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Default [Afghan News] March 20, 2012 - 03-21-2012, 06:08 PM

U.S. commander in Afghanistan to appear before wary Congress
By Ernesto Londoño and Richard Leiby, The Washington Post
KABUL — When Gen. John R. Allen testifies Tuesday on Capitol Hill, he faces a daunting task: trying to convince lawmakers that they should resist the urge to sharply cut funding for the war in Afghanistan over the next two years.
After stumbles and setbacks that have kept U.S. diplomats and commanders in Afghanistan in triage mode for much of this year, that argument probably will be a tough sell. For Allen, a respected but fairly low-profile Marine, the role of public advocate is a relatively new one — and one made all the more fraught by the looming U.S. presidential election.
“You see in the chattering class here, even among military guys, a lot more talk saying enough is enough,” said retired Lt. Col. Fred Wellman, a former spokesman for Gen. David H. Petraeus, Allen’s predecessor. “What does two more years get us? Is there any hope that in two years we’re going to have a stable relationship with Kabul? A stable relationship with Pakistan?”
Those questions will loom large as Allen, who has commanded U.S. and NATO forces here since July, is sworn in before the House Armed Services Committee. Congress is drawing up the fiscal 2013 defense budget amid growing calls in Washington and Afghanistan to speed up the transition of responsibility for security to Afghan forces. Putting Afghan security forces in the lead sooner rather than later could give the Obama administration a pretext to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
At stake is whether U.S. commanders will prevail in keeping a robust force in Afghanistan after this fall, when the Obama administration has ordered troop levels to dip from the current 90,000 to 68,000. That, commanders have argued, would give them two more springtime “fighting seasons” to weaken the Taliban and allow U.S. and allied forces to continue training a substantial number of Afghan security force members.
But in a climate in which polls reflect public disapproval of the war, it seems more likely that those favoring a steeper drawdown will prevail.
Washington’s shaky relationship with Kabul has been tested like never before by the recent slayings of 16 civilians, allegedly by a U.S. Army staff sergeant. The incident follows last month’s apparently accidental burning of Korans by American troops.
Last Thursday, the Taliban announced that it was suspending peace talks with the United States, charging that Washington was being fickle. That same day, Karzai called on foreign troops to pull back from small outposts in villages, suggesting that their presence was doing more harm than good.
He also has repeatedly objected to night raids by U.S. troops. Karzai’s government has insisted that foreign troops be banned from entering Afghan homes and that American soldiers obtain search warrants before storming into the houses of suspected insurgents.
The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the Obama administration was preparing to allow Afghan judges to review night operations in advance, as a concession to Karzai.
But George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, said “no decisions have been made” on the night raids. “Discussions with our Afghan partners continue on this issue,” he said.
A senior U.S. official in Washington said the discussions were very preliminary.
The warrant requirement is “one option that’s being discussed that would shift the focus toward law enforcement. There’s a lot of work left to do. We’re not there yet. This is just an idea that’s being explored,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
Afghan officials have argued that Afghan troops ought to be put in the lead now, despite serious concerns about their readiness to fend off — let alone defeat — the Taliban.
“Afghan security is . . . something we want to take on as quickly as we can,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai said in a recent interview.
Afghans from provinces where the Taliban continues to wield considerable influence said in ­interviews last week that they support Karzai’s position.
“People in the villages want the foreigners to leave,” said Muhammad Jamil, 57, a shopkeeper who splits his time between Kabul and Wardak province in central Afghanistan. “They come to our homes, they search our women.”
To be sure, there are Afghans who see merit in a strong military partnership with the United States. And Allen, who lacks the reputation and name recognition of his predecessor, ­Petraeus, has nonetheless earned the trust of many prominent ­Afghans.
Shukria Barakzai, a lawmaker who as the head of the parliament’s defense committee has met several times with Allen, praises him as sensitive to Afghan sovereignty concerns and the country’s Islamic culture.
“I greatly respect him,” she said. “He was one that was always trying to listen, not to ignore.”
Staff writers Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Craig Whitlock in Washington contributed to this report.

Facing the Afghan obstacle course
By Omar Samad Tuesday, March 20, 2012 Foreign Policy
The way forward in Afghanistan became considerably less opaque last week when the Taliban suspended Qatar-based talks with the United States, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in a separate statement, requested that NATO troops pull back from rural outposts to main military bases. This marked the first time Karzai has publicly indicated that he favors a handover of security to Afghan forces in 2013, a year earlier than the 2014 deadline set by NATO.
These announcements came on the heels of the horrendous carnage last week in the southern Afghan district of Panjwai, at the hands of a man described as a deranged American soldier who left 16 villagers dead, and just days after the deeply offensive Quran burning mishap.
Despite U.S. apologies and two phone conversations between the U.S. and Afghan presidents in the span of one week, Afghan leaders, understandably under domestic pressure, are using atypical language to lambast the way the United States handled the two incidents. At a meeting with family members of the Panjwai victims over the weekend, President Hamid Karzai intensified a sense of crisis when he warned that he was at "the end of the rope," and in a moment of emotional pique asked that Afghans be saved from "two demons." Though he didn't elaborate, some analysts assume he was referring to the Taliban and the United States.
Meanwhile, pundits and commentators in the U.S. foresee an unrecoverable relapse in bilateral relations, and the American public appears to feel similarly. A recent online poll shows that only a quarter of respondents support engagement till the job is completed, while half are for a speedier pullout.
Forestalling further deterioration, officials in Kabul and in Washington scrambled to downplay the turbulent relations, and refocus attention on elements of the larger picture. Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasool, reported to be on a pre-arranged visit to Washington this week, is expected to make the rounds for a patch-up job. A Pentagon spokesman said the two countries shared the common goal of "moving as quickly as possible to a fully independent and sovereign Afghanistan." He added: "We believe that we need to continue to work together because that's an American goal as well."
Karzai's knee-jerk demands may just be political posturing, but they would have serious operational and security implications if met. The first ramification lies in that most experts believe that Afghan forces are not yet ready to replace NATO forces across the country, particularly at a time when the insurgents are gearing up to start the spring offensive.
Second, it is inconceivable that such a decision, if implemented now, would not negatively impact command and control, coordination, counter-insurgency and self-defense factors in a country with a complex and diverse set of on-the-ground conditions and threat levels.
Since such a scenario realistically requires months of preparation and planning, it may be a non-starter. Just the act of insisting on an immediate pullback, however, could entail political cost, as it might further strain relations and weaken the trust between Kabul and Western capitals. This would again benefit the militant wing of the Taliban, transnational terrorist groups and their regional backers.
In their announcement on the suspension of talks, the Taliban did not offer any specific reason, except to say that they were presented with "unacceptable demands," describing Washington's posture as "shaky, erratic and vague," and, once again, rejecting any talks with Kabul. U.S. efforts to secure a place at the table for Karzai's representatives may be a thorny issue that the Taliban are not yet ready to accept.
On the surface, the Taliban decision seems tactical, perhaps meant as a public relations exercise after the recent Quran burning and tragic Panjwai killings. While not completely shutting the door, it is designed to pressure the United States into accelerating the Guantánamo prisoner release process as part of what has been labeled a "confidence-building measure." But in effect, this dramatic decision has the potential to derail the reconciliation process for the foreseeable future, as the fighting season and targeted attacks are certainly going to be picking up again.
Unless political leaders in Afghanistan and in the largest contributing countries take a step back and refocus on the priorities of this U.N.-sanctioned mission, this week's developments could become game-changers that seriously disrupt stabilization efforts, and alter exit-strategy planning. There is also a fragile Afghan domestic side that needs reinvigoration. The main tasks to be achieved are strengthening Afghan security forces, improving governance, adhering to rule of law and protecting fundamental democratic rights as the country undergoes a bumpy transition.
Afghans remain skeptical about a reconciliation process that stands on feeble legs. They see a lack of clarity about an end-state that endangers their gains in terms of relative stability, and basic rights and freedoms. They also see the specter of radicalism in the region emboldened by a premature U.S. retreat that leads to the re-emergence of transnational terrorist groups, which could become the net beneficiaries of a growing power vacuum.
Afghans are distressed by the untrustworthiness of some regional actors whose intentions they regard as dubious. To leverage the possibility of a Taliban takeover and the reconstitution of terrorist cells, they prefer that the international community makes official, long-term partnerships with Afghanistan.
If unforeseen events do not further tarnish relations, a slightly revised version of the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement that has been in the works for months, is slated to be signed just before the NATO summit in Chicago in May.
But, as officials have indicated in recent days in Kabul, "there are still some ambiguous points that the U.S. needs to clarify." The most contentious of all is the demand by Karzai that the United States halt night-raids as a pre-condition to signing a separate "status of forces agreement" on the right to maintain military bases in the country. Only then does Kabul propose that a longer-term, comprehensive strategic partnership be signed. Encouragingly, the Obama administration is now reportedly considering the idea of giving Afghan legal and judicial authorities review rights in regard to night raids.
As reiterated over the years, the international community's raison d'être in Afghanistan is not to occupy or stoke hostilities, but rather to fulfill a post-9/11 stabilization mission, curtail terrorism, and create the necessary space for a devastated country to once again stand on its own feet.
Achievements have come at a high cost for all sides. However, the current scenario is highly fragile and important pieces of the puzzle are still not in place. In the months ahead, every effort has to be made to prevent random incidents and grave blunders, such as the Panjwai tragedy or Quran-burning, from recurring.
Rebuilding trust and promoting mutual respect will be essential steps for the way forward, as all sides try to overcome tarnished perceptions and focus on the strategic elements that would ensure an orderly -- not necessarily hasty -- transition, and offer an opportunity to aim for a just and durable end to a long war.
Omar Samad is Senior Afghanistan Expert at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington D.C. Formerly, served as Afghanistan's Ambassador to France (2009-2011) and Canada (2004-2009). He was spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry between 2001-2004.

