Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

from Reuters Investigates:

The spies next door to OBL

Our special report "Why the U.S. mistrusts Pakistan's powerful spy agency" examines in the history of the ISI, and what led President Obama to make the decision to keep his supposed allies in the dark about this week's raid on bin Laden's safe house.

The killing of bin Laden exposes just how dysfunctional the relationship has become. The fact that bin Laden seems to have lived for years in a town an hour's drive from Islamabad has U.S. congressmen demanding to know why Washington is paying $1 billion a year in aid to Pakistan. Many of the hardest questions are directed at the ISI. Did it know bin Laden was there? Was it helping him? Is it rotten to the core or is it just a few sympathizers?

Kamran Bokhari, Middle East and South Asia director for global intelligence firm STRATFOR, discusses the issues here:

To read the special report in multimedia PDF format, click here:

from India Insight:

LIVE BLOG: Osama bin Laden killed

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed on Sunday in a firefight with U.S. forces in Pakistan, ending a hunt for the mastermind of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. Share your views.

from Photographers' Blog:

Osama Bin Laden is dead – prove it

When news broke that Osama Bin Laden was dead, the Reuters Global Pictures Desk in Singapore could think of only one thing: We have to see the picture of the dead body. The world needed a genuine photo to confirm that the elusive Islamic militant leader was dead. We also knew that the first news agency to publish a picture of his dead body would lead the way on this historic story. Sending out a fake picture could be very embarrassing.

A few hours later a picture was circulating on the Internet. It appeared to be Osama Bin Laden's bloodied face in a video transmitted by a TV station in Pakistan. But was it really Bin Laden?

from Russell Boyce:

Osama Bin Laden is dead – prove it

When the news broke that Osama Bin Laden was dead, at the Reuters Global Pictures Desk in Singapore all we could think was one thing: We have to see the picture of the dead body. The world needed the tangible proof of a genuine photo before we could really absorb the idea that the world's most sought and also most elusive Islamic extremist was dead. We also knew that the news agency that was first in sending a picture of his dead body to the world would go a long way to winning this historic story. Sending out a fake picture could be very embarrassing to say the least - a tough balancing act when under such pressure.

A few hours later there it was circulating on the internet: Osama Bin Laden's bloodied face in a video transmitted by a TV station in Pakistan. Under tremendous pressure we could get the picture and fed it into our picture editing system in preparation for transmission around the globe.

Taliban finding clarity as NATO struggles to deliver message


When almost 500 insurgents crawled their way to freedom this week through a dirt tunnel built by the Taliban under the walls of Kandahar’s main jail, news came fast — from the Taliban.
And when an Afghan Air Force pilot shot dead eight American troops and a civilian contractor at Kabul airport on Wednesday, the earliest guide to what would be the eventual casualty count came also from the Taliban, hours ahead of NATO confirmations.

The insurgency seems to be making a concerted effort to improve the quality of its breaking news communications, perhaps recognising that the first word often hits hardest.
And NATO, with its vast resources and innumberable media advisers, is struggling to keep up.
The insurgency in the past has always cloaked its victories in hyperbole, making nonsensical claims of enemies killed or wounded, destroying the credibility of the message.
It still does.
But with the mass escape Kandahar, which itself seemed too fantastical to believe at first, the claims in unusually clear English of more than 500 fighters freed proved very close to the eventual security forces mark of around 488.
And while it’s still uncertain how the insurgency knew of the pilot’s attack inside the military airport (was someone actually watching?), their early numbers for those killed were far closer than ISAF’s.
NATO’s vast media machine feeds out a daily diet of the mundane, and at times vies with the Taliban for Orwellian claims. Try this selection of recent headlines:
* “Attack on Ministry of Defence is no threat to transition. Despite public skepticism in light of the insurgent attack on the Afghan Ministry of Defense on Monday, MoD and International Security Assistance Force spokesmen say everything is on track for transition to begin.
* “Taliban attacked on multiple fronts. As Taliban fighters increasingly intimidate and launch attacks on civilian populations, village elders and residents, known as Guardians of Peace, are reporting insurgent activities to the Afghan National Security Forces, Afghanistan’s True Protectors.”
* “The first step towards a great cooperation. The first-ever Public Affairs meeting of Herat city was held today afternoon at Regional Command-West Headquarters at Camp Arena.”
Buts ISAF’s unwillingness to provide timely information on attacks means it is the Taliban’s voice that is often heard first in early stories. NATO information often comes late in the day or even at night, well behind the news cycle.
NATO claims often in its daily operational roundups to have killed Taliban or al Qaeda “facilitators”, a bizarrely vague description for insurgent organisers and weapons suppliers.
But as the conflict in Afghanistan intensifies ahead of a transition to full Afghan security control from 2014, a little more media facilitation of its own would not go astray to help build international confidence in the course of the war.

