View Full Version : [Afghan News] January 5, 2012

03-01-2012, 08:55 AM
Afghan president flexes muscles against West: analysts
By Usman Sharifi | AFP
The Afghan government, angry at being sidelined over peace talks, flexed its muscles Thursday by ordering the takeover of a US military prison and parading British detainees at a news conference.
President Hamid Karzai ordered the transfer of the prison at Bagram -- sometimes called "Afghanistan's Guantanamo" -- to Afghan control within a month, citing reports of human rights violations there.
And in an unusual move his government publicly produced two British employees of a Canadian private security company and charged them with illegal weapons smuggling. It said the company, which has denied the allegation, would be closed.
All three countries have provided troops to support Karzai's government against an insurgency by hardline Taliban Islamists.
But the Taliban announced this week that they planned to open an overseas political office, a move seen as a precursor to talks with Washington and it's Western allies aimed at ending Afghanistan's 10-year war.
A senior official in Karzai's administration told AFP Thursday that the Western-backed leader was unhappy over the process as it had not involved his government.
"Any peace process without Afghanistan's government in the lead is meaningless," the official said, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "But so far, the Afghan government has not been involved."
Analysts saw clear links between the Taliban-US move and the government's action over Bagram and the private security company, even though both have been in Karzai's sights previously.
"By such moves the president now wants to reaffirm his position and show that his government matters and matters a lot and should be a regarded as a main player," author Waheed Mujda said in reference to the Bagram takover.
"He wants to show to Americans that the role of his government, in particular in regards with recent developments, should not be ignored."
But the US played down the development and asserted that the transfer of the military prison to Afghan control should be handled in a "responsible" way.
"We have been working... for some time with the Afghan government on appropriate timing and pace for transfer of the detention facilities" at Bagram, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
"We need to do this in a manner that is maximally responsible. That's what we want to do. And we're going to... keep working on it," she added.
Karzai issued the order for an Afghan takeover of Bagram after receiving a report detailing "many cases of violations of Afghan Constitution and other applicable laws of the country, the relevant international conventions and human rights," his office said.
The detention facility was built within the sprawling US military base at Bagram, north of the Afghan capital Kabul after the US-led invasion in 2001 and soon gained a reputation for extra-judicial brutality.
The Afghan defence ministry announced in January 2010 that an agreement had been signed with NATO's International Security Assistance Force on a handover of the prison to Afghan control, but that never happened.
"Karzai wants to prove to the Americans that he can always find ways to put pressure on Americans, thus should not be pushed aside in US-Taliban talks," said Kabul University professor Wadir Safi.
"And he also wants to show to the Taliban that the Afghan government is independent and not a follower of the United States."
Safi also saw the parading of the British private security personnel as part of the same muscle-flexing.
"In the past when confronting similar situations government officials would never be this serious, they would try to downplay the issue and not let it get to the media," he said. "Today we witness they parade the detained foreigners on TV."
The two British men, who worked for Garda World, a Canadian security firm, were arrested Tuesday with 30 AK-47 assault rifles -- many with their serial numbers erased -- while driving through Kabul, a government spokesman said Thursday.
The men, and two Afghans who were travelling with them, were shown to the media along with the weapons, but all four stood with their backs to reporters.
Garda World vice-president Nathalie de Champlain, based in Montreal, denied the charge. "The weapons were taken to be tested at a shooting range before being purchased by Garda World and properly licensed," she said.
Afghanistan is home to thousands of private security personnel providing services for foreign troops, diplomatic missions and aid organisations.
But relations with the authorities have deteriorated and Karzai has accused the firms of breaking the law and taking business away from Afghans.
Perceptions that those working for security firms are little more than gun-toting mercenaries, roaming the countryside with impunity, have made them deeply unpopular among Afghans.
The US led an invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, ousting the hardline Islamist Taliban government.
About 130,000 US-led troops are still in the country, now fighting a Taliban-led insurgency across Afghanistan. The coalition combat troops are set to leave the country by the end of 2014, handing control for security to Afghan forces.

Bagram Prison To Be Transferred To Afghan Control
January 5, 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
A statement from Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office said today that Bagram prison, currently run by the United States-led international coalition, is to be handed over to Afghan control within a month.
According to the statement, Karzai issued the order after receiving a report detailing "many cases of violations of Afghan Constitution and other applicable laws of the country, the relevant international conventions, and human rights" at the prison.
Karzai had previously tasked a commission in 2010 to work on the transfer of the prison and prisoners from the international coalition to Afghan authorities within a year, between January 2011 and January 2012.
But the statement said the commission was told to complete the full Afghan takeover of the prison within a month "so that any more breach of Afghan sovereignty can be avoided."
Bagram prison is located inside Bagram air base, the U.S.'s largest military base in the country.
with agency reports

15 Kidnapped Pakistani Soldiers Executed by the Taliban in a Retaliatory Gesture
By SALMAN MASOOD and ISMAIL KHAN The New York Times January 5, 2012
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Taliban insurgents executed 15 security soldiers who had been recently kidnapped and dumped their bodies on a hilltop in northwestern Pakistan on Thursday, in retaliation for the killing of a militant commander by government forces, government and military officials said.
The soldiers were kidnapped Dec. 23 after dozens of Taliban insurgents overran a fort in one of the restive tribal regions straddling the border with Afghanistan. Officials said they had tried but failed to secure the captives’ release.
The executions followed the death of a high-ranking Taliban commander on Sunday and came just days after local news media reported that several factions of the Taliban had vowed not to attack the Pakistani military.
The bullet-ridden bodies of the soldiers, members of the Frontier Constabulary, were spotted by local tribesmen on Thursday morning after they were dumped in Mir Ali, a subdistrict in the North Waziristan tribal region. The Frontier Constabulary, run by the Pakistani police authorities, has about 70,000 paramilitary soldiers who operate checkpoints in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province and provide security at foreign embassies and consulates in major cities across Pakistan.
“From the look of it, it seems they had been shot dead early Thursday morning,” said a senior security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We have been trying to get them freed,” the official said, “and we have had contact with their captors. And until last night the indications that we had were very, very positive. God knows what happened afterwards.”
Farther south, armed men in the city of Quetta kidnapped a British doctor who worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross on Thursday, said Sitara Jabeen, a spokeswoman for the aid group. She said she knew of no motive for the abduction, which took place near his home.
The executions in northwestern Pakistan were claimed by a Taliban spokesman, Ihsanullah Ihsan, who described them as an “act of revenge” for the killing of militants in the Khyber tribal region on Sunday. He said the group would release a video of the killings “soon” and threatened more attacks.
A dozen militants, including Qari Kamran, a local Taliban commander, were killed in the Khyber tribal region on Sunday after security forces attacked a militant hide-out. Mr. Kamran was considered a high-ranking Taliban commander who oversaw terrorist attacks and activities in Khyber and his native Nowshera district in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
Security officials said they had expected retaliatory attacks because Mr. Kamran’s killing was considered a major success.
Last week, reports emerged that Afghan Taliban and leaders of Al Qaeda had urged Pakistani Taliban militants to put aside their internal differences and focus on attacking the American-led forces inside Afghanistan.
There have also been reports of negotiations on ending violence between Pakistan’s government and some Taliban factions, although military officials deny the existence of such talks.
The executions show that, despite a recent decrease in militant-related violence and suicide attacks, some Taliban militants are unwilling to end their attacks, analysts here said. A report released recently by an Islamabad-based research organization, the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, stated that militant-related violence had decreased by 24 percent in the last two years.
“The Taliban are not to be believed because past deals have shown that they end up violating their own peace deals with the government and use them to regroup and regain strength,” said Omar R. Quraishi, an editor of The Express Tribune, a Karachi-based English-language newspaper. He said the executions also highlighted differences among Taliban factions, because some groups seemed to support ending the fighting against Pakistani security forces, while others continued with attacks.
Salman Masood reported from Islamabad, and Ismail Khan from Peshawar, Pakistan.

