Ignoring Karzai’s Insults

an editorial by John Allen and Michael O’Hanlon

New York Times, November 28, 2013

Gen Allen US Marines

John Allen (left), a retired Marine Corps general and former commander of NATO and American forces in Afghanistan…  Michael O’Hanlon (not in photo) helped with the spelling…

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WASHINGTON — What is going on with President Hamid Karzai? The world’s only superpower, leading a coalition of some 50 nations, is willing to stay on in his country after a war that has already lasted a dozen years and cost the United States more than $600 billion and more than 2,000 fatalities — and yet the Afghan president keeps throwing up roadblocks.

The latest insult is his decision to hold off on signing a bilateral security agreement, the legal basis for American forces to remain in his country past 2014, on the grounds that his successor should have that prerogative next year. Mr. Karzai has also thrown in new demands — just when we thought the security agreement was a done deal. For one, he now seems to believe he can compel the United States to release all Afghan detainees in the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay.

Certainly, part of Mr. Karzai’s attitude comes from the umbrage he has taken at various Americans, especially in recent years. Some United States officials did make mistakes in their handling of the complex Afghan leader, lecturing him in public too stridently about matters such as Afghan government corruption. There can be little doubt, though, that Mr. Karzai’s own peevishness and ingratitude have played a large role.

In addition, Mr. Karzai believes, accurately perhaps, that the talks over the bilateral security agreement provide him with his last remaining leverage with Washington. He is wrong in thinking that Afghanistan remains a center of geopolitics, the location of a modern-day “great game” like the 19th-century competition between Britain and Russia, or the 1980s Cold War struggle pitting the Soviet Union against the United States and others. But Mr. Karzai is right that we are concerned enough about Afghanistan’s future to wish to maintain a presence even after NATO’s combat mission expires in just 13 months. He also rightly perceives that the United States wants to keep a vigilant eye on extremist groups in tribal regions of northwest Pakistan.

Against this backdrop, American officials should stay calm. It would be a mistake to let one man — increasingly detached from Afghan public and political opinion — determine the fate of the American role in South Asia. Even with Osama bin Laden dead, the stakes remain high: Extremist groups from Al Qaeda to Lashkar-e-Taiba (the Pakistani group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terror attack) could easily put down roots again in Afghanistan if the country were to fall to the Taliban after NATO’s departure.

The recent assembly of Afghan tribal elders, a loya jirga, again demonstrated what we already knew — that the Afghan people want us to stay. After the defeat of the Soviets in 1989, civil war, state collapse and Taliban victory followed. The Afghan people have seen this movie already; they do not want the sequel. The loya jirga urged Mr. Karzai to sign the agreement; he demurred.

The main candidates in Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election also want us to stay. A poll by the Moby Group in Kabul, Afghanistan’s largest private media organization, suggests that the two leading contenders are former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani. Both are pro-Western; both are smart and competent. The same is true of Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul, said by some to be President Karzai’s choice to succeed him after elections in April. Other candidates also support a continuing American and international presence.

So the United States should stay patient. It can say to Mr. Karzai, If you want to reinforce Afghan democracy by letting your successor sign this security deal, we can live with that; in the meantime, working with your ministers and other leaders, we will plan on staying — precisely as if the accord were already in place.

Of course, the United States can make contingency plans; it would need a Plan B in any event. Even as it anticipates alternate scenarios, it can continue discussions with Mr. Karzai on the other “conditions” that he has just introduced. For American leaders, we counsel patience and flexibility in the talks on a security deal.

Let us remember the girls who can go to school — an affront to the Taliban — and the Afghan women who are increasingly emerging as an important factor in the future of their country. Let’s remember, too, the ethnic minorities who have found a place and their voice in a modern, forward-looking Afghanistan.

And finally, let’s not forget the progress purchased so dearly in this decade and more of war. We must not permit Mr. Karzai’s pique to flush all this down the drain.

The United States can ride this one out. And given the enduring American strategic interests in this part of the world, as well as our huge sacrifice, that’s exactly what we should do.

In the end, this is about the American and the Afghan peoples, not about Hamid Karzai.

