[Afghan News] January 23, 2012 - 03-02-2012, 10:04 AM
By ROD NORDLAND The New York Times January 22, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan — No peace talks with the Taliban this week: That was the short message on Sunday from the American envoy charged with starting those negotiations.
Stopping here in Kabul this weekend on his way to Qatar, where the insurgents are in the process of opening an office, the envoy, Marc Grossman, implicitly rejected reports that he planned to begin negotiations there this week. He made it clear that there was a long way to go.
Qatar still needs to talk to the Afghans about the proposed Taliban office, he said, and the United States needs to talk to Pakistan, which rebuffed Mr. Grossman’s plans to visit last week. Perhaps most telling, the Taliban still needs to clarify whether they actually intend to engage in peace talks, he said.
“The peace process is a comprehensive and large and complicated set of issues,” Mr. Grossman, the United States’ special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in a news conference here on Sunday after meeting with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.
He repeatedly reassured the Afghans that any peace talks would be “Afghans talking to Afghans.”
“Only Afghans can decide the future of Afghanistan,” he said.
What is obvious, however, is that the first steps are being taken by American officials, working through the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, and President Karzai’s aides had expressed concern that they might be sidelined.
The American envoy repeatedly emphasized that the Taliban have not explicitly said that they would participate in peace talks. While they have enthusiastically and publicly endorsed opening an office in Qatar, they have yet to clarify that it would be used for peace talks rather than, as some have feared, to enhance their international prestige while they wait out the American military withdrawal in 2014.
In addition, Mr. Grossman said, the Taliban would have to publicly renounce their links with international terrorists before talks could begin.
The Taliban also set a condition for opening an office in Qatar, saying that it would do so on the condition that the United States release Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Afghan officials have long advocated such a release as part of a peace process and on Sunday endorsed that idea. Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin went a step further, saying that Afghanistan would support the idea of transferring Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo to Qatar.
Illustrating how far apart the parties are, Mr. Grossman said the United States had not made any decision about releasing prisoners.
“This is an issue in the United States of law, something on which we would want to consult our Congress,” he said. “We have not made any decisions on this.”
Mr. Ludin also said the Afghan government had invited a Qatari delegation to Kabul, Afghanistan, to discuss the Taliban office, and Mr. Grossman seconded the idea of discussions between the Qataris and the Afghans.
Afghan officials had complained that Qatar had not only never consulted with them, but had yet to open an embassy in Afghanistan.
Mr. Ludin and Mr. Grossman said that Pakistan’s participation was crucial to any peace process. Mr. Grossman sought to play down Pakistan’s refusal to meet with him during this trip, which had been billed as an effort to prepare for peace talks by talking with regional leaders. However, he said, echoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, “There really can’t be a comprehensive peace process unless Pakistan is part of it.”
He added, “I would be happy to meet them at any time or any place.”
Washington Says Kabul Will Be Part of Talks
Wall Street Journal By MARIA ABI-HABIB JANUARY 23, 2012
KABUL - The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, on Sunday tried to assuage President Hamid Karzai's concerns about American negotiations with the Taliban, as U.S. officials said they will demand the inclusion of the Afghan government in any talks with the insurgents.
The budding peace process, meanwhile, hit another snag because of a deepening spat between Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, which has agreed to host a Taliban representative office to facilitate the talks. Afghan officials say Qatar has kept Mr. Karzai's administration in the dark about its contacts with the Taliban leadership.
In protest, Afghanistan last month withdrew its ambassador to Qatar's capital, Doha. Afghan officials now demand Qatar, which is one of the world's wealthiest countries and is trying to play a major political role in the region, issue an apology and agree to work with Kabul before Mr. Karzai consents to the opening of the Taliban office.
The "work that still needs to be done [is] first, Qatar and Afghanistan need to be in direct contact with one another," Mr. Grossman said Sunday in Kabul, after meeting Mr. Karzai.
The Afghan president, aides say, is worried his government would be cut out of a deal between the U.S. and the Taliban. The insurgent group doesn't recognize Mr. Karzai's government and has agreed only to meet with U.S. officials so far.
For the Qatar office to open, "we definitely need a statement by the Afghan Taliban against international terrorism and in support of a peace process to end the armed conflict in Afghanistan," with "Afghans talking about the future of Afghanistan,"Mr. Grossman said on Sunday. "We expect to see some progress in that area."
He added the U.S. hasn't decided whether to transfer to Qatar five top Taliban officials held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a move broached as part of confidence-building measures in the talks. "This is somethingwe would like to consult our Congress" about, he said.
