Tag Archives: Afghanistan

How to Break the Rules without Breaking the Law

In 2009,  coalition casualties in Afghanistan had as much as doubled in the space of a year. Civilian casualties climbed to 2412. It was 2009. Coalition forces had been there since 2001 with no end and, to this point, no real campaign plan in sight…

Chris Masters, who was the only journalist to have been embedded with Australian special forces soldiers (SASR) in Afghanistan, believes a desensitisation occurred within the forces that allegedly allowed a “kill count mentality to develop”…SASR’s sabre squadrons are the tips of a trident of land, air and water operators, with the “wateries” an elite within an elite. And like their US counterparts, the Navy SEALs, unquestionable ability can come tinged with arrogance. In SASR, their rock-star persona did not sit easily with everyone when modesty was supposed to be a core value…

The most prominent allegation is traced to an assault on a compound codenamed Whiskey 108 at Kakarak in Oruzgan on Easter Sunday 2009…As shooting erupted, one operator remembers thinking: “I am going to die today.” Instead, methodically, they closed in on the remaining enemy, killing them one by one.  At this time Australian weapons were again heard firing and soldiers entering the compound saw something hurled from a window. It was an older man with a prosthetic leg, shot and now lying dead. The prosthetic leg was souvenired and returned to Perth to be fashioned into a drinking vessel.  What troubled a range of witnesses was not so much the killing of the men, who whether armed or unarmed were considered Taliban. It was more that the grim task of pulling the trigger had been pushed onto a “rookie”. As one operator told me: “If s— needs to be done, do it yourself.”

In rotations to come, the concept of blooding became well known. What became more disturbing was a suspicion the practise was not only about a first kill but also executing prisoners. ..What was not thought through was how many of the “blooded rookies” would be haunted well into the future by what was done…Soldiers began to refer to some of their members having gone “up the Congo”, into the moral wilderness of novelist Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Numerous witnesses have spoken of one SASR team posting a kill board on their door. The patrol commander was heard talking about needing more kills and subsequently of the goal being met….

As the mission wore on, further alleged breaches of the rules of armed conflict began to emerge, conspicuously contained to Special Forces and most particularly to SASR. The “Who Dares Wins” ethos of the regiment encourages the testing of boundaries. As they often tell themselves, “you break the rules but not the law”.

Exceprts from Chris Masters, Australia’s ugly turn in Afghanistan, Sydney Morning Herald, June 8, 2018

Afghanistan Withdrawal to Benefit US Bases Overseas

Salang Pass Road. Image wikipedia

Barack Obama says he is still deciding how many American troops to keep in the country after NATO’s combat mission expires in 2014. No doubt it will be a tiny fraction of today’s total. In the next 18 months America expects to remove as many as 28,000 vehicles and 40,000 shipping containers of equipment.  Shifting that much kit, with an estimated value of $30 billion, is daunting enough. The retrograde itself will cost as much as $6 billion and involve about 29,000 personnel, for the American part alone (each of the 50 coalition countries is responsible for its own logistics). The job is unprecedented in complexity; compared with Iraq, the region’s terrain and politics make it a mover’s nightmare.

The biggest problem… is that for the first time America finds itself fighting a war without a reliable seaport. From Iraq there was easy access to Kuwait. Afghanistan’s landlocked borders put the nearest usable port in Karachi, in Pakistan, which can be reached only by crossing the Khyber Pass in the east, or at Chaman in the south.  Uneasy relations between national governments have become the worst pitfall of those routes…..The difficulties of the southern route have spurred the search for an alternative. The “northern distribution network” crosses from Afghanistan into Uzbekistan, branching through the Central Asian republics and onwards, along a Soviet-era rail system, to the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea and Europe. The route is safer and less volatile, but also slower and far more expensive. Perhaps its biggest drawback is Central Asian bureaucracy. …

A particular weak spot is the 3,900-metre-high Salang pass, which joins the north and south of the country. Prone to avalanches in winter, the road is in poor condition all year.   A final unknown is how the Taliban will react. Cargo trains make tempting targets, and some outbound convoys have already been attacked. Commanders are loth to reassign troops to their protection, when it would mean diverting them from building up the Afghan forces.

