Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

from Photographers' Blog:

Back in Afghanistan, ten years later

By Erik de Castro

Ten years ago I was part of the three-member Reuters multimedia team that went to Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. We covered the pursuit for Osama Bin Laden and his Taliban followers, who were believed to be holed up in the caves of the Tora Bora mountains, by US military special forces fighting alongside the Afghan Mujaheedin. Nobody from the press saw Osama. Instead about a dozen Taliban captured from the caves were presented to the media in Tora Bora.

As we passed the Afghan border on the road to Jalalabad following a long journey from Islamabad, Pakistan, I remember the precautions our security adviser told us: If ever we are stopped by armed men along the way, stay calm and just hand over our U.S. dollars. Weeks earlier, two Reuters colleagues (a TV cameraman and a photographer) and two other European journalists traveling with a convoy of media vehicles were killed by bandits on the same road.

Ten years after 9/11, I was back in Jalalabad as an embedded photojournalist with the U.S. military forces. I was attached to Task Force Bronco covering eastern Afghanistan. During the first week of my embed with different units, I joined the soldiers as they met with Afghan police officers and local government leaders, patrolling for hours, day and night searches for arms caches, and looking for members of the Taliban.

During patrols, local residents would smile at and greet the soldiers. Children swarmed them asking for pens, candies and one dollar bills.

Stirring the hornet’s nest in Pakistan’s northwest

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The United States has a set of expectations  that it wants Pakistan’s government to meet, Secretary of State of  Hillary Clinton said ahead of her short trip to Islamabad  last week, the kind of language Washington has frequently employed to bring its conflicted partner in the war against militant Islam to heel, each time  there has been a crisis. Clinton didn’t elaborate, saying only at the end of her meetings in Islamabad that she expected Pakistan to take decisive steps in the days ahead.

But on Monday, Pakistan’s The News reported that the military was preparing to launch an air and ground offensive against militants in North Waziristan, a demand that the United States has repeatedly made over the last two years. It said the decision was taken during discussions that Clinton and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of State Admiral Mike Mullen had with Pakistani government and military leaders.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Taliban talks – a necessary but not sufficient condition for peace

We have known for months that the United States has begun direct talks with representatives of the Taliban. And as I wrote in this story, the death of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. raid on May 2 should make it easier for the Taliban to break with al Qaeda, a fundamental requirement for including them in any eventual political settlement in Afghanistan. But lest anyone should think these talks, combined with bin Laden's death, would somehow produce an early end to the Afghan war,  it is important to remember that engaging with the Taliban is only a necessary but far from sufficient condition for a political settlement.

As Thomas Ruttig  writes at the Afghanistan Analysts Network,  any deal between the Taliban and Afghan President Hamid Karzai that was simply meant to open the exit door for foreign troops would not serve the interests of Afghans.  "... they need an end of the bloodshed that will also physically reopen spaces for economic and political activities, a debate about where their country is going. A deal which does not address the main causes of the conflict (namely the monopoly over power of resources concentrated in the hands of a small elite, then possibly with some additional Taleban players) will not bring peace.

Pakistan : four probes and a killing

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Pakistan has launched four separate investigations into the life and death of Osama bin Laden on its soil, according to U.S. Senator John Kerry. The army, the air force and the intelligence establishment are running a probe each while parliament last week ordered an investigation by an independent commission to be set up for the purpose.

It’s not entirely clear who is investigating what but a common theme running through the probes is to find out how did the United States launch a heliborne  operation so deep in the country, hunt bin Laden down in his compound after a shootout in the outer wing  and fly away with his corpse, without the knowledge of the Pakistani authorities. Indeed the military and the government only got to know about it after the Americans told them once they were safely out of Pakistani airspace.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the bin Laden raid

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In conducting a raid deep inside Pakistan to take out Osama bin Laden, the United States pushed the boundaries of military operations,  inter-state ties and international law, all of which are the subject of a raging debate in the region and beyond. 

 One of the less talked-about issues is that the boots-on-ground operation by the U.S. Special Forces also blows a hole in a long-held argument that states which have nuclear weapons, legitimately or otherwise,  face a lower chance of a foreign strike or invasion than those without them. Thus  the United States didn’t think twice before going into Afghanistan within weeks of the September 11 attacks or striking against Libya now because there was no nuclear threat lurking at the back of the mind. Even Iraq was a tempting target because it was not known to have a well-established nuclear arsenal  although the whole point of the invasion was that it had weapons of mass destruction. That only turned out to be untrue.

from Bernd Debusmann:

Pakistan and questions over foreign aid

In the flurry of statements on the killing of Osama bin Laden, a remark from Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, spoke volumes about how U.S. foreign aid tends to be perceived by its recipients. It's not enough.

"The United States spent much more money in Iraq than it did in Afghanistan," Haqqani said in a television interview. "And then it spent much more in Afghanistan than it did in Pakistan. So were there cracks through which things fell through? Absolutely."

from Gregg Easterbrook:

With bin Laden dead, why doesn’t the U.S. leave Afghanistan?

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq citing two justifications: to depose Saddam Hussein and to destroy Iraq’s banned weapons program. Within a year, Hussein and his accomplices were imprisoned, and it had been discovered there was no Iraqi banned weapons program. Having achieved its goals, why didn’t the United States leave? Seven years later, this question haunts the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, citing two justifications: to find Osama bin Laden, and break up al Qaeda. Bin Laden is now dead, and al Qaeda broken.

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.

How many al Qaeda can you live with ?

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- (A box of  'Super Osama bin Laden" candles bought at a bazaar in Kandahar)

(A box of 'Super Osama bin Laden" candles bought at a bazaar in Kandahar)

A furious debate has raged for several months now whether it makes sense for the United States to throw tens of thousands of  soldiers at a handful of al Qaeda that remain in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre, nine years after launching the global war on terrorism.

CIA director Leon Panetta  told ABC News in June thatal-Qaeda’s presencein Afghanistan was now “relatively small … I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100.” And in nextdoor Pakistan, arguably the more  dangerous long-term threat, there were about 300  al Qaeda leaders and fighters, officials separately estimated.

Essential reading: an Afghan primer

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Want to read up on Afghanistan but don’t know where to start? Here is a personal top 10 selection that will quickly make you a dinner-table expert as well, hopefully, give you great reading pleasure:

1. Descent into Chaos: How the War Against Islamic Extremism is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid

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