Showing his displeasure about direct U.S. contacts with the Taliban, Mr. Karzai lambasted the international community in an address to the Afghan parliament on Saturday. "Afghanistan is not a political laboratory for foreigners," he said. "Peace negotiations will be led by the Afghan nation and no other country."
The Afghan president also belittled Qatar in the parliament speech, saying he had hoped a Taliban representative office would be set up instead in an "important Islamic country like Saudi Arabia or Turkey."
The Taliban last week said Turkey was unacceptable because it belongs to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Saudi Arabia is seen as too close to Pakistan.
Write to Maria Abi-Habib at firstname.lastname@example.org
Former Taliban officials find new role
By Kevin Sieff, The Washington Post
KABUL — A Toyota Corolla full of former Taliban officials and armed guards stopped in front of Abdul Salam Zaeef’s home in western Kabul this month, awaiting the man who helped direct the Taliban from Pakistan before his capture and detention at Guantanamo Bay.
With Zaeef inside, the car sped off for President Hamid Karzai’s palace, where the once-fugitive Zaeef has lately become a frequent guest.
As Karzai weighs the prospect of talks with Taliban officials in Qatar, Afghanistan’s government has invited Zaeef and others with long-standing ties to the Taliban to offer guidance and help mediate.
Afghan leaders have been disappointed by their lack of access to Taliban negotiators who have been speaking directly to the United States. But they have found an alternative in former insurgents — many of them imprisoned and later reintegrated — who live only a few miles from the palace gates.
And so Zaeef — a broad-shouldered, bearded man who was once the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan — has seen an unlikely resurgence in his diplomatic career. This time, he’s trying to convince the government, and anyone else who will listen, that the Taliban is serious about peace if its preconditions can be met.
“They are ready to discuss peace,” he said in an interview. “They have received the message from their leadership, and they are ready.”
Attempting to bridge divide
Thousands of former Taliban members have put down their weapons in recent years. Most are low-level fighters whose peace deals with the government were unceremonious and of little political consequence. But a few, like Zaeef, were offered early release from prison if they agreed to work with the government rather than against it.
Members of this small group have been having occasional conversations with Karzai for several years. But with peace talks drawing closer, they are meeting with top Afghan officials much more often, according to the president’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi.
The meetings have been mostly informal, and officials are quick to point out that they are no substitute for negotiations with Taliban diplomats in Qatar. But given the obliqueness of the Taliban’s public demands, and concerns here that the United States is not adequately including the Afghan government, the former insurgents have come to play an important role.
“We’ve had ongoing talks . . . and we do consider some of these men, like Zaeef, to be speaking for some segment of the movement,” said Shaida M. Abdali, the deputy national security adviser. “But we're still waiting for officially appointed representatives.”
On Sunday, during a visit to Kabul, Marc Grossman, the special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the Taliban must sever its connections to terrorists before opening a diplomatic office in Qatar.
Arsala Rahmani, a former education minister for the Taliban, said he has met with Karzai four times this month, attempting to bridge the divide between his “old colleagues” and the government that promised him refuge.
Mohammad Akhbar Agha, the former leader of the Taliban-affiliated Jaish al-Muslimeen group, said he talks to the Taliban as much as he does to the government, fielding 20 calls a day from both sides in recent weeks. He said he communicates the Taliban’s demands: a true Islamic government, the prompt removal of foreign troops and the release of key prisoners.
The intermediaries offer rhetoric more muted — and more likely to keep Karzai engaged — than the Taliban’s official pronouncements. But the men sometimes struggle to articulate their own political identities. Are they still part of the Taliban movement? Or have they become de facto members of the Karzai camp?
The government says they have been “reintegrated,” but some claim otherwise. The national security police camp outside of their homes 24 hours a day — both to protect them and to make sure they aren’t aiding the insurgency, Zaeef said.
“I was a Talib until I was detained, and I was released under the condition that I wouldn’t do anything with the Taliban. But I didn’t change. I am still a Talib,” he said.
“I have not been reintegrated,” said Agha. “I want to work for the Afghan government, but not this one.”
‘We know their mentality’
For years, Karzai has invited former Taliban officials to join his government. Several of them sit on the High Peace Council, the official body appointed by the president to pursue a political settlement with the insurgency. Those appointments were meant to send a message to the country’s armed groups — that the government was ready and willing to absorb its “angry brothers,” as Karzai called them.
“We know their mentality. We know how the organization works,” said Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, once the Taliban’s representative to the United Nations and now the deputy director of the High Peace Council. Mujahid boasts credentials of particular relevance: Several of the Taliban leaders thought to be in Qatar were once his employees.