Condoleezza Rice: US Can't Retreat in Afghanistan
WASHINGTON March 20, 2012 (AP)
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says this is no time to give up on Afghanistan, arguing that U.S. policymakers must "keep our nerve."
Rice tells CBS's "This Morning" that despite the upheaval there including the killings of civilians, "We just have to remember what Afghanistan was like 10 years ago," when the Taliban were in charge.
She says the U.S. must focus on training Afghan security forces because "we can't afford to leave Afghanistan to the Taliban and the terrorists."
Rice returned to Stanford University after serving President George W. Bush as national security adviser and secretary of state. She said in Tuesday's interview that a return to power by the Taliban would signify danger, not only to the Afghan people, but to American security interests in the region.

Pakistan Panel Demands Apology for NATO Airstrike
VOA News March 20, 2012
A Pakistani parliamentary committee is demanding an unconditional apology from the U.S. for a NATO airstrike that mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last year along the Afghan border.
Both houses of Pakistan's parliament met Tuesday to debate the recommendations of the committee, which is tasked with laying out the new terms of engagement with the U.S. and NATO.
The panel called the November incident “unprovoked” and said it was a “blatant violation of Pakistan's sovereignty.” Washington has expressed regret for the loss of life and accepted partial responsibility for the airstrike, but has so far refused to apologize, saying NATO forces acted in self-defense.
Pakistan responded to the attack by ordering U.S. forces out of a Pakistani airbase and shutting down NATO supply lines to landlocked Afghanistan. The committee said Tuesday that all future NATO supplies may be taxed if the routes are re-opened.
The November incident deeply damaged U.S.-Pakistani relations, which had already been frayed by the covert U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year and a number of American drone strikes targeting militants in Pakistan's northwest.
The committee also called for an immediate end to the deeply unpopular U.S. drone strikes, saying they cause widespread anti-American sentiment and encourage radicalization.
The drone attacks, which U.S. officials say are key in the battle against the Taliban and al-Qaida, are thought to be carried out with the implicit permission of Pakistan's army. They are rarely discussed in public by U.S. officials.
Pakistani lawmakers are now expected to debate, and eventually approve, the panel's recommendations. Observers say the process is key to restoring full Pakistan-U.S. diplomatic ties, but warn that Pakistan's government and powerful army – and not its parliament – has the final say in the matter.

How Ready Is The Afghan Army?
March 20, 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty By Charles Recknagel
On paper, the Afghan National Army (ANA) looks strong enough to secure the country almost immediately.
The force had a listed strength of 173,000 personnel in October and should reach 195,000 soldiers by the end of 2013.
That means that by the end of next year it will be 1 1/2 times the size of the 130,000-strong International Security Assistance Force deployed in Afghanistan today.
But if the ANA is now a large force after years of slow growth, its level of training and effectiveness is less certain. And as political pressure grows in the United States for a more rapid drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, a key question is how soon the Afghan National Army will be ready to defend the country by itself.
A report on the army and police issued in June 2010 by the U.S. office of the special inspector-general for Afghan reconstruction revealed widespread absenteeism, corruption, and drug abuse among the Afghan forces.
The report suggested that only 23 percent of Afghan soldiers were capable of working unsupervised and found that in the month before the report was issued 12 percent of the army had been absent without leave.
Since then, there have been improvements.
'Really Good Job'
The NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) said in August 2011 that the quality of recruits and retention is improving following a pay raise and improvements in the ANA's payroll system.
The NTM-A said between 90 and 95 percent of new recruits are able to pass a weapon-qualification test after graduating from basic training. That compares to just 25 percent a year earlier.
"The army in particular has done a really good job in getting recruits in," says Joshua Foust, a regional expert at the American Security Project in Washington. "The challenge with that is that even though they are better than they were in 2008 or 2009, you still don't have a lot of units that can operate independently."
He says Afghan forces are increasingly doing their own sweep operations in areas under their control but that they remain dependent upon foreign forces in multiple ways.
"They are completely reliant on the United States or on NATO for the logistics, for their planning, for their intelligence, for their air support, for their quick-response forces if they get into trouble," Foust says. "So there are a lot of ways in which there is the illusion or appearance of their being self-sufficient when they are really not."
Top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan acknowledge the overall level of the Afghan National Army remains far from that of Western standards.
But they say the level of the ANA's special forces is constantly improving and that it is those forces that are the key to fighting a successful counterinsurgency.
"Will [the ANA] be at the standard that we have for our soldiers? No -- not, at least, the conventional forces," Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, the deputy commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, said last month. "Their response forces we're training, their [Special Operations Forces], the commandos, are being trained to a very high level. And I think that's one thing that's a bright picture here for them is that their response forces are really coming along very well. And that will be...quite an asset for the country here in the future."
Taliban Infiltration
A very different problem the ANA faces is infiltration by the Taliban.
About 70 members of the NATO-led force were killed in 42 insider attacks from May 2007 through the end of January 2012. The killings show the Afghan National Army has yet to develop an effective vetting system for keeping sleeper agents out.
As General Abdul Hameed, the top army commander for the southern region of Afghanistan, said earlier this month, "Placing the rogues inside the army is well-planned by the enemies. The Taliban give them special training."
He said preventing infiltration will require far better intelligence to indentify suspects and prevent them from enlisting.
All this makes predicting whether the ANA will be able to defend Afghanistan a bit like trying to determine whether a glass is half full or half empty.
Optimists can take heart from the fact that international forces have been able to steadily hand over security responsibility to the ANA, with about half of the country's population now living in areas the ANA controls.
Pessimists can point to the fact that the most conflict-ridden areas remain the responsibility of foreign forces, particularly in the east and south.
What both viewpoints can agree on is that the true test for the ANA has yet to come, and that when it does, the future of Afghanistan will hinge upon the result.