This unending procession of lumbering armour must be cleaned, stripped of munitions, loaded and secured for shipping. Each mine-resistant vehicle, for instance, is itemised as 17 different components, from turret to on-board computer, each piece to be logged separately. About 1m items are in the system. Some will be sent to other parts of Afghanistan, but 90% are bound for American bases overseas.

Excerpt, Withdrawing from Afghanistan: The big retrograde, Economist, Apr. 27, 2013, at 38.

What a Bag of Dollars Buys; Afghan Militia,US Special Forces and the CIA

Devgru-bodyguards and Karzai

The decision by Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, on February 24th to expel American special forces from the province of Wardak, south-west of the capital, Kabul, has thrown the NATO coalition into confusion. It has also turned attention to these elite but shadowy American units. The government has given the forces two weeks to leave the province, accusing them of complicity in murders and disappearances.

The order was announced at a hastily convened press conference, and the crimes were blamed especially on Afghan irregulars who had been recruited to work alongside the Americans. Mr Karzai, however, has made it clear that he holds America responsible. The government says residents of the province have long complained of the irregulars’ abuses and that it is taking action only after the NATO coalition failed to do so.

Mr Karzai’s expulsion of the special forces throws into question a principal element of the coalition’s strategy. These units increasingly play the lead role in fighting the Taliban, as other forces are shifted into training and advising Afghan troops ahead of the full withdrawal of American combat forces by the end of 2014. Both NATO and Afghan commanders credit raids by American special forces for weakening the Taliban.

Special forces are also training tens of thousands of civilians for the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a village-based defence force which has become a central part of the effort to shore up security in rural areas. However many American troops remain in Afghanistan for training after 2014, local commanders are expected to want plenty of special forces alongside them.

Both the raids by special forces and the recruiting of militiamen at the local level have always sat uneasily with Mr Karzai. It was only after much arm-twisting that he was persuaded to accept the idea of the ALP at all. As the deadline nears for the Afghan government to assume all responsibility for the country’s security, the president has wanted to be seen exerting Afghan sovereignty and clearly laying down what NATO can and cannot do in the provinces.

What rankles the government about the allegations in Wardak is the suggestion that the Americans are getting unaccountable Afghans to do their dirty work. Such proxy forces have long existed in Afghanistan and, this time around, date from the earliest stages of the American war, when bags of dollars were handed to local strongmen to buy the services of their militias. At the time, hostility towards the Taliban overrode any unsavoury behaviour. Both American special forces and the CIA have murky histories with such paramilitary groups.

Who stands accused of the crimes in Wardak, and whether there are such American-backed groups there at all, is central to the confusion today. “I genuinely don’t know who is operating there,” says one NATO official. The picture is further muddied because the main Kabul-to-Kandahar highway that runs through Wardak is partly secured by another armed force of Afghans known to be working for private-security companies. Whatever crimes were or were not committed in the province, Mr Karzai’s government blames the Americans for creating “parallel groups and structures” of Afghan forces outside the control of the government.

Local leaders from Wardak confirm the abuses took place, but do not know who committed them. The perpetrators sometimes wore uniforms and sometimes not, say locals, who say the men were not part of the Afghan army.Meanwhile America is holding drawn-out negotiations with Mr Karzai over the role and status of American troops who stay beyond 2014. The Afghan announcement about American special forces in Wardak may have something to do with these talks. In previous rounds of negotiations, NATO has sometimes surprised observers by backing down on points which had seemed non-negotiable only a few years earlier. Mr Karzai may now be pressing them to make similar choices about the use of special forces.

Afghanistan: Yankee beards go home, Economist, Mar. 2, 2013, at 42

The Flight of Gold: what Afghanistan, China and Iran have in common

gold

Packed into hand luggage and tucked into jacket pockets, roughly hewed bars of gold are being flown out of Kabul with increasing regularity, confounding Afghan and American officials who fear money launderers have found a new way to spirit funds from the country.  Most of the gold is being carried on commercial flights destined for Dubai, according to airport security reports and officials. The amounts carried by single couriers are often heavy enough that passengers flying from Kabul to the Persian Gulf emirate would be well advised to heed warnings about the danger of bags falling from overhead compartments. One courier, for instance, carried nearly 60 pounds of gold bars, each about the size of an iPhone, aboard an early morning flight in mid-October, according to an airport security report. The load was worth more than $1.5 million.

