Issues & Analysis

Shadows and Scalpels: Expanding the “War on Terror” in Yemen

by: Michael Horton, t r u t h o u t | News Analysis, Wednesday 25 August 2010

In an August 14 article entitled, “Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents,” The New York Times reported on how the US is expanding its counterterrorism role in Yemen.(1)The article describes an evolving “shadow war” where the US utilizes a “scalpel” approach to deal with the perennial threat of al-Qaeda or, in the case of Yemen, the recently rebranded al- Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The article goes on to discuss how the US has launched a series of attacks on supposed al-Qaeda encampments across Yemen and how the attacks have been carried out by a combination of cruise missiles and American Harrier jets. While the US attacks on supposed al-Qaeda encampments in Yemen may be part of a shadow war, US involvement in the attacks is common knowledge in Yemen, and is the source of growing anger against both the US and the Saleh government. Such attacks are justified by the accusation that Yemen has been a haven for al-Qaeda operatives. However, the expansion of the US-led “war on terror” in Yemen will further destabilize the country and will almost certainly end up turning it into a haven for al-Qaeda operatives.

One example of the scalpel strategy was the May 24 attack on a home in a remote wadi in the desolate, oil-producing governorate of Marib. An American UAV or Harrier jet launched a missile at a house where a suspected al-Qaeda militant was supposed to be residing. In the aftermath of the missile strike, the suspected al-Qaeda member was variously reported as having been wounded or as not having been in the house at all. However, the Deputy Governor of Marib, Sheikh Jabir Ail al-Shabwani, was in the house. Sheikh Shabwani and four of his body guards were killed. Shabwani was head of the powerful and well-armed Shabwani clan, a member of the Abidah tribe. Following the sheikh’s death, the Shabwani clan and members of the wider Abidah tribe attacked the town of Marib, the capital of the governorate of Marib. While The New York Times article cites a single attack on an oil pipeline by angry tribesmen, the attacks and resulting damage were far more widespread than this single incident. Large parts of the town of Marib were ransacked, military installations and checkpoints throughout the governorate were attacked and a number of power substations were smashed.(2)

Fearing losing control of the oil-producing governorate, Yemeni President Saleh responded to the attacks by sending tanks and troops into Marib. This led to more fighting: the tribesmen that reside in Marib zealously guard what they regard as their land, and are generally not well disposed to the Saleh government. The deployment of large numbers of government troops and tanks in Marib resulted in allied tribes joining the fight against government troops. Rather than risk all-out war, the Saleh government backed down and made use of traditional tribal mediation to try and resolve the conflict. The US attack on a single suspected al-Qaeda member further destabilized an already unstable area and further undermined the Saleh-led government.

As The New York Times article rightly points out, President Ali Abdullah Saleh is a tenacious leader. Saleh has governed Yemen by continually playing Yemen’s many tribes off of one another and by carefully balancing favors and largess with the perceived prestige of the numerous tribes, clans and subclans. Though Saleh’s formal education does not extend beyond the elementary level, he is reported to have a prodigious memory when it comes to Yemen’s complex tribal genealogies. Understanding this tapestry of tribes and tribal alliances is one of the keys to understanding Yemen and, most certainly, northern Yemen. It is an understanding that US policymakers and their Special Forces operatives lack.

President Saleh’s determination to maintain his grip on power means that he is not opposed to making use of the Americans, their money and, most especially, their weapons. In contrast to the American’s myopic focus on AQAP, President Saleh’s government is far more concerned with rebellions in the north and south of the country. In the governorate of Sadah, in northern Yemen, Houthi rebels have been fighting against the government for six years. The Houthis subscribe to a strident form of Zaidism, a conservative offshoot of Shi’a Islam. They claim that they and their beliefs have been marginalized by a government that has often deployed Salafi (Sunni Islamic fundamentalist) fighters against them. In the south, the Saleh government faces a growing rebellion by southerners who cite disenfranchisement and discrimination by the north and the dominant northern tribes. The Saleh government has been quick to link both rebellions with al-Qaeda despite the fact that in the case of the Houthis, al-Qaeda is their sworn enemy. In the south, there is no evidence that any of the various political groups are in any way allied with al-Qaeda. The southern opposition groups are largely politically and ideologically opposed to al-Qaeda.

Given the dearth of Arabic speakers and Yemen experts in the US Embassy in Sana’a and the inability of US officials to travel freely in Yemen, collecting and assessing intelligence is very difficult. Assessing the intelligence provided by the often corrupt Yemeni Political Security Bureau and the Yemeni National Security Agency is even more difficult. It would be relatively easy for the Saleh government to use the US and its weapons to take out targets that have nothing to do with al-Qaeda. A recent Congressional report cited serious concerns about US counterterrorism/military aid being used against the Houthis.(4)

In the north, as a result of the American attack in Marib, the leader of the Houthi rebels, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, has launched an “awareness” campaign that is focused on educating his followers about the threat of al-Qaeda. The Houthis along with many other Yemenis believe that al-Qaeda is an American creation designed to provide the American government with an excuse for waging war in the Middle East. Abdul Malik takes the argument further by stating that Saleh is the puppet of the Americans and is exaggerating the number and power of al-Qaeda in Yemen so that he can, with US help, maintain control of the country. The belief is one that is increasingly popular throughout Yemen.

The expansion of the war on terror in Yemen is replete with risks for both the US and, most importantly, given that it is their country, Yemenis. The US attacks in Marib and the December 17, 2009, attack on suspected al-Qaeda camps, where, according to Amnesty International, 14 women and 21 children died, have done little or nothing to impede the growth of al-Qaeda oriented groups.(5) Quite the opposite, AQAP, has used the civilian deaths as a recruiting tool. The attacks have also further compromised the Saleh government by showing that he and his regime are actively working with the Americans by allowing them to bomb Yemenis.

US politicians, like Sen. Joe Lieberman, who in a fine example of senatorial moderation, called for a pre-emptive attack on Yemen shortly after the failed “underwear” bombing, would do well to read about the two Ottoman invasions of Yemen and the more contemporary Egyptian experience in Yemen. Yemen is not kind to invaders. Though it is quite possibly one way to unify the country. I was in Sana’a in the month following the attempted underwear bombing when the language from the US cable news networks was at its most bellicose. Many Yemenis I spoke with during afternoon qat (a mild stimulant not unlike coffee consumed by most of the country) chews were convinced an American invasion was imminent. I was surprised to hear even “liberal” Yemeni friends, wealthy Yemenis who are not opposed to the occasional whiskey, making plans to return to their villages and fight.

Yemen faces an abundance of challenges: water shortages, declining oil production, systemic corruption, demographic pressures and a moribund economy. None of these problems are easily dealt with, but the answer to them is certainly not poorly planned missile attacks and increased military aid. I suspect Yemenis can find answers to their own problems if given the chance. While Yemen is often described as “lawless” and medieval, this is far from the truth. Yemen’s tribes have long governed themselves by employing tribal law, “urf” in Arabic. Tribal law is both adaptive and responsive and, most importantly, has evolved many mechanisms for mitigating and limiting conflict. Tribal law is what President Saleh fell back on to defuse the situation in Marib. However, more scalpel operations like the one in Marib could easily overwhelm any and all Yemeni efforts to defuse the resulting conflicts. The expansion of the shadow war in Yemen only adds to Yemen’s many problems and could easily result in the US being mired in another country it doesn’t care to understand.

1. Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti, Robert F. Worth, “Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents,” New York Times (August 14, 2010).
2. Andrew McGregor, “Tribal Resistance and al-Qaeda: Suspected US Airstrike Ignites Tribes in Yemen’s Ma’rib Governorate,” Terrorism Monitor (June 16, 2010). Fattah Haidrah, “Tensions breakout in Marib over killing local leader,” Yemen Observer (May 29, 2010).
3. Michael Horton, “Borderline Crisis,” Jane’s Intelligence Review  (January 2010).
4. “Following the Money in Yemen and Lebanon: Maximizing the Effectiveness of US Security Assistance and International Financial Institution Lending,” Committee on Foreign Relation United States Senate (January 5, 2010).
5. Amnesty International (June 7, 2010).


The Secret Killers: Assassination in Afghanistan and Task Force 373

TomDispatch | News Analysis, Thursday 19 August 2010 by: Pratap Chatterjee

“Find, fix, finish, and follow-up” is the way the Pentagon describes the mission of secret military teams in Afghanistan which have been given a mandate to pursue alleged members of the Taliban or al-Qaeda wherever they may be found. Some call these “manhunting” operations and the units assigned to them “capture/kill” teams.

Whatever terminology you choose, the details of dozens of their specific operations — and how they regularly went badly wrong — have been revealed for the first time in the mass of secret U.S. military and intelligence documents published by the website Wikileaks in July to a storm of news coverage and official protest. Representing a form of U.S. covert warfare now on the rise, these teams regularly make more enemies than friends and undermine any goodwill created by U.S. reconstruction projects.

When Danny Hall and Gordon Phillips, the civilian and military directors of the U.S. provincial reconstruction team in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, arrived for a meeting with Gul Agha Sherzai, the local governor, in mid-June 2007, they knew that they had a lot of apologizing to do. Philips had to explain why a covert U.S. military “capture/kill” team named Task Force 373, hunting for Qari Ur-Rahman, an alleged Taliban commander given the code-name “Carbon,” had called in an AC-130 Spectre gunship and inadvertently killed seven Afghan police officers in the middle of the night.

The incident vividly demonstrated the inherent clash between two doctrines in the U.S. war in Afghanistan — counterinsurgency (“protecting the people”) and counterterrorism (killing terrorists). Although the Obama administration has given lip service to the former, the latter has been, and continues to be, the driving force in its war in Afghanistan.

For Hall, a Foreign Service officer who was less than two months away from a plush assignment in London, working with the military had already proven more difficult than he expected. In an article for Foreign Service Journal published a couple of months before the meeting, he wrote, “I felt like I never really knew what was going on, where I was supposed to be, what my role was, or if I even had one. In particular, I didn’t speak either language that I needed: Pashtu or military.”

It had been no less awkward for Phillips. Just a month earlier, he had personally handed over “solatia” payments — condolence payments for civilian deaths wrongfully caused by U.S. forces — in Governor Sherzai’s presence, while condemning the act of a Taliban suicide bomber who had killed 19 civilians, setting off the incident in question. “We come here as your guests,” he told the relatives of those killed, “invited to aid in the reconstruction and improved security and governance of Nangarhar, to bring you a better life and a brighter future for you and your children. Today, as I look upon the victims and their families, I join you in mourning for your loved ones.”

Hall and Phillips were in charge of a portfolio of 33 active U.S. reconstruction projects worth $11 million in Nangarhar, focused on road-building, school supplies, and an agricultural program aimed at exporting fruits and vegetables from the province.

Yet the mission of their military-led “provincial reconstruction team” (made up of civilian experts, State department officials, and soldiers) appeared to be in direct conflict with those of the “capture/kill” team of special operations forces (Navy Seals, Army Rangers, and Green Berets, together with operatives from the Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division) whose mandate was to pursue Afghans alleged to be terrorists as well as insurgent leaders. That team was leaving a trail of dead civilian bodies and recrimination in its wake.

Details of some of the missions of Task Force 373 first became public as a result of more than 76,000 incident reports leaked to the public by Wikileaks, a whistleblower website, together with analyses of those documents in Der Spiegel, the Guardian, and the New York Times. A full accounting of the depredations of the task force may be some time in coming, however, as the Obama administration refuses to comment on its ongoing assassination spree in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A short history of the unit can nonetheless be gleaned from a careful reading of the Wikileaks documents as well as related reports from Afghanistan and unclassified Special Forces reports.

The Wikileaks data suggests that as many as 2,058 people on a secret hit list called the “Joint Prioritized Effects List” (JPEL) were considered “capture/kill” targets in Afghanistan. A total of 757 prisoners — most likely from this list — were being held at the Bagram Theater Internment Facility (BTIF), a U.S.-run prison on Bagram Air Base as of the end of December 2009.

Capture/Kill Operations

The idea of “joint” teams from different branches of the military working collaboratively with the CIA was first conceived in 1980 after the disastrous Operation Eagle Claw, when personnel from the Air Force, Army, and Navy engaged in a disastrously botched, seat-of-the-pants attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran with help from the Agency. Eight soldiers were killed when two helicopters collided in the Iranian desert. Afterwards, a high-level, six-member commission led by Admiral James L. Holloway, III recommended the creation of a Joint Special Forces command to ensure that different branches of the military and the CIA should do far more advance coordination planning in the future.

This process accelerated greatly after September 11, 2001. That month, a CIA team called Jawbreaker headed for Afghanistan to plan a U.S.-led invasion of the country. Shortly thereafter, an Army Green Beret team set up Task Force Dagger to pursue the same mission. Despite an initial rivalry between the commanders of the two groups, they eventually teamed up.

The first covert “joint” team involving the CIA and various military special operations forces to work together in Afghanistan was Task Force 5, charged with the mission of capturing or killing “high value targets” like Osama bin Laden, senior leaders of al-Qaeda, and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the head of the Taliban. A sister organization set up in Iraq was called Task Force 20. The two were eventually combined into Task Force 121 by General John Abizaid, the head of the U.S. Central Command.

In a new book to be released this month, Operation Darkheart, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer describes the work of Task Force 121 in 2003, when he was serving as part of a team dubbed the Jedi Knights. Working under the alias of Major Christopher Stryker, he ran operations for the Defense Intelligence Agency (the military equivalent of the CIA) out of Bagram Air Base.

One October night, Shaffer was dropped into a village near Asadabad in Kunar province by an MH-47 Chinook helicopter to lead a “joint” team, including Army Rangers (a Special Forces division) and 10th Mountain Division troops. They were on a mission to capture a lieutenant of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious warlord allied with the Taliban, based on information provided by the CIA.

It wasn’t easy. “They succeeded in striking at the core of the Taliban and their safe havens across the border in Pakistan. For a moment Shaffer saw us winning the war,” reads the promotional material for the book. “Then the military brass got involved. The policies that top officials relied on were hopelessly flawed. Shaffer and his team were forced to sit and watch as the insurgency grew — just across the border in Pakistan.”