A faulty argument for staying on in Afghanistan
Marc Thiessen of the Washington Post's op-ed page is promising doom when US troops pull out of Afghanistan. There is no reason to believe he's close to correct.
By Dan Murphy, Staff writer March 20, 2012 at 12:11 pm EDT The Christian Science Monitor
The murder of 16 Afghans last week, allegedly by a US soldier who wandered off his base in Afghanistan, has renewed a basic question: Why are 90,000 US troops still in Afghanistan?
Washington Post op-ed writer Marc Thiessen took a stab yesterday at justifying a longer stay in Central Asia, without once mentioning the costs in lives and cash, nor referencing anyone with actual regional expertise. While his piece yesterday warns of danger ahead for the US in Afghanistan, the real danger lies in anyone in a position of power taking such sentiment seriously. His piece lays out "Five disasters we'll face if US retreats from Afghanistan."
Let's take them apart one at a time:
Disaster One: No more drone attacks in Pakistan.
Mr. Thiessen writes, "If we want to continue the drone war against al-Qaeda, we must have a U.S. military presence not just in Afghanistan but in the Pashtun heartland – and we can’t have that presence if the Pashtun heartland is on fire."
There's a whole range of options to maintaining a "presence" in Afghanistan that would allow for intelligence sharing and Afghan assistance in going after the remnants of Al Qaeda, which is now a shadow of its former self. President Hamid Karzai has been eager to stop aggressive US military raids – which inflame Pashtun opposition to his government and the US-led occupation – to allow more space for a negotiated end to the war with the Taliban.
Thiessen appears to be completely unaware of the fact that the Karzai regime views the sorts of military tactics he is calling for as counterproductive.
As for what's left of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, Thiessen's prediction that "Al Qaeda would be free to reconstitute" itself there ignores ongoing, albiet imperfect, joint efforts with Pakistan, and the near complete demise of Al Qaeda's traditional network in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Col. (Ret.) Pat Lang; who fought with native insurgents as a Green Beret in the Vietnam War; who founded the Arabic and Middle East studies programs at West Point; and was in charge of the Middle East, South Asia, and Terrorism at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency in the 1990s, says the approach that men like Thiessen want makes focusing on counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan harder, not easier. "Karzai... seeks a middle way that will allow the US to continue CT (counterterrorism) operations in that country. Perhaps that is still possible. Perhaps. We have done so much damage to that possibility that I doubt it can still be done."
Disaster Two: Terrorists more likely to get nukes!
Thiessen argues that if there is a US "retreat" from Afghanistan – something he never defines – one of two outcomes will occur in Pakistan. The "worst-case scenario," he says, would see Al Qaeda and the Taliban "topple the government and take control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal." The best-case scenario? "Those within the Pakistani government who supported cooperating with the United States will be weakened, while those who have long argued for supporting the Islamists and terrorists against the United States will be strengthened. Either way, Pakistan becomes a facilitator of terror."
This is Kony12 levels of oversimplification and silliness. The Pakistani military are not exactly interested in losing control of the country to either foreign or home grown jihadis. And while much of Pakistan is a mess, including those border areas that the drones keep peppering with missiles, there is quite simply no prospect of a "terrorist" takeover of Pakistan any time soon. (For a fuller argument why, read this Monitor cover story from 2009).
And the US military presence in Afghanistan is, if anything, a complicating factor in Pakistan's own internal struggles, not something holding back an imagined barbarian horde. Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan continue to largely focus on seeking a client state to act as a bulwark against its old enemy, India, and will probably continue to use terror tactics via proxy groups from time to time, as it has down the decades including the past one of heavy US presence in Afghanistan.
The US continues to seek close military ties with Pakistan by giving them lots of money, even though there are strong hints the country was deliberately harboring Osama bin Laden until his death at the hands of US forces last year. There are plenty of risks in Pakistan, and the country – like most – has this pesky habit of pursuing what it views as its own national interests. But an open-ended US military occupation of Afghanistan is neither here nor there when it comes to the big challenges across the border.
Disaster Three: Al Qaeda will blossom again in Afghanistan.
Thiessen predicts if the US "retreats" than the Taliban will be strengthened. This much of Thiessen's argument is possible. Support for the group remains strong in much of the country, and the risks of an ethnically-based civil war like the war one that took place after the Soviets withdrew is present.
Given the nature of Afghanistan and its people, it's hard to imagine a time when there won't be groups like the Taliban, or to imagine how the cultural facts that drive the phenomenon will be changed by an extended US military presence. But he goes on to assert "they will not hesitate to allow al-Qaeda to return to its old Afghan sanctuary."
Not hesitate? No. There will be plenty of hesitation and consideration of costs and benefits. Al Qaeda and the Taliban were never synonyms. Broadly speaking, there have been tensions between the internationalist Al Qaeda and the locally-focused Afghans going all the way back to Osama bin Laden's return to Afghanistan in 1996.
Thiessen also conveniently ignores 10 years of woe for the Taliban – with thousands of its members killed, its loss of control of the country – as a consequence of its relationship with bin Ladens' internationalist jihadis. Many people who professionally study the region believe the Taliban have no appetite for that kind of trouble again, particularly if negotiated alternatives can be found. A good overview of the history of Al Qaeda's relationship with the Taliban and the risks and opportunities ahead is here.
Disaster Four: Another 9/11
Yup, so predicts Thiessen.
Why? Because if US forces leave Afghanistan "instead of being seen as a failed leader hunted down by American forces, bin Laden will be viewed as a martyred prophet who did not live to see his vision fulfilled." Thiessen's view of the world puts the US in an awkward position.
Since bin Laden once predicted the US would eventually depart Afghanistan, Thiessen argues that when the US departs, it will prove bin Laden right. But the logical consequence of Thiessen's reasoning is that the US can therefore never leave Afghanistan.
Disaster Five: Iran would be more likely to get nukes.
Thiessen says Iran would be happy to see the US depart Afghanistan, and in this he's probably right. Iran hasn't much liked having all of those powerful war planes on its doorstep (it didn't like them when they were in Iraq, either). Who would?
But he goes on to write: "If the United States is seen as running from the fifth-poorest country in the world, it will send a signal of weakness that will undermine our ability to isolate Iran and prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon."
There is no reason to believe this assertion is accurate.
The US has just spent the better part of a decade fighting two wars at enormous costs to itself. Whatever else that is, it's not the sign of a shrinking violet.
Sanctions targeting the heart of Iran's financial system have been imposed under US leadership, with buy-in from Europe and the major countries of the Gulf. President Obama has been doing plenty of saber

