Afghanistan

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It all started out with a phone call from Reuters News Pictures Washington Editor In Charge Jim Bourg on Thursday night informing me there was a secret Presidential trip leaving on Saturday to an undisclosed destination which Reuters would like me to travel with the president on. I was told that this was very secretive and that I was not to mention it to anyone and that no details were available yet. I had been with President Obama on his secret trip to Baghdad last year, so it was pretty easy to figure out that the destination this time might be Afghanistan, a trip which had been highly anticipated since Obama became president 15 months ago. I was to expect to be contacted directly by the White House for a meeting to discuss the details. But I was to "open" the White House as the first Reuters photographer arriving there on Friday morning at 7am, my scheduled shift, and to go about my day as planned acting as if everything was normal. Nothing could be further from the truth.

That afternoon I was called in to meet with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in his office at 4pm, along with some of the other members of the 14 person media travel pool who would be going on the secret trip aboard Air Force One.

We were given a schedule of events and were sworn to secrecy. I headed home to pack and test out the BGAN satellite phone I had been provided by Reuters for the trip.

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On Saturday night, I met up with the 2 other wire service photographers who were in the travel pool at a gate at Andrews Air Force Base at 7pm, an hour before our call time. But after sitting in the cars for an hour outside the Air Force base gate, and when no one else showed up, we figured that we better make a protective phone call to the White House staff. It seemed we were a half-mile from the correct entry point to the base. Whoops! The details we had been given were a little too secretive even for us!

from India Insight:

Afghan endgame and fears of rise in Kashmir violence

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The Indian army says rebel violence will escalate in Kashmir in summer as hundreds of militants are waiting in the Pakistani part of Kashmir to infiltrate into the Indian side and step up attacks.

Seized bullets are displayed by the Indian army during a news conference after a gun battle with militants, in Srinagar March 28, 2010. REUTERS/Fayaz KabliEven an internal assessment of the Home Ministry says the summer of 2010 will be as bloodier as or even worse than the mid-nineties.

Standing by your friends:India, U.S. push ahead with nuclear deal

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For all the hand-wringing in India over getting sidelined by the United States in its regional strategy,  the two countries have gone ahead and just completed an important deal on the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from reactors to be built in India.

The agreement is a key step in the implementation of the India-U.S.  civil nuclear pact which grants India access to nuclear fuel and technology, even though it has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Under the agreement India can reprocess U.S.-originated nuclear material under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards which in itself is a symbolic concession, according to the Washington Post. It said that the Indians were a bit concerned about the idea of American officials running around their  nuclear reactors , a sort of  “a symbolic, sovereignty issue” as  a source in the U.S. nuclear industry said. They would rather submit to oversight by the IAEA, which thus far is a model the United States has only followed for nuclear collaboration with  Europe and Japan.

India talking to Taliban?

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Taliban militants pose for a picture after joining the Afghan government's reconciliation and reintegration program, in Herat March 14, 2010. REUTERS/Mohammad ShioabIf the news reports are true, India’s willingness to talk to the Taliban would represent a seismic shift in strategy for New Delhi and underlines the concern that the Congress-led government has over Pakistan’s influence in any Afghan end game.

India has always publicly opposed any attempts at talks by the Western powers with the Taliban to bring them into any stability plan for Afghanistan — chiding the idea there was such a thing as a “soft side” to the insurgents.

Obama’s Kabul jaunt: Hello Afghans … and goodbye.

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U.S. President Barack Obama with Afghan President Hamid Karzai durnig his unannounced trip to Kabul (REUTERS/Jim Young).

U.S. President Barack Obama with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on his unannounced trip to Kabul (REUTERS/Jim Young).

Press conferences at the presidential palace in Kabul can be tedious affairs but the frustration felt by the local press corp topped a new level when U.S. President Barack Obama came to visit Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday evening. Mainly because there wasn’t one — a press conference that is.

Obama’s secret trip to Afghanistan

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For a leader who has come to own the Afghan war, U.S. President Barack Obama’s first trip to Kabul and the military headquarters in  Bagram since he took office 15 months ago was remarkable for its secrecy and surprise.

He flew in late on Sunday night, the blinds lowered on Air Force One all the way from Washington, and left while it was still dark.

Hurt Locker in Afghanistan

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(A simulated Improvised Explosive Device scenario in Kabul.)

(A simulated Improvised Explosive Device scenario in Kabul)

“The Hurt Locker”, the Oscar-winning story of a U.S. army bomb disposal squad defusing explosives in the combat zones of Baghdad, may well have been shot in the riverine valleys of southern Afghanistan.

For it is in the Afghan theatre that Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs as everyone calls them, have become the bigger threat to U.S.-led forces, just as they taper off in Iraq. U.S. army Lieutenant General Michael L Oates told the House Armed Services Committee in a testimony earlier this month that Afghanistan had experienced a near doubling of IED attacks in the last year with a corresponding significant rise in U.S. and coalition casualties.

Banksy-style graffiti hits streets of Kabul

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Kabul’s Shehr-pu district was once a poor area, but since the Taliban fell and the capital’s population of foreigners swelled with security companies, NGOs and media companies, Shehr-pu’s slums have been replaced with awkwardly proportioned and garish mansions, squeezed next to each other and surrounded by some of the worst roads in the city.

But even more striking  than the architecture in Shehr-pu is the sudden appearance of graffiti which looks like it could be the work of the anonymous British artist Banksy

A Guantanamo Bay in Afghanistan?

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(A protester outside the White House in Washington dressed as a Guantanamo Bay detainee. Photo by Kevin Lamarque)

The United States is considering a proposal to hold foreign terrorism suspects at the Bagram military base in Afghanistan,  the Los Angeles Times reported this week, a  new Guantanamo Bay just as it is trying to close down the original facility in Cuba.

Burying the Powell doctrine in Afghanistan

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A U.S. soldier in Helamd. Picture by Shamil Zhumatov)

A U.S. soldier in Helmand. Picture by Shamil Zhumatov)

Early this month Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered what military experts are saying was the final nail in the coffin of  the Powell doctrine, a set of principles that General Colin Powell during his tenure as chairman laid out for the use of military force. A key element was that the military plan should employ decisive and overwhelming force in order to achieve a rapid result. A clear exit strategy must be thought through right from the beginning and the use of force must only be a last resort, Powell said, the experience of Vietnam clearly weighing on him.

U.S. military involvement overseas has deviated far from those principles since then but Mullen finally finished it off, according to Robert Haddick in this piece for Foreign Policy. The United States is faced with low-level warfare and the public must accept it as a way of life. The question no longer is whether to use military force; America’s enemies whether in Afghanistan or Iraq or Yemen have settled that issue, ensuring it remains engaged in conflict. The question is how should it use its vast power.

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