Almost a quarter century after Operation Eagle Claw, Shaffer, who was part of the Able Danger team that had pursued Al Qaeda in the 1990s, describes the bitter turf wars between the CIA and Special Forces teams over how the shadowy world of secret assassinations in Afghanistan and Pakistan should be run.

Task Force 373

Fast forward to 2007, the first time Task Force 373 is mentioned in the Wikileaks documents. We don’t know whether its number means anything, but coincidentally or not, chapter 373 of the U.S. Code 10, the act of Congress that sets out what the U.S. military is legally allowed to do, permits the Secretary of Defense to empower any “civilian employee” of the military “to execute warrants and make arrests without a warrant” in criminal matters. Whether or not this is indeed the basis for that “373” remains a classified matter — as indeed, until the Wikileaks document dump occurred, was the very existence of the group.

Analysts say that Task Force 373 complements Task Force 121 by using “white forces” like the Rangers and the Green Berets, as opposed to the more secretive Delta Force. Task Force 373 is supposedly run out of three military bases — in Kabul, the Afghan capital; Kandahar, the country’s second largest city; and Khost City near the Pakistani tribal lands. It’s possible that some of its operations also come out of Camp Marmal, a German base in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Sources familiar with the program say that the task force has its own helicopters and aircraft, notably AC-130 Spectre gunships, dedicated only to its use.

Its commander appears to have been Brigadier General Raymond Palumbo, based out of the Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Palumbo, however, left Fort Bragg in mid-July, shortly after General Stanley McChrystal was relieved as Afghan war commander by President Obama. The name of the new commander of the task force is not known.

In more than 100 incident reports in the Wikileaks files, Task Force 373 is described as leading numerous “capture/kill” efforts, notably in Khost, Paktika, and Nangarhar provinces, all bordering the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of northern Pakistan. Some reportedly resulted in successful captures, while others led to the death of local police officers or even small children, causing angry villagers to protest and attack U.S.-led military forces.

In April 2007, David Adams, commander of the Khost provincial reconstruction team, was called to meet with elders from the village of Gurbuz in Khost province, who were angry about Task Force 373’s operations in their community. The incident report on Wikileaks does not indicate just what Task Force 373 did to upset Gurbuz’s elders, but the governor of Khost, Arsala Jamal, had been publicly complaining about Special Forces operations and civilian deaths in his province since December 2006, when five civilians were killed in a raid on Darnami village.

“This is our land,” he said then. “I’ve been asking with greater force: Let us sit together, we know our Afghan brothers, we know our culture better. With these operations we should not create more enemies. We are in a position to reduce mistakes.”

As Adams would later recall in an op-ed he co-authored for the Wall Street Journal, “The increasing number of raids on Afghan homes alienated many of Khost’s tribal elders.”

On June 12, 2007, Danny Hall and Gordon Philips, working in Nangarhar province just northeast of Khost, were called into that meeting with Governor Sherzai to explain how Task Force 373 had killed those seven local Afghan police officers. Like Jamal, Sherzai made the point to Hall and Philips that “he strongly encourages better coordination… and he further emphasized that he does not want to see this happen again.”

Less than a week later, a Task Force 373 team fired five rockets at a compound in Nangar Khel in Paktika province to the south of Khost, in an attempt to kill Abu Laith al-Libi, an alleged al-Qaeda member from Libya. When the U.S. forces made it to the village, they found that Task Force 373 had destroyed a madrassa (or Islamic school), killing six children and grievously wounding a seventh who, despite the efforts of a U.S. medical team, would soon die. (In late January 2008, al-Libi was reported killed by a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone strike in a village near Mir Ali in North Waziristan in Pakistan.)

Paktika Governor Akram Khapalwak met with the U.S. military the day after the raid. Unlike his counterparts in Khost and Nangarhar, Khapalwak agreed to support the “talking points” developed for Task Force 373 to explain the incident to the media. According to the Wikileaks incident report, the governor then “echoed the tragedy of children being killed, but stressed this could’ve been prevented had the people exposed the presence of insurgents in the area.”

However, no military talking points, no matter in whose mouth, could stop the civilian deaths as long as Task Force 373’s raids continued.

On October 4, 2007, its members called in an air strike — 500 pound Paveway bombs — on a house in the village of Laswanday, just six miles from Nangar Khel in Paktika province (where those seven children had already died). This time, four men, one woman, and a girl — all civilians — as well as a donkey, a dog, and several chickens would be slaughtered. A dozen U.S. soldiers were injured, but the soldiers reported that not one “enemy” was detained or killed.

The Missing Afghan Story

Not all raids resulted in civilian deaths. The U.S. military incident reports released by Wikileaks suggest that Task Force 373 had better luck in capturing “targets” alive and avoiding civilian deaths on December 14, 2007. The 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne) was asked that day to support Task Force 373 in a search in Paktika province for Bitonai and Nadr, two alleged al-Qaeda leaders listed on the JPEL. The operation took place just outside the town of Orgun, close to U.S. Forward Operating Base (FOB) Harriman. Located 7,000 feet above sea level and surrounded by mountains, it hosts about 300 soldiers as well as a small CIA compound, and is often visited by chattering military helicopters well as sleepy camel herds belonging to local Pashtuns.

An airborne assault team code-named “Operation Spartan” descended on the compounds where Bitonai and Nadr were supposed to be living, but failed to find them. When a local Afghan informant told the Special Forces soldiers that the suspects were at a location about two miles away, Task Force 373 seized both men as well as 33 others who were detained at FOB Harriman for questioning and possible transfer to the prison at Bagram.

But when Task Force 373 was on the prowl, civilians were, it seems, always at risk, and while the Wikileaks documents reveal what the U.S soldiers were willing to report, the Afghan side of the story was often left in a ditch. For example, on a Monday night in mid-November 2009, Task Force 373 conducted an operation to capture or kill an alleged militant code-named “Ballentine” in Ghazni province. A terse incident report announced that one Afghan woman and four “insurgents” had been killed. The next morning, Task Force White Eagle, a Polish unit under the command of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, reported that some 80 people gathered to protest the killings. The window of an armored vehicle was damaged by the angry villagers, but the documents don’t offer us their version of the incident.

In an ironic twist, one of the last Task Force 373 incidents recorded in the Wikileaks documents was almost a reprise of the original Operation Eagle Claw disaster that led to the creation of the “joint” capture/kill teams. Just before sunrise on October 26, 2009, two U.S. helicopters, a UH-1 Huey and an AH-1 Cobra, collided near the town of Garmsir in the southern province of Helmand, killing four Marines.

Closely allied with Task Force 373 is a British unit, Task Force 42, composed of Special Air Service, Special Boat Service, and Special Reconnaissance Regiment commandos who operate in Helmand province and are mentioned in several Wikileaks incident reports.


“Capture/kill” is a key part of a new military “doctrine” developed by the Special Forces Command established after the failure of Operation Eagle Claw. Under the leadership of General Bryan D. Brown, who took over the Special Forces Command in September 2003, the doctrine came to be known as F4, which stood for “find, fix, finish, and follow-up” — a slightly euphemistic but not hard to understand message about how alleged terrorists and insurgents were to be dealt with.

