Warlords and government corruption may destabilize the country even more than the Taliban, say Afghan and NATO officials. The city of Kandahar reflects this central problem of the Afghanistan war.
Over the past month in Kandahar City, Taliban death squads have killed dozens of people in drive-by shootings. Yet many living in this southern Afghan city say the insurgents are the least of their worries. Far more pernicious is the murky nexus of warlords and corrupt government officials whose rule some compare to mob bosses.
Indeed, the fear and corruption they perpetuate undermine efforts to build a stable government and help the Taliban win support among locals, say Afghan and NATO officials, private citizens, analysts, and local journalists. The trend echoes a pattern from the 1990s, when violence among competing warlords gave rise to the Taliban and their brutal ways of imposing law and order.
The concern was repeated in more than a dozen recent interviews: The biggest problem is not the Taliban; it is the gangster oligarchs looming over the city. Read the rest of this entry »
Genghis Khan’s favourite sport is huge in Afghanistan, and if its fans have their way could soon be coming to Britain
A sport best described as “mounted goat rugby from hell” could soon be transported from northern Afghanistan’s dusty plains to the green turf of Twickenham, or even New York’s Yankee Stadium, if enthusiasts have their way. Buzkashi, a game supposedly devised by Genghis Khan, pits men and horses against each other in a ferocious struggle for possession of a headless goat. Now the director of buzkashi at Afghanistan’s Olympic committee thinks it is time to unleash this spectacle on the world.
Haji Abdul Rashid is looking for a Western partner to promote the sport overseas. “We want the people of Europe and America to see our game and learn to play it,” he said. “So we are looking for a company to help us show our game.”
Any impresario willing to underwrite a match would make a handsome return, Mr Rashid says. Ticket sales, corporate sponsorship and TV rights could generate enormous sums of money. Read the rest of this entry »
Vice Adm. William McRaven traveled to the village of Khataba to offer personal apologies for the five Afghanistan deaths in a botched special forces raid there in February. The US military acknowledged its involvement in the killings earlier this month.
A top US Special Forces commander visited the village of Khataba in eastern Afghanistan today to apologize for a night raid that went terribly wrong. It was here on Feb. 11 that a Special Forces team gunned down an Afghan police chief, a prosecutor, and three unarmed women, infuriating locals and drawing a sharp rebuke from politicians in Kabul.
Flanked by dozens of Afghan soldiers, Vice Adm. William McRaven, head of Joint Special Operations Command, spent an hour at the scene of the killings. “I am the commander of the men who accidentally killed your loved ones,” Admiral McRaven told Haji Sharabuddin, the family patriarch. “I came here today to send my condolences to you and to your family and to your friends. I also came today to ask your forgiveness for these terrible tragedies.”
It was a remarkable turnabout for the US military, which for two months after the killings declined to say what units had been involved or otherwise take responsibility for the deaths. Afghan investigators have claimed that Special Forces tried to cover up their involvement in the Afghanistan deaths, though that’s a charge the US has denied. Read the rest of this entry »
An Afghanistan Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for a series of coordinated Kandahar attacks Saturday, saying they were a warning to NATO, which will soon focus on securing Kandahar City and its approaches.
The sudden explosive violence its inhabitants have learned to live with gripped Kandahar City in southern Afghanistan again Saturday as militants launched a series of coordinated attacks in an attempted jailbreak.
More than 35 people were killed and more than 50 wounded in five blasts as Afghanistan Taliban suicide bombers targeted the jail and police headquarters in the Kandahar attacks. Most of the casualties were civilians, including members of a wedding party celebrating near the police headquarters.
Following on the heels of Operation Moshtarak, which saw coalition and Afghan forces seize control of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in neighboring Helmand Province, NATO commanders say the focus of their counterinsurgency campaign will switch to Kandahar City and its approaches. Kandahar is the political, spiritual, and religious capital of the south.
Blast barriers prevent jailbreak
Had the Taliban’s attack gone to plan it would likely have boosted the insurgents’ ranks by freeing captive fighters. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s younger brother and chairman of Kandahar’s provincial council, says that blast barriers prevented the attackers from breaching the prison.
These were introduced following a similar attack in 2008 that saw around 1,000 prisoners escape. More than 400 militants were among them.
Taliban to focus on Kandahar City now?
Mr. Karzai predicted that the arrival of thousands of US troops in Kandahar Province would herald a shift in tactics by the insurgents, who would seek to undermine the government by launching more wholesale attacks within the city limits. “They organize this kind of attack in the city to show they are still around,” he told the Monitor. “They will definitely be focusing more on Kandahar City, that’s for sure.”
It’s for this reason that the provincial governor is calling on Kabul to bolster the police and Army presence inside the city, and to liaise better with NATO forces stationed in the districts.
Security in Kandahar has steadily deteriorated over the past few years as a murky nexus of warlords, criminal syndicates, and insurgents has vied for control. The number of bombings and assassinations has spiked in the past two weeks.
Simon Cowell Afghan fiancée Mezghan Hussainy was a top talking point when the American Idol judge appeared on Jay Leno this week. Afghans are less enthralled.