The gold is fully declared and legal to fly. Some, if not most, is legitimately being sent by gold dealers seeking to have old and damaged jewelry refashioned into new pieces by skilled craftsmen in the Persian Gulf, said Afghan officials and gold dealers.  But gold dealers in Kabul and current and former Kabul airport officials say there has been a surge in shipments since early summer. The talk of a growing exodus of gold from Afghanistan has been spreading among the business community here, and in recent weeks has caught the attention of Afghan and American officials. The officials are now puzzling over the origin of the gold — very little is mined in Afghanistan, although larger mines are planned — and why so much appears to be heading for Dubai.

“We are investigating it, and if we find this is a way of laundering money, we will intervene,” said Noorullah Delawari, the governor of Afghanistan’s central bank. Yet he acknowledged that there were more questions than answers at this point. “I don’t know where so much gold would come from, unless you can tell me something about it,” he said in an interview. Or, as a European official who tracks the Afghan economy put it, “new mysteries abound” as the war appears to be drawing to a close.

Figuring out what precisely is happening in the Afghan economy remains as confounding as ever. Nearly 90 percent of the financial activity takes place outside formal banks. Written contracts are the exception, receipts are rare and statistics are often unreliable. Money laundering is commonplace, say Western and Afghan officials.  As a result, with the gold, “right now you’re stuck in that situation we usually are: is there something bad going on here or is this just the Afghan way of commerce?” said a senior American official who tracks illicit financial networks.

There is reason to be suspicious: the gold shipments track with the far larger problem of cash smuggling. For years, flights have left Kabul almost every day carrying thick wads of bank notes — dollars, euros, Norwegian kroner, Saudi Arabian riyals and other currencies — stuffed into suitcases, packed into boxes and shrink-wrapped onto pallets. At one point, cash was even being hidden in food trays aboard now-defunct Pamir Airways flights to Dubai.

Last year alone, Afghanistan’s central bank says, roughly $4.5 billion in cash was spirited out through the airport. Efforts to stanch the flow have had limited impact, and concerns about money laundering persist, according to a report released last week by the United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.  The unimpeded “bulk cash flows raise the risk of money laundering and bulk cash smuggling — tools often used to finance terrorist, narcotics and other illicit operations,” the report said. The cash, and now the gold, is most often taken to Dubai, where officials are known for asking few questions. Many wealthy Afghans park their money and families in the emirate, and gold dealers say more middle-class Afghans are sending money and gold — seen as a safeguard against economic ruin — to Dubai as talk of a postwar economic collapse grows louder. But given Dubai’s reputation as a haven for laundered money, an Afghan official said that the “obvious suspicion” is that at least some of the apparent growth in gold shipments to Dubai is tied to the myriad illicit activities — opium smuggling, corruption, Taliban taxation schemes — that have come to define Afghanistan’s economy.

There are also indications that Iran could be dipping into the Afghan gold trade. It is already buying up dollars and euros here to circumvent American and European sanctions, and it may be using gold for the same purpose.  Yahya, a dealer in Kabul, said other gold traders were helping Iran buy the precious metal here. Payment was being made in oil or with Iranian rials, which readily circulate in western Afghanistan. The Afghan dealers are then taking it to Dubai, where the gold is sold for dollars. The money is then moved to China, where it was used to buy needed goods or simply funneled back to Iran, said Yahya, who like many Afghans uses a single name.

Excerpt, MATTHEW ROSENBERG, An Afghan Mystery: Why Are Large Shipments of Gold Leaving the Country?, NY Times, Dec. 15, 2012

Afghanistan: 2012 Report of US Department of Defense

afghanistan

From the Executive summary of 2012 Report

During the period of April 1 to September 30, 2012, the Coalition and our Afghan partners blunted the insurgent summer offensive, continued to transition the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) into security lead, pushed violence out of most populated areas, and coalition member nations signed several international agreements to support the long-term stability and security of Afghanistan…

Despite these and other positive trends during the reporting period, the campaign continued to face challenges, including a rise in insider attacks. The rise in insider attacks has the potential to adversely affect the Coalition’s political landscape, but mitigation policies and a collective ISAF-ANSF approach are helping to reduce risks to coalition personnel, and to sustain confidence in the campaign. The cause of and eventual solution to this joint ISAF and ANSF problem will require continuous assessment; it remains clear that the insider threat is both an enemy tactic and has a cultural component. The many mitigation policies recently put in place will require additional time to assess their effects, although the number of insider attacks has dropped off sharply from the peak in August.