Afghan officials note that the meetings are not simply conducted as preparation for official talks. They are also a symbolic gesture meant to convey to “the armed opposition that we are willing to sit down and talk with any Afghan,” said Faizi, the presidential spokesman.
The Karzai government, in an attempt in July to bolster the fledgling peace process, convinced the U.N. Security Council to remove 14 Taliban members from a sanctions list that since 1999 had prevented them from traveling or sending money abroad. Several of those men are among the group making regular visits to the palace. One of them, Maulvi Qalamuddin, led the movement’s religious police force, which beat men and women in the streets to enforce a strict interpretation of Islam.
In statements to the media, Taliban spokesmen have denied links between the current organization and former officials who now live in Kabul.
“They are under watch and are not speaking on our behalf. They may speak or give advice or suggestions to anyone as individual Afghans, but they do not represent us,” said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.
Nonetheless, Zaeef, Rahmani and Agha are struck by their newfound relevance, as the only public faces of a movement that for years has shunned public diplomacy. For Zaeef, it’s an opportunity to market his autobiography, now translated into 10 languages: “My Life with the Taliban.”
His large home holds the religious paraphernalia that he amassed as a Taliban leader, but there are hints of a new, secular life in the capital: an Adobe Photoshop user guide, files from his nascent real estate business and a newly purchased iPhone that, every once in a while, lights up with an incoming call from Karzai’s palace and blasts his ringtone, the Muslim call to prayer.
“I’m proud of what I did before,” he said before answering a recent call, “and I’m proud of what I’m doing now.”
Afghan Military Official Says Attacks On NATO Soldiers 'Isolated' Cases
January 23, 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
A senior Afghan military official says recent incidents of security forces opening fire on NATO soldiers are isolated cases and not the result of increased Taliban infiltration of Afghan security forces, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reports.
The comment came in the wake of an incident in which a purported Afghan National Army soldier shot and killed four French troops and wounded at least 15 others in the eastern Kapisa Province, the site of the main French base in Afghanistan, on January 20.
That shooting was the latest deadly incident involving Afghan security forces and foreign troops, undermining trust as NATO accelerates the training of Afghan forces ahead of the withdrawal of foreign combat troops in 2014.
France announced it was suspending all its joint combat operations and training programs for Afghan troops after the January 20 attack.
General Afzal Aman, the Afghan National Army's operations chief, told RFE/RL that the motive for the shooting was unclear and could have been a result of "different reasons."
"One of the reasons could have been provocation from our enemies," Aman said. "It could have been the mental illness that soldiers in the national army suffer from. Sometimes two or three people have arguments and then on the field something happens. The reasons for these actions against the French [soldiers] are not exactly known."
In response to the latest incident, Taliban spokesman Zabibulah Mujahid said in statement that "It is not yet clear whether the attacker belonged to the forces of the Islamic Emirate," in a reference to the Taliban's label for Afghanistan since 1996.
Similar attacks in recent months have raised fears of increased Taliban infiltration into the Afghan police and army.
Last month, two French soldiers were killed in the same region by a man dressed as an Afghan soldier. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
But Aman said it was too soon to conclude that insurgents were infiltrating Afghanistan's armed forces.
"In the past, incidents have occurred in similar circumstances, but it is not likely the result of enemy infiltration," Aman said. "We haven't found enough evidence which shows that our enemies had infiltrated [our forces]. These cases were more the result of a personal reaction."
Killing of French soldiers by man in Afghan army uniform exposes Taliban infiltration
By Abdul Haleem, Chen Xin
KABUL, Jan. 23 (Xinhua) -- In a dreadful incident, a man dressed in Afghan army uniform opened fire on Friday, killing four French soldiers and injuring 15 others in Kapisa province, 65 km northeast of Afghan capital Kabul.
The shocking incident, second of its kind over the past one month in militancy-plagued Afghanistan has prompted Paris to send its defense minister to the conflict-ridden country for inspection of the situation.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet, who landed on Afghanistan a day later on Saturday and visited his troops stationed in Kapisa province, has pointed finger at Taliban penetration into the Afghan army, according to local media reports.
"The man who opened fire on French soldiers in Tagab district of Kapisa province on Friday was a Taliban member and had received training in Pakistan," Daily Mandegar quoted the French Defense Minister as saying. The shooter has been arrested.
Nevertheless, Defense Minister Gerard Longuet in meeting with President Hamid Karzai assured of Paris continued support to Afghanistan.
A statement released by Afghan Presidential Palace on Sunday said that French Defense Minister in meeting with President Karzai emphasized that France would remain committed in bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.