Under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the Bush years, Brown began setting up “joint Special Forces” teams to conduct F4 missions outside war zones. These were given the anodyne name “Military Liaison Elements.” At least one killing by such a team in Paraguay (of an armed robber not on any targeting list) was written up by New York Times reporters Scott Shane and Thom Shanker. The team, whose presence had not been made known to the U.S. ambassador there, was ordered to leave the country.

“The number-one requirement is to defend the homeland. And so sometimes that requires that you find and capture or kill terrorist targets around the world that are trying to do harm to this nation,” Brown told the House Committee on Armed Services in March 2006. “Our foreign partners… are willing but incapable nations that want help in building their own capability to defend their borders and eliminate terrorism in their countries or in their regions.” In April 2007, President Bush rewarded Brown’s planning by creating a special high-level office at the Pentagon for an assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities.

Michael G. Vickers, made famous in the book and film Charlie Wilson’s War as the architect of the covert arms-and-money supply chain to the mujaheedin in the CIA’s anti-Soviet Afghan campaign of the 1980s, was nominated to fill the position. Under his leadership, a new directive was issued in December 2008 to “develop capabilities for extending U.S. reach into denied areas and uncertain environments by operating with and through indigenous foreign forces or by conducting low visibility operations.” In this way, the “capture/kill” program was institutionalized in Washington.

“The war on terror is fundamentally an indirect war… It’s a war of partners… but it also is a bit of the war in the shadows, either because of political sensitivity or the problem of finding terrorists,” Vickers told the Washington Post as 2007 ended. “That’s why the Central Intelligence Agency is so important… and our Special Operations forces play a large role.”

George W. Bush’s departure from the White House did not dampen the enthusiasm for F4. Quite the contrary: even though the F4 formula has recently been tinkered with, in typical military fashion, and has now become “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze,” or F3EA, President Obama has, by all accounts, expanded military intelligence gathering and “capture/kill” programs globally in tandem with an escalation of drone-strike operations by the CIA.

There are quite a few outspoken supporters of the “capture/kill” doctrine. Columbia University Professor Austin Long is one academic who has jumped on the F3EA bandwagon. Noting its similarity to the Phoenix assassination program, responsible for tens of thousands of deaths during the U.S. war in Vietnam (which he defends), he has called for a shrinking of the U.S. military “footprint” in Afghanistan to 13,000 Special Forces troops who would focus exclusively on counter-terrorism, particularly assassination operations. “Phoenix suggests that intelligence coordination and the integration of intelligence with an action arm can have a powerful effect on even extremely large and capable armed groups,” he and his co-author William Rosenau wrote in a July 2009 Rand Institute monograph entitled” “The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency.”

Others are even more aggressively inclined. Lieutenant George Crawford, who retired from the position of “lead strategist” for the Special Forces Command to go work for Archimedes Global, Inc., a Washington consulting firm, has suggested that F3EA be replaced by one term: “Manhunting.” In a monograph published by the Joint Special Operations University in September 2009, “Manhunting: Counter-Network Organization for Irregular Warfare,” Crawford spells out “how to best address the responsibility to develop manhunting as a capability for American national security.”

Killing the Wrong People

The strange evolution of these concepts, the creation of ever more global hunter-killer teams whose purpose in life is assassination 24/7, and the civilians these “joint Special Forces” teams regularly kill in their raids on supposed “targets” have unsettled even military experts.

For example, Christopher Lamb, the acting director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, and Martin Cinnamond, a former U.N. official in Afghanistan, penned an article for the Spring 2010 issue of the Joint Forces Quarterly in which they wrote: “There is broad agreement… that the indirect approach to counterinsurgency should take precedence over kill/capture operations. However, the opposite has occurred.”

Other military types claim that the hunter-killer approach is short-sighted and counterproductive. “My take on Task Force 373 and other task forces, it has a purpose because it keeps the enemy off balance. But It does not understand the fundamental root cause of the conflict, of why people are supporting the Taliban,” says Matthew Hoh, a former Marine and State Department contractor who resigned from the government last September. Hoh, who often worked with Task Force 373 as well as other Special Forces “capture/kill” programs in Afghanistan and Iraq, adds: “We are killing the wrong people, the mid-level Taliban who are only fighting us because we are in their valleys. If we were not there, they would not be fighting the U.S.”

Task Force 373 may be a nightmare for Afghans. For the rest of us — now that Wikileaks has flushed it into the open — it should be seen as a symptom of deeper policy disasters. After all, it raises a basic question: Is this country really going to become known as a global Manhunters, Inc.?

Pratap Chatterjee is a freelance journalist, TomDispatch regular, and senior editor at CorpWatch who has worked extensively in the Middle East and Central Asia, including nine trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. He has written two books about the war on terror: Iraq, Inc. (Seven Stories Press, 2004) and Halliburton’s Army (Nation Books, 2009). He recommends using DiaryDig to better understand the WikiLeaks Afghan War Diary. A good glossary of military acronyms can be found by clicking here. You can contact him via email at

Copyright 2010 Pratap Chatterjee


Pakistan’s leader says world losing Afghan war

Pakistan’s leader says world losing Afghan war because of its failure to win over the Afghan people
By PAISLEY DODDS (AP) – Aug 3, 2010

LONDON — The U.S.-led coalition’s battle against the Taliban has already been lost because of its failure to win over the Afghan people, Pakistan’s president warned Tuesday before tough talks this week with Prime Minister David Cameron, who has accused the country of exporting terrorism.

President Asif Ali Zardari told the French daily Le Monde online that the coalition had “underestimated the situation on the ground and was not conscious of the scale of the problem” against the Taliban largely because “we have lost the battle to conquer the heart and soul” of the Afghan people. Long-term help — not just military reinforcements — was needed.

“To win the support of the Afghan population, we must bring them economic development and show that we cannot only change their lives, but above all improve them,” Zardari was quoted as saying.

Zardari is set to meet with Cameron on Friday. The talks have been overshadowed by Cameron’s remarks last week that Pakistan had looked two ways in dealing with terrorists.

The visit of Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, comes amid growing concern that some elements in Pakistan’s intelligence service and military have been sympathetic to militants — a claim supported in Wikileaks, the self-described online whistle-blower that recently posted leaked U.S. military documents alleging Pakistan’s unwillingness to sever its historical ties to the Taliban.

“Pakistan and its people are the victims of the terrorists,” said Zardari, who said Britain and Pakistan needed unity — not division on the fight against terrorism. Pakistan has lost some 2,500 of its security forces in the past few years during battles against insurgents.

Zardari denied allegations that elements in Pakistan were cooperating with the Taliban and said the Wikileaks documents citing Pakistan predated his time as president.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs rejected Zardari’s assessment Tuesday, saying he thought coalition actions taken in the past few months “have much the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.” Gibbs said, “The Afghan people know of the brutality of the Taliban.”

Cameron’s comments about Pakistan’s alleged role in the export of terrorism — remarks made last week during his visit to Pakistan’s nuclear rival, India — caused a diplomatic row.

Pakistan’s intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shujaa Pasha, called off a trip planned to London because of the dispute, while Britain’s envoy in Pakistan was summoned to Islamabad. Dozen of protesters from the Islamist group Shababe Milli, meanwhile, burned an effigy of Cameron in the port city of Karachi over the weekend.