The insurgency’s safe havens in Pakistan, the limited institutional capacity of the Afghan  government, and endemic corruption remain the greatest risks to long-term stability and sustainable security in Afghanistan. The Taliban-led insurgency and its al-Qaida affiliates still operate from sanctuaries in Pakistan, however, the insurgency and al-Qaida continue to face U.S. counterterrorism pressure within the safe havens. U.S. relations with Pakistan have begun to improve following the re-opening of Pakistani Ground Lines of Communication (GLOCs), and  there has been nascent improvement with respect to cross-border cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Although the insurgency’s kinetic capabilities have declined from their peak in 2010, the insurgents remain resilient and determined, and will likely attempt to regain lost ground and  influence through continued assassinations, intimidation, high-profile attacks, and the  emplacement of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Widespread corruption continues to limit  the effectiveness and legitimacy of the Afghan government. Despite these challenges, the  Coalition continued to make measured progress toward achieving its strategic goals during the  reporting period.

Excerpt from Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, (DOD,  Dec. 2012)

Foreign Soldiers who Die in Afghanistan: the insider attacks

At the height of this dusty summer, American troops are dying at unprecedented rates at the hands of their Afghan allies. And both sides are struggling to explain why, even as they search for ways to stem what are known in military parlance as “insider” attacks.  This month, at least 10 U.S. troops — including a U.S. service member shot Sunday and five members of America’s elite special-operations forces slain earlier — have been killed by Afghan police, soldiers or civilian workers at military installations. As of Sunday, that accounted for a stunning 32% of the 31 American military fatalities in Afghanistan reported thus far in August by the monitoring website icasualties.org.  [I]nsider shootings have wider-ranging repercussions. They have provided a propaganda bonanza to the Taliban, and could threaten a linchpin of the Western exit strategy: training Afghan security forces in preparation for handing over most fighting duties to them by 2014.

The military says only a very small share of insider attacks is carried out by Taliban “sleepers” in the police or army. But that opens the way to perhaps an even more alarming conclusion: that the majority of the assailants are undertaking what are in effect spontaneous, self-assigned suicide missions, because many insider shooters are killed on the spot in return fire.

The military says it is working to address the threat. Changes in recent months have included the posting of armed Western troops — so-called guardian angels — to watch over others in mess halls, sleeping tents and gyms. Last week, the American commander of the NATO force, Gen. John Allen, ordered that NATO troops across Afghanistan keep a loaded magazine in their weapons, even when on base.  This year, an Army captain described an informal buddy system at his base of troops signaling each other to keep a close watch on armed Afghans nearby, especially if one of their comrades was diverted by some task.  “‘Shona-ba-shona,’ OK,” the captain said, invoking the “shoulder-to-shoulder” slogan of the NATO force and its Afghan partners. “But also: ‘Eyes on, all times.'”…..

How to guard against such attacks is the subject of considerable debate in military leadership circles, because overtly heavy-handed measures can send a signal to the Afghans that they are not trusted, which can be taken as an insult. And in traditional Afghan culture, perceived insult can swiftly lead to exactly the sort of violence the attacks represent…The phenomenon is so pervasive that the killings have their own evolving nomenclature. Previously, the military called them green-on-blue attacks, a color-coded reference to Afghan and Western forces. Now the preferred, more encompassing term is “insider threat,” stemming from the fact that assailants have included not only uniformed police and soldiers, but also civilian members of the Afghan security apparatus, or simply someone with access to a coalition base, even in a low-level capacity.

