What’s it good for?
What’s it good for?
On a day when children have been killed, innocent people have been injured, rockets have been launched and where voters have had their fingers cut off by the Taliban, millions of Afghans are determined to vote…
by Haji Mujtaba
July 16, 2014
MIRANSHAH, Pakistan, June 16 – Pakistani fighter jets pounded North Waziristan on Monday, a day after the army announced the start of a full-scale drive to flush Islamist insurgents out of the volatile region bordering Afghanistan.
In a long-awaited military operation precipitated by a deadly insurgent attack on Pakistan’s biggest airport a week ago, Islamabad has deployed troops, artillery and helicopter gunships to fight insurgents in North Waziristan.
The Taliban and their ethnic Uzbek allies holed up in North Waziristan have both claimed responsibility for the June 8 commando-style attack on Karachi airport, which was seen as a strategic turning point in how Pakistan tackles the insurgency.
In a chilling message issued in response to the offensive, the Taliban said foreign firms operating in Pakistan would bear the brunt of their revenge.
“We are in a state of war. Foreign businesses, airline companies and multinationals should immediately sever their ties with Pakistan or they will have only themselves to blame for any damage,” said Pakistani Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid.
The army said combat aircraft destroyed six hideouts in the Shawal sector of North Waziristan, home to some of Pakistan’s most feared militants and al Qaeda commanders, early on Monday.
“In these precise strikes, 27 terrorists were killed. There is no (civilian) population in the area,” it said.
“North Waziristan Agency has been isolated by deploying troops along its border with neighbouring agencies and FATA (Federally Administrative Tribal Areas) regions to block any move of terrorists in and out of the Agency.”
The army chief, Raheel Sharif, said the operation would continue until “all terrorists along with their sactuaries” were eliminated but gave no specific timeline.
“The operation is not targeted against our valiant tribes of North Waziristan but against those terrorists who are holed up in the agency and have picked up arms against the state of Pakistan,” an army statement on Monday quoted him as saying.
The army said troops had cordoned off militant bases, including the town of Mirali where ethnic Uzbek and other foreign fighters are based, and the regional city of Miranshah.
The Taliban appear determined to fight back. In the first attack since the start of the operation, at least six Pakistani soldiers were killed on Monday when a roadside bomb hit an army convoy just north of Miranshah, the army said.
The all-night attack on Karachi airport all but destroyed prospects for peace talks with the Taliban militants, who are fighting to topple the government and impose a strict Sharia-based theocracy in the nuclear-armed nation.
The airport has since resumed operations after suspending flights twice in the aftermath of the attack.
Public opinion appears to have swung in favour of a military operation after the Karachi attack, even though such a response in North Waziristan means a higher risk of revenge attacks by the Taliban outside the tribal region.
“Operation at last!” The Nation daily said in a front-page headline.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has long insisted that he could bring insurgents to the negotiating table but the start of the offensive is seen as a victory for hawks in the army who have long called for tough military action.
“We know the difficulties of picking this option (of launching an operation), but the enemy has left us no choice,” Sharif told parliament in his first remarks on the operation.
“The world knows that on the one hand we were engaged in dialogue with these people, and on the other hand our children, women and youth were being bathed in blood.”
He added: “It is a matter of sorrow and pain that after four and a half months of talks, we could not make a breakthrough for peace.”
OPERATION “PROPHET’S SWORD”
The army imposed an all-day curfew in North Waziristan as the operation got under way and turned off mobile phone services to undermine the insurgency and restrict people’s movements.
Independent confirmation of the events or other details were not available immediately from a region where journalists are not allowed to operate freely.
Expecting an escalation of violence, two-thirds of families have fled from the ethnic Pashtun region, residents said, many heading for the Gorbaz district of Afghanistan’s Khost province.
Mohammad Akbar Zadran, Gorbaz district chief, told Reuters nearly a thousand families, or around 10,000 people, had now entered Gorbaz district, and the number was growing.
“We have packed up everything and are ready to leave as soon as the curfew is lifted,” said Ethasham Khan, a resident of Miranshah, where the usually bustling streets were empty.
The curfew would be relaxed in the next few days to allow residents to leave the area, a security official said.
Tellingly, the Pakistani military’s operation against the Islamist militants in North Waziristan is called Zarb-e-Azb in Urdu, or “Strike of the Prophet’s Sword”.
For now, ground troops – numbering some 80,000 in North Waziristan, according to military sources – have not been involved in direct military action, leaving F-16 combat jets to lead the offensive with air strikes.
It was also unclear how long officials expect the operation to last in a region of forbidding mountainous terrain that has never been subdued by any government.
Separately on Monday, Omar Jillani, an intelligence official who police said is the nephew of Pakistan’s powerful chief justice, was kidnapped in the eastern city of Multan by suspected Taliban gunmen, police said.
Security is visibly tighter in the capital, Islamabad, as well, with street patrols by paramilitary Rangers and police. In Lahore, the cultural capital, police have added checkpoints.