Afghan President besides extending deep condolences to the people and the government of France, had ordered concerned authorities to thoroughly investigate the bloody shooting, according to the statement.
The Taliban outfit, according to media reports, has claimed responsibility for the shooting, stressing its man carried out the attack.
Interestingly on the same day Friday, scores of Afghan soldiers had been poisoned.
A statement of Afghan Defense Ministry admitted "more than 100 soldiers were poisoned on Friday in Kabul Military Training Center after taking lunch," adding investigation has been initiated.
However, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi in remarks covered by local media on Monday rejected the reported poisoning plot of soldiers as baseless, saying medical investigations has indicated that the poisoning was caused by careless washing of fruits and vegetables given to soldiers.
In an previous identical attack against French troops also in Kapisa province, a man in Afghan army uniform opened fire and killed two French soldiers on December 29, 2011.
Latest attack on French troops took place just days after NATO- led forces spokesman had rejected Taliban penetration into security apparatus.
"There were no signs that the Taliban are seriously infiltrating the Afghan security forces," Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, the spokesman of NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told reporters at a press conference on January 16.
Earlier, in a similar incident, a man in Afghan army uniform during a training mission opened fire on foreign troopers, killing a U.S. soldier and injuring at least five others before being shot dead in southern Zabul province on Jan. 8 this year.
Pakistan Rejects US Findings on Deadly Border Attack
VOA News January 23, 2012
Pakistan's military has formally rejected the findings of a U.S. inquiry into last month's NATO attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border.
The military said Monday that it does not agree with several portions of the investigation report, calling them “factually not correct.”
U.S. defense officials blamed inadequate coordination by both Pakistani and U.S.-led forces for the November 26 attack. The U.S. military probe also found that U.S. forces acted in self-defense and with appropriate force after being fired upon.
Pakistan's military on Monday dismissed the U.S. findings and said that holding Pakistan partially responsible for the incident on Pakistan is “unjustified and unacceptable.”
Pakistan responded to the NATO attack by shutting down the two main overland routes the coalition uses to send nonlethal supplies to Afghanistan.
The border attack brought U.S.-Pakistan relations to a new low point, with ties already strained over the covert U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden last year and a number of U.S. drone strikes targeting militants in Pakistan's northwest.
In the latest strike, Pakistani officials say missiles fired by a U.S. drone hit a vehicle and a house Monday in North Waziristan tribal agency's Degan village, near the Afghan border. Authorities say four militants from Turkmenistan were killed in the attack.
Drone strikes resumed earlier this month after a drop-off in such attacks following the deadly November 26 NATO airstrike.
Pakistan has condemned drone strikes as a violation of the country's sovereignty, but they are believed to be carried out with the help of Pakistani intelligence.
U.S. officials have never publicly acknowledged the missile strikes against militants in Pakistan's tribal areas, but have anonymously confirmed such attacks to various news outlets.
Silicon Afghanistan: Kabul Innovation Lab Launches
Forbes - Mon Jan 23, 7:58 am ET
The agenda makes no mention of the Taliban, women’s rights or war. The public forum that kicked off the Kabul Innovation Lab today in the Afghan capital isn’t interested in the challenges facing today’s Afghanistan. It is all about Afghanistan’s future through technology.
Kabul Innovation Lab is part digital conference, part hackathon. Organized by the International Synergy Group (INSY Group) a group focused on improving information flow in conflict areas, and Internews, a non-profit committed to empowering local media, it wants to build a community for IT developers and techies to help innovate solutions to Afghanistan’s multitude of problems.
Technology, particularly on mobile platforms, has been a critical tool in, as the Labs’ website points out, health, education, governance, media, agriculture and crisis response. Kabul Innovation Lab wants to show, as Jenn Gold of INSY Group notes, “how technology is being used in other developing countries and how it’s helped other citizens.” She believes that when Afghans see how technology has helped others from the developing world such as Kenyans, Haitians and Mexicans, it will “give them confidence to try it.” “There are so many users for mobile phones and telecommunications,” she notes, “that we just don’t see them utilize as much as they could.” Gold believes that Kabul Innovation Lab will give them the ideas and motivation.
To help them with those ideas and motivation is a half-day of insights about the current state of Afghanistan’s IT status and a background about the field by experts such as iMedia Associates’ Emrys Schoemaker. It will be followed by a hackathon like event where selected invitees will work in groups to “hack” a solution in a Start-up Weekend-style format to a given challenge such healthcare and education.