The Taliban movement has noted the rising number of insider shootings with ill-concealed delight, boasting of having infiltrated all branches of the Afghan security forces. In the past, the Taliban leadership claimed responsibility for virtually every such attack, but lately the group’s publicity machine often cites individual initiative by those without links to the insurgency.  “Our fighters are in the ranks of the police, army and intelligence service, but there are also some who carry out attacks on foreign troops only because they are Afghans and Muslims and act on their religious obligation to protect their country from invading forces,” said Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the group. “It is an indication of utter hatred against the foreigners.”…….

Some analysts believe part of the problem is the sheer longevity of the war, now in its 11th year. In the conflict’s early stages, such attacks were an extreme rarity.  “I wouldn’t say it’s normal, but I think it’s understandable in a war situation which is lasting for more than a decade,” said Fabrizio Foshini of the Afghan Analysts Network. “The conflict has been becoming worse, nastier — and the presence of foreign troops doesn’t seem in the eyes of many Afghans to have brought positive changes.”

Laura King, Afghanistan ‘insider’ attacks pose threat to West’s exit strategy, LA Times, August 20, 2012

McCrystal, Petraeus and Allen and the Tragedies in Afghanistan

The senior allied commander in Afghanistan has ordered new restrictions on airstrikes against Taliban fighters who hide in residential homes, coalition officials said Sunday (June 10, 2012), a move in response to a NATO attack in the eastern part of the country last week that Afghan officials say killed 18 civilians….Officials said the directive from Gen. John R. Allen, the commander for international and United States forces in Afghanistan, underscores NATO’s existing commitment to protecting civilians…On Sunday, however, American officials said General Allen’s order did not necessarily go that far and sought to describe it in more nuanced terms, saying that NATO would continue to conduct operations against insurgents who use civilian dwellings for shelter.  “When there is concern over the presence of civilians, air-delivered munitions will not be employed [ONLY] while other means are available,” said a senior United States defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the policy deliberations.  Militants often hide in civilian homes, so a complete ban on airstrikes could hinder the ability of American forces to pursue the Taliban. General Allen’s order does not affect ground operations against insurgents. An agreement between the two countries in April gave lead authority for night raids to the Afghans, although missions are to be conducted jointly and targets selected by consensus. Allied officials still retain control over dropping bombs in these operations, and Afghan officials say they were not involved in the decision to carry out the fatal airstrike last week.

The joint Afghan-NATO raid last week was hunting a Taliban commander and some of his fighters who had holed up in a home in Logar Province where a wedding had taken place, according to local residents. An early-morning firefight broke out between the coalition troops and the insurgents, with the civilians trapped inside. The coalition decided to call in an airstrike, which killed the insurgents but also 18 civilians, including 9 children, Afghan officials said.   On Friday, General Allen apologized for the civilian deaths and took the unusual step of meeting with the relatives of some of those killed……

General Allen’s directive comes nearly two years after Gen. David H. Petraeus, upon assuming command of international forces in Afghanistan, issued new guidelines on the use of force in Afghanistan that expanded restrictions on artillery strikes and aerial bombardment, but clarified that troops had the right to self-defense.  Troops widely complained that restrictions put in place by General Petraeus’s predecessor, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, exposed them to excessive risk by tying their hands when they sought to attack people suspected of being militants or destroy buildings used to harbor insurgents.  But General McChrystal’s rules were popular with Afghan officials, including President Karzai, and human rights advocates, who said the restrictions had significantly reduced Afghan civilian deaths.

On Sunday (June 10, 2012), human rights advocates expressed wariness about whether General Allen’s orders would have an immediate impact. “We’ve seen improvements in detention-related abuses and excessive force at checkpoints, but when it comes to civilian casualties, we’re still seeing tragic incidents, even today,” said John Sifton, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director for Asia.

ERIC SCHMITT, Allies Restrict Airstrikes on Taliban in Civilian Homes, NY Times, June 10, 2012

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On Tuesday June 12, 2012, NATO said that Allen had issued an order telling U.S. and coalition forces “that no aerial munitions be delivered against civilian dwellings.”But the statement also contained this caveat: “As always, Afghan and coalition forces retain the inherent right to use aerial munitions in self-defense if no other options are available.”

At a Pentagon news conference on Tuesday, officials repeated the policy outlined by Allen but denied it differed greatly from Karzai’s.-