Police: Pakistani Taliban leader seized in Karachi
By Tim Lister, CNN Thu January 5, 2012
(CNN) -- Police in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, said Thursday they have arrested a senior figure in the Pakistani Taliban and several other alleged terrorists.
A police statement said Abdul Qayyum Mehsud and three other men were detained after police received an anonymous tip.
In a series of raids, police also recovered a stockpile of weapons, explosive devices and ammunition, as well as suicide jackets.
Police allege that Mehsud was formerly a bodyguard to the former leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone strike in August 2009.
Abdul Qayyum Mehsud is accused of involvement in Pakistani Taliban operations against security forces in northwest Pakistan.
The four suspected terrorists were allegedly involved in planning and executing suicide bombings, kidnappings and terrorist attacks in Karachi, which has become a fund-raising and logistical base for several militant groups.
Karachi also has nearly 2,000 religious seminaries, some of which have become recruiting and organizing centers for militant groups.
Last month an American citizen, Abd al-Moeed bin Abd al-Salam, who had been a prominent figure in the Global Islamic Media Front, a group that promotes jihadist activities online, was shot dead in a police operation in Karachi.
Local media reported on December 31 the arrest of four members of a different faction of the Pakistan Taliban in Karachi, along with nearly 150 kilograms (331 pounds) of explosives and weapons.
Rivalries between different militant groups and political factions are played out in the streets of the city, with almost daily shootings -- frequently carried out by militants on motorbikes.
Observers say the Pakistani Taliban may be more vulnerable now that its many factions appear to be at loggerheads -- because of personal rivalries, dissent over the killing of civilians and relationships with other jihadist groups such as al Qaeda.
Earlier this week, the creation of a council of elders was announced to try to reconcile different groups and co-ordinate their actions.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Insanullah Ihsan, told CNN that the council's creation was encouraged by the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who urged groups based in Pakistan to join the battle against the U.S.-led alliance from across the border.

Afghanistan arrests British, Afghan security contractors over cache of weapons
By Associated Press via The Washington Post
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan police arrested two British private security contractors and two Afghan colleagues and ordered their company closed down after finding a cache of weapons in their vehicle, an official said Thursday. They are being held for investigation into illegal arms transport.
Their detention spells the latest trouble for Afghanistan’s dozens of private security companies that guard supply convoys, development projects and private businesses. President Hamid Karzai has ordered all the protection companies shut down by March, to be replaced by a unified government-run protection force.
Police who stopped the contractors’ vehicle at a Kabul checkpoint Tuesday found more than two dozen AK-47 rifles in a metal box covered by a blanket, Ministry of Interior spokesman Sediq Sediqi told a press briefing.
All 30 weapons had their serial numbers scratched off, and the men had no permits for them, so police arrested all four men on suspicion of illegal arms transport, Sediqi said. He said the case has been sent to Afghanistan’s attorney general for investigation.
Authorities ordered the immediate shutdown of Afghanistan operations of their company, the international security consulting firm GardaWorld, and are questioning other company employees.
“They have to pay all the dues they owe to the government of Afghanistan, and they cannot operate any more after that,” Sediqi said.
GardaWorld specializes in high-risk areas around the world, with offices in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Haiti. It provided security for Afghanistan’s 2005 National Assembly elections.
The firm said Thursday that it was cooperating with the Afghan investigation. A statement indicated it did not own the AK-47s but was in the process of buying them through legal channels.
“The weapons in question were being taken to be tested at a firing range before being purchased and properly licensed by GardaWorld,” the company said. “We fully comply with all laws and regulations in our Afghanistan operations and are making every effort to work closely with the Afghan authorities to rectify the situation as soon as possible.”
A spokesman for the British Embassy said it was monitoring the case and providing consular services to the two British citizens.
Afghanistan has been scrambling to train guards for its own government security service — called the Afghan Public Protection Force, or APPF — since Karzai late last year ordered all 103 private security companies closed by March 2012.
Karzai has said the private security firms undermine the Afghan police and army forces, creating effective militias that often flout Afghan laws and regulations.
Controversies caused by some contractors’ behavior, ranging from violence to cultural insensitivity, has given the industry a bad name among many Afghans.
In 2008, guards from the American security giant Blackwater Worldwide — now known as Xe Services — forced an Afghan soldier to the ground and handcuffed him after he refused to let their vehicle pass through a checkpoint.
And in 2005, three DynCorp International guards assigned to Karzai’s own protective detail caused a scene in the VIP lounge of the Kabul airport while awaiting a flight. “They had been intoxicated, loud and obnoxious,” according to an internal company report. DynCorp, also a U.S. firm, fired the three guards.
So far, 57 of the private security companies have been shut down in Afghanistan, Sediqi said Thursday. Another 46, half of them Afghan firms and half international, are still operating but officials have vowed to close them by March, according to the Interior Ministry.
The new Afghan force will need to train 25,000 guards to take over all the work performed by privately contracted guards, according to a U.S. government report released in October.
Recruitment has been slow. As of late last year, the APPF had only about 6,500 guards trained, the U.S. report said. The NATO force in Afghanistan has offered help to speed up the training of the Afghan guards.
If the Afghan government is not ready to take over by March, there is a provision for 12-month extension that would allow the private firms to continue operating. Karzai originally set a deadline to shut down private contractors by the end of 2010, but it was pushed back to this year.