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U.S. Disrupts Afghan Militant Plot

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by Matthew Rosenberg

New York Times

October 28, 2013

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KABUL, Afghanistan — A bungled attempt by the Afghan government to cultivate a shadowy alliance with Islamist militants escalated into the latest flash point in the troubled relationship between Afghanistan and the United States, according to new accounts by officials from both countries.

The disrupted plan involved Afghan intelligence trying to work with the Pakistan Taliban, allies of Al Qaeda, in order to find a trump card in a baroque regional power game that is likely to intensify after the American withdrawal next year, the officials said. And what started the hard feelings was that the Americans caught them red-handed.

Tipped off to the plan, United States Special Forces raided an Afghan convoy that was ushering a senior Pakistan Taliban militant, Latif Mehsud, to Kabul for secret talks last month, and now have Mr. Mehsud in custody.

Publicly, the Afghan government has described Mr. Mehsud as an insurgent peace emissary. But according to Afghan officials, the ultimate plan was to take revenge on the Pakistani military.

In the murk of intrigue and paranoia that dominates the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Pakistanis have long had the upper hand. A favorite complaint of Afghan officials is how Pakistani military intelligence has sheltered and nurtured the Taliban and supported their insurgency against the Afghan government.

Now, not content to be merely the target of a proxy war, the Afghan government decided to recruit proxies of its own by seeking to aid the Pakistan Taliban in their fight against Pakistan’s security forces, according to Afghan officials. And they were beginning to make progress over the past year, they say, before the American raid exposed them.

Although Afghan anger over the raid has been an open issue since it was revealed in news reports this month, it is only now that the full purpose of the Afghan operation that prompted the raid has been detailed by American and Afghan officials. Those officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss secret intelligence matters.

The thinking, Afghan officials said, was that the Afghans could later gain an advantage in negotiations with the Pakistani government by offering to back off their support for the militants.

Aiding the Pakistan Taliban was an “opportunity to bring peace on our terms,” one senior Afghan security official said.

From the American standpoint, though, it has exposed a new level of futility in the war effort here. Not only has Washington failed to persuade Pakistan to stop using militants to destabilize its neighbors — a major American foreign policy goal in recent years — but its failure also appears to have persuaded Afghanistan to try the same thing.

Worse still, for American officials, was the Afghans’ choice of militant allies. Though the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban are operationally distinct, they are loosely aligned; the Pakistani insurgents, for instance, pledge allegiance to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the founder of the Afghan Taliban. In the estimation of American officials, support for one invariably bleeds into assistance for the other.

At the same time, the Pakistan Taliban shares its base in the tribal areas of Pakistan with a number of Islamist groups that have tried to mount attacks in the West, including the remnants of Al Qaeda’s original leadership. The Pakistan Taliban have also showed a willingness to strike beyond the region, unlike the Afghan Taliban. Mr. Mehsud, for instance, is suspected of having a role in the foiled plot to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in 2010, American officials said.

American officials said they were also worried that the Afghan actions would give credibility to Pakistani complaints that enemies based in Afghanistan presented them with a threat equivalent to the Afghan insurgency. No one in the Western intelligence community believes the comparison to be anywhere close, given that the Afghan Taliban insurgency, with help from its Pakistani allies, has killed tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan in the past 12 years, including more than 2,000 Americans.

“What were they thinking?” said one American official of his Afghan counterparts.

Both Afghan and American officials said the Afghan plan to aid the Pakistan Taliban was in its preliminary stages when Mr. Mehsud was seized by American forces. But they agree on little else.

American officials interviewed about the raid say they saved Afghanistan from folly. Pakistan’s use of militants has left that country torn by violence with group after group spinning out of the government’s control — the Pakistan Taliban being Exhibit A. The Americans also said it was not clear how much help the Afghans could actually provide the Pakistan Taliban.

In the Afghan telling, the theft of their prized intelligence asset is an egregious example of American bullying, and President Hamid Karzai remains furious about it. Afghan officials assert that Mr. Mehsud’s continued detention could still derail a pact to keep American troops here beyond next year, despite the progress toward reaching a deal made during talks this month between Mr. Karzai and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Mr. Karzai, said that Mr. Mehsud had been in contact with officials from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, for “a long period of time.”