Islamabad’s central Kohsar market, a shopping and dining spot for foreigners and rich Pakistanis, was largely deserted as the operation got under way on Sunday afternoon.
(Additional reporting by Asim Tanveer in Multan, Elyas Wahdat in Khost, Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Mehreen Zahra-Malik in Islamabad; Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Tom Heneghan)
Afghan women enter a poling station to vote in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Saturday, April 5, 2014. They’re doing the run-off vote this weekend…
By AMIR SHAH and RAHIM FAIEZ
Associated Press June 12, 2014
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Afghan police and soldiers manned checkpoints at almost every intersection Thursday, searching vehicles and frisking drivers in a massive security operation ahead of elections to choose a new president to guide the country after international combat forces withdraw.
Insurgents fighting the Western-backed government have intensified attacks ahead of Saturday’s runoff vote, and the Taliban issued a new statement warning voters to stay away from the polls. The first round in April passed relatively peacefully, but a recent assassination attempt against one of the two presidential hopefuls left in the race has stoked fears of more violence to come.
“The Islamic Emirate deems it necessary to alert the people and warn them for the last time that they should not participate in this American process, deliberately or inadvertently,” the Taliban said Wednesday in a statement posted online.
Still, the senior U.N. envoy for Afghanistan expressed confidence Afghan voters would turn out as they did in the first round to decide their future by picking a new leader to oversee the transition after most U.S. and allied forces pull out by the end of this year.
Jan Kubis, the U.N. secretary general’s special representative for Afghanistan, also called on the candidates to give electoral authorities time to tally the ballots – most of which will come from remote regions, often transported by donkeys – and resolve any complaints amid widespread fears of fraud.
“Give a chance to due process, respect the work of the Commissions, don’t jump to conclusions,” he said. “Don’t make statements or comments in anticipation of the results. it will just mislead the people. control yourself, act as responsible politicians.”
He was referring to the likelihood that the campaigns of front-runner Abdullah Abdullah, the target of last week’s attack, and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai will start releasing their internal tallies before formal results are announced.
The official timetable is for preliminary results to be announced on July 2 and final results on July 22 in order to allow time for ballots to be secured and fraud complaints investigated.
The stakes are high as the winner will replace President Hamid Karzai, a one-time U.S. ally whose relations with Washington have soured, in the first peaceful democratic transfer of power in the country’s history.
Karzai has governed Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted following the U.S. invasion in 2001, and is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Karzai on Thursday called on Afghans to vote for the candidate of their choice in order to bring about a “stable, secure and developed future” for the war-ravaged country.
“The security forces of our country are fully ready to ensure security with the help of you, the people, for the election,” he said in a statement.
The Obama administration is watching closely. Both candidates have pledged to sign a security pact with the U.S. that would allow thousands of international forces to stay in Afghanistan in a largely training and advisory capacity. Karzai has refused to sign it.
Afghan security forces were widely praised for the April 5 elections, which were held without major violence despite a series of deadly attacks in the weeks beforehand.
Karzai held a video conference with commanders Thursday to urge them to remain impartial and refrain from interfering in the second round balloting.
Traffic was snarled even more than usual on the streets of Kabul as police set up extra checkpoints and barriers on many roads to allow only one car through at a time. They also searched many drivers and passengers for possible explosives or other weapons.
The Afghan Interior Ministry announced that it was banning most trucks and people from other provinces from entering the capital on Election Day.
“Trucks loaded with vegetables that are in danger of being spoiled will be allowed to enter the city after a very careful search process by police,” it said.
The Cabinet also has approved a week off for school and university students that began Tuesday because of security issues.
A suicide bomber on a motorcycle killed a police officer Thursday in the southern city of Kandahar, according to Dawa Khan Menapal, a spokesman for the Kandahar provincial government.
Elsewhere in the south, Taliban insurgents attacked several police checkpoints and killed nine police officers on Wednesday in Khas Uruzgan district of Uruzgan province, a provincial official confirmed on Thursday.
Dost Mohammad Nayab, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said reinforcements had arrived and were searching for the attackers. A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, claimed responsibility for the attack in Uruzgan province.
Associated Press writer Mirwais Khan contributed to this report from Kandahar.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.
by Mahbob Shah Mahbob
Pajhwok Afghan News
May 27, 2014
JALALABAD: The people of eastern Nuristan province on Tuesday urged the government to bolster security ahead of the presidential runoff vote, scheduled for June 14.
They asked the departments concerned and security agencies to beef up safety measures so that people could cast their votes in the second round in a fear-free environment.
Haji Mirza Ali, a resident of Paron, told Pajhwok Afghan News security was bolstered only in the provincial capital and suburban localities in the last election. Voters in remote areas cast their ballots amid Taliban threats.
He demanded the government devise a stringent security plan to protect remote villages and polling sites so that people could elect a president of their choice.
“Anomalous elections were held on April 5 in Kamdesh, Barg-i-Matal and other far-flung districts because people feared militants’ reprisal if the cast vote,” he alleged.