U.S. Offers Concessions on Afghan Night Raids
Wall Street Journal By ADAM ENTOUS March 19, 2012
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is offering to cede some control over nighttime missions into Afghan village homes, U.S. officials say, in a bid to ease tensions with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that took on new urgency with the deadly rampage in a Kandahar village last week.
The administration's most significant proposed concession on night raids would subject the operations to advance review by Afghan judges, U.S. military officials said. One option under discussion in U.S.-Afghan talks would require warrants to be issued before operations get the green light.
The so-called night raids by U.S. special-operations forces have long been a source of division between President Barack Obama and Mr. Karzai, and have been a stumbling block in negotiations on the role of the U.S. in Afghanistan after most troops pull out at the end of 2014.
The U.S. military says it considers night raids to be the most effective way of degrading the Taliban's command-and-control infrastructure, with minimal civilian casualties. There were nearly 2,500 such raids in the last year, military officials said.
Mr. Karzai has said repeatedly that the raids must stop, calling them an invasion of Afghan homes and a violation of taboos about Afghan women mingling with unrelated men. They also create a heightened risk of civilian casualties, he says.
U.S. officials say they don't know if the proposed concessions will satisfy Mr. Karzai, especially after the shooting rampage and other incidents in which U.S. service members urinated on Taliban corpses and burned Qurans, the Muslim holy book.
The massacre that killed 16 Afghan villagers on March 11 infuriated Afghans and led Mr. Karzai to call for new restrictions on Western military operations in the countryside.
"The threshold for agreements with Karzai may have gone way up," said a senior U.S. defense official.
Afghan officials in Kabul and the U.S. couldn't be reached for comment on Monday on the negotiations.
Reaching a deal on night raids became the top priority for U.S. negotiators after a March 9 agreement was announced to transfer the main U.S.-run detention facility to Afghan control over the next six months.
U.S. officials said the shooting rampage two days later set back the talks on a so-called strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan. The Obama administration wants such a strategic partnership in time for a meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies in May.
Mr. Obama and top military leaders have in the past rebuffed previous demands by Mr. Karzai to stop night raids. But with the U.S. now drawing down troops, a senior military official said "both sides understand the importance of finding a way ahead here that meets both sets of requirements."
Top commanders have sharply expanded the number of hunt-and-kill teams in recent years in a bid to take militant leaders off the battlefield and make it harder for the Taliban to mount attacks.
A senior U.S. military official said a shift to a warrant-based approach to the raids was meant to address Mr. Karzai's demands for the U.S. to respect Afghan sovereignty.
U.S. officials said they are talking to the Afghans about what type of legal panel could be set up to process these requests in a timely way.
A senior defense official said the options under discussion weren't in direct response to recent events that have soured relations. "Night operations have been of concern to certain Afghan officials, notably President Karzai, for some time," the official said.
Officials compared the proposed changes to the transition in Iraq, where in 2009 the U.S. agreed to seek legal approval before targeted raids.
"The idea is to start to transition not only to an Afghan lead, but to more of a law-enforcement approach," the official said. "It's very much in keeping with the rule of law that any sovereign nation ought to have."
U.S. officials have said they are working to have almost all night raids led by Afghan troops—part of a hand-over of security responsibility to the Afghans, now due to assume the combat lead in 2013. U.S. officials say the shift should be done gradually as Afghan personnel become better trained.
The U.S. wants Afghan commandos, not U.S. forces, to enter Afghan homes and compounds whenever possible, U.S. military and administration officials said.
The U.S. wants to preserve the authority to go after al Qaeda cells, preferably in partnership with Afghan forces but also unilaterally, if the terrorist group tries to make a comeback in Afghanistan after U.S. combat troops leave at the end of 2014, U.S. officials said.
The U.S. currently has the right to conduct military operations in Afghanistan whenever it wants. An agreement on night raids would amount to a pledge not to exercise that authority unilaterally.
U.S. officials cautioned that night-raid negotiations were particularly sensitive because of the recent tensions, and that a deal depended largely on whether Mr. Karzai can be persuaded to accept what the U.S. is offering.
American officials said they believed they were close to a deal on night raids before the alleged rampage by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.
The officials said they believed the terms of a proposed agreement on night raids has the support of Afghan military leaders, who have indicated to U.S. counterparts that they agree on the value of such operations in taking out mid- and high-level Taliban leaders and fighters.
Several officials said they remained cautiously optimistic that a binding memorandum of understanding on night raids would be reached with Mr. Karzai within weeks, clearing the way for the sides to complete the strategic partnership agreement.
"Both sides are negotiating in good faith despite this tragedy," a senior defense official said.
The biggest wild card may be Mr. Karzai, who has railed repeatedly in recent days against the U.S.
U.S. officials say Mr. Karzai has sought to use the strategic partnership talks to push through restrictions on what U.S. and NATO forces can do in Afghanistan between now and the end of 2014.
Earlier this month, the U.S. and Afghanistan agreed to transfer the main U.S.-run detention facility in the country to Afghan control over the next six months. The U.S. had initially sought more time to make the transition. Officials said the U.S. might have to make similar concessions on night raids.
Administration officials said the proposal to give Afghans greater say over night raids would fit with a broader transition that would see U.S. and NATO troops assume a support and advisory role next year before most of them leave the country at the end of 2014.
Afghan security forces already have the lead in providing security in large swaths of the country.
U.S. military officials dispute Mr. Karzai's contention that the raids kill too many civilians. In the nearly 2,500 nighttime operations conducted in the year ended in February, they said, 10 civilians were killed.
"These [nighttime operations] are enormously successful in terms of rolling up the kinds of people we need to be rolling up. And they work," a senior military official said. "But we want to Afghan-ize these types of operations." —Julian E. Barnes contributed to this article.
Write to Adam Entous at adam.entous@wsj.com