Although their romance has filled gossip columns in the West, with Mr. Cowell talking about their relationship on Jay Leno‘s ‘The Tonight Show‘ this week and buzz about a possible wedding in September, there has been rather less of a stir in Afghanistan.
“There are many families called Hussainy,” Barat Ali says. “I don’t know which one she’s from.”
All his life, Mr. Ali has lived in a Shiite neighborhood in west Kabul, where men chip gravestones in the mountain sunlight, children hawk knick-knacks, and slums defy gravity on the ridges and pinnacles interrupting the city.
It’s here that Ms. Hussainy’s unlikely journey to showbiz stardom began, when she was born to a wealthy family in Kabul before fleeing Soviet invaders in 1981, first to Pakistan and then later to the United States.
Those who stayed behind saw the city of walled gardens and lofty poplars destroyed by a succession of foreign armies and appallingly brutal warlords.
When seven different factions vied for control of Kabul in the 1990s, the frontlines ran through here.
In Afghanistan, women ‘can’t get anywhere’
Mursal Yusufi, an 18-year-old woman who works in a beauty parlor, stops applying foundation to a bride to talk.
“If she was in Afghanistan, she would never have been able to make the progress,” she says. “I’m very surprised. Anyone in Afghanistan who does well, the people think she is the enemy of Afghanistan. We have got very intelligent, talented women in Afghanistan but they can’t get anywhere. No one allows them to.”
Further down the road, where the oranges of his fruit stall glare against the tattered jacket he is wearing, Kaka Hussain claims to remember the family Hussainy.
“There were many people who left,” he says. “I remember the sons – they were the same age as me. Maybe she was from the same family.”
Life was good back then,” he continues. “Their life was better than ours and ours was very good,” Mr. Hussain says. “Back then people cared about the country. In the time of the King [Zahir Shah, who reigned for 40 years], people thought to build their country. Not like now.”
Some interviewees sounded a sour note about Hussainy’s engagement. But most congratulated her on her newfound fame. “I am proud of her as long as she helps Afghanistan,” he says. “It doesn’t matter man or woman, they should do something for their country.”
Western and Afghan officials have outlined ambitious plans for a new Marjah that include erecting new schools, reforming the police force, and upending the drug trade. Rebuilding Marjah and other towns is now seen as critical to NATO’s Afghanistan war strategy.
LASHKAR GAH, AFGHANISTAN
Long before Marjah was dragged from sleepy anonymity into one of NATO’s biggest offensives in its nine-year war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Western governance experts had begun drawing up the town’s future.
Down white-tiled corridors and behind code-locked doors on their base in Helmand Province, a handful of American and British officials planned for months how to turn this swath of irrigation ditches and mud compounds, ruled for two years by Taliban militants and crime syndicates, into a beacon of peace and prosperity.
This is the “build” part of the “clear, hold, build” strategy set out last year by the top NATO commander here, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
It could become a blueprint for winning the war – if it works.
It is here that the insurgency has raged most fiercely, costing NATO 408 lives and the local population many times more.
Kabul takes interest
Governance experiments in Afghanistan have failed before, but this one is different, the planners say, because more resources and thought are being put into it.
The apparent emergence of political will at the highest levels of the Afghan government, after years of neglecting to support their provincial and district counterparts in Helmand, is also a factor.
Last Tuesday a delegation from the capital arrived to discuss agriculture with provincial officials.
Kabul’s interest in Helmand grew last September. That month, Agriculture Minister Mohammad Asef Rahimi visited the town of Nawa, which US Marines had recently cleared of militants, and promised to follow up with development.
“They were horrified. There was nothing there, absolutely nothing,” recalls Peter Hawkins, a British official who accompanied Rahimi’s delegation. “There was a good governor, but he was sitting there on his own in a little building built by us. They went back to Kabul with the message, ‘We’ve got to do something, we can’t not do something with this void down there.’ ”
Mapping out a new Marjah
In Marjah a similar void would allow the crime bosses and Taliban commanders just driven out to return. They “exercised far too much control over the population” in the past, says Marlin Hardinger, a US State Department official in Helmand. The “most important and difficult [thing now is to] build better governance.”
Although the insurgency is still flickering in Marjah, it is mainly in the form of roadside bombs strikes, about five a day. Officials, who have access to $500 million for stabilizing Helmand, don’t expect to know if they have won over the population for at least three months.
A map drawn up by the provincial governor and dotted with colored blocks shows what the restoration of sovereignty means in tangible terms: there are bright red schools, yellow agriculture directorates, and courts festooned with the scales of justice.
Green blocks, or police stations, are a point of concern. Thousands of elite officers have been drafted from outside Helmand and charged with maintaining security in the crucial next few months. The force must also shed its predatory and corrupt reputation for the rebuilding of Marjah to succeed, experts say.
“Probably the most challenging and sensitive thing” is improving the police, says Mr. Hardinger, the State Department official.