Sultan Mir, another Nuristan resident, said the insurgents had warned voters to stay away from polling stations during the last polls. The government should work out a strategy to instill a sense of protection among voters.
“People fear their fingers will be chopped off if they cast ballot. It is imperative for the government to boost security ahead of the presidential polls,” he added.
Last time, election could not be held in Mandol district and ballot boxes were stuffed in other areas, he claimed.
Agha Gul, a resident of the district, said elections could not be held in his locality because of stout resistance from militants.
“Casting ballot is the constitutional right of every Afghan but the government should do its job of providing security,” he argued. The villagers were ready to take active part in the polls if security was improved.
A lawmaker from the province, wishing anonymity, said a very small number of women had voted in the April 5 presidential and provincial council election.
Most of the female did not take part in the ballot because of insecurity, she said, adding militants had warned people against voting.
Amanullah Inayatur Rehman, former provincial council member, said deteriorated law and order was a big hurdle hampering people’s participation in the vote. The government should adopt measures to ensure security of all active polling stations throughout the province.
Izzatullah Halim, provincial Independent Election Commission (IEC) director, acknowledged most of the districts were gripped by insecurity and problems created by insurgents.
Like much of Afghanistan, Nuristan was a mountainous province where security problems remained higher than other parts of the country, he added.
“We face serious problems and options are needed to be mulled to resolve them,” he reiterated. He went on to say that a strategy had been evolved to keep polling sites open in Mandol, a district where elections could not be held on April 5 due to militant threats.
Mohammad Zaher Bahand, the governor’s spokesman, said all institutions were ready to hold A peaceful second round. The governor has ordered a security boost for the crucial polls.
origin of photo:
by Azam Ahmed
New York Times
June 10, 2014
KABUL, Afghanistan — Five American Special Operations service members and at least one Afghan soldier were killed when a United States Air Force B-1 bomber unleashed an airstrike on their position in southern Afghanistan, in one of the deadliest instances of friendly fire in more than a decade of war, Afghan and American officials said Tuesday.
Investigators were looking into possible causes, including faulty coordinates, an errant bomb or other human errors.
The Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, said in a statement that five American soldiers had been killed “during a security operation in southern Afghanistan.” He added: “Investigators are looking into the likelihood that friendly fire was the cause. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these fallen.”
While the military had not identified the dead, relatives identified one as Aaron Toppen, 19, of Mokena, Ill., telling The Chicago Sun-Times he was deployed early this year, a month after his father died.
The deaths happened Monday night in the restive Arghandab district of Zabul Province, where troops were conducting security operations connected to the presidential runoff election on Saturday, said Ghulam Sakhi Roghliwanai, the province’s police chief.
As the mission drew to a close, Taliban militants ambushed the troops, Mr. Roghliwanai said. The troops called for air support, but were killed when the airstrike hit them.
Hajji Qudratullah Khan, a resident of the village of Giza, near where the airstrike hit, said the area is a Taliban stronghold, in a valley surrounded by mountains covered in bushes. He said the military had not been based in the area for some time, allowing the Taliban there to operate with impunity.
“Security is not good in the district,” he said. “We have only one school in the district center, it is for boys, and the rest of the area is controlled by Taliban.”
“I don’t think people will come out for election, because only the district center is secure,” he added.
Airstrikes have long been a point of contention between the Afghan government and the coalition forces, most often when they have caused civilian casualties.
Airstrikes that kill coalition soldiers have been less common. Since the war began, there have been more than a dozen cases in which airstrikes mistakenly killed allies, or gunfights erupted among coalition troops unaware they were firing on one another. Among the most highly publicized was the fatal shooting of the former National Football League player Pat Tillman, who was serving in an Army Ranger unit when he was killed by coalition fire in April 2004.
More recently, Afghan security forces have been the victims in such cases, including an airstrike in March that killed five Afghan soldiers in eastern Logar Province. That is in large part because there are fewer coalition soldiers fighting on the ground in Afghanistan other than Special Operations forces…
The Taliban also released a statement about the airstrike, confirming their role in the ambush and claiming that their troops also ambushed a joint patrol in the Mizan district of Zabul.
As in the first round of the presidential election in April, Afghan forces have stepped up security operations ahead of the runoff vote on Saturday. Zabul Province is an especially challenging place to hold an election, with an unforgiving landscape and a heavy insurgent presence. In Arghandab district, just 183 ballots were cast in the first round of voting, the second-smallest number of ballots of any district in the province, according to the National Democratic Institute, an American-financed pro-democracy organization.
With the exception of a recent attack in Kabul on the convoy of the presidential front-runner, Abdullah Abdullah, the insurgents seem to be focusing their efforts to disrupt elections on more rural areas, where security is lighter or absent.
“They know that our security forces are now very capable of controlling the security situation in the cities, so they are targeting areas where it is difficult for the security forces to reach and defeat them right away,” said Hajji Abdullah Barakzai, a member of the Afghan Parliament for Zabul Province.