War-weary Afghans wish lasting peace as country celebrates New Year
By Abdul Haleem, Chen Xin
KABUL, March 20 (Xinhua) -- "Really we have been fed up with endemic conflicts, killings and destructions. This is my sole desire to see durable peace and security in my country," Abdul Fatah, a 60-year-old Afghan man said.
Fatah, who came from Wardak province to Afghan capital Kabul on Tuesday morning to celebrate Nawroz or New Year in the relatively peaceful Kabul city, told Xinhua that continued Taliban-led militancy and conflicts have sandwiched the locals.
Nawroz, a Persian word which means new year, is celebrated in Afghanistan, Iran, parts of Pakistan, Tajikistan and some parts of other Central Asian states.
Afghans celebrated Nawroz or the first day of the solar New Year 1391 which falls on March 20 in Kabul and other cities across the country amid tight security.
Taliban militants, who outlawed Nawroz celebration as un- Islamic practice during their rule, had planned to disrupt the Nawroz-related festivities. However, according to Afghan security officials, several insurgents have been arrested and their subversive plans have been foiled.
In his brief chat with this Xinhua reporter, the aged but hopeful Fatah also expressed his hatred to both Taliban and NATO- led troops, saying both Taliban militants and American forces disturb and kill innocent people.
A rogue U.S. soldier or a group of soldiers, according to Afghans, went rampant in Panjwai district of southern Kandahar province on March 11, killing 16 civilians including women and children and injuring nine others.
Furthermore, the Taliban-linked insurgency especially in the shape of roadside and suicide bombings claim the lives of non- combatants in the war-torn country almost every month if not every week.
Availing the Nawroz opportunity, the government of Afghanistan once again repeated the offer for talks with the Taliban outfit on Tuesday.
"The government of Afghanistan supports talks with the armed opposition groups and is ready to negotiate with those who sever ties with al-Qaida, renounce violence and accept the country's constitution," Afghan Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim said on March 20 in his remarks in Mazar-e-Sharif to celebrate Nawroz.
Nonetheless, the adamant Taliban outfit, which has repeatedly refused to talk with the Afghan administration in the presence of NATO-led forces, would obviously turn down the offer, like in the past.
"Thousands of our countrymen have lost their precious lives in security incidents over the past years and this is my earnest wish to see durable peace in Afghanistan this year," a Kabul resident namely Azizullah told Xinhua.
The optimist Azzizullah, 28, also called upon the government to seek a negotiated settlement for the Afghan crisis and fight corruption within the government departments in order to strengthen stability in the country.
"My prime wish in my life is to see the end of war and return of lasting peace in Afghanistan which allows any parents to send their kids to school free of security concern and I am praying this year, the year of 1391 will be the herald of lasting peace in my country," a 13-year-old boy Jan Mohammad said so in a short chat with Xinhua.

German-Afghan Man Goes On Trial For Al-Qaeda Links
March 19, 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty By RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan
A German-Afghan man whose information sparked terrorism warnings across Europe in 2010 went on trial in Germany on charges that he was a member of terrorist groups.
Ahmad Wali Siddiqui told the court in the western city of Koblenz on March 19 about his past and how he immigrated to Germany as a teenager.
The 37-year-old was captured by U.S.-led NATO troops in Afghanistan in July 2010.
While in custody, Siddiqui gave details on alleged Al-Qaeda plots apparently targeting European cities.
No attacks occurred.
Prosecutors allege that Siddiqui trained with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan during 2009 and 2010 with the goal of taking part in violent jihad, or holy war.
Siddiqui faces a possible 10 years in prison if convicted.
With reporting by AP

Asian Women's Boxing Championship opens in Mongolia
ULAN BATOR, March 20 (Xinhua) -- The 6th Asian Women's Boxing Championship opened at the Mongolian National Sport Stadium in Ulan Bator Monday evening.
The event was co-organized by International Boxing Association, Asian Boxing Confederation and Mongolian Olympic Boxing Federation and attracted nearly 100 boxers from 17 countries and regions including China, Mongolia, Afghanistan, India, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, South Korea and DPR Korea.
The 10-day competitions feature 10 categories including 48, 51, 54, 57, 60, 64, 69, 75, 81, +81 kg and will conclude on March 26.
The women's boxing events for the first time are included in an Olympic program in the coming London Games.

Afghanistan security firm ban stirs Western fears
BBC News 20 March 2012
Afghanistan's interior ministry has set a fresh deadline - this Wednesday - for private security firms to end operations in the country. The government has extended this deadline several times in the past. But as the BBC's Bilal Sarwary reports from Kabul, international aid workers and diplomatic missions view the ministry's announcement with scepticism and concern.
The demobilisation of private security companies was among the key election promises made by Hamid Karzai when he contested presidential elections for a second term in August 2009. Mr Karzai said then that the firms had become a parallel security system and were causing obstructions to the development of Afghan government forces.
Afghans in general have welcomed the attempts to limit the operations of these companies which employ about 40,000 people - because some are accused of involvement in highway robberies and high-profile shootings.
But international aid agencies, non-governmental organisations and foreign missions say that the absence of private security guards threatens their operations in Afghanistan as they rely heavily on them.
From Wednesday, many security companies will no longer exist - apart from those which provide security to embassies and military bases and those that have acquired new licenses to operate as risk management firms.
The issue has become so sensitive that few people are willing to speak on the record. 'Huge task'
But one senior western aid worker with extensive experience in Afghanistan told the BBC that private security firms "act as a buffer between us and the Taliban, who are always conspiring to damage and stall development and reconstruction projects".
He said Afghanistan would lose billions of dollars' worth of development projects if aid agencies left the country because of the lack of security.
Although the Afghan government has promised to provide security to international aid groups active in the country, not many in these agencies are taking this offer too seriously.
"The Afghan government is simply not ready or capable of carrying out this huge task," said a US aid worker.
"I think the government has rushed into the decision to ban private security firms without fully considering the consequences of such a move."
With most of the country's armed forces and police busy fighting the insurgency, the interior ministry is raising a special branch of the police - the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) - to take over the duties of private security firms. But officials working with international missions said they do not think that the force is ready to assume its responsibilities.
"The government has not been able to tackle Taliban infiltration, the problem of rogue soldiers and drug addiction in the Afghan National Army and police," one western diplomat said.
"Can it assure us that the APPF will not suffer from these ills? I would like to know what the interior ministry is doing to stop drug addicts from getting into APPF? What about Taliban infiltrators?" she asked.
'Long and painful' The interior ministry, however, dismissed these concerns.
"The APPF is a 10,000-strong force with uniforms, vehicles and weapons," ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told the BBC.
"Biometric data of each and every soldier has been recorded, his background checked and credentials vetted by intelligence agencies."
It is the same recruitment procedure by the Afghan National Police, Mr Sediqqi said.
A senior official at the ministry said the government was aware that the transition from private security firms to the APPF would be long and painful.
"But we do have to take over this task someday," he said. "Think of the jobs generated by APPF, think of the revenues the government will earn."
Some aid missions such as USAID (US Agency for International Development) say they have already contracted the services of the APPF.
"We have approximately 100 projects ongoing in Afghanistan," said Ken Yama****a, director of USAID in Afghanistan.
"Of these, we have identified 32 that would require APPF support. We have already signed up the APPF for 16 of them."
Mr Yama****a said that the best security comes from the Afghan people themselves.
"About 65 of our projects are working in the community, without any security restrictions. This indicates the support and confidence the communities have in our projects," he said.
Some western officials say that another worry is the future of 40,000 people employed by private security firms.
"What will they do when these companies are banned?" one official asked.
"In the absence of alternative employment, there is a real and grave danger of them becoming robbers or, even worse, ending up in the Taliban."
The issue of private security firms has become a source of friction between Kabul and its western allies, especially Washington.
Western diplomats say the move will not come without a price tag.
"Since the Afghan government announced its decision to dissolve private security firms, developmental projects worth $2bn (£1.25bn) have been put on a hold by foreign governments," one official said.