Afghanistan Closes Firm Providing Security
By GRAHAM BOWLEY The New York Times January 5, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government said Thursday that it was shutting down the operations of one of the largest foreign security companies operating in the country after detaining two of its contractors on suspicion of gun smuggling.
After months of growing tension between the government and foreign security contractors, the decision marks a sharp escalation into public action by the Afghan authorities.
President Hamid Karzai is in the midst of replacing foreign security contractors with Afghan guards.
The Interior Ministry said it was immediately withdrawing the company’s license, although the company, GardaWorld, a private Canadian security outfit, said it was in discussions with the government and hoped to be able to continue to operate.
The Interior Ministry said that the contractors, two Britons, who were detained on Tuesday after being found with an arsenal of unlicensed AK-47 assault rifles in their sport utility vehicle, were among the 341 Afghan guards and 35 foreign contractors employed by GardaWorld in Afghanistan.
At a news conference in Kabul, the authorities put on display the two Britons as well two Afghans who were detained — their driver and their interpreter. Seddiq Seddiqi, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said the rifles had been found wrapped in blankets inside a metal box in the trunk of the vehicle. The rifles, which the government said had their serial numbers scratched off, were also shown to reporters at the news conference.
GardaWorld, in a statement, said that it did not yet own the weapons and that its guards were taking them to a rifle range for testing. “The weapons in question were being taken to be tested at a firing range before being purchased and properly licensed by GardaWorld,” the company said, adding that in its discussions with the government it hoped to clear up what it implied was a misunderstanding and “rectify the situation as soon as possible.”
The company said it had complied with all Afghan laws and regulations in its operations in the country, where it provides mobile escort guard services and protection for compounds and bases. It would not specify which compounds or bases it protected.
The Interior Ministry said that the company had contracts to work in Kabul, Herat, Kandahar and two other cities, and that GardaWorld was one of 46 security companies licensed to operate in Afghanistan until March 2012.
The foreign companies have been plagued by allegations of corruption, illegal use of weapons and heavy-handed use of force, sometimes resulting in civilian deaths and injuries.
Mr. Seddiqi said the government was committed to pushing ahead with plans to shut down the foreign companies and to switch to Afghan security forces. “The Ministry of Interior will follow the order of the president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and dissolve all the security firms” by this spring, he said.
Mr. Karzai’s plan to develop and train a new Afghan security force has been slow, and private foreign contractors maintain a sizable presence in Afghanistan, protecting foreign companies, diplomatic missions, military sites and aid projects worth billions of dollars. Mr. Karzai has said he intends to allow private contractors to continue to work for embassies and diplomatic missions and for some NATO bases.
Jawad Sukhanyar contributed reporting.