The Pakistani leader also is facing mounting criticism at home for his government’s handling of deadly floods that have killed 1,500 people, some of the worst in recent history. Also marring the visit were a series of revenge attacks that killed at least 45 people in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, after the assassination of a prominent lawmaker.

One analyst said Zardari’s decision to carry out the visit left him scratching his head.

“With all the floods, the shooting in Karachi … David Cameron’s comments, I can’t imagine he’s going to have very much positive to take home,” said Gareth Price, the head of the Asia program at London’s Chatham House think tank. “The politically astute move would seem to be to have canceled the whole trip to Europe and say: ‘I need to be there.'”

Pakistan is one of Britain’s most important allies in fighting terrorism — nearly 1 million people of Pakistani origin live in Britain, and Pakistani intelligence has been crucial in several terror investigations, including the 2005 suicide attacks that killed 52 London commuters and a 2006 trans-Atlantic airliner plot. Many of the plots have had links back to Pakistan.

Cameron defended his comments Tuesday, but stressed the importance of Friday’s talks.

“The key thing is to build on the relationship that we have and to make sure we are co-operating on security issues,” he said.

Britain is one of the largest donors to Pakistan and is expected to increase aid by an estimated 40 percent as Britain cuts other foreign aid in an effort to boost support in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Britain offers about 120 million pounds ($190 million) a year in aid to Pakistan and announced in June it plans to prioritize work to improve access to education, particularly for women.

An additional 5 million pounds ($8 million) of emergency aid has been promised following the floods.

Last year, Pakistan’s powerful military rejected U.S. attempts to link billions of dollars in foreign aid to increased monitoring of its anti-terror efforts.

Analysts have warned any breakdown in intelligence sharing and other types of cooperation would hurt the fight against a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. U.S. and NATO commanders have repeatedly said the war cannot be won unless Islamabad does more to tackle extremists on its side of the border.

“There is a huge amount of international tension about what Pakistan is doing to deal with the issue of terrorism,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s director for the Asia-Pacific. “What remains very much in doubt is whether Pakistan’s civilian government has an overall plan or the capacity to address or control the insurgency in the northwest.”

The 55-year-old Zardari has long been haunted by corruption allegations dating back to governments led in the 1990s by his late wife who was assassinated in 2007 after her return from exile to Pakistan. He spent several years in prison under previous administrations and allegations he misappropriated as much as $1.5 billion.

Zardari has routinely denied any wrongdoing, but there have been growing calls to reopen an alleged corruption case involving Zardari and his late wife that had been heard in a Swiss court.

Zardari will be holding private talks on Wednesday and Thursday with Pakistani officials, community members and other British officials before meeting Cameron on Friday. He also is expected to speak Saturday at a rally of his Pakistan Peoples Party in Birmingham.


Here Be Dragons

Here Be Dragons
MRAPs, Sprained Ankles, Air Conditioning, Farting Contests, and Other Snapshots from the American War in Afghanistan

By Ann Jones

In the eight years I’ve reported on Afghanistan, I’ve “embedded” regularly with Afghan civilians, especially women.  Recently, however, with American troops “surging” and journalists getting into the swing of the military’s counterinsurgency “strategy” (better known by its acronym, COIN), I decided to get with the program as well.  Last June, I filed a request to embed with the U.S. Army.

Polite emails from Army public affairs specialists ask journalists to provide evidence of medical insurance, a requirement I took as an admission that war is not a healthy pursuit.  I already knew that, of course — from the civilian side.  Plus I’d read a lot of articles and books by male colleagues who had risked their necks with American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.  What struck me about their work was this: even when they described screw-ups coming down from the top brass, those reporters still managed to make the soldierly enterprise sound pretty consistently heroic.  I wondered what they might be leaving out.

So I sent in a scan of my Medicare card.  I worried that this evidence of my senior citizenship, coupled with my membership in the “weaker sex,” the one we’re supposedly rescuing in Afghanistan, would raise questions about my fitness for missions “outside the wire” of a Forward Operating Base (FOB, pronounced “fob”) in eastern Afghanistan only a few miles from the tribal areas of Pakistan. But no, I got my requested embed — proof of neither fitness nor heroism required (something my male colleagues had never revealed).  In the end, my age and gender were no handicap. As Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple knows, people will say almost anything to an old lady they assume to be stupid.

Boys and Their Toys

Having been critical of American policies from the get-go, I saw nothing on the various Army bases I visited to change my mind.  One day at that FOB, preparing to go on a mission, the sergeant in charge wrote the soldiers’ names on the board, followed by “Terp” to designate the Afghan-American interpreter who would accompany us, and “In Bed,” which meant me.  He made a joke about reporters who are more gung-ho than soldiers.  Not me.  And I wasn’t alone.  I had already met a lot of older guys on other bases, mostly reservists who had jobs at home they felt passionately about — teachers, coaches, musicians — and wives and children they loved, who just wanted to go home.  One said to me, “Maybe if I were ten years younger I could get into it, but I’m not a boy anymore.”

The Army had sent me a list of ground rules for reporters — mostly commonsense stuff like don’t print troop strength or battle plans. I also got a checklist of things to bring along.  It was the sort of list moms get when sending their kids off to camp: water bottle, flashlight, towel, soap, toilet paper (for those excursions away from base), sleeping bag, etc.  But there was other stuff too: ballistic eyewear, fireproof gloves, big knife, body armor, and Kevlar helmet.  Considering how much of my tax dollar goes to the Pentagon, I thought the Army might have a few spare flak jackets to lend to visiting reporters, but no, you have to bring your own.

That was perhaps a sign of things to come, as I was soon swamped by complaints from soldiers and civilian contractors alike: not enough armor, not enough vehicles, not enough helicopters, not enough weapons, not enough troops — and even when there seemed to be plenty of everything, complaints that nothing was of quite the right kind. This struck me as a peculiarly privileged American problem that seemed to underlie almost everything I was to see on the eastern front of this war.  Those complaints, in fact, seemed to spring from the very nature of the American military enterprise — from its toxic mix of paranoia, entitlement, and good intentions.

Take the paranoia, which I suppose comes with the territory.  You wouldn’t be there if you didn’t think that there were enemies all around.  I turned down a military flight for the short hop from the Afghan capital Kabul to Bagram, the main American base — a rapidly expanding “city” of more than 30,000 people.  Instead, I asked an Afghan friend to drive me out in his car.

A Public Affairs officer warned me that driving was “very dangerous,” but the only problem we met was a U.S. military convoy headed in the opposite direction, holding up traffic.  For more than an hour we sat by the highway with dozens of Afghan motorists watching a parade of enormous flatbed trucks hauling other big vehicles: bulldozers and armored personnel carriers of various vintages from Humvees to MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles). My friend said, “We don’t understand.  They have all these big machines.  They put them on trucks and haul them up and down the road. Why?”