The Pakistan Taliban leader “was part of an N.D.S. project like every other intelligence agency is doing,” Mr. Faizi said in an apparent reference to the support provided to the Afghan Taliban by Pakistan intelligence. “He was cooperating. He was engaged with the N.D.S. — this I can confirm.”

Mr. Faizi did not elaborate on the nature of the cooperation. But two other Afghan officials, when asked why they were willing to discuss such a potentially provocative plot, said Mr. Mehsud’s detention by the United States had already been exposed — it was first reported by The Washington Post — ruining his value as an intelligence asset and sinking their plan.

As a consolation, the Afghan officials said they now wanted Pakistan to know that Afghanistan could play dirty as well. One said they would try again if given the opportunity.

Afghan officials dismissed American admonishments about the dangers of working with militants as the kind of condescension they have come to expect. No one in Mr. Karzai’s government was naïve enough to believe they could turn the Pakistan Taliban into a reliable proxy, said a former Afghan official familiar with the matter.

“I would describe what we wanted to do was foster a mutually beneficial relationship,” the former official said. “We’ve all seen that these people are nobodies — proxies.”

Another Afghan official said the logic of the region dictated the need for unseemly alliances. The United States, in fact, has relied on some of Afghanistan’s most notorious warlords to fight the insurgency here, the official tartly noted.

“Everyone has an angle,” the official said. “That’s the way we’re thinking. Some people said we needed our own.”

Afghan officials said those people included American military officers and C.I.A. operatives. Frustrated by their limited ability to hit Taliban havens in Pakistan, some Americans suggested that the Afghans find a way to do it, they claimed.

So Afghanistan’s intelligence agency believed it had a green light from the United States when it was approached by Mr. Mehsud sometime in the past year.

After months of negotiations with Mr. Mehsud, the intelligence agency struck an initial deal, two Afghan officials said: Afghanistan would not harass Pakistan Taliban fighters sheltering in mountains along the border if the insurgents did not attack Afghan forces.

Still, the Afghans decided to keep their relationship with Mr. Mehsud a secret and did not tell American officials.

An American official briefed on Mr. Mehsud’s case said there was “absolutely no way” any American would encourage the Afghans to work with the Pakistan Taliban or do anything that could result in attacks on Pakistani forces or civilians, the official said.

“If they thought we’d approve,” the American official added, “why did they keep it a secret?”

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Afghans Expect Attacks This Winter

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Afghan National Army (ANA) female officers take part in a training exercise at the Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC) in Kabul, October 8, 2013. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

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by Thom Shanker

New York Times

October 22, 2013

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BRUSSELS — A senior American military officer warned Tuesday that insurgent groups are expected to carry out an unusually aggressive campaign of violence in Afghanistan this winter, angling to create maximal disruption ahead of next year’s presidential elections and as Western forces continue to withdraw.

Afghanistan’s rugged terrain and heavy snowfall have historically resulted in a summer fighting season followed by a winter lull, with the Taliban using the cold-weather months to rest, retrain and try to further their agenda by quietly spreading political influence at the village level.

This winter, militant groups are expected to continue their traditional influence campaign. But in an interview on the sidelines of a meeting of NATO defense ministers here, the senior American officer said that intelligence reviews and Afghan reports painted a picture of a concerted insurgent effort to disrupt the elections, planned for April 2014.

“We’re not in the ‘nonfighting season’ now,” said the official, speaking anonymously under ground rules usually in place at such NATO meetings. “We are actually transitioning to a winter campaign.”

The insurgent winter campaign is expected to include “attempts at high-profile attacks, attempts at targeted killings of political officials, election officials and candidates” rather than traditional battlefield engagements, the military official said.

A transparent and inclusive vote in April is viewed as central to the credibility of the Kabul government. American officials in particular had urged the Afghan government not to push the vote into summer, cautioning that any delay might make it easier for insurgents to disrupt the vote.

But the assessment shared Tuesday by the senior American officer was the first indication that the Taliban are also viewing the vote as a critical strategic point, to the degree that they would change their usual operations to focus on it.

At the same time, relations between the Afghan government and the United States are at a particularly delicate stage. A grand council, or loya jirga, of Afghan elders and powerful officials is expected to meet in coming weeks to recommend whether to accept a bilateral security agreement with the United States. If the agreement is then approved by Parliament, it will allow thousands of troops to remain after the NATO combat mission officially ends in December 2014.