Perhaps the most devastating example took place last month in a mountainous area of northern Badakhshan Province, where the Taliban overran the district center, capturing 27 police officers and holding the government compound for nearly three days.
In the Charchino District of Oruzgan Province, Afghan officials said the Taliban marshaled hundreds of fighters to mount a coordinated assault on as many as 20 police checkpoints two days ago. After a long firefight, the Afghan forces were reported to have lost five men, while the Taliban lost nearly two dozen, said Dust Mohammad Nayaab, a spokesman for the provincial governor.
In another audacious militant attack in southern Afghanistan, gunmen on Tuesday abducted a busload of 35 teachers and students from Kandahar University who were traveling to visit their families during a school holiday week. The bus was stopped in Ghazni Province, where officials are scrambling to secure the release of the captives.
“We have not yet been contacted by any group who claims the arrests or kidnapping of the teachers,” said Hazrat Mir Totakhail, the chancellor of Kandahar University. “However, whoever is involved, we are asking them to free them, because the teachers are not involved in politics and are not supporting any political group.”
The Taliban also appeared confused about the abduction, with the group’s spokesman saying he did not know about the detentions. “If our mujahedeen did it, we will investigate who they are and what they are doing,” said the Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid. “If they prove to be university students and teachers, then we have no problem with them.”
He added: “Afghanistan is full of teachers and students. It is not a crime.”
The brave people of Pluckame
Witness a convulsion of miracles in their village
In the wake of ex-Taliban Habibullah’s marriage to
Col. Sheena Johnson, errant U.S. Army
Habibullah’s resplendent wife via her inner ear is the recipient
Of the whispered guidance from afar of Saint Joan of Arizona
The reincarnation of Saint Joan of Arc
Whose trip from Mars to Earth is a tale in which we will not indulge here
I guess the exit of the U.S. Army out of Nuristan Province
And the mysterious return of the legendary colonel
Have expanded the probabilities of divine intervention
So that miracles occur one after another in Pluckame now
Such as the crash landing of yours truly
Capt’n Chuck Fiddler, retired U.S. Army
An artificial limb gone astray & my last leg broken
I lay in a coma and, alas, alive
In the corner of a back room in the humble home of the happy couple
Lay I in prostrate idiocy & miraculous survival & the ceaseless sacrifice
Of Habibullah’s cousin the unfathomable Mamoodia
Without her deft manipulations I would have died a long time ago
Lying in a seemingly endless coma I have managed to penetrate
The innermost laboratories of my dumb-ass brain to such a degree that
I have figured out how to miniaturize on a tiny magic carpet & fly
in & out of my left nostril to explore the doings of this household
Of course, flying around in such a remarkable state amongst the
Brothers, sisters, parents, grand parents, aunts, lost uncles, dug-up ancestors &
Other popping in & out neighborhood orphans of Habibullah’s household
I couldn’t help but get discovered by ~ rug rats!
Copyright Clyde Collins 2014
Agence France-Presse (Kabul)
June 8, 2014
Afghanistan has accused “foreign intelligence services” of being behind an attack targeting presidential front-runner Abdullah Abdullah that killed 12 people, in a veiled reference to Pakistan.
Abdullah survived the assassination attempt on Friday when two blasts, including a suicide bombing, hit his campaign motorcade in Kabul ahead of next weekend’s hotly contested run-off election.
“Initial investigations indicate foreign intelligence services were involved in this incident through [Pakistan-based militant group] Lashkar-e-Taiba in an organised manner, and the terrorists were aiming to disrupt the election,” Afghanistan’s national security council said in a statement.
Pakistan was the main supporter of the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and Afghan officials have long voiced suspicions about connections between the hardline movement and Islamabad’s powerful intelligence services.
Sunday’s accusation comes after Afghanistan said last week that it was pulling out of security talks in Islamabad in anger at cross-border attacks blamed on the Pakistani army, which it said were designed to disrupt the second round of its presidential election.
The NSC “condemned” increasing numbers of “rocket attacks [by the] Pakistani military against the country”, which it said were aimed at disrupting the run-off ballot due to be held on 14 June.
The attempt to assassinate Abdullah triggered strong international condemnation, including from the United States and the UN security council.
Afghanistan is in the middle of elections to choose a successor to Karzai, who has ruled since the autumn of the 1996-2001 Taliban regime.
Abdullah fell short of the 50% threshold needed for an outright victory in the April first round and will face former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani in the run-off.
The NSC statement said Friday’s attack on Abdullah was “the worst incident during the election campaign.”
based on reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan, Tolo TV & Khaama Press
Radio Free Europe ~ Radio Liberty
June 06, 2014
Afghan authorities are reporting that masked men hanged at least 11 Taliban commanders in eastern Afghanistan.
RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan quotes the governor of Nuristan Province, Hafez Abdul Qayyum, as identifying the militants as being from Lashkar-e Taiba, a Pakistani-based militant group.