I couldn’t get an answer, but I got a clue when I took an Army chopper from Bagram to a smaller base and met a private contractor partly responsible for Army vehicle maintenance.  He gave me a CD to pass on to his foreman at the FOB I was headed for.  Rather than music, it held an instruction manual for repairing the latest model M-ATV, a hulking personnel carrier with a V-shaped hull designed to repel the blast of roadside bombs.  These are currently replacing the older MRAPs and deadly low-slung Humvees.  The Humvees are, in turn, being passed off to the Afghan National Army, whose soldiers are more expendable than ours.  (You see what I mean about entitlement.)  Standing in a lot full of new M-ATVs already in need of fixing, the foreman seemed pleased indeed to get that CD.

It’s a measure of our sense of entitlement, I think, that while the Taliban and their allies still walk to war wearing traditional baggy cotton pants and shirts, we Americans incessantly invent things to make ourselves more “secure.” Since no one can ever be secure, least of all in war, every new development is bound to prove insufficient and almost guaranteed to create new problems.

Still, Americans feel entitled to safety.  Hence the MRAP was designed to address a double whammy of fear: roadside bombs (IEDs) and ambushes.  I was trained to be a passenger in an MRAP for a mission that never materialized, but in the process I learned where the built-in handholds are for those frequent occasions when the top-heavy MRAP rolls down a mountainside.

The trainer talked so assuredly about what to do in case of a rollover that he almost gave me the impression you could swivel your hips and right the vehicle, like a kayak.  But no, once it rolls, it’s a goner.  You have to crawl out and walk.  (So much for ambush protection.)  Then, one of those big trucks we saw on the highway to Bagram has to come out and haul it back to base, where the foreman with that new instruction-manual CD may have a go at fixing it.  That, in a nutshell, is why the 7-passenger MRAP is being replaced by the 5-passenger M-ATV, a huge armored all-terrain vehicle not quite so inclined to tip over.   Because it holds fewer soldiers, however, you have to put more of those vehicles on the road, and I’m sure you already see where that leads.

One benefit of our addiction to expensive, state-of-the-art stuff, however faulty it may prove, is that the private manufacture of armaments now helps keep our economy on life support and makes some military-industrial types rich.  One drawback is that — though it’s a hard point for American soldiers in the line of fire to grasp — it actually undercuts our heralded COIN strategy.  Afghans out there fighting in their cotton pajamas take Western reliance on heavy armor as a measure of our fear — not to mention the inferiority of our gods on whose protection we appear unwilling to rely.  (By contrast, the watchman at the small Afghan National Army base adjacent to the FOB I was visiting slept on a cot on the roof, exposed to enemy fire with his tea kettle beside him, either trusting his god, or maybe knowing something we don’t about the “enemy.”)

All the Comforts of War

On the great scale of American bases, think of Bagram as a city, secondary bases as small towns, FOBS as heavily gated communities in rural landscapes, and outlying COPs (Combat Outposts) as camps you wouldn’t want your kid to go to.  A FOB is, by definition, pretty far out there on the fringe, but I have to say straight out that when the chopper dropped me off in full (and remarkably heavy) body armor and Kevlar helmet at my designated FOB, it didn’t look at all like “the front” to me.

I should explain that my enduring image of war comes from the trenches of World War I, from which my father returned with a lot of medals, lifelong disabilities, and horrific picture books I wasn’t allowed to see as a child.  In that war, men lived for months on end without a change of uniform, in muddy or frozen trenches, infested with rats and lice, often amid their own excrement and their own dead.

The frontline FOB where I landed and its soldiers, by contrast, are spic-and-span.  Credit for this goes largely to the remarkably inexpensive labor of crews of Filipinos, Indians, Croatians, and others lured from distant lands by American for-profit private contractors responsible for making our troops feel at home away from home.  The base’s streets are laid out on a grid.  Tents in tidy rows are banked with standard sand bags and their super-sized cousins, towering Hescos filled with rocks and rubble.

The tents are cooled by roaring tornados of air conditioning, thanks to equipment fueled by gasoline that costs the Army about $400 per gallon to import.  It takes fuelers three to four hours every day to refill all the giant generators that keep the cold air coming, so I felt guilty when, to prevent shivering in my sleep, I stuffed my towel into the ducts suspended from the ceiling of my tent.

More permanent buildings are going up and some, already built by Afghans and deemed not good enough for American habitation, are scheduled for reconstruction.  Even in distant FOBs like this one, the building boom is prodigious.  There’s a big gym with the latest body-building equipment, and a morale-boosting center equipped with telephones and banks of computers connected to the Internet that are almost always in use.  A 24/7 chow hall serves barbequed ribs, steak, and lobster tails, though everything is cooked beyond recognition by those underpaid laborers to whom this cuisine is utterly foreign.

There’s a remarkably speedy laundry and, as for the toilets and showers — I can speak only for those few designated “Female” — they were the best I’d seen anywhere in Afghanistan.  A sign politely suggested limiting your shower to five minutes, a nod to the expense of paying for-profit contractors to hire truckers to haul in the necessary water, and then haul out to undisclosed locations the copious effluence of American latrines.  (At Bagram, that effluence goes into a conveniently nearby river, a water source for countless Afghans.)  The other detritus from this expanding FOB is dumped into a pit and burned, including a staggering, but undisclosed, number of plastic water bottles.  All this helps explain the annual cost of maintaining a single American soldier in Afghanistan, currently estimated at one million dollars.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not making a case for filthy trenches.  But why should war be gussied up like home?  If war were undisguisedly as nasty and brutish as it truly is, it might also tend to be short.  Soldiers freed from illusions might mutiny, as many did in Vietnam, or desert and go home.  But this modern, cushier kind of pseudo-war is different.

Many young soldiers told me that they actually live better in the Army, even when deployed, than they did in civilian life, where they couldn’t make ends meet, especially when they were trying to pay for college or raise a family by working one or two low-wage jobs.  They won’t mutiny.  They’re doing better than many of their friends back home. (And they’re dutiful, which makes for acts of personal heroism, even in a foolhardy cause.)  They are likely to reenlist, though many told me they’d prefer to quit the Army and go to work for much higher pay with the for-profit private contractors that now “service” American war.

But the odd thing is that no one seems to question the relative cushiness of this life at war (nor the inequity of the hardscrabble civilian life left behind) — least of all those best able to observe firsthand the contrast between our garrisons and the humble equipment and living conditions of Afghans, both friend and foe.  Rather, the contrast seems to inspire many soldiers with renewed appreciation of “our American way of life” and a determination to “do good things” for the Afghan people, just as many feel they did for the people of Iraq.

I emphasize all this because nothing I’d read about soldiering prepared me for the extent of these comforts — or the tedium that attends them.  Plenty of soldiers don’t leave the base.  They hold down desk jobs, issue supplies, manage logistics, repair vehicles or radios, refuel generators and trucks, plan “development” projects, handle public affairs, or update tactical maps inscribed (at certain locations I am obliged not to name) with admonitions like “Here Be Dragons” or “Here Do Bad Stuff.”  They face the boredom of ordinary, unheroic, repetitive tasks.

The most common injury they are likely to suffer is a sprained ankle, thanks to eastern Afghanistan’s carpet of loose rocks — just the size to trip you up. On the wall in the FOB medics’ clinic is a poster with schematic drawings and instructions for strengthening ankles, an anatomical part not enhanced by any of the fitness machines at the gym.  The medics dispense a lot of ibuprofen and keep a supply of crutches handy.