“There are so many incredible tech tools that can really help to improve the Afghan’s education and exposure,” Gold says. “And not just the really expensive tech tools.” A simple text message she says helps people feel connected to each other. This is especially important in a country where most people live in rural areas, cut off by mountains and undeveloped roads. “An SMS can feel empowering to them,” Gold says.
Gold hopes that Afghanistan’s government sees the importance of technology and “will push for other ministry officials to adopt more ICT in their future strategies.”
When asked what has surprised her the most in planning for this event, she noted “how the international community is exploiting the situation,” in Afghanistan. She points to their spending habits. “For the price of one security contractor that you see on a base, who is guarding the flight line, we can put Internet in a dozen schools and get them new computers.” “There are people in the IC making six figures and never interact with a local Afghan…. The employee is managing from inside an office and never experiences the real situation on the ground.”
The situation on the ground, Gold notes, is not as bad as it is portrayed in the media. “I think most of the world has this really negative view about Afghanistan and its people. I believe it’s because of the way the media portrays things over here. You’re always hearing about war and death and bombs and that’s what I thought when I arrived. But in reality they’re just like us, if not more hospitable.”
Ancient Jewish scrolls found in north Afghanistan
By Amie Ferris-Rotman Mon Jan 23, 2012
KABUL - (Reuters) - A cache of ancient Jewish scrolls from northern Afghanistan that has only recently come to light is creating a storm among scholars who say the landmark find could reveal an undiscovered side of medieval Jewry.
The 150 or so documents, dated from the 11th century, were found in Afghanistan's Samangan province and most likely smuggled out -- a sorry but common fate for the impoverished and war-torn country's antiquities.
Israeli emeritus professor Shaul Shaked, who has examined some of the poems, commercial records and judicial agreements that make up the treasure, said while the existence of ancient Afghan Jewry is known, their culture was still a mystery.
"Here, for the first time, we see evidence and we can actually study the writings of this Jewish community. It's very exciting," Shaked told Reuters by telephone from Israel, where he teaches at the Comparative Religion and Iranian Studies department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The hoard is currently being kept by private antique dealers in London, who have been producing a trickle of new documents over the past two years, which is when Shaked believes they were found and pirated out of Afghanistan in a clandestine operation.
It is likely they belonged to Jewish merchants on the Silk Road running across Central Asia, said T. Michael Law, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Oxford University's Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
"They might have been left there by merchants travelling along the way, but they could also come from another nearby area and deposited for a reason we do not yet understand," Law said.
"SOLD ELSEWHERE FOR TEN TIMES MORE"
Cultural authorities in Kabul had mixed reactions to the find, which scholars say is without a doubt from Afghanistan, arguing that the Judeo-Persian language used on the scrolls is similar to other Afghan Jewish manuscripts.
National Archives director Sakhi Muneer outright denied the find was Afghan, arguing that he would have seen it, but an advisor in the Culture Ministry said it "cannot be confirmed but it is entirely possible."
"A lot of old documents and sculptures are not brought to us but are sold elsewhere for ten times the price," said advisor Jalal Norani, explaining that excavators and ordinary people who stumble across finds sell them to middlemen who then auction them off in Iran, Pakistan and Europe.
"Unfortunately, we cannot stop this," Norani said. The Culture Ministry, he said, pays on average $1,500 for a recovered antique item. The Hebrew University's Shaked estimated the Jewish documents' worth at several million dollars.
Thirty years of war and conflict have severely hindered both the collecting and preserving of Afghanistan's antiquities, and the Culture Ministry said endemic corruption and poverty meant many new discoveries do not even reach them.
Interpol and U.S. officials have also traced looted Afghan antiquities to funding insurgent activities.
In today's climate of uncertainty, the National Archives in Kabul keep the bulk of its enormous collection of documents -- some dating to the fifth century -- under lock and key to prevent stealing.
Instead reproductions of gold-framed Pashto poems and early Korans scribed on deer skin, or vellum, are displayed for the public under the ornate ceilings of the Archives, which were the nineteenth century offices of Afghan King Habibullah Khan.
"I am sure Afghanistan, like any country, would like to control their antiquities... But on the other hand, with this kind of interest and importance, as a scholar I can't say that I would avoid studying them," said Shaked of the Jewish find.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Editing by Rob Taylor and Sanjeev Miglani)
Vietnam war question haunts Afghanistan
By Lawrence Bartlett | AFP
A legendary question from the dying days of the Vietnam war has taken on a new resonance in Afghanistan as the United States-led coalition prepares to pull out its combat troops.
Vietnam veteran and later US presidential candidate John Kerry asked the question at a Senate hearing in 1971: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?"
