Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Is the tide turning in southern Afghanistan ?

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The American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War  has a new report out that says rather unequivocally that the United States is starting to turn the war around in southern Afghanistan following the surge. Since the deployment of U.S. Marines to Helmand in 2009 and the launch of an offensive there followed by operations in Kandahar, the Taliban has effectively lost all its main safe havens in the region, authors Frederick  W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan argue.  

The Taliban assassination squad in Kandahar has ben dismantled, the insurgents’ ability to acquire, transport and use IED materials and other weapons has been disrupted, and narcotics facilitators and financiers who link the drug market to the insurgency have been aggressively targeted.  Above all,  NATO and Afghan forces continue to  hold all the areas they have cleared in the two provinces, arguably the heart of the insurgency, which is a significant departure from the past.

The war is far from over, large parts of the country remain under insurgent control, and there is limited, if not negligent political  progress in the areas re-taken from the Taliban. But the momentum of the insurgency in the south has unquestionably been arrested and probably reversed, the authors say. 

Is the ground really shifting, and if so, what’s behind this breakthrough ? Part of the reason is the arrival of 30,000 U.S. troops under the surge  which military commanders said was necessary to make a dent in an insurgency at its deadliest since 2001.  Another 1,400  Marines  have just been ordered , all part of efforts to crush the Taliban so America can make an honourable ext from its longest war yet. But it is not just more troops that General David Petraeus has thrown at  the resilient Taliban.

The Afghan media surge — highlighting unpaid salaries

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US and NATO forces in Afghanistan recently sent out a news release apparently highlighting that teachers in a school supported by international troops were going unpaid for weeks, or even months.That wasn’t the headline of course — we were told “Uruzgan teachers to begin receiving salaries” but just three paragraphs in was the news that the school reopened on September 23.And the six teachers shouldn’t expect their modest 5,000 Afghanis (just over $100) salary for at least another few weeks it added — mentioning only that pay would arrive “in the coming weeks”.

The military are sending out far more news releases than just a few months ago, with even relatively small operations highlighted, more frequent updates on major operations, and more reports on aid projects and ventures like a children’s day in Bamiyan province. Recent headlines include: “Coalition and Afghan Border Police living on the edge” ,  “Female engagement team builds bridges into Afghan society” , “Afghan National Army honoured at concert” and “Afghan masons ‘build’ sustainability through concrete training”.

Lost in translation : the Afghan War

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U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan will have to demonstrate basic proficiency in Dari, the lingua franca of the country, Mother Jones  reports. It’s the latest of the orders issued by commander of U.S. and NATO forces, General David Petraeus, in a late bid to bridge the gulf with citizens. “Even a few phrases really breaks the ice and just shows good intentions,” Petraeus says in an  interview on the U.S. army- run Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System. Here’s the video.

Is it too little, too late ? Some military experts point out that just about half of Afghanistan speaks Dari.  Over a third speak Pashto, followed by Turkic languages including Uzbek and Turkmen and then 30 minor languages according to the CIA’ Factbook.  Are the soldiers going to learn a smattering of these languages too, especially Pashto, the language of the original Afghan Taliban and other Pashtuns who straddle both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border ?

Can America win in Afghanistan?

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An Afghan couple in a field near Kandahar city. ReuteREUTERS/Nikola Solic rs/ (An Afghan couple in a field near Kandahar city. Reuters/Nikola Solic)

Only 41 percent of likely U.S. voters believe that the country can win the war in Afghanistan, a new poll shows, down from 51 percent in December when President Barack Obama announced a new war strategy. The Rasmussen telephone poll conducted last week found that 36 percent of those surveyed didn’t think the United States could win in Afghanistan. Another 23 percent were unsure.

Doubts about the handling of the Afghan war have continuously been growing, except for that spike in hopes soon after Obama announced a surge as part of  his strategy to stabilise Afghanistan and bring the troops home. Indeed, 48 percent of those polled said ending the war now was a more important goal than winning it, reflecting falling confidence in the war effort.

“Broken Afghanistan” hits back at Britain

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- British Defence Secretary Liam Fox with troops in Helmand province.