Rooting out opium
Another challenge will be how to deal with Helmand’s thriving opium economy. Powerful players in the drug trade in the province, such as former governor Mohammad Akhundzada and his police chief Abdurrahman Jan, have much to lose by acceding to a new political economy. Mr. Jandemonstrated his intent to reestablish his influence over Marjah last month when he took control of a local council.
Posed against these strongmen is current Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal, a technocrat who burnished his reputation by busting kidnapping rings and crooked police since taking office two years ago. He has won praise from Western advisers for using the media to spread a message of inclusive government and for traveling around the province to hear complaints from his constituents.
He’s also earned plaudits for his handling of men like Mr. Akhundzada and Jan. “Mangal’s played the technocratic card brilliantly,” says Hawkins, who has worked closely with the governor. “He has managed the situation rather than (1) allowing the situation to manage him or (2) confronting the situation. If you confront the situation in Afghanistan, you’ve lost.”
Mangal will also have to wean farmers away their opium crop without alienating them. Counternarcotics experts have praised his “food zone” program, which combines the stick of poppy eradication with the carrot of improved wheat seed handouts. Although Helmand still produces more poppy than the rest of the world combined, they say there are tentative signs of success.
In the Afghanistan war, NATO forces chief Gen. Stanley McChrystal publicly apologized Tuesday for 27 Afghan civilian deaths in a US airstrike. The coalition has begun saying ‘sorry’ more quickly to civilian deaths, as part of a new hearts and minds strategy.
Another botched airstrike, another apology.
In a video distributed Tuesday in Dari and Pashto, the main languages spoken in Afghanistan, the top NATOcommander here Gen. Stanley McChrystal said he was sorry to the nation for 27 civilian deaths, after US special forces killed a convoy of Afghan civilians they had mistaken for insurgents. It was the coalition’s deadliest mistake in six months.
While public apologies by NATO have become almost commonplace – this was just one of half a dozen in the past 10 days, and the second by McChrystal himself – the push to admit mistakes and say sorry is unprecedented in NATO’s nine-year intervention in Afghanistan. It fits into McChyrstal’s new strategy that prioritizes winning over the population.
“I have instituted a thorough investigation to prevent this from happening again,” he said. “I pledge to strengthen our efforts to regain your trust to build a brighter future for all Afghans. Most importantly, I express my deepest, heartfelt condolences to the victims and their families. We all share in their grief and will keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”
For years, stonewalling
For years, foreign forces here were grudging in their apologies, trying to spin big mistakes into smaller mistakes and refusing to comment on civilian casualties until torturously slow and opaque inquiries ended. If any blame was admitted, it was usually too long after the event to sound sincere. The Taliban exploited NATO’s lack of information, seizing on reports of civilian deaths with its own propaganda machine to turn Afghans against the foreign forces.
But NATO has shifted on the communications front. In the past 10 days alone, it has admitted that airstrikes in Kunduz and Kandahar Provinces last week killed five civilians and a handful of Afghan policemen, and that a rocket strike in the Marjah offensive in Helmand Province left at least nine bystanders dead. Troops there have also shot and killed civilians they have mistaken for suicide bombers. Each time an explanation has been forthcoming.
Afghans are circumspect about the change in tone. “Does this apology mean there won’t be any other civilian casualties in future?” says Abdul Jabar, a carpenter from the eastern province of Wardak. “If it does then I appreciate it.”
Mohammad Yassir, a shopkeeper in Kabul, is less receptive. “I want to ask McChrystal if he had lost his family in such an incident,” he says. “And if someone called to apologize, what would his reaction be? An apology doesn’t bring anyone back to life.”
Officials claim that NATO’s improved ability to communicate in Afghanistan can be attributed to McChrystal himself, who has shaken up the command structure and spun off a new public affairs office fielding queries 24 hours a day.
“It’s a good place to be right now. It’s very exciting and I think the excitement is contagious,” says Col. Wayne Shanks, a NATO public affairs officer based in Kabul. “I owe most of it to General McChrystal because he refocuses us and reenergizes us each day.”
More than words
But independent observers say the difference is attributable not just to the reorganization but also to a change in approach. The circumstances in which coalition forces are allowed to call in an airstrike have become more limited. For example, they must wait 72 hours to establish a “pattern of life” before bombing a house where insurgents have taken refuge.
Although the total number of civilian casualties rose in 2009 to 2,412, NATO troops were responsible for ‘only’ 25 percent of them, down from 39 percent the year before.
“The distinction that McChrystal has brought to the table is that there is a focus on communications but there is another level beyond that, where they are willing to make some changes in policy that reflect community concerns,” says Erica Gaston, a human rights advocate in Kabul for Open Society Institute. “I think that’s the main reason he’s been more effective in strategic communications.”
“With [Gen. David] McKiernan [McChrystal’s predecessor] there was also a certain public relations sensitivity to issues like civilian casualties, but you didn’t really see changes of policy,” she says.
“McChrystal is not only willing to go to the site afterward and make apologies but also to follow that up by making changes to tactical restrictions to prevent similar incidents from occurring.”