McCain urges 'strong' post-2014 Afghanistan accord
AFP via Yahoo! News
US Senator John McCain said Tuesday he wants a solid NATO-Afghanistan accord sealed at a May summit, ensuring critical post-2014 US involvement in the region rather than "looming international abandonment."
A Strategic Partnership Agreement that frames the presence of international forces in the war-torn country would be "one of the most impactful achievements that could come out of the Chicago summit, McCain told a Washington roundtable previewing the NATO summit at a time of high tensions between Washington and Kabul.
"This agreement... could make clear to our friends and allies, both in Afghanistan and in the region, that the United States will remain a fact on the ground in Afghanistan well beyond 2014 -- that we will continue our assistance to the Afghan Security Forces," he added.
The influential Republican senator and former presidential candidate added that a pact would also enable US forces to "continue taking the fight to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban."
"By concluding a strong Strategic Partnership Agreement in Chicago, we could change the narrative of NATO's involvement in Afghanistan -- from one of looming international abandonment to one of enduring international commitment," McCain said.
"This is an enormous opportunity, one that we cannot afford to miss."
There have been calls in Washington to speed withdrawal after a series of damaging incidents in the war, but General John Allen, US commander in Afghanistan said Tuesday he would not issue a recommendation on the pace of troop drawdown for several months.
The US force of nearly 90,000 is due to be scaled back to 68,000 by the end of September, ahead of full withdrawal by 2014 as set by Obama, but debate persists at the White House on the war and there is growing pressure on the left in Congress for a faster exit.
McCain also expressed disappointment that the issue of NATO enlargement was not a primary agenda for the Chicago summit, and cited the cases of Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia and Georgia.
"We must make it clear to all of these countries, and any other country in Europe that wants to be a part of NATO and can meet the criteria, that the path to membership is open to them," he said.

Afghan VP says long-term military agreement with US will respect Afghan sovereignty
Associated Press Tuesday, March 20, 2012
MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan - Afghanistan’s vice president says that any long-term military agreement with the United States will respect his nation’s sovereignty and will be based on the interests of both countries.
First Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim made the pledge on Tuesday in an address to Afghans celebrating the Persian new year, or Nowruz.
Fahim also called on neighboring countries to recognize that stability in Afghanistan will benefit the entire region. Fahim is one of two vice presidents serving under President Hamid Karzai.
Kabul and Washington are currently negotiating a deal on how international forces conduct night raids in Afghanistan. The Afghan government has said that deal must be signed before the broader partnership agreement.

Analysis: Searching for truth in Afghan massacre
Analysis by CBS News Afghanistan consultant Jere van Dyk
(CBS News) The shooting apparently took place in Panjawaii (as it is spelled on my Afghan map), 15 miles southwest of Kandahar. The city itself (once a quiet, romantic oasis of canals, palm trees and fruit stands piled high, but no longer), is small. But the whole area for miles around is a vast warren of baked, single-story mud homes, and higher houses with holes in the sides, where they dry grapes. In between there are small plots of land, some with trenches where they grow grapes, and there are groves of pomegranate trees, and villages filled with cousins, large clans and tribal loyalty.
A former soldier, Graeme Woods, who has worked in this region, wrote a rather condescending article in The New York Times on Friday explaining how primitive these homes are - in part, it seems, to help explain why the shooter might have felt like he was on another planet, going through his "umpteenth spacewalk," in this "Potemkin village."
While the U.S. has characterized last weekend's massacre as an assault by a lone person, villagers said - and Karzai at least publicly seemed to agree - that they believed more than one shooter took part in the massacre. Karzai said the U.S. Army was impeding the Afghans' investigation.
Now this gets interesting. The West will not believe the Afghans, only the Americans. But be careful.
In 2006, I went up into the mountains where Pat Tillman was killed. I took a video and still cameras, the U.S. Army report (which Tillman's father gave me), and Afghan guides. I went over the terrain twice, in two trips, and read the report carefully. I interviewed every Afghan I could find who was there that day, separately, at different locations, never telling one that I was interviewing the other. Their stories, and the video, were different from the Army's report, especially if one includes what the U.S. soldiers who were with Tillman said.
As Mary Tillman's book "Boots on the Ground by Dusk" and Jon Krakauer's book "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman" have shown, the U.S. Army, including Gen. Stanley McChrystal, did not tell the truth, to put it mildly.
Bales probably acted alone, but there may be more to this.
One of the houses has four rooms, a big house. Adults sleep separately from the children, if possible. They, like any couple, want privacy. The father was away. The dirt floors are generally swept clean and can even shine. The families would have slept on narrow wood cots with crossed rope bottoms and thin mattresses, or they slept on thin cushions, on the ground, or on kilims or capets.
The shooter must have dragged them or carried them from their cots, if they slept on them, and put them all together in one room. Karzai said it wasn't possible. I don't know, but how could the soldier do this without worrying about other villagers coming? But then, maybe he didn't care. Would other villagers have cowered in their homes, afraid, or would some have come out?
Yes, Afghans lie, definitely, beautifully, extravagantly. But in my experience they also more often than not tell the truth. We will see.
In my view this case offers two possibilities regarding the villagers: (1) They do not like American soldiers, for so many of them to say that other soldiers were present, meaning that as a rule they are afraid of them; or (2) that they were ashamed over not responding as Afghan men, and thereby let one person massacre their neighbors.
In traditional Pashtun culture, in war one must protect women and children. It would have taken time, I would think, to move all the bodies, cover them and set them on fire.
In Islam, in Afghanistan, a body must be washed and cleaned when the person enters Paradise. Mohammad Atta washed himself before beginning his mission on 9/11. The bodies were burned, and thus desecrated. The assailant's act, to an Afghan, was thus beyond cruelty. Will those children now never be able to enter Paradise?
I have been told that the Taliban cut off heads (which they learned from al Qaeda) in part so that the victim cannot go to Paradise. The body is not whole. We shall see how the mullahs react.
The United States has said we are sorry, but we have said it before, and what today's New York Times calls "missteps" continue.
Karzai said that he is at the end of his rope. I am sure he is angry and saddened, but he also is trying to stay alive. Almost all Afghan rulers since the 1970s have been murdered. He is trying to placate his people and to stay ahead of the Taliban in showing anger. If he cannot bring to Afghanistan justice - the central tenet of Islam - then the people may turn against him. He will be seen as even more impotent than he is.
In an interview for Kabul-based media company Tolo (a Tajik-owned firm), Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Daud Sultanzoy, a former Afghan Parlimentarian that the gunman "will be brought to justice swifty." Panetta referred to "the noble people of this country." General Allen also referred to "noble Afghans" in his apology aired on television after the Quran burnings - and again called them noble after this latest incident. They are appealing to the Afghans' sense of honor and dignity, but by the third time it rings of public relations.
Many news organizations this morning reported on Karzai's angry comments, and included a quote from one villager: "I don't want a computer. I don't want money. I don't want a trip to Mecca. I don't want a house. I want nothing, But I absolutely want the punishment of the American. This is my demand, my demand, my demand."
Afghans have seen that demonstrations have gotten them little. But they will act, just as that interpreter, seemingly a Western ally, did when he grabbed the truck and tried to kill members of Panetta's welcoming party. They can be hot-headed, but mostly they are rational, and can be very cunning.
The Mujahideen fought for ten years, some of them longer, and the Taliban have now done the same. They, and countless Afghan villagers, who now have been through more than 33 years of war, are not going to buy talk of PTSD, or of three or four deployments.