Iran intensifies efforts to influence policy in Afghanistan
By Ernesto Londoño, The Washington Post
KABUL — Worried that U.S. troops could stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014, Iran is mounting an aggressive campaign to fuel anti-American sentiment here and convince Afghan leaders that a robust, long-term security partnership with Washington would be counterproductive, Afghan officials and analysts say.
The Iranian initiative involves cultivating closer relations with the Taliban, funding politicians and media outlets, and expanding cultural ties with its eastern neighbor. Although the effort has been underway for years, Iran has been moving with increased vigor in recent months because the United States and Afghanistan are negotiating a security agreement that could set the parameters for a U.S. troop presence here after 2014.
Iran’s overtures to the Taliban coincide with a renewed push by Washington to hold peace talks with the insurgent group in
Qatar, as well as growing tension between Iran and the United States in the Persian Gulf.
Iran’s strategy in Afghanistan is reminiscent of its maneuvering in Iraq, where it helped fuel the insurgency and persuaded Iraqi politicians not to yield on allowing the Americans a small military presence beyond 2011.
Tehran inked a bilateral defense agreement with Afghanistan last month. As the deal was being finalized, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi argued that foreign military bases in the region are the main cause of instability here. He expressed confidence that Afghanistan’s nascent security forces could secure the country without U.S. help.
The presence of American troops on Iran’s eastern and western flanks for much of the past decade has deeply concerned officials in Tehran. They fear that U.S. bases in the region enhance the West’s ability to gather intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program and could give the United States a major strategic advantage if the two countries go to war. Tension between Washington and Tehran soared last month after Iranian authorities recovered a CIA surveillance drone that had been launched from Afghanistan.
Sebghatullah Sanjar, who heads the Republican Party of Afghanistan, said the Iranian government in recent years has cut off fuel imports to Afghanistan during the winter and threatened to deport tens of thousands of Afghan refugees from Iran.
“They use this to pressure the Afghan government,” said Sanjar, who is also a policy adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai but said he was not speaking for the government. “They know the Afghan government cannot take all those people back.”
Looking beyond 2014
Having failed to keep a small contingent of troops in Iraq past a 2011 withdrawal deadline, U.S. officials appear eager to reach a deal with Afghanistan that would include a substantial military partnership beyond 2014, when the Obama administration has pledged to end major combat operations in the country. The United States has far more leverage in Afghanistan than it did in Iraq because Kabul is expected to remain heavily dependent on foreign aid for years.
U.S.-Afghan negotiations over an agreement for an extended American military presence, initially planned to be finalized last year, have lagged as Karzai has used them as leverage to press his objections to night raids by U.S. forces in Afghan villages. American diplomats handling the negotiations have sought to mitigate the problem by encouraging Afghan military participation in the raids. U.S. officials said they expect the talks to resume this month, in hopes that an agreement can be concluded by late spring.
The United States has said that it seeks no permanent bases in Afghanistan, but the Pentagon hopes to leave 10,000 to 30,000 troops here. It has said that they would be positioned on Afghan bases.
But Iran has rejected the distinction, making clear its opposition to the American military presence and taking advantage of the U.S.-Afghan disagreement to press its case.
In their public comments, Iranian officials have emphasized their desire to play a constructive role in Afghanistan — and have suggested that the motives for the U.S. presence are nefarious. At an international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, last month, Salehi, the Iranian foreign minister, condemned what he called the “violation of human rights by foreign military forces, including frequent attacks on residential areas.”
“Certain Western countries seek to extend their military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 by maintaining their military bases there,” Salehi said at the conference, which was attended by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Regional cooperation in Afghanistan would succeed, he said, only if the Afghans “discard the presence of foreign military forces and especially disallow the founding of foreign military bases in Afghanistan.”
A Western diplomat in Kabul said Iran appeared to make a concerted effort to influence a meeting convened by Karzai in November to get input from Afghan leaders about the type of long-term partnership Kabul should seek with Washington.
The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter, said that participants in the meeting — known as a jirga — indicated that some members of the group had received millions of dollars from Iranian proxies.
But the participants concluded that Afghanistan ought to seek a long-term security partnership with the United States.
“Whatever influence Iran has, the people at the jirga got the importance of the U.S. relation,” the diplomat said.
Cultivating Taliban ties
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Iran’s policy in Afghanistan are steps Tehran has taken to open lines of dialogue with the Taliban. Iran and Afghanistan nearly went to war when the Taliban was in power in the 1990s, and relations have long been strained.
But members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which is tasked with brokering talks with the Taliban, say Iran recently began allowing Taliban representatives to operate openly in Tehran and Mashhad, an Iranian city close to the border with Afghanistan.
Arsallah Rahmani, a member of the council who was a deputy minister during the Taliban regime, said Taliban contacts have told him that Iran has courted the militant Islamist movement in an attempt to derail its exploratory talks with Washington.
“Iran will not let [the Taliban] join the peace process,” Rahmani said.
Iran has done little to publicize its overtures to the Taliban, but it invited a delegation from the group to a state-sponsored Islamic conference in Tehran in September.
“Bringing the Taliban to the Islamic Awakening conference took great courage and was a sign to the international community,” said Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a member of the peace council.
He said Iran and the Taliban are being pragmatic because they have a common goal of ensuring that the Americans withdraw fully from Afghanistan.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Mujahid said. “Both sides are using this logic.”
Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said he could not confirm whether the group has dispatched envoys to Iran, but he noted that the Taliban wants constructive relationships with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors. The Iranian Embassy in Kabul did not respond to requests for an interview.
U.S. diplomats and military officials in Kabul said they had no information about reports that Taliban representatives have an active presence in Iran. The United States has accused Iran of funding and arming certain Taliban commanders and playing a spoiler role in the war.
‘Iran is a cancer’
Iran has sought to keep a low profile in its efforts to influence policy in Afghanistan, though not always successfully. Karzai acknowledged in 2010 that presidential aides regularly received bags of cash from the Iranian government; he characterized the money as routine aid.
Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan lawmaker who chairs the defense committee in parliament, said Iran has spent millions of dollars expanding its influence in Afghanistan.
“Iran is a cancer,” she said. “It has affected all the Afghan government and nongovernmental bodies. They are everywhere: in the higher-education system, working with the media, working with civil society.”
Another lawmaker, Fauzia Kofi, said Iran has strengthened its influence over Afghan institutions in the past year. Key among those is parliament, which is expected to vote on the bilateral agreement with Washington.
“They have strong networks and a lot of money,” Kofi said in an interview. “They go to different parliamentarians and tell them what to do and what not to do. They have become more active to try to keep this [U.S.-
Afghan] partnership from happening.”
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

Afghan Constitution Needs Strong Political Support Wednesday, 04 January 2012
Head of the legal section of the Independent Commission for Overseeing the Implementation of Constitution, Gul Rahman Qazi in the 8th anniversary of the adoption of the Afghan constitution, called on the Afghan president to support the constitution.
He also stressed that none of the three bodies in the country has supported the constitution.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Afghan parliament said that some criminals are still living under safe shelters.
Mr Gul Rahman Qazi says that all three bodies, especially the executive body, are violating the constitution
Implementation of the constitution needs proper management, he added.
"If all the three bodies do not support the constitution, then who will support it," he said.
"Thieves are still living under safe shelters and their partners will not be detained more than a few days," Ahmad Behzad, Deputy Speaker of Parliament, said.
Several government officials have been accused of corruption, but none of them have been prosecuted so far, he added.
The Afghan constitution was enforced eight years ago through a Jirga.

Taliban may want release of prisoners
By Kristina Wong The Washington Times Thursday, January 5, 2012
U.S., Afghan and Taliban officials this week have offered contradicting accounts about the purpose of the Taliban establishing an office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar.
American and Afghan officials have framed it as part of peace talks, but the Taliban have denied any talks have occurred. Skeptics say they believe the Taliban are after tactical gain rather than a peace process.
"The Taliban are mostly interested in talks about prisoner release - senior officials either at Guantanamo or Bagram [Air Base], or local cease-fires, rather than peace," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who chaired the Obama administration's first Afghanistan war strategy review in 2009.
Mr. Riedel, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, expressed doubt that the Taliban are interested in peace, especially since one of their suicide bombers last fall killed former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who headed the Afghan High Peace Council.
Anthony Cordesman, a military strategist at the Center of Strategic and International Studies, said developments in Pakistan are not conducive for peace talks. Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported the Afghan Taliban had reached out to the Pakistan Taliban for help against international forces in Afghanistan.
"You have a major set of negotiations going on between different elements of the Taliban that are going in the opposite direction," Mr. Cordesman said.
In addition, the Taliban's perception that international troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014 diminishes their incentive to reach a peace deal with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, he said.
"The Taliban believe if it can outlast the [international forces], have a sanctuary in Pakistan, it basically can win this war as a matter of political attrition," Mr. Cordesman said.
The purpose of the Qatar office is unclear, due to contradictory statements from the U.S., Afghanistan and Taliban.
In its statement announcing the establishment of the office Tuesday, the Taliban rejected reports that it was engaged in negotiations with Western officials.
But a State Department official framed the office as a positive step in terms of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's "talk, fight and build" strategy, in which the U.S. would build Afghan governance, continue to fight and explore political reconciliation.
The official insisted that any talks with the Taliban would be Afghan-led and that the U.S. is in a supporting role to the Afghan government. U.S. officials previously have confirmed they have had "preliminary contacts" with the Taliban but have declined to provide details.
Yet a statement issued by the Afghan government said it supports talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, but the negotiations were not Afghan-led.
"Afghanistan agrees with the talks between the U.S. and the Taliban for the sake of peace in Afghanistan and in order for the country to rid itself of imposed war, conspiracies and the killing of innocent people. We want the talks to be Afghan led and Afghan owned which is not the case yet," Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said this week.
Pressed for clarification on whether he meant ongoing or future talks, he deferred to U.S. and Taliban officials, citing media reports that said "the U.S. is engaged with the Taliban in order to open an office for them in Qatar."
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor on Wednesday vigorously denied a report in London's Guardian newspaper that said the U.S. agreed in principle to releasing Taliban prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in exchange for the opening of the Qatar office.
U.S. laws make releasing the prisoners almost impossible, said Wells Dixon, a lawyer for the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing most of the 171 detainees at Guantanamo.