No one has claimed responsibility, and that claim cannot be independently confirmed.
Qayyum said 100 militants entered Kamdesh district and executed the Taliban commanders for failing to adequately disrupt the first round of the country’s presidential election in April.
The reports did not mention when the killings happened.
Afghan security forces released a video showing the militants, who were wearing black masks, hanging four of the local Taliban commanders.
Local residents said the militants could not speak Dari or Pashto and communicated with locals using gestures.
by Bilal Sarwary
March 20, 2013
(a little over a year ago)
Mountainous Nuristan is one of the most volatile and inaccessible provinces in Afghanistan. It is also one of its most insecure. Could other parts of the country go the same way?
Nuristan is geographically cut off from the rest of Afghanistan and has next to no infrastructure, few medical facilities and endemic corruption.
It has long been a haven for foreign militants and – with the Afghan army all but absent on the ground – is in imminent danger of being over-run by the Taliban, local officials say.
Nuristan was handed over by Nato last year and the alliance will be hoping it is not a template for other security transfers to Afghan forces as foreign troops prepare to leave by the end of 2014.
Provincial police chief Gen Ghulamullah Nuristani says four of Nuristan’s eight districts are on the verge of falling into militant hands.
“Pakistan-backed foreign fighters launch regular raids on Kamdesh, Barge Mattal, Doab and Waygal districts,” he told the BBC.
Another official offers an equally grim prognosis, arguing that the government is allowing it to sleepwalk towards disaster.
Governor Mohammad Tamim Nuristani, the man responsible for securing and administering the province, makes no effort to hide his frustration.
“We have made several requests for help, but still the central government does not help. Nato has also ignored us.”
The alliance for its part accepts that there are challenges in Nuristan, and that it will be a “tough fight” to rectify matters.
Nuristan has some of the poorest communications in Afghanistan, and no road link with Kabul.
We managed to find some space on a military helicopter carrying the first high-level central government team to visit the province in more than a year.
Information and Culture Minister Sayed Makhdoom Raheen was leading a team of senior officials tasked by President Hamid Karzai with assessing the situation in Nuristan. His conclusions are hardly likely to make for encouraging reading.
We followed Mr Raheen’s cavalcade as it passed through the main bazaar of Parun, the provincial capital, kicking up plumes of dust.
As soon as the minister and his team arrived at Governor Mohammad Tamim Nuristani’s residence, they were ushered into a large hall teeming with villagers and tribal elders.
Tempers soon began to fray.
“When will we get roads, doctors and teachers? We are sick and tired of the empty promises made by Kabul,” one tribal elder shouted from the back.
“Deaths during pregnancy and childbirth are common here,” a second man said.
“There isn’t a single house in all of Nuristan that has not suffered because of the shortage of doctors or medicines.”
Another tribal elder pointed out that it is not only the locals who are victims of “Kabul’s apathy”.
“Even the provincial government has been ignored by Karzai’s administration,” he said.
“Most ministries do not have offices or trained employees.”
A police commander present in the hall said his forces suffered a serious shortage of weapons, ammunition and equipment.
“When we ask Kabul for reinforcements, they are either sent late or not sent at all,” he said, adding that his men had to work for months without salaries.
It’s not just Kabul’s fault – local corruption plays a big role too.
A court in Kabul recently sentenced the former provincial police chief and the former governor – along with several other officials – to six years in jail for stealing 29 million Afghanis ($568,000; £354,000) from police salaries. The former governor spent only a month in jail before being freed on bail.
“In one district, there were police only on paper,” a politician told the BBC.
“Officials withdrew salaries for hundreds of policemen, but actually there were not even 10 policemen on the ground. So the district of Waygal fell to the Taliban.
”It has been held by them for the last two years, and I don’t see the government having a healthy enough appetite to retake it.”
His concerns are echoed by a tribal elder from the west of the province where a group of armed men recently assaulted a group of doctors and nurses.
Some of the doctors were abducted and released only after ransom money was paid.
“The government in these areas does not exist,” said the elder.
Another local politician complained that two districts on the border with Pakistan – Barge Mattal and Kamdesh – had been holding out against the Taliban for six years with “no help from the government”.
Minister Raheen says the government “is doing ok” in Nuristan but many things still need to be done.
“For a long time not enough attention has been paid to this province, because of war and because of its location,” he told the BBC.
“Of course there are some problems. Roads are very bad – this is one of the main problems. The government should take care of the roads as soon as possible.
He said he would explain “all the problems of the people and the officials to the cabinet and to the president” when he got back to Kabul.
Nato Brigadier Adam Findlay insists the province has not been abandoned – pointing out that fighting in Afghanistan is now restricted to 17 provinces, Nuristan being one of them.
“We are supporting the Afghan national security forces. But we acknowledge it is a tough fight,” he said.
Governor Nuristani, however, sees a silver lining in the dark clouds over Nuristan.
“We have been ignored so much that it is now not possible to ignore us any more.” he said.