Pakistan and Afghanistan: strategic allies or sworn enemies?


The armies of Afghanistan and Pakistan exchanged artillery firing across their border this week in which the Pakistan military said it had lost a soldier while several others including civilians were wounded. Newspaper reports in Pakistan speak of at least three Afghan soldiers killed in the clash near Angoor Adda in Pakistan’s South Waziristan region.

It isn’t new, there was a clash last week when an Afghan militia attacked a Pakistan border post in the Lower Dir district, according to the Pakistani media, in which 14 security personnel were killed besides a large number of the Afghan militiamen. 

Behind volatile U.S.-Pakistan ties : the Afghan endgame ?


Pakistan’s anger over U.S. drone strikes in its northwest region is unabated and this weekend protesters sat on a highway blocking convoys carrying supplies for NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Disrupting supplies, including fuel trucks, can severely impair the huge war effort in Afghanistan and its the sort of escalatory action that will likely draw a swift response from the United States, one way or the other.

from Photographers' Blog:

Poppy politics

It's not hard to find a field of poppies in the village of Jelawar, north of Kandahar. Some are hidden discreetly behind mud walls but others have been brazenly planted within sight of the main road. During a recent patrol, I accompanied Afghan National Army Captain Imran (he uses one name) and a group of U.S. civil affairs soldiers on a tour of Jelawar's back roads as they tried to assess the extent of this year's opium production.

A large field of poppies grows on the north side of Jelawar village in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley.   REUTERS/Bob Strong

The first field we came to was a couple of hundred meters across, filled with pink poppy flowers in full bloom. There were several men working the field and Imran asked them what they were doing. A farmer looked up from pulling weeds and said they were working on their onions. Indeed, in a poppy field the size of a football stadium there were a handful of green onion shoots pushing out of the soil. Not exactly the perfect cover, especially after the farmer admitted to planting the poppies in the first place.

Afghanistan : The gnawing fear of transition


U.S. Afghanistan ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry (L) meets tyhe local mullah in Kandahar's Khakrez district on Monday. Eikenberry, a former general, is trying to sooth uncertainty in the country about the transition to Afghan security to be completed from 2014 and ahead of his own departure. (PICTURE: Rob Taylor (Reuters))

There is perhaps no word so misunderstood in Afghanistan right now as transition, or one causing as much unease among ordinary Afghans still grappling for a sense of their future.

U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, expected to soon leave the country, is on an urgent reassurance mission, leaping this week onto an open special forces buggy without a flak jacket or heavy escort to tour a former insurgent stronghold in Kandahar’s Khakrez district, hoping to prove safety is on the uptick. ”Just about one year and a half ago it would have been difficult for me to be here. The security would not have allowed me to,” the energetic former general told village elders clustered in sunshine on a lawn walled by roses.
Eikenberry has visited probably every province of Afghanistan with his long immersion in the country, including a stint commanding U.S. forces.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Solving Afghanistan and Pakistan over a cup of tea

cups of teaI have never read "Three Cups of Tea", Greg Mortenson's book about building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I tried to read the sequel, "Stones into Schools" and gave up not too long after the point where he said that, "the solution to every problem ... begins with drinking tea." Having drunk tea in many parts of South Asia - sweet tea, salt tea, butter tea, tea that comes with the impossible-to-remove-with-dignity thick skin of milk tea - I can confidently say that statement does not reflect reality.

So I have always been a bit puzzled that the Americans took Mortenson's books so much to heart. Yes, I knew he boasted that his books had become required reading for American officers posted to Afghanistan; and yes, there is the glowing praise from Admiral Mike Mullen on the cover of  "Stones into Schools", where he wrote that "he's shaping the very future of a region". But I had always believed, or wanted to believe, that at the back of everyone's minds they realised that saccharine sentimentality was no substitute for serious analysis. Just as hope is not a strategy, drinking tea is not a policy.  (To be fair to the Americans, I have also overheard a British officer extolling the virtues of drinking tea in Afghanistan.)