British Defence Secretary Liam Fox with troops in Helmand province.

New British Defence Secretary Liam Fox’s remarks describing Afghanistan as a broken 13th-century country have predictably touched off a firestorm of criticism both at home and in Afghanistan.  For a moment, though, if you drove around  Kabul’s dusty hillsides dotted with dirt-poor, crumbling dwellings and saw the war-ravaged capital’s ruins, you could  forgive Fox for thinking he was in a medieval-era country.

Indeed the criticism against him in Afghanistan is not so much about it being a broken country, but that who exactly is responsible.  Mandegar, a local  newspaper, kicked off its reaction with the headline : “Our 13th century society is the result of your colonialism.”  It reminds readers about the British wars in Afghanistan and how each time Afghans succeeded in driving them out of the country.  “We don’t need Britain in Afghanistan,”  the Arman e-Melli daily said.

Killing more efficiently: America’s violin-sized missiles

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- A unmanned Predator being rolled out of a hangar.REUTERS/Chris Helgren)

(An unmanned Predator being rolled out of a hangar. REUTERS/Chris Helgren)

The CIA is using smaller, advanced missiles – some of them no longer than a violin-case – to target militants in Pakistan’s tribal belt, according to the Washington Post.

The idea is to limit civilian casualties, the newspaper said quoting defence officials, after months of deadly missile strikes by unmanned Predator aircraft that has so burned Pakistan both in terms of the actual collateral damage and its sense of loss of sovereignty.

The Taliban, an enigma wrapped in a riddle ?

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- (Taliban in Kunduz- REUTERS/Wahdat )

(Taliban in Kunduz- REUTERS/Wahdat )

Anne  Stenersen  of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment has published by far one of the most detailed studies of the Taliban, their structure, leadership and just how they view the world.  Its interesting  because even after all these years  they remain a bit of an enigma beginning with the reclusive founder and supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

As Stenersen notes,  a lot of the attention within NATO has been on defeating the insurgency or how best to manage it. Less attention has been given to trying to understand who the insurgents are, and what they are fighting for. Even the way we describe them is not very defined. The insurgents are often lumped together as “al Qaeda and the Talban” , even though in many fundamental ways they could be vastly dissimilar,  or described as OMF (Other military Forces) as NATO tends to do in militaryspeak, perhaps in the belief that denying them a  proper name  diminishes them.

Bombing your own people: the use of air power in South Asia

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- (U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt jets, also known as the Warthog. File photo)

(U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt jets, also known as the Warthog. File photo)

Pakistani army chief of staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani offered a rare apology at the weekend for a deadly air strike in the Khyber region in the northwest  in which residents and local officials say at least 63 civilians were killed.

Tragically for the Pakistani military, most of the victims were members of a tribe that had stood up against the Taliban. Some of them were members of the army. Indeed as Dawn reported the first bomb was dropped on the house of a serving army officer, followed by another more devastating strike just when people rushed to the scene. Such actions defy description and an explanation is in order from those who ordered the assault, the newspaper said in an angry editorial.

Strangers at the door: Afghanistan’s deadly night raids

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NATO has admitted that its forces were responsible for the deaths of five Afghan civilians including three women during a botched night-time raid in eastern Afghanistan in February. Two of the women were pregnant, one a mother of 10, the other had six children.

The alliance initially said troops had found the women already killed, bound and gagged, when they entered the compound in Gardez in Paktia province, but later acknowledged that was untrue. NATO is now looking at allegations by Afghan investigators that U.S. Special Forces involved in the raid tampered with evidence at the scene to cover the blunder.

An effective Afghan police force: still wishful thinking

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U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated on Monday his belief that the Afghan police and army had to grow in order to pave the way for a United States and NATO military drawdown in Afghanistan.

Strengthening Afghanistan’s indigenous security forces has always been one of the main planks of the NATO-led ISAF military strategy. But the Afghan police have a lot of problems. The are often accused of endemic corruption, colluding with Taliban insurgents, being poorly trained and badly organised. In some areas, we have reported before, their criminal behaviour has actually turned the communities they are meant to serve toward the Taliban, unwittingly empowering the insurgency.

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