Forty years later, some Western officials say privately the time has come to ask the same question about Afghanistan, given the decision to quit combat in 2014 -- win, lose or draw.
And French President Nicolas Sarkozy, facing a tough election battle in three months, warned Friday that he might pull French troops out early after four were shot dead on their base by an Afghan soldier.
France has about 3,600 soldiers serving in Afghanistan alongside a total of 130,000 foreign troops fighting a decade-long Taliban insurgency. Their deployment is deeply unpopular in France.
Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, chief spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, says Kerry's question is probably "as old as warfare".
But in an interview with AFP he said it was even more pertinent in irregular types of conflict where "we all know that the decision in Afghanistan will not be achieved on the battlefield".
Jacobson disputes overarching comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan, but concedes that "there are individual elements where you can say this looks a little bit like Vietnam.
"And one of the big ones is that we have got not only Americans but a coalition of 50 nations that has soldiers far away from home where none of them can say this is a war that really threatens my house and home."
One big difference, though, is that Afghanistan doesn't carry the "moral cost" that Vietnam did, he said.
While acknowledging civilian casualties caused by NATO troops in Afghanistan, he said there was not the "moral burden that Vietnam had because of napalm, because of agent orange, because of things that went wrong".
But he admits that things have gone wrong in Afghanistan too, like the failure to follow through on the swift victory against the Taliban in 2001 with the training of a strong Afghan army -- a priority now, 10 years later.
"There are a lot of people who say there were mistakes made in the first years, and probably that's a fair judgement," Jacobson said.
The second sentence in Kerry's famous speech to the Senate was: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
That's a question that haunts the British cemetery in Kabul, where soldiers from two 19th century invasions lie in snow-covered graves hidden behind high mud-brick walls and an arched wooden door.
There are no footprints in the smooth snow -- there are few visitors to these men, some of whom died in a disastrous campaign about 170 years ago.
But there are modern memorials on the walls to their successors from Britain, Canada, Germany and other NATO countries who have died in the same land, far from home.
Their bodies are not there -- these days dead soldiers are shipped home to ceremonial tributes -- but they are just as dead and almost as forgotten by war-weary Europeans and Americans focused on their own financial woes.
Asked whether he would feel his death to be worthwhile if he was the last man to die in Afghanistan as NATO combat troops pulled out, Jacobson said it was not a question for the soldiers themselves.
Most foreign troops in Afghanistan are volunteers, not conscripts as they were in the Vietnam war, and he said it was their parents or their wives who were "asking the questions".
But US Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings, who sat in on the interview, was quick to respond in the affirmative.
"It all leads back to 9/11," he said, referring to the Al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington that led to the invasion of Afghanistan and the toppling of the hardline Islamist Taliban regime later that year.
Describing his mission as helping to ensure Afghanistan never again becomes a haven for terrorists, he said: "To answer your question, yes, it would be."
US army panel advises trial in Afghanistan suicide
By KAY JOHNSON | Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — An investigative hearing has recommended that an American soldier be court-martialed over hazing that allegedly led to a fellow infantryman's suicide in Afghanistan, but dismissed the most serious charge against him, the U.S. military said Monday.
Spc. Ryan Offutt is one of eight soldiers charged in the death of 19-year-old Pvt. Danny Chen, who shot himself on Oct. 3 after what investigators say were weeks of physical abuse, humiliation and racial slurs.
A native New Yorker of Chinese descent, Chen had been in Afghanistan only two months when he shot himself in a guardhouse at a remote outpost in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.
The investigative hearing recommended that Offutt, 32, be court-martialed on charges including assault, negligent homicide, and reckless endangerment, a statement from U.S. military said.
It said the hearing, which ended Sunday, did not recommend trial for an additional charge of involuntary manslaughter, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The most serious charge Offutt now faces is negligent homicide, which carries a prison sentence of up to three years.
The regional American military commander will make a final decision on any court-martial based on the hearing's recommendations, the U.S. statement said.
Attorneys for Offutt could not immediately be contacted. Offutt, a native of Greenville, Pa., joined the Army in 2006 and served 14 months in Iraq before being deployed to Afghanistan.
Chen's family has said investigators told them that he was subjected to racial slurs and forced to do excessive sit-ups, push-ups, runs and sprints carrying sandbags.
Seven other members of Chen's unit will face similar hearings over the next month at Kandahar Air Field, the sprawling base for U.S. and NATO operations in the south.