What’s Going On

As this is an infantry base, however, most squads regularly venture outside the wire and the characteristic, probably long-term disability the soldiers take with them is bad knees — from the great weight of the things they wear and carry. The base commander reminded me of one of the principles of COIN: security should be established by non-lethal means.  So most infantry missions are “presence patrols,” described by one officer as “walking around in places where we won’t get shot at just to show the Afs [Afghans] that we’re keeping them safe.”

I went outside the wire myself on one of these presence patrols, a mission to a village, and — I’m sorry to say — it was no friendly stroll.  It’s a soldier’s job to be “focused”; that is, to watch out for enemies.  So you can’t be “distracted” by greeting people along the way or stopping to chat.  Entering a village hall to meet elders, for instance, may sound cordial — winning hearts and minds.  But sweeping in with guns at the ready shatters that friendly feeling. Speaking as someone who has visited Afghans in their homes for years, I have to say that this approach does not make a good impression.  It probably wouldn’t go over well in your hometown either.

Nor does it seem to work. Since the U.S. military adopted COIN to “protect the populace,” civilian casualties have gone up 23%; 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed last year (and that’s undoubtedly an undercount). No wonder the presence of American troops leaves so many Afghans feeling not safer, but more endangered, and it even inspires some to take up arms against the occupying army.  Ever more often, at least in the area where I was embedded, a non-lethal presence patrol turns into a lethal firefight.

One day, near the end of my embed, I watched a public affairs officer frame a photograph of a soldier who had been killed in a firefight and mount it on the wall by the commander’s office beside the black-framed photos of seven other soldiers. This American fighting force had been in place at the FOB for only a few weeks, having relieved another contingent, yet it had already lost eight men.  (Five Afghan soldiers had been killed as well, but their pictures were notably absent from the gallery of remembrance.)  The Army takes a photograph of every soldier at the beginning of his or her service, so it’s on file when needed; when, that is, a soldier is killed.

Most American bases and combat outposts are named for dead American soldiers.  When a soldier is killed — or “falls,” as the Army likes to put it — the Internet service and the phones on base go dead until an Army delegation has knocked on the door of surviving family members.  So even if you’re one of those soldiers who never leaves the base, you’re always reminded of what’s going on out there. And then usually toward evening, some unseen enemies on the peaks around the base begin to shoot down at it, and American gunners respond with shells that lift great clouds of rock and dust from the mountains into the darkening sky.

Doing Good to Afghans

On the base, I heard incessant talk about COIN, the “new” doctrine resurrected from the disaster of Vietnam in the irrational hope that it will work this time.  From my experience at the FOB, however, it’s clear enough that the hearts-and-minds part of COIN is already dead in the water, and one widespread practice in the military that’s gone unreported by other embedded journalists helps explain why.  So here’s a TomDispatch exclusive, courtesy of Afghan-American men serving as interpreters for the soldiers.  They were embarrassed to the point of agony when mentioning this habit, but desperate to put a stop to it.  COIN calls for the military to meet and make friends with village elders, drink tea, plan “development,” and captivate their hearts and minds.  Several interpreters told me, however, that every meeting includes some young American soldiers whose locker-room-style male bonding features bouts of hilarious farting.

To Afghan men, nothing is more shameful. A fart is proof that a man cannot control any of his apparatus below the belt.  The man who farts is thus not a man at all.  He cannot be taken seriously, nor can any of his ideas or promises or plans.

Blissfully unaware of such things, the Army goes on planning together with its civilian consultants (representatives of the State Department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and various independent contractors who make up what’s called a Human Terrain Team charged with interpreting local culture and helping to win the locals over to our side).  Some speak of “building infrastructure,” others of advancing “good governance” or planning “economic development.”  All talk of “doing good” and “helping” Afghanistan.

In a typical mess-up on the actual terrain of Afghanistan, Army experts previously in charge of this base had already had a million-dollar suspension bridge built over a river some distance away, but hadn’t thought to secure land rights, so no road leads to it.  Now the local American agriculture specialist wants to introduce alfalfa to these waterless, rocky mountains to feed herds of cattle principally pastured in his mind.

Yet even as I was filling my notebook with details of their delusionary schemes, the base commander told me he had already been forced to “put aside development.”  He had his hands full facing a Taliban onslaught he hadn’t expected.  Throughout Afghanistan, insurgent attacks have gone up 51% since the official adoption of COIN as the strategy du jour.  On this eastern front, where the commander had served six years earlier, he now faces a “surge” of intimidation, assassination, suicide attacks, roadside bombs, and fighters with greater technical capability than he has ever seen in Afghanistan.

A few days after we spoke, the Afghanistan command was handed to General Petraeus, the sainted refurbisher of the military’s counterinsurgency manual.  I wonder if the base commander has told Petraeus yet what he told me then: “What we’re fighting here now — it’s a conventional war.”

I’d been “on the front” of this war for less than two weeks, and I already needed a vacation.  Being outside the wire had filled me with sorrow as I watched earnest, heavily armed and armored boys try to win over white-bearded Afghans — men of extraordinary dignity — who have seen all this before and know the outcome.

Being on the base was tedious, often tense, and equally sorrowful at times when soldiers fell. Then the base commander, on foot, escorted the armored vehicles returning from a firefight on to the base the way a bygone cavalry officer might enter a frontier fort, leading a riderless horse.  The scene would look good in a Hollywood war movie: moving in that sentimental Technicolor way that seems to imbue with heroic significance unnecessary and pointless death.

One night I bedded down outdoors under a profusion of stars and an Islamic crescent moon.  Invisible in the dark, I couldn’t help overhearing a soldier who’d slipped out to make a cell phone call back home.  “I really need to talk to you today,” he said, and then stumbling in his search for words, he broke down.  “No,” he said at last, “I’m fine.  I’ll call you back later.”

The next day, carrying my helmet and my armor on my arm, I boarded a helicopter and flew away.

Ann Jones is the author of Kabul in Winter (Metropolitan, 2006).  Her newest book about women in conflict zones, War Is Not Over When It’s Over, will be published by Metropolitan in September.

Copyright 2010 Ann Jones


Tremendous News! Thanks for your continued support!

We have tremendous news to share with you!

We are thrilled to let you know that this week the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Danish International Development Agency are following your lead and contributing substantially to the first phase of Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War (BTKW).

In addition, your generous outpouring of support raised an incredible $17,000 dollars that our challenge donor has kindly agreed to match.

We are very grateful to you and our international funders.  With this support, Michael will return to Afghanistan in September to train Afghan filmmakers and begin production.

Since the inception of Community Supported Film last December, your support has allowed Michael to travel to Afghanistan; establish a partnership with The Killid Group – Afghanistan’s largest community media organization; travel to Washington to speak with government officials about effective aid in Afghanistan; and to meet the Afghan journalists, who will now become the heart and soul of this project.  Equally important, your support enabled us to spend the necessary time and energy presenting this project to institutional funders such as the Swiss and Danish development agencies in Afghanistan and the United States.

When Michael returns to the US in November we would like to share our work with you, your friends and colleagues.  Please let us know if you can organize a presentation in your community to raise awareness and additional funds for BTKW.  This could be a gathering of 10 people or 100 people, in a church basement, a classroom or in the living room – whatever works for you. At these events, we will share our understanding and experiences of economic development from the perspective of Afghan villagers.  And, we will be encouraging our government officials to pursue policies that prioritize sustainable security and development that is owned and implemented by the affected people – whether they be in Afghanistan today or Somalia tomorrow.