“Things cannot get worse. Now, they will only improve.”
Given the reality on the ground, few would agree.
by Rob Taylor
June 13, 2012
(about two years ago)
Kamdesh, Afghanistan – – U.S. troops returned to the area in Afghanistan they call the “dark side of the moon” this week, a remote Hindu Kush region that controls several access routes to Kabul and where the coalition suffered one of its biggest reverses in the decade-long war.
This part of Nuristan province, in the mountainous far east of Afghanistan, could be the target of a planned Taliban offensive, coalition commanders say.
Carrying “speedballs” – black body bags packed with mortars, ammunition and heavy machine guns – a company of U.S. soldiers landed by helicopter on a narrow ridge and trudged up to a tiny Afghan army post overlooking icy peaks and plunging river valleys, as hostile as breathtaking.
With U.S. intelligence pointing to a possible attack by as many as 1,800 Taliban, the soldiers set up weapons over a backyard-sized square, while Afghan army soldiers in camouflage and plastic sandals pointed out fires and torchlight in the distance in the chill night air.
“We’ll get some eyes overhead to check it out. If it’s Taliban, we’ll get a plane up in the morning and drop a bomb on it,” said U.S. Major Jared Bordwell as some of his men from the 1-12 Infantry Regiment dropped down in the dust and tried to get some sleep.
American soldiers withdrew from Nuristan, or the “land of light”, after around 300 insurgents overran an isolated combat outpost near Kamdesh village – below where Bordwell’s men were huddled – on October 3, 2009, killing eight soldiers and wounding 22.
The former U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, decided in 2010 to give up remote combat outposts and shift American troops to protect larger population centers.
But it was through here that the Taliban shifted men and weapons for a suicide assault on Kabul’s diplomatic and government quarter in April, circling beyond the reach of U.S. and Afghan army positions to the south in neighboring Kunar province, coalition commanders say.
With Nuristan now a Taliban staging post and haven, the province is a vital pocket for U.S. forces based in Kunar, with only a few hundred Afghan soldiers and police over an area of 5,800 square km.
“Nuristan remains for me a challenge, a black hole. My line in the sand stops at the Kunar and Nuristan borders,” said Lt-Colonel Scott Green, a wiry former Ranger who oversees Nuristan.
But he will not be in the region for long – NATO troops are due to be withdrawn from north Kunar by October. Green and his men, who are based in Kunar and in Nuristan temporarily, will be among those withdrawn.
So his reduced-strength 1st battalion has to counter insurgents while simultaneously building Afghan capability and “retrograding” – closing up U.S. bases – all within months.
It is one of the most hostile areas in war-torn Afghanistan in a landscape that is equally hostile. Taliban and al Qaeda fighters pass through easily, from either Pakistan or from bases located out of easy NATO reach inside a 4 km-wide border buffer zone.
As many as 2,500 Taliban are thought to be in the province, controlling most districts, and around 300 are foreign, mostly Pakistanis or Chechens, Afghan commanders say.
The insurgents control what few roads there are and have three ways to move deeper into Afghanistan, through either the Kunar, Waygal or Parun valleys, which then wind down into provinces nearer to Kabul.
UP AT DAWN
The next day, Bordwell’s soldiers were up in their body armor and crouched over guns at 4 a.m. to repel a dawn attack that did not happen. Then, they started to coach Afghan soldiers in everything from weapons care to their own health.
The sand-bagged positions became insufferably hot as the sun rose, while the translucent mountain stone underfoot flaked and crumbled to a glittering dust that glued itself to weapons and bodies, as unstable as the province’s security.
“Tell them to drink water. They will get dehydrated in body armor,” said one U.S. officer to a nodding Afghan interpreter.
Bordwell’s soldiers have come back to Kamdesh under a shift this year in NATO’s strategic focus from the Taliban’s southern heartlands to target supply routes and havens in the east, and also to back a former enemy turned warlord ally.
The fighting season began early this year in what has been called Afghanistan’s “lost” province after the Taliban turned against former Hezb-e Islami insurgent and local strongman, Mawlawi Sadeq, who has aligned his militia with the government.
Sadeq, still listed on U.S. government ‘capture or kill’ lists, turned up with seven other local elders to attend a ‘shura’ meeting with Bordwell and the accompanying U.S. mentor to Afghan forces, Lt-Colonel Rocky Burrell.
“We are happy with you guys coming here and listening to our problems. Our government is not doing anything,” said the aging warlord.
“If you are able to support us with heavy weapons it will be very good. I don’t think there would be any bad guys anymore.”
AIRSTRIKES AND GEMS
Burrell, a veteran of years of U.S. special forces operations in Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador and Colombia, says securing Nuristan would probably take thousands of Afghan soldiers that the government does not have, even though it is one of the country’s most mineral-rich provinces.
An Afghan militia member, Mohammad Ghazi, arrived at the post to have a bullet wound on the back of his head treated by U.S. medics and warned local people were deeply worried about the American pullout from Kunar and the entire country in 2014.