Obama must keep US military in Afghanistan to counter China, Russia
The Obama administration must recognize that a total military withdrawal would have effects beyond Afghanistan's borders. It would devastate US interests – both political and economic – throughout Central Asia, a critical region where China and Russia now dominate.
By Alexander Benard | Christian Science Monitor – Wed, Jan 4, 2012.
As 2011 drew to a close, so did US military involvement in Iraq. Amid domestic pressure, Iraqi opposition to an American military presence, and a breakdown in negotiations between the US and Iraqi governments, the Obama administration withdrew all of its military forces from Iraq, and will soon face a similar decision in Afghanistan.
Though Afghanistan has requested a long-term security commitment, President Obama will likely encounter opposition from his political base as well as thorny issues like how to handle night raids and Afghan prisoners held by US troops. But as his administration continues its negotiations with the Afghan government, it must recognize that a total withdrawal would have effects beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Simply put, it would devastate US interests – both geopolitical and commercial – throughout Central Asia.
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Central Asia is a hugely significant region for the United States. It sits at the crossroads of important rivals and rising powers, like China, Russia, and India, and next to threats like Pakistan and Iran. The region also boasts significant oil and gas reserves, as well as large quantities of lithium, copper, rare earth minerals, gold, and many other natural resources that are critical drivers to global commerce.
Yet most of Central Asia has very little US presence. Few US companies operate in the region, largely because the Russian and Chinese governments successfully use threats – both explicit and implicit – to prevent Central Asian republics from opening their doors to Western firms.
In the Middle East, the US has troops and security relationships with a variety of countries (Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, among others) and can thus absorb the Iraq pullout without sustaining too much of a strategic blow to our regional interests. In Central Asia, however, America’s footprint is very light. It no longer has an air base in Uzbekistan and has only a few hundred troops at an air base Kyrgyzstan.
That leaves Afghanistan as America’s only beachhead – and a willing participant at that – altering the power dynamics in the region. The US certainly derives valuable intelligence and counter-terrorism benefits from having troops stationed in a country that borders Iran, Pakistan, and China. Even more important, however, a US presence in Afghanistan signals that the US is serious about Central Asia and that it will be a player there for the foreseeable future.
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Having an American presence in Afghanistan breaks the China-Russia duopoly by providing an alternative power broker for the region. It thereby emboldens other countries in the area, giving them the confidence they need to stand up to their neighborhood bullies. An ongoing presence of around 20,000 to 30,000 US troops – similar in size to the number of troops in South Korea or in Japan – would be sufficient to accomplish these goals.
One anecdote helps to powerfully illustrate the effect of the US troop presence in Afghanistan: Throughout the 1990s, Russia insisted on having Russian troops guard Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan, telling the Tajiks point blank that they did not trust them to guard this volatile border. Tajikistan had no choice but to accept.
But following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Tajiks told the Russians the jig was up: The border guards had to leave. With the US next door, the Tajiks felt emboldened. And the Russians obliged, pulling their troops out. It seemed to be the dawn of a new era.
OPINION: Obama’s Afghanistan withdrawal: another sign of America's decline?
Well, for a while at least. A few months ago, Russia informed Tajikistan that the border guards would be moving back in, and so far the Tajiks have not indicated that they will put up a fight. Their leverage has vanished now that there is a creeping sense throughout Central Asia that the US is heading for the exits. Similar realignments are occurring in other countries in the region.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for one, seems to understand the stakes. Last month, she visited several Central Asian republics to discuss the US commitment to the region. This visit came around the same time as Ms. Clinton’s major speech on economic statecraft, in which she announced that the US will become more aggressive in promoting its economic interests and that it will do a better job of countering Chinese state-owned companies that are gaining a stranglehold on strategically vital natural resources around the world.
But what Clinton did not acknowledge in her speech, or mention during her visit to Central Asia, is that in some regions, the projection of US military power is a necessary precursor to economic statecraft, and to political leverage in general.
Nowhere is this truer than in Central Asia. With no US presence, the region, with its strategically valuable location and its important natural resources, will be virtually closed to the United States. Central Asia does not want this outcome, and neither should the United States.
Alexander Benard is managing director of Gryphon Partners, an advisory and investment firm focused on the Middle East and Central Asia. He has worked at the Department of Defense and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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Taliban talks: Does Mullah Omar speak for his footsoldiers?
Taliban leaders have agreed to set up an office in Qatar to facilitate peace talks with the West. But it's unclear how well the Taliban communicate among themselves.
Christian Science Monitor By Tom A. Peter, Correspondent January 4, 2012
Kabul, Afghanistan - After months of setbacks in negotiations with the Taliban, news that the group has agreed to create a political office in Qatar has been heralded as a significant breakthrough. However, agreeing to an office does not solve all the problems of communicating with the shadowy insurgency.
An office gives the international community a line of communication to the Taliban leadership. But at this stage of the conflict, it's less clear how much control the Taliban's senior representatives – believed to be hiding in Pakistan – exert over the fighters on the ground in Afghanistan.
US forces have decimated the mid-ranking commanders who moved between the groups of fighters within Afghanistan and Mullah Mohammed Omar and his inner circle across the border, keeping the communication line open. With Taliban leadership removed from the daily fighting, its ties to those suffering heavy losses on the frontlines, may well have frayed, weakening its authority.
“A limited number of the Taliban leaders are going to Qatar, but the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan doesn’t belong to a limited number of people,” says Salih Mohammad Akhund, a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand province. “I think those Taliban leaders should first consult with the Taliban members who are fighting on the ground.”
As American and international forces increased their troop levels and ramped up kill and capture operations, the Taliban’s low- and mid-level fighters were particularly hard hit.
During a 90-day period this summer, former top American commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus told reporters that special forces kill and capture operations had resulted in 1,355 rank-and-file Taliban captured, 1,031 killed, and 365 middle- and high-ranking Taliban killed or captured.
While there has been some criticism that international forces have offered inflated figures, it's clear that military operations here have led to difficult losses for the Taliban.
As a result, much of the Taliban is now made up of younger fighters with limited experience who are harder for the group’s political leadership to control.
“There is some information that young members have been recruited and sometimes the new, young members are more motivated by ideology than politics,” says Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, the head of the foreign relations department for Afghanistan’s High Peace Council. “It would be difficult to say Mullah Omar is the leader of all the so-called Taliban.”
If the Taliban leadership in Qatar negotiates a deal, it may struggle to make all of its members adhere to the agreement.
Despite these challenges, Mullah Omar has managed to remain a cohesive figure for the organization and a deal that clearly has his backing should be good enough for most of the Taliban. However, arriving at such a truce that is widely acceptable to the entire group is likely to require considerable patience.
“I don’t know how they can convince the fighters not to fight. They always told them these are the Americans, they are kafirs, non-Muslims, this, this and this,” says Sami Yusufzai, an independent analyst in Islamabad. “So now how can a guy who has killed a lot of people for the Taliban easily forget everything and say, ‘Okay, let’s sit with the people we always believed we had to fight with.’ It will take some time.”