There are around 50,000 American troops in Afghanistan, but that level will drop to 34,000 by February under orders from President Obama. As part of a commitment to helping the Afghans secure the elections, the number of American troops would then hold steady at the 34,000 level and not drop further until next July, according to the senior official.

NATO has endorsed an enduring force of 8,000 to 12,000 troops to advise, assist and train Afghan forces. It is expected that about two thirds of those troops would be American. But it is thought that no coalition nations would extend the mission without the United States remaining under a new security agreement with the Afghans.

At the crux of the debate are two American demands: to maintain legal jurisdiction over American troops, and to be able to continue direct counterterrorism missions on Afghan soil.

American officials said counterterrorism missions would be coordinated with and even carried out in partnership with Afghan forces. But there has been no wavering on American insistence on legal jurisdiction, which would shield United States troops against Afghan prosecution.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met in Brussels on Tuesday with the Afghan defense minister, Bismullah Khan Mohammadi. Mr. Mohammadi expressed confidence that the bilateral security agreement would be approved, American officials said.

But in the meeting, Mr. Hagel was firm that American jurisdiction over its forces “is a must” for the agreement, according to a senior Pentagon official.

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Afghans Fend Off Taliban Threat

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Col. Sheena Johnson, U.S. Army, advises villagers in Nuristan, Afghanistan…

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By Rod Nordland, Thom Shanker and Matthew Rosenberg

New York Times

October 16, 2013

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KABUL, Afghanistan — When the Taliban announced the beginning of their spring offensive, they saw few limits to their ambitions: to kill top Afghan officials across every major ministry, to plot even more infiltration attacks against Americans and to bloody, break and drive off the Afghan security forces who were newly in charge across the country.

Now, Afghan and American officials are cautiously celebrating a deflation of the Taliban’s propaganda bubble, the militants’ goals largely unmet.

With this year’s fighting season nearly over, the officials say the good news is that the Afghan forces mostly held their own, responding to attacks well and cutting down on assassinations. But at the same time, the Afghans were unable to make significant gains and, worse, suffered such heavy casualties that some officials called the rate unsustainable.

That assessment, detailed in interviews with commanders, officials and local leaders, is an important factor in urgent efforts by the Americans and Afghans to hash out a long-term deal to support the Afghan security forces, with national elections and the Western military withdrawal looming over the coming months.

Though the Afghan forces endured, they did little to answer some persistent questions about their ability and image, including whether they can handle their own planning and logistics as American forces continue to pull back. And in the rural southern Taliban heartland, the insurgents’ continued appearance as the more credible military force away from cities added weight to theories that the Taliban could control those areas after 2014.

“What we saw this year was an insurgency unable to make a decisive blow against the A.N.S.F.,” one Pentagon official said, referring to the Afghan National Security Forces. But the official added: “The Afghans still have a lot of learning to do. They had some tough brawls, and they took substantial casualties.”

Some American and Afghan commanders characterized a kind of moral victory for the Afghan forces: they mostly survived, and they did not completely give back gains from past Western offensives.

“The Taliban’s operational directive at the start of the fighting season was to press the Afghan security forces and try to break their will,” said Col. David Lapan, a spokesman for the American military commander, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. “It’s so far been our assessment they have not succeeded in any of their stated goals.”

While the Taliban’s assassination campaign did take a toll on police officials and mostly low-level district officials, an insurgent success came late in the season — on Tuesday, when the well-regarded governor of Logar Province was killed  while preparing to speak in a mosque, though the Taliban denied responsibility.

The Taliban were quick to take responsibility for many of the so-called insider attacks last year, when Afghans in uniform killed 60 members of the international military force, and vowed to intensify them this year. But with new security measures in place, there have been just 14 such killings this year.

Even the insurgents’ strategy of waging high-profile attacks against Western targets in the capital, Kabul, mostly fizzled or ended up misdirected, as in a bombing that the Taliban said had been aimed at a C.I.A. safe house but instead killed four at the International Organization for Migration.