Lawyer: Afghanistan shooting suspect has sketchy memory of night of massacre
Associated Press By Gene Johnson,John Milburn 19/03/2012
FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. - The Army staff sergeant accused of slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians in a nighttime shooting rampage has a sketchy memory of the night of the massacre, his lawyer said Monday after meeting his client for the first time.
Lawyer John Henry Browne said Robert Bales remembers some details from before and after the killings, but very little or nothing of the time the military believes he went on a shooting spree through two Afghan villages.
"He has some memory of some things that happened that night. He has some memories of before the incident and he has some memories of after the incident. In between, very little," Browne told The Associated Press by telephone from the maximum security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, where Bales is being held.
Pressed on whether Bales can remember anything about the shooting, Browne said, "No," but added: "I haven't gotten that far with him yet."
In an earlier interview with CBS television, Browne said unequivocally that Bales can't remember the shootings.
Meanwhile, records show Bales owes $1.5 million from an arbitration ruling nearly a decade ago that found him guilty of securities fraud.
Bales, 38, has not been charged yet in the March 11 shootings, though charges could come this week. The killings sparked protests in Afghanistan, endangered U.S.-Afghan relations and threatened to upend American policy over the decade-old war.
Earlier Monday, Browne met with his client behind bars for the first time to begin building a defence and said the soldier gave a powerfully moving account of what it is like to be on the ground in Afghanistan.
Browne said he and Bales, who is being held in an isolated cell at the military prison, met for more than three hours at Fort Leavenworth.
"What's going on on the ground in Afghanistan, you read about it. I read about it. But it's totally different when you hear about it from somebody who's been there," Browne told the AP. "It's just really emotional."
Browne, a Seattle attorney who defended serial killer Ted Bundy and a thief known as the "Barefoot Bandit," has said he has handled three or four military cases. The defence team includes a military defence lawyer, Maj. Thomas Hurley. The lawyers have said they plan to meet with Bales this week.
At their meeting, Browne said Bales clarified a story, provided initially by the soldier's family, about the timing of a roadside bomb that blew off the leg of one of Bales' friends. It was two days before the shooting, not one, and Bales didn't see the explosion, just the aftermath, Browne said.
The details of the blast could not be immediately confirmed.
Military officials have said that Bales, after drinking on a southern Afghanistan base, crept away to two villages overnight, shooting his victims and setting many of them on fire. Nine of the dead were children and 11 belonged to one family.
Bales arrived at Fort Leavenworth last Friday and is being held in the same prison as other prominent defendants. Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is charged with leaking classified documents to the WikiLeaks website, has been held there on occasion as he awaits trial.
Bales is "already being integrated into the normal pretrial confinement routine," prison spokeswoman Rebecca Steed said.
The routine includes recreation, meals and cleaning the area where he is living. Steed said once his meetings with his attorneys are complete later in the week, Bales will resume the normal integration process.
Bales' wife, Karilyn, offered her condolences to the victims' families and said Monday she wants to know what happened. She said her family and her in-laws are profoundly sad, and that what they've read and seen in news reports is "completely out of character of the man I know and admire."
"My family including my and Bob's extended families are all profoundly sad. We extend our condolences to all the people of the Panjawai District, our hearts go out to all of them, especially to the parents, brothers, sisters and grandparents of the children who perished," Karilyn Bales said in a statement.
Court records and interviews show Bales had commendations for good conduct after four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He enlisted in the military after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
He also faced a number of problems in recent years: a Florida investment job went sour, his Seattle-area home was condemned as he struggled to make payments on another, and he failed to get a recent promotion. He also still faces a $1.5 million securities fraud judgment from 2003.
The National Association of Securities Dealers found that Bales, another man and his company "engaged in fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, churning, unauthorized trading and unsuitable investments."
Records show Gary Liebschner of Columbus, Ohio, filed the complaint in 2000, when Bales was a stockbroker.
WCPO-TV in Ohio quoted Liebschner's wife as saying her husband became ill so they asked Bales to sell stock to pay medical bills, but never received the proceeds.
An arbitration panel found Bales, Michael Patterson and Michael Patterson Inc. individually and jointly liable for $637,000 in compensatory damages, $637,000 in punitive damages, $216,500 in attorneys' fees and several thousand dollars in other fees.
Punitive damages were allowed because the panel found Bales' conduct "fraudulent and malicious."
Bales did not file a "statement of answer," get an attorney or appear at an Ohio hearing, records show.
About a year and a half after the complaint was filed, Bales enlisted — just two months after Sept. 11.
His legal troubles included charges that he assaulted a girlfriend and, in a hit-and-run accident, ran bleeding in military clothes into the woods, according to court records. He told police he fell asleep at the wheel and paid a fine to get the charges dismissed.
In March 1998, Bales was given a $65 citation for possessing alcohol at Daytona Beach, Florida. He did not pay the fine nor did he defend himself in court. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but it later expired.
If the case goes to court, the trial will be held in the U.S., said a legal expert with the U.S. military familiar with the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the case.
That expert said charges were still being decided and that the location for any trial had not yet been determined. If the suspect is brought to trial, it is possible that Afghan witnesses and victims would be flown to the U.S. to participate, he said.
After their investigation, military attorneys could draft charges and present them to a commander, who then makes a judgment on whether there is probable cause to believe that an offence was committed and that the accused committed it.
That commander then submits the charges to a convening authority, who typically is the commander of the brigade to which the accused is assigned but could be of higher rank.
___
Associated Press writers Manuel Valdes in Seattle and Deb Riechmann in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report. Johnson reported from Seattle.