Obama plans to cut tens of thousands of ground troops
Reuters By Laura MacInnis and David Alexander Wed Jan 4, 2012
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration will unveil a "more realistic" vision for the military on Thursday, with plans to cut tens of thousands of ground troops and invest more in air and sea power at a time of fiscal restraint, officials familiar with the plans said on Wednesday.
The strategic review of U.S. security interests will also emphasize an American presence in Asia, with less attention overall to Europe, Africa and Latin America alongside slower growth in the Pentagon's budget, the officials said.
Though specific budget cut and troop reduction figures are not set to be announced on Thursday, officials confirmed to Reuters they would amount to a 10-15 percent decline in Army and Marine Corps numbers over the next decade, translating to tens of thousands of troops.
The most profound shift in the strategic review is an acceptance that the United States, even with the world's largest military budget, cannot afford to maintain the ground troops to fight more than one major war at once. That is a move away from the "win-win" strategy that has dominated Pentagon funding decisions for decades.
The move to a "win-spoil" plan, allowing U.S. forces to fight one campaign and stop or block another conflict, includes a recognition that the White House would need to ramp up public support for further engagement and draw more heavily on reserve and national guard troops when required.
"As Libya showed, you don't necessarily have to have boots on the ground all the time," an official said, explaining the White House view.
"We are refining our strategy to something that is more realistic," the official added.
President Barack Obama will help launch the U.S. review at the Pentagon on Thursday, and is expected to emphasize that the size of the U.S. military budget has been growing and will continue to grow, but at a slower pace.
Obama has moved to curtail U.S. ground commitments overseas, ending the war in Iraq, drawing down troops in Afghanistan and ruling out anything but air power and intelligence support for rebels who overthrew Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
The number of U.S. military personnel formally assigned to bases in Europe - including many now deployed in Afghanistan - is also set to decline sharply, administration sources said, while stressing that the final numbers have not been set.
"When some army brigades start coming out of Afghanistan, they will basically disappear," one official said.
Many of the key U.S. military partners in the NATO alliance are also facing tough defense budget cuts as a result of fiscal strains gripping the European Union.
The president may face criticism from defense hawks in Congress, many of them opposition Republicans, who question his commitment to U.S. military strength.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, are set to hold a news conference to flesh out the contents of the review after Obama's remarks, which are also expected to stress the need to rein in spending at a time when U.S. budgets are tight.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the defense cuts stemming from an August debt ceiling deal - worth about $489 billion over 10 years - need to be enacted carefully.
"The president made clear to his team that we need to take a hard look at all of our defense spending to ensure that spending cuts are surgical and that our top priorities are met," Carney told reporters this week.
The military could be forced to cut another $600 billion in defense spending over 10 years unless Congress takes action to stop a second round of cuts mandated in the August accord.
Panetta spent much of Wednesday afternoon briefing key congressional leaders about the strategic review. Representative Adam Smith, the senior Democrat on the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, said after speaking to Panetta that the review was an attempt to evaluate U.S. strategic priorities for the future rather than identify specific budget reductions.
Maintaining a significant presence in the Middle East and Asia, especially to counter Iran and North Korea, was a leading priority in the review, Smith said. So was making sure that military personnel are sufficiently cared for to guarantee the effectiveness of the all-volunteer force. Reductions in the size of U.S. forces in Europe and elsewhere are a real possibility, he said.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain John Kirby said with the military winding down a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is appropriate to re-evaluate the role of U.S. forces abroad.
"From an operational perspective it's ... an opportune time to take a look at what the U.S. military is doing and what it should be doing or should be preparing itself to do over the next 10 to 15 years," he said on Wednesday.
"So, yes, the budget cuts are certainly a driver here, but so quite frankly are current events," Kirby said.
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Will Dunham)

US Embassy Resumes Aid to GMIC Wednesday, 04 January 2012
Head of the Afghan Government's Media and Information Centre, Hakim Asher, says that the US embassy will resume its financial aid to the centre.
The advisors who were taken out of GMIC will be recalled, he added.
The US embassy called it's advisor and paused all its aid to GMIC after a delegation who investigated about civilian casualties in some provinces held a press conference.
Meanwhile, Mr Asher announced that the US embassy in Afghanistan will resume its aid..
"Actually the aid was not paused, they were only reviewing their aid," Mr Asher said. "They only called their advisor for a few days but soon sent him back."
The US embassy emphasises on a fully Afghan-supported GMIC.
"As we stated earlier, the US Embassy is working to transition the Afghan Government Media Information Centre to a fully Afghan-supported institution. We will continue to interact with the GMIC to ensure that US support and resources are used efficiently and effectively," the US embassy in Kabul told TOLOnews.