“We knew going into this that the insurgency understood this would be the last fighting season before the elections of April 2014,” said one Defense Department official, who along with some other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the Afghan forces’ progress. “They knew it was time to get creative, that if ever there was a time to make a spectacular impact or strike a decisive blow, this would be it.”

Though there was no such decisive blow, the cuts were deep.

In some areas of the south and east, most notably in the Sangin district of Helmand Province, the Taliban were able to restrict movement of Afghan forces and inflict heavy casualties.

Just how much those casualties have increased, however, is a matter of dispute. American officials defer requests for statistics to the Afghan authorities, saying it is now their responsibility.

Sediq Seddiqi, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said the increase was only slight  for the police forces, who suffered the greatest share of the casualties. But he refused to give any recent statistics. The Afghan military has similarly resisted giving figures for this year.

Last year, the Afghan government said 2,970 police officers and soldiers had been killed in 2012.

The toll this year is at least double that, and probably much more, said Hamayoun Hamayoun, the chairman of the defense committee in the Afghan Parliament. He said figures given in confidence to his committee by government ministries showed that 6,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers had been killed since March.

“You know the government hides the correct numbers,” he said.

Mr. Hamayoun cited a major fight in northern Badakhshan Province in August. Government spokesmen said 20 policemen had been killed, but when committee investigators went to the area, they found the total was 80, he said.

In addition, Mr. Hamayoun expressed concern about the continued high attrition rate for the Afghan National Army from desertions, casualties and resignations. In recent years, the military had to replace roughly a third of its force annually, and that has continued, he said.

“If this keeps on for a long time, the military will collapse,” Mr. Hamayoun said.

American military officials say they are not nearly so alarmed. They expected the Afghans to take some punishment once they were really on their own, and they say that so far the Afghans have not had a hard time finding replacement recruits in a country with high unemployment and widespread poverty.

Trying to blunt the effect of increased Afghan casualties, American commanders say, they flew more helicopter medevac missions for Afghan forces — despite an effort to persuade the Afghans to use ground transportation and regional military hospitals in preparation for the decreasing American support presence.

“This is their first fighting season in the lead, so we’re doing more medevacs than previous years because they’re doing more than previous years,” said Colonel Lapan, the American military spokesman.

The performance of their allies was not as poor as many American military officials had feared. One senior military officer said he would give the Afghan security forces a C-plus grade — not a ringing endorsement, but better than the C he said he would give the insurgency.

But if the Afghans’ performance has allayed short-term fears, it has answered few questions about what the long-term balance against the Taliban will look like.

One critical point will be security for the national election, scheduled for the first week in April and characterized as crucial to the government’s credibility. Some Afghan officials insist that date is too early — snow is still likely to be blocking mountain passes, potentially reducing turnout. But American officials are quietly urging the Afghans to stay on course anyway, because a later date would make it easier for the Taliban to disrupt the vote.

“It is not lost on us that the timing of the election is April, which is generally before the major fighting season starts,” one Pentagon official said. “We are encouraging our counterparts to continue moving toward that goal. If it is delayed into the summer fighting season, the A.N.S.F. will be challenged.”

There are longer-term questions as well, particularly in remote districts of eastern Afghanistan and stretches of farmland in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are strongest.

One American official involved with the Human Terrain System, a program that uses social science techniques to help the military understand Afghan society, said that in those areas, the perception among most people was that the Taliban remained the dominant force in their villages.

That, in particular, does not bode well for the hope that the central government will be able to exert its authority in those southern and ethnic Pashtun areas after the official end of the American combat mission next year.

“You’re looking at these people, you listen to them and you hear them out and you talk, and you realize that these are the Taliban,” said an American Army officer who served in rural areas thick with insurgents outside Kandahar, the main city in southern Afghanistan.

“It’s not that each one of them is an active insurgent — these are old men, a lot of them. It’s that they are the reason the Taliban exists. It came from where they live,” the officer said. “I think, when we take the long view here, we should be cognizant of the context. Maybe the best outcome would be Taliban in the villages and the government in the district centers.”

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Rod Nordland and Matthew Rosenberg reported from Kabul, and Thom Shanker from Washington. Azam Ahmed contributed reporting from Kabul and Sangin, Afghanistan.

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