“There are a lot of Taliban around. If the (U.S.) supports the Afghan government it will be very good in future. If not, it will be worse,” Ghazi said.
As the hours passed, Bordwell called air strikes on Taliban fighting positions, with Apache helicopter gunships firing incendiary white phosphorous rockets into caves on a mountainside thought to hide an insurgent gun position.
As forest fires continued to burn from the strikes, a U.S. warplane dropped two bombs on a ridge across the valley, while soldiers hurled mortar shells onto river rapids where Afghan troops believe the Taliban like to gather.
Green acknowledged the Taliban controlled most of the districts within his nominal Nuristan command, which he sees from his north Kunar battalion command at Forward Operating Base Bostick as a line of snow-covered peaks on the horizon.
“I would not disagree with that. The hard part is that while you can say they are Taliban-controlled, that’s only because there is such a limited (U.S. security) presence up there,” he said.
Outside, the thump of outgoing 120mm mortar fire shook his headquarters, a low collection of white-washed huts beside a river flanked by vaulting, folded hills known as “rocket ridge”.
The terrain was proving as difficult for the Taliban as for the NATO-led coalition, Green said. The infamous Nuristan rebel commander Dos Mohammad – who led the attack on Combat Outpost Keating in the 2009 Battle of Kamdesh – had now reportedly moved south into Kunar, he said.
“There’s good and bad there for us. The good is he’s out of Nuristan. The bad is he’s a guy who made a name at COP Keating for rallying insurgents and overrunning U.S. bases,” Green said.
There were signs, though, in northern Kunar – another long-time insurgent supply route and stronghold – that were cause for hope ahead of the American pullback, Green said.
Insurgents have been mostly pushed away from the flashpoint Saw Valley in the south, a traditional Taliban supply inroad, and divisions between different militant groups in other areas that led to an insurgent crossfire.
Green was confident security by Afghan forces would be possible in parts of his command within the two years before NATO’s combat exit, but said securing all of Nuristan would remain difficult.
“I think we can transition in Kunar,” he said. “But if we were to try and expand without increased combat power there, then yes, I do think that we would be spread so thin that it would start to break.”
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Raju Gopalakrishnan)
Sunday, June 1, 2014
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST: America’s last prisoner of war is heading home. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl landing in Germany this morning, his first full day of freedom after nearly five years in captivity…
Lots of questions this morning about the secret deal that secured his release and the price America paid…
Let’s bring those questions to the president’s national security adviser Susan Rice. Thank you for joining us this morning.
Let’s begin with how Bowe Bergdahl is doing right now. We know he’s landed in Germany. What more can you tell us about how he’s doing, his health?
SUSAN RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, George, first of all, this is a joyous day. The fact that he is now safely in American hands and will be reunited with his family and his community is incredible.
He’s now in Landstuhl hospital in Germany. He’s going through all of the requisite evaluations and care. And he is said to be walking and in good physical condition. And we look forward to the days to come in which we’ll have an even better sense of how he’s doing and we look forward to when he can return to the United States, continue his rehabilitation and be reunited with his family.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Have we been able to learn anything yet about his years in captivity?
RICE: It’s too soon, George. You know, there’s a very refined and precise protocol for how we treat and support prisoners of war who have just been released. He’s going through this process of being supported and cared for and evaluated, but it’s way too soon to get into the details of what transpired during his captivity.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Is it true, though, that he’s having trouble speaking English?
RICE: George, I think his father mentioned that yesterday. But I think we ought to wait. It’s really been barely 24 hours since he’s been back in American hands. We need to see how he does — as he goes through this evaluation.
But our primary interest is in his health and well being and his full recovery and the opportunity for him to be reunited with his parents whom I had the privilege to meet yesterday.
They are overjoyed as any of us would be as parents, and all of us are as Americans, because finally after almost five years he’ll be home.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And this has been an almost five year effort to bring him home. The U.S. has gotten close before. What made the difference this time?
RICE: Well, George, things have come together. I mean, this has been something that the United States, that we’ve been committed to, getting him back, as we’re committed to bringing every American taken on the battlefield back. And we never leave them behind. But this has been a process that has extended off and on over a period of almost three years.
Toward the end of last year, we had some indications that it might be possible to return Bowe Bergdahl. Those discussions mediated by the government of Qatar really came to fruition over the course of the last week. But it really wasn’t until yesterday morning just before 10:30 eastern time that we knew for sure that he was back safely in American hands.
STEPHANOPOULOS: As you’ve seen, the criticism is already coming in. Martha Raddatz mentioned some of it from Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House intelligence committee. We also have the top Republicans on the armed services committee saying this is going to put Americans at risk, threaten American lives, because you broke the policy of trading with terrorists.
What’s your reaction to that?
RICE: Well, George, this is a very special situation. Sergeant Bergdahl wasn’t simply a hostage, he was an American prisoner of war, captured on the battlefield. We have a sacred obligation that we have upheld since the founding of our Republic to do our utmost to bring back our men and women who were taken in battle. And we did that in this instance.