Some Find Hope in Afghan Outcry Over Bride's Abuse
Associated Press By KAY JOHNSON January 4, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan - Just 15 years old, Sahar Gul has become the bruised and bloodied face of women's rights in Afghanistan. The teenage bride's eyes were swollen nearly shut as she was wheeled into the hospital seven months after her arranged marriage. Black scabs crusted her fingertips where her nails used to be.
According to officials in northeastern Baghlan province, Gul's in-laws kept her in a basement for six months, ripped her fingernails out, tortured her with hot irons and broke her fingers — all in an attempt to force her into prostitution. Police freed her after her uncle called authorities.
The horrific images, captured by television news cameras last week, transfixed Afghanistan and set off a storm of condemnation. President Hamid Karzai set up a commission to investigate, and his health minister visited her bedside. Police arrested her in-laws, who denied abusing her. A warrant was issued for her husband, who serves in the Afghan army.
The case highlights both the problems and the progress of women 10 years after the Taliban's fall. Gul's egregious wounds and underage wedlock are a reminder that girls and women still suffer shocking abuse. But the public outrage and the government's response to it also show that the country is slowly changing.
"Let's break the dead silence on women's plight," read the title of an editorial Wednesday in the Afghanistan Times.
Despite guaranteed rights and progressive new laws, Afghanistan still ranks as the world's sixth-worst country for women's equality in the U.N. Development Program's annual Gender Inequality Index. Nevertheless, Afghan advocates say attitudes have subtly shifted over the years, in part thanks to the dozens of women's groups that have sprung up.
Fawzia Kofi, a lawmaker and head of the women's affairs commission in the Afghan parliament, says the outcry over a case like Gul's probably would not have happened just a few years ago because of deep cultural taboos against airing private family conflicts and acknowledging sexual abuse — such as forcing a woman into prostitution.
"I think there is now a sense of awareness about women's rights. People seem to be changing and seem to be talking about it," Kofi said.
Ending abuse of women is a huge challenge in a patriarchal society where traditional practices include child marriage, giving girls away to settle debts or pay for their relatives' crimes and so-called honor killings in which girls seen as disgracing their families are murdered by their relatives.
And some women activists worry that their hard-won political rights may erode as foreign troops withdraw and Karzai's government seeks to negotiate with the Taliban to end their insurgency. Women's rights, they fear, may be the first to go in any deal with the hardline Islamic militants.
"I'm afraid we won't have all this anymore if the Taliban are allowed back into society," said Sima Natiq, a longtime activist.
Freedoms for women are one of the most visible — and symbolic — changes in Afghanistan since 2001 U.S.-led campaign that toppled the Taliban regime. Aside from their support for al-Qaida leaders, the Taliban are probably most notorious for their harsh treatment of women under their severe interpretation of Islamic law.
For five years, the regime banned women from working and going to school, or even leaving home without a male relative. In public, all women were forced wear a head-to-toe burqa veil, which covers even the face with a mesh panel. Violators were publicly flogged or executed. Freeing women from such draconian laws lent a moral air to the Afghan war.
As U.S. troops begin to draw down, activists say Afghanistan is unmistakably a better place to be born female than a decade ago.
In parliament, 27 percent of lawmakers are female, mostly because the constitution reserves 68 seats for women. More than 3 million girls are in schools, making up 40 percent of the elementary school population, according to the education ministry. A survey last year indicated that women dying in childbirth had dropped by nearly two-thirds to below 500 per 100,000 live births since 2005, although that is still one of the world's highest rates.
Still, for every improvement, there are other signs of women's continued misery. The U.N. says more than half of Afghanistan's female prison population is made up of women sentenced by local courts for fleeing their marriages — the charge is often phrased as "intent to commit adultery," even though that's not a crime under Afghan law. And the U.N. women's agency UNIFEM estimates that half of all girls are forced to marry under age 15, even though the legal marriage age is 16.
"There's very good standards on paper. There's very active women's networks," said Georgette Gagnon, the U.N.'s human rights director in Afghanistan. "A lot has been done, but there is still a long way to go."
A U.N. report in November also found that a 2009 law passed to protect Afghan women from violence was rarely enforced. For the 12-month period ending in March 2011, prosecutors filed indictments in 155 cases, only 7 percent of all 2,299 crimes reported. And activists say those complaints are a small fraction of the true level of abuse.
Part of the problem is the ingrained attitudes of police and courts that cause them to turn a blind eye or even send women back to their abusers, said Latifa Sultani, coordinator for women's protection with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
"Some local officials still believe women shouldn't have rights," Sultani said.
Last month, Karzai pardoned a 19-year-old woman who was imprisoned after she was raped and impregnated by a cousin. A local court sentenced her to 12 years in prison for having sex out of wedlock, a crime in Afghanistan. The judge told her she could get out of prison if she agreed to marry her alleged rapist, but she refused and gave birth to her daughter in prison.
Passing laws that protect women is one thing, enforcing them is another. Women's groups are pressing Karzai to do more, but most acknowledge that with the central government so weak, the real battle will be fought in individual police stations, courtrooms and prosecutors' offices. Not least will be persuading Afghans to change their views.
That's why the gruesome story of Sahar Gul's imprisonment and torture is seen by some activists as an opportunity for the government to recommit publicly to women's rights. They say are encouraged that Karzai felt compelled by the outcry to become involved.
"This is a sign of progress in a way," Kofi said. "This is just a small example. We have hundreds of thousands of women like Sahar Gul who are victims of violence, but their voices are not heard."
For now, Gul remains in a Kabul hospital, where she transferred from a local hospital in Baghlan province. An Afghan official said this week that she will be sent to India for further medical treatment. It's unclear where she will go when she returns to Afghanistan.

Pakistani Taliban releases 17 abducted boys
By Nasir Habib, for CNN Thu January 5, 2012
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- The Pakistani Taliban released 17 teenage boys Thursday whom they abducted in September from the country's restive tribal belt that borders Afghanistan, according to a senior Pakistani government official.
The militant group released the boys without conditions, said Islam Zeb, an administration official in Bajaur Agency, a stronghold of the country's Taliban and the area where the boys were abducted.
Zeb said they were not harmed while they were being held.
A Taliban representative said the boys were abducted as revenge for a pro-government militia's battle against the group.
The Pakistani Taliban, which has close ties to al Qaeda, is thought to be an umbrella organization for militant tribal and Islamist factions in the region, contributing to violence against NATO troops and Pakistani security forces.