The Army has identified the other soldiers charged as 1st Lt. Daniel J. Schwartz, 25, of Maryland (no hometown was given); Staff Sgt. Blaine G. Dugas, 35, of Port Arthur, Texas; Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Van Bockel, 26, of Aberdeen, S.D.; Sgt. Adam M. Holcomb, 29, of Youngstown, Ohio; Sgt. Jeffrey T. Hurst, 26, of Brooklyn, Iowa; Spc. Thomas P. Curtis, 25, of Hendersonville, Tenn; and Sgt. Travis F. Carden, 24, of Fowler, Ind.
All are members of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division based out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
Seabees team makes history in Afghanistan
In the rocky mountains of Helmand province the group from Port Hueneme becomes the first all-female team in Seabees history to take on and complete a construction project.
Los Angeles Times By Catherine Saillant January 23, 2012
It was an unusual job even for the Seabees, the U.S. Navy's construction forces trained to hold a hammer in one hand and a Beretta M9 in the other.
First, the team selected to build barracks high in the mountains of Afghanistan consisted of eight women, who are all stationed at Naval Base Ventura County. And second, the women completed the job far ahead of schedule.
Beating deadline made up for long days and freezing nights in tents without plumbing, building four 20-by-30-foot structures, said Mission Cmdr. Gafayat Moradeyo. But when the women returned to Bagram air field, their Afghanistan base, they learned that they had nailed another achievement: a place in naval history.
Military officials say they are the first all-female construction team to take on a construction job from start to finish in the Seabees' 70-year history. And they did it in record time in the barren rocky mountains of Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold and the focus of recent combat efforts.
At first, the women had their doubts about the achievement. But after checking with military historians and naval museums, they confirmed their status, said Shelby Lutrey, 29, one of the builders.
"It's definitely something to be proud of," she said. "There is nothing wrong with hard work and good results."
The Seabees were created during World War II to fill a critical demand for construction workers who could also fight. Today, there are nine battalions operating out of two U.S. bases, deploying overseas to build airstrips, bridges, roads, living quarters, just about anything needed in a military operation.
Women first joined the Seabees in 1972 and, 22 years later, earned the right to serve alongside their male counterparts in combat zones, said Russell Stewart, a spokesman with the U.S. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Four.
The team members have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan for years — some are on their third overseas tours. In mid-November, when the call went out for a team of Seabees to build barracks huts, the women put up their hands, Stewart said.
There weren't a lot of male Seabees available at the time, and Moradeyo, from the Chicago area, saw it as an opportunity for the women to prove themselves. At Bagram air base, the mission commander gathered her team, laid out what needed to be done, assembled the building materials and packed a pallet of construction tools for the trip to Helmand province.
Moradeyo and Lutrey, who are still in Afghanistan and were interviewed by phone, demurred when asked if they got any ribbing from their male counterparts. But Stewart, the Seabee spokesman, said that, initially, there was plenty of skepticism.
"Unlike most times Seabees show up to a new location, this team was welcomed with rolling eyes and comments on the order of, 'Really, a group of girls?'" Stewart said.
The builders reportedly changed minds in short order. Working 12-hour days, they agreed on site to double the size of their task, adding an operations center and a gym to the barracks already planned.
Mornings were so cold that ice coated the piles of wood, soaking their gloves as they began throwing up the buildings. They took showers using freezing water pulled by bucket from a well. They ate rice and beans. They disposed of solid waste in a bag and then burned it in a pit, Lutrey said.
"When you join the military, that's what you expect," said the native of Scottsdale, Ariz. "It might not be the most comfortable, but it's necessary."
The women worked so well together that they finished the job, including installing electricity and utilities, in two weeks. It normally takes about three weeks to complete such a project, Seabees officials said.
Lutrey chalked it up to a strong team spirit. They knew the post's soldiers had been living out of tents and mud huts, she said, and they wanted to prove the team's efficiency by quickly providing more comfortable shelter.
"It was probably one of the smoothest builds I've done while in Afghanistan," said Lutrey, who's in her third year of service. "We had a lot of camaraderie. We pushed each other to get the job done."
Besides Moradeya and Lutrey, the work was completed by Kadisha Lee, Carla Diazcastillo, Amber Mann, Kacie Dunlavey, Jessica Vera and Shayla Miles.
Will the team stay together? Not likely, Moradeya said. Seabees, each with differing areas of expertise, rotate in and out of construction teams. Moradeya, for instance, was on another assignment in an undisclosed location last week with a different group of builders — one that included men.
Though immune to the deprivations of working under austere conditions, she said stray thoughts of home enter her mind sometimes as she looks down at her cracked hands and dirt-rimmed nails.
"I think, 'Oh my god, I need to get a manicure,'" she said. "And then I keep going."