If for some reason we took a position now in the 21st Century when some of our adversaries may not be traditional state actors, that we would not do our utmost to bring our prisoners of war home, that would break faith with the American people and with the men and women who serve in uniform.
So regardless of who may be holding an American prisoner of war, we must do our best to bring him or her back.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Also, questions about whether the president violated the law, that charge has come from congress as well, that he was supposed to notify members of congress before the transfer of any GITMO detainees.
RICE: Well, George, in fact what we had to do and what we did do, consistent with the president’s constitutional authority as commander in chief, is prioritize the health of Sergeant Bergdahl. We had reason to be concerned that this was an urgent and an acute situation, that his life could have been at risk. We did not have 30 days to wait. And had we waited and lost him, I don’t think anybody would have forgiven the United States government.
We have in the past had extensive consultations with congress. They were well aware that this idea and this prospect was one that the administration was seriously considering, but when it came to fruition, the Department of Defense, in consultation with the Department of Justice, determined that it was both appropriate and necessary for us to proceed in an expedited fashion, and that’s what the president decided to do. And as a consequence, we have Bowe Bergdahl back.
STEPHANOPOULOS: These detainees being sent back to Qatar, they’re fairly high level Taliban detainees. We know that they’re going to be — have to stay in Qatar for at least a year.
The question, though, is, the law requires assurances that they’re not going to be able to return to the battlefield. Senator Saxby Chambliss is saying those assurances so far are feeble. What assurances do you have?
RICE: Well, the law says that we need to have sufficient confidence that the risk can be substantially mitigated. And we do have those — we do have that confidence based on a detailed understanding with the government of Qatar based on President Obama’s personal communication with the emir of Qatar on Tuesday when it looked like this possibility might be imminent.
And those assurances relating to the movement, the activities, the monitoring of those detainees give us confidence that they cannot and, in all likelihood, will not pose a significant risk to the United States.
And that it is in our national interests that this transfer has been made.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But what are those assurances and what happens after a year? In the past we have seen high-level Taliban who have been released go back to the battlefield
RICE: Well, George, I can’t get into the specifics of the understandings, but they relate to restrictions on travel, movement, and the activities of the individuals who will be in Qatari care.
But those assurances, I can tell you, are such that we are confident that risk has been substantially mitigated, and that this is, in fact, consistent with the national security interests of the United States.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Is this an opening for broader peace talks?
RICE: That remains to be seen. I mean, obviously this engagement indirectly through the Qataris with the Taliban was for the specific purpose of releasing Bowe Bergdahl.
But we have long said and long hoped that there could be Afghan-led reconciliation between the government of Afghanistan and its opponents, including the Taliban.
So if this exchange opens that door a little bit, then we would welcome it. And we would certainly hope that in any event that the reconciliation, which we have all long said is essential, can proceed.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Finally, on this point, Sergeant Bergdahl, there are a lot of questions about how he originally was captured and whether or not he had deserted, had left his post.
Is that going to be investigated? And if it’s found that he did, indeed, leave his post, will he be disciplined or has he already paid the price?
RICE: Certainly anybody who has been held in those conditions, in captivity for five years has paid an extraordinary price. But that is really not the point. The point is that he is back.
He is going to be safely reunited with his family. He served the United States with honor and distinction. And we’ll have the opportunity eventually to learn what has transpired in the past years.
But what is most important now is his health and well-being, that he have the opportunity to recover in peace and security, and be reunited with his family, which is why this is such a joyous day.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Finally, we’re about to hear from Senator Ted Cruz. And the president, of course, laid out his foreign policy vision this week at West Point. Senator Cruz has criticized the administration, saying that it has been far too willing to abandon and alienate our allies, and far too willing to appease and demonstrate weakness to those who would do us harm.
RICE: George, the United States is the leading power on the world stage. We are recognized by everybody as such. Our military has no peer. Our economy is the strongest. We have extraordinary human and natural resources.
We’re reaching energy independence. We have the greatest network of alliances and friendships of any country around the world. And we are leading in a fashion that is redounding to the national security benefit of the United States.
It’s only the United States that can rally partners and allies to pressure a country, for example, like Iran, and bring it to the negotiating table so that we have at least the potential for a comprehensive nuclear deal that would take forever nuclear weapons off the table in Iran.
The United States, working with our European partners, has rallied to isolate and pressure Russia for its activities in Ukraine. That’s the kind of leadership that only the world’s greatest power can bring to bear.
I can’t speak for Ted Cruz and what his particular perspective might be, but I can tell you when we go to Europe next week, as we will again for the second time this year, and we went to Asia back in April, that all of our allies and partners looked to us as their indispensable leader, and want to work and coordinate with us closely because they know their security, our shared values, and our future depend on it.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Ambassador Rice, thanks very much for your time this morning.
RICE: Thanks, George.
art courtesy of
Old Timer Chronicle