Pakistani man sentenced for conspiring to smuggle member of Taliban into U.S.
By Del Quentin Wilber, The Washington Post Friday, January 6, 3:48 AM
A Pakistani citizen was sentenced to four years and two months in federal prison Thursday for conspiring to smuggle a member of the Pakistani Taliban into the United States.
Irfan Ul Haq, 37, and two other Pakistani citizens pleaded guilty in September in federal court in the District to conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. The two other men, Qasim Ali, 32, and Zahid Yousaf, 43, each were sentenced last month to at least three years in prison. As part of their plea agreements, the men will be returned to Pakistan when their sentences are finished.
Federal prosecutors said the men were living in Ecuador when they became targets of a sting operation by federal agents. Starting in January 2011, the agents directed confidential informants to ask the three Pakistanis to help them smuggle a member of the Pakistani Taliban into the United States. The Pakistani Taliban was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department in September 2010.
Ul Haq told the informants that he didn’t care what the Pakistani wanted “to do in the United States — hard labor, sweep floors, wash dishes in a hotel or blow up,” according to federal prosecutors.
As part of their service, some of the smugglers planned to accompany the Pakistani Taliban member on a circuitous journey from his home country to the United States — with stops in Dubai, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, according to federal prosecutors. One of the smugglers told an informant that the normal rate for such a smuggling operation was between $50,000 and $60,000, prosecutors said.
Before being arrested in Miami on March 13, federal prosecutors said, the three smugglers had accepted some payment from the confidential informants and had obtained a fake Pakistani passport for the fictitious man with terrorist ties.

Can Afghan Forces Manage Alone in Helmand?
Residents say national army and police may prove unable to halt Taleban return.
IWPR By Gol Ahmad Ehsan 4 Jan 12
Afghanistan - As Afghan forces prepare to take over from international troops, some residents of the troubled southern province of Helmand worry that they are not yet up to the job.
After some areas including Helmand’s main town Lashkar Gah were transferred to Afghan control in July 2011, the second phase of the handover began on December 26. This covers three more districts of Helmand – Marja, Nad Ali and Nawa – as well as Balkh, Daikondi, Takhar and Samangan provinces in the north, Nimroz in the southwest, major towns including Jalalabad, Sheberghan, Faizabad, Ghazni and Maidan Shahr, and Kabul province.(See Mixed Feelings Over Helmand Handover on the July handover in Lashkar Gah.)
Although Helmand no longer suffers from the kind of intense fighting that was common three years ago, residents say security is not well enough established for the handover to be a success.
They say that after Lashkar Gah was handed over, it was hit by a number of suicide attacks, so the withdrawal of foreign troops from rural districts is likely to allow the Taleban to move back into areas from which they were partly or wholly expelled.
Lashkar Gah resident Abdul Hadi said the handover was a good thing but had come too soon for Helmand, where the Taleban were fully in control of some areas while the government only held major urban centres in others.
“If the process of transition is to take place now, it will certainly entail bloodshed among Helmand’s people,” Abdul Hadi said. “At a time like this, I think that handing over security would be a big betrayal.”
Saleh Mohammad, from the Nad Ali district, said that since Afghan security forces had not managed to impose security while foreign troops were still in Helmand, they would never do so without them.
“I think that once the transition process is completed, warfare will intensify in Helmand,” he said. “It’s true that the Afghan police and army are better trained than in the past, but they aren’t equipped with the weapons and artillery they need to prevent Taleban attacks.”
Mohammad Laiq Sarferaz, who served as an officer in the Soviet-backed military of the 1980s, said the current Afghan National Army, ANA, and Afghan National Police, ANP, were not as committed as their insurgent opponents.
“These forces are divided into [ethnic and factional] groups, and, they put their personal and group interests first, which are not necessarily those of the country or the nation,” he said. “Another important point is that these forces don’t have the same motive for fighting as the Taleban have.”
While the insurgents believed in pursuing war for their faith and for a free Afghanistan, Sarferaz said, government forces were still unclear about what they were fighting for. “If the armed forces aren’t given a clear explanation of what patriotism and the aims of the war are, they won’t be able to maintain security,” he added.
Matiullah, originally from Marja, says the prospect of a security handover in his district has not convinced him to leave the safety of Lashkar Gah and go back home. Like many in Helmand, he has little confidence in ANA and ANP personnel brought in from elsewhere. A locally-recruited auxiliary police force was also operating in Marja, but would not cope on its own, he said.
“Thousands of national and international forces carried out an operation in Marja district, which took months and gained international notoriety. Despite this, security was not imposed very well in Marja. If foreign forces leave the district, how will these thieving police and army men be able to halt the Taleban? We don’t trust these armed forces. Even before the Taleban came, they [government forces] used to loot us – they are marijuana users, intoxicated people.”
Low morale has resulted in high desertion rates in the government’s security forces.
“We don’t know who our friends and enemies are,” an ANA officer who deserted two months ago told IWPR, speaking on condition of anonymity. “One day our president says the Taleban. are our enemies, and the next he calls them our brothers. The Americans view the Taleban as their enemies one day, yet they have started underground talks with them and say they aren’t their enemies.
“Many soldiers like me have become confused about who they are fighting, why they should fight, and who they are fighting for.”
Government and defence officials deny that the military lacks resolve or direction.
According to Helmand governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal, “When responsibility for security in Lashkar Gah was handed over to Afghan forces, people were concerned and mistrustful about whether security would be maintained in the city. And at the same time, our opponents tried to stir up chaos to demonstrate that the transition had been a failure. However, our brave Afghan forces were able to prevent any type of incidents.”
With proper training and equipment in place, Mangal said, “We are ready to deal with any kind of security issue. We want to reassure the public that no problems will arise.”
Both the defence and interior ministry have recently intensified their recruitment processes. Defence Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi says ANA numbers now stand at 180,000 and will reach 195,000 by October 2012. Defence ministry staff say the ANA should expand to 240,000 by the end of 2014, when international troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan.
General Shirshah, commander of the ANA’s Maiwand Corps, acknowledged that army units in the province did not have all the weapons they needed, but insisted this would not hinder the security handover.
“We have a very good plan in place in Helmand, and coordination among the ANA, ANP and Afghan National Security Directorate is excellent. We can take over responsibility for security from the foreign forces, and I would like to assure people that there won’t be any problems – we are going to do better,” he said.
Helmand’s police chief Mohammad Hakim Angar added, “I can give an assurance that people should not worry, as our forces are very strong and are capable of maintaining security in this area.”
Gol Ahmad Ehsan is an IWPR-trained reporter in Helmand. (