Two Britons released after Afghanistan arrest
AFP via Yahoo! UK & Ireland News
Two British men arrested in Afghanistan with 30 AK-47 assault rifles have been released and cleared after a January arrest for weapons smuggling, their Canadian employer said Tuesday.
Julian Steele and James Davis were detained while driving through Kabul with the rifles, whose serial numbers had been erased. The Afghan government said the men did not have proper documentation for carrying weapons and were charged with illegal weapons smuggling.
"I can confirm that they were freed and declared innocent," GardaWorld security firm spokeswoman Nathalie de Champlain told AFP in Montreal, without providing further details.
The firm, which provides global risk consulting and security services, has long denied the allegations, saying the weapons were "properly licensed" and were being taken to be tested at a shooting range for future purchase by GardaWorld.
Two Afghan nationals traveling with the men were also detained.
De Champlain did not indicate when the British nationals were cleared and whether they had returned to Britain.
"Obviously, we welcome the development and thank the government and the authorities for their valuable cooperation, but I will not comment any further on the incident at this point as a security precaution for the employees," she said.
Afghanistan is home to thousands of foreign private security personnel who provide services to international forces, diplomatic missions and aid organizations.
But relations with the authorities have deteriorated. President Hamid Karzai accuses 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.

Iranian engineer attacked in Afghanistan’s Kunar province
Press TV March 19, 2012
An Iranian engineer and two Afghan police officers have been injured during a militant attack in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province, Press TV reports.
Security officials say unknown militants opened fire towards the Iranian national, who was working on a power plant project in the province, as well as two policemen in Chawkay district on Sunday.
The engineer, whose name was not yet disclosed, and the policemen were transferred to a hospital in the provincial capital city, Asadabad.
Medics say the injured Iranian, who suffers a leg injury, is in “good condition.”
No group or individuals have claimed responsibility for the attack yet.
Over a year ago, a female British aid worker was kidnapped in Kunar. She was later killed during a rescue attempt by US-led forces. Also, a Turkish engineer was killed by armed assailants in the same region two years ago.

Afghanistan and American imperialism
Afghans have been excluded from the judicial process after the shooting that left 16 dead. No wonder anti-US feeling is growing
Guardian.co.uk By Glenn Greenwald Monday 19 March 2012
US army staff sergeant Robert Bales is accused of slaughtering 16 Afghan villagers, including nine children, and then burning some of the bodies. The massacre took place in two villages in the southern rural district of Panjwai. Though this horrific crime targeted Afghans on Afghan soil, Afghanistan will play no role in investigating the crime or bringing the perpetrator (or perpetrators) to justice. That is because the US almost immediately whisked the accused out of Afghanistan and brought him to an American army base in Fort Leavensworth, Kansas.
The rapid exclusion of Afghans from the process of trying the accused shooter has, predictably and understandably, exacerbated the growing anti-American anger in that country. It is hard to imagine any nation on the planet reacting any other way to being denied the ability to try suspects over crimes that take place on its soil. A Taliban commander quickly gave voice to that nationalistic fury, announcing: "We want this soldier to be prosecuted in Afghanistan. The Afghans should prosecute him."
Demands that the atrocity be investigated by Afghans are grounded in part by reports that Bales did not act alone. While US military officials decreed from the start that Bales was the lone culprit, eyewitnesses in the villages reported the presence of multiple attackers. Many Afghans simply cannot fathom how such a large-scale attack could have been perpetrated by a single shooter. Bacha Agha of the Balandi village told the Associated Press: "One man can't kill so many people. There must have been many people involved." He added: "If the government says this is just one person's act we will not accept it." President Hamid Karzai initially added fuel to those suspicions, notably accusing "American forces" of the attacks.
The suspicion that other American soldiers may have been involved, though unproven, is far from irrational. The notorious American "kill team" that deliberately executed random, innocent Afghan civilians (often teenagers) for sport, planted weapons on their bodies, and then posed with their corpses as trophies operated out a base in the same area. America's former top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, admitted: "We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force."
That US-Afghan tensions are at an all-time high due to recent events makes suspicions of a coordinated attack even more substantive. As Robert Fisk recalled, the US army's top commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, went out of his way just a couple weeks ago to tell his soldiers that "now is not the time for revenge for the deaths of two US soldiers killed in Thursday's riots" resulting from the burning of Qu'rans, and he urged his soldiers to "resist whatever urge they might have to strike back." Clearly, General Allen was concerned about coordinated military revenge attacks on Afghan civilians.
Afghan doubts about an exclusively American investigation are surely inflamed, again understandably, by the history of untruths by the US military about episodes of violence in Afghanistan. As the war correspondent Jerome Starkey documented: "US-led forces in Afghanistan are committing atrocities, lying, and getting away with it."
Starkey was writing in the wake of one incident where the American military, thanks to his investigative reporting, got caught out over the wanton killing of Afghan villagers. In February, 2010, US forces entered a village in the Paktia Province in Afghanistan and, after surrounding a home where a celebration of a new birth was taking place, shot dead two male civilians (government officials) who exited the house in order to inquire why they had been surrounded, and then shot and killed three female relatives (a pregnant mother of 10, a pregnant mother of six, and a teenager).
The Pentagon then issued statements insisting that the dead men were insurgents and that the dead women were already gagged and killed inside the house by the time US forces had arrived, victims of an "honor killing." They depicted as liars the Afghan villagers who insisted that it was US soldiers who did the killing and that the dead were all civilians. American media outlets largely regurgitated the American military version uncritically. But enough evidence subsequently emerged disproving those claims such that the Pentagon was forced to admit that their original version was totally false and that, just as the villagers attested, it was US troops who killed the women.
As Starkey wrote: "This is perhaps the most harrowing instance" but "it's not the first time I've found Nato lying." Is it any wonder that Afghans do not trust the US government to conduct its own investigation and hold accountable those responsible?
What is most revealed by the decision to remove Bales from Afghanistan is the American belief that no other country – including those its invades and occupies – can ever impose accountability on Americans. This was seen most recently, and vividly, in Iraq.
President Obama's most swooning supporters love to credit him with "ending the war in Iraq," but that is simply not what happened. It was President Bush who entered into an agreement with the Iraqi government mandating the removal of all US forces by the end of 2011. Rather than comply with that agreement, the Obama administration tried desperately to persuade and pressure the Iraqis to allow American troops to remain beyond that deadline. But those efforts failed because of one cause: the refusal (or, more accurately, the inability) of the Malaki government to agree that US troops would be immunized and shielded from Iraqi law for any future crimes they commit on Iraqi soil.
One prime prerogative of all empires is that it is subject to no laws or accountability other than its own, even when it comes to crimes committed on other nations' soil and against its people. That was the imperial principle that finally compelled America's withdrawal from Iraq, and it is apparently what caused the US to quickly remove the accused shooter from Afghanistan. It may be understandable why the US perceives it in its interest to preserve this imperial power, but it should be equally understandable why its victims react with increasing levels of suspicion, resentment and rage.

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