Afghanistan, An Indecent Silence
The Huffington Post By Anne Nivat Reporter de guerre 23/01/2012
It's rarely talked about on television anymore, and the images are few and far between. When there are images, they're always the same -- soldiers trekking through sand-colored highland villages under the suspicious gaze of stoic men. Commentators have left the scene, leaving the usual suspects to repeat the same sound bites over and over again. And yet, the war that shook Afghanistan -- and in which France has actively participated for a decade -- is not over. On Friday morning, four unarmed French soldiers were killed on a base near Kapisa by a man wearing an Afghani uniform. Their death, reported by a nearly indifferent media, was a cruel reminder that the war continues.
Given the scale of losses, and his incomprehensible stance on the war, President Sarkozy was unable to avoid his recent shocking declaration, in which he implied an early return for the French army. This was a complete reversal of all his previous statements, in which he stressed his plans to remain in Afghanistan.
For ten years, over 50,000 of our soldiers have gone through the "Afghan theater," as it is nicely referred to in military jargon. 82 have not come home. Very shabby theater indeed. Even though the pride of our military has been felt -- the pride of having participated in a large scale OPEX (External Operation), of having fought "at an American level" for a decade, of feeling like a great nation capable of so much -- all that's left today is weariness and doubt.
But this weariness and doubt, whether felt by officers or enlisted men, is kept quiet. Each soldier knows that nobody is interested -- not even his friends, let alone the public. Only his immediate family knows what's really on his mind. Imagine when, at a bar, your friends ask you to explain what really happened in Afghanistan, how many people you took out, and you have to explain that you, in fact, did not kill anyone. No, you did not shoot one single bullet, did not even see anything close to the Taliban. Because that is the other side of war: waiting, watching, knowing that you are being watched, not understanding, doubting, and being killed.
But who sent the military to Afghanistan? Who made the decision at the highest level that France would join in this war, would participate gallantly in an international coalition dominated by U.S. forces, both in terms of finances and resources? Politicians. Our politicians, those that we have had the opportunity to elect in our good old democratic society, where elections are not distorted like they are in distant lands, where we are quick to give lessons in democracy. The politicians that we are about to elect again in less than three months.
So why are they silent? Why, during the Socialist primary, which were covered to death by the media, no one even dared to utter the word "Afghanistan?" Except Martine Aubry, who only mentioned it during the last ten seconds of the third debate to point out that no one had talked about it.
Why, on the side of the majority, do we continue to hear the same awkward silence, the same ignorance of the realities on the ground? Why is it, that for every French soldier that dies in Afghanistan, the same official, impersonal statement is copied, pasted, and used again, with only the name, age, and rank changed? In Canada, a high-ranking soldier always gives a short speech on the life of the individual who has sacrificed his life in the name of who-really-knows-what. The official may not have known the fallen soldier, but this ritual at least honors the dead. And the media are there, with the consent of the families, to film the departure of the coffin from Afghanistan, its arrival in Canada, and the journey to its final resting place. People gather on bridges and roads, some waving flags, to pay tribute. "These are images of what would never happen here in France," have confessed so many saddened French soldiers to me.
Why? Are we ashamed of what we have done -- or not done -- in Afghanistan? Has this topic become taboo? What prevents us from talking about it, from dumping it into the public sphere for discussion, alongside the loss of France's triple-A rating, PIP implants, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon's calling Marine Le Pen "semi-insane," etc..
I prefer to think that our politicians are silent out of complete ignorance, merely following the American example, and daring not to raise an issue that is seen with such ambiguity by the French population (the real question is: have we won or lost the war?). I dare not think that they are silent because they know. They know that this war is no longer "fashionable" and that with the current planned troop withdrawal for 2014, the pack of journalists have abandoned the field. They know that the strategies against Afghan insurgencies have not worked (On Friday, this hostile act against our soldiers was perpetrated; on December 29, 2011, two legionnaires were also shot and killed on a secure base by Afghan police officers that were trained and armed by us, Westerners). They know that we have not won the confidence of the indigenous people, or that we have not won enough. They know that "Afghanization," a pure marketing ploy to help sell a departure "with our heads held high," is second-rate. They know all of thi
s, but they say nothing.
So, ladies and gentlemen, esteemed candidates: what do you have to offer on the subject of Afghanistan, beyond the mandatory question of withdrawal? You, politicians who have been unable to organize even a parliamentary debate, answer. Enter the discussion, and draw conclusions about this military engagement -- it has cost us many lives, and yet it is still neither approved of or understood by the public. After ten years, we still lack clear and convincing answers.
Anne Nivat is a freelance reporter and author of The Fog of War, Fayard, 2011.
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