In the months ahead, we will be working hard to raise awareness about alternative approaches to creating peace and stability in this troubled region. In this endeavor, your continued generosity is a real blessing.

Please let us know if you have any questions, comments or suggestions. Sign up to receive project updates by adding your email address to the subscribe section in the right column of this web page.


Flash floods kill at least 65 in Afghanistan

Source: Agence France-Presse (AFP), Date: 31 Jul 2010

KABUL — Flash floods in Afghanistan have killed at least 65 people and affected more than 1,000 families, the national disaster authority chief told AFP Saturday.

Rescue teams in the northeast of the country are still struggling to reach areas cut off by flooded roads and the threat of insurgent attacks, said Abdul Matin Edrok, head of the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority.

“Initial information sent by our provincal offices shows that nearly 70 people have been killed and tens injured. We estimate more than 1,000 families have been affected but these figures may rise,” he said.

Most of those affected were in northeast Kapisa province, where 31 people died, he said. Others were killed in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Laghman, Kunar and Logar, central Ghazni province and northern Parwan.

Edrok said food and medical aid was being distributed using some Afghan and NATO coalition helicopters, and that the rains causing the floods had now ended.

In neighbouring Pakistan, at least 408 people have been killed and 600,000 people affected by the worst floods in living memory, as monsoon rains triggered flash floods and landslides.

Military operations are under way to help those living across the Afghan border in the impoverished remote mountain belt.

Copyright © 2010 AFP


Hearts and mind hard to reach in Afghan valley

Source: Reuters – AlertNet, Date: 30 Jul 2010

By Rob Taylor

SAIDON KALACHEH, Afghanistan, July 30 (Reuters) – Defeating insurgents in Afghanistan’s volatile Arghandab Valley would take time, but there were now enough U.S. and Afghan troops to defeat the Taliban, the area’s U.S. commander says.

A two-day push to widen security to “friendly” villages around a besieged U.S. combat post in Arghandab went awry this week, with American soldiers drawn into an insurgent fight and arguing with local people about their presence.

Soldiers shot and killed two suspected Taliban who had opened fire on them, although local people said the men were farmers. They accused U.S. troops of reacting to a backfiring tractor, underscoring how difficult the American mission to win support in the Taliban’s birthplace will be.

Colonel Arthur Kandarian, who commands the 2nd Brigade of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, said he was confident Afghan soldiers now joining U.S. troops would eventually convince local people that the Taliban no longer controlled the fertile farmlands of Afghanistan’s bread basket.

“I think we are going to be fine. Across the three districts that I’m in charge of, we’re just starting to see additional forces in some of these areas. Security of the population takes time,” Kandarian told Reuters.

The Arghandab river valley is an important infiltration route used by the Taliban to attack U.S. forces and smuggle weapons and men a few miles east to Kandahar city.

An operation across Kandahar by U.S and NATO soldiers is being planned, but insurgents in Arghandab are tying up Kandarian’s brigade with mines and hit-and-run attacks launched from thick cover in ripening grape and pomegranate plantations.


U.S. commanders are pursuing a complicated counter-insurgency or COIN strategy, in which “protecting the population” takes priority over military efforts to defeat insurgents, thereby winning local “hearts and minds”.

But many frontline soldiers and junior officers believe the strategy will not work in Afghanistan, at least not before the July 2011 date set for the start of an American withdrawal by President Barack Obama.

They point out that, unlike Iraqis, Afghans have never rallied behind a strong central government and have allegiances to their local tribal groups rather than provincial and district leaders friendly to the U.S. and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

“There are no friendly villages, there are no hearts and minds here,” a U.S. soldier muttered as a lieutenant stood outside a mud-walled mosque at dawn in Saidon Kalacheh village this week, trying to convince the village leader or “malik” to let his troops stay a night.

After a threat of a forceful occupation to run security patrols, locals eventually moved the platoon into a difficult-to-defend house compound and complained they would be killed by Taliban if seen lending any support.

Kandarian said Afghan troops would bridge the cultural and trust differences in one of the most violent areas around Combat Outpost Nolen and the wider valley, but had only been conducting patrols for around five to six days.

“I think the people are very resilient, and I think a lot of them that do own lands are probably farming in their lands and then they are temporarily moving to other locations until they figure out what the security is going to be like,” he said.

(Editing by David Fox) (; +93 705 998 317) (If you have a query or comment on this story, send an email to


Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?

Simon Norfolk/Institute, for The New York Times

The village of Rihab in Wadi Dawan, a valley that is the ancestral home of Bin Laden. More Photos »

By ROBERT F. WORTH, Published: July 6, 2010

Just before dawn on Dec. 24, an American cruise missile soared high over the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula, arced down toward the dark mountains above the Rafadh Valley in Yemen’s Shabwa province and found its mark, crashing into a small stone house on a hillside where five young men were sleeping. Half a mile away, a 27-year-old Yemeni tribesman named Ali Muhammad Ahmed was awakened by the sound. Stumbling out of bed, he quickly dressed, slung his AK-47 over his shoulder and climbed down a footpath to the valley that shelters his village, two hours from the nearest paved road. He already sensed what had happened. A week earlier, an American airstrike killed dozens of people in a neighboring province as part of an expanded campaign against Al Qaeda militants. (Although the U.S. military has acknowledged playing a role in the airstrikes, it has never publicly confirmed that it fired the missiles.)

Ahmed soon came upon the shattered house. Mangled bodies were strewn among the stones; he recognized a fellow tribesman. Scattered near the wreckage were bits of yellow debris with the words “US Navy” and long serial numbers written on them. A group of six or seven young men were standing in the dawn half-light, looking dazed. All were members of Al Qaeda. Among them was Fahd al-Quso, a longtime militant who is wanted by the F.B.I. for his suspected role in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. The missile had struck in one of the most remote and inaccessible valleys on earth, in a place where Al Qaeda has been trying to establish a foothold. Quso was the local cell leader and had been recruiting young men for years. Ahmed knew him well.

I met Ahmed several weeks later in Sana, the Yemeni capital, where he works part time as a bodyguard. By that time, Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch had claimed credit for a failed effort to detonate a bomb in a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day, igniting a global debate about whether Yemen was the next front in the war on terror. Yemen’s once-obscure vital statistics were flashing across TV screens everywhere: it is the Arab world’s poorest country, with a fast-growing and deeply conservative Muslim population of 23 million. It is running out of oil and may soon be the first country in the world to run out of water. The central government is weak and corrupt, hemmed in by rebellions and powerful tribes. Many fear that Al Qaeda is gaining a sanctuary in the remote provinces east of Sana, similar to the one it already has in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On the day I met him, Ahmed – a small, rail-thin man with a bony face – seemed still awed and a bit frightened by what happened in his valley. He was dressed in a tattered blazer and a futa, the patterned cloth skirt Yemeni men often wear. He sat on a sofa leaning forward with his hands on his thighs, glancing occasionally at me. We were in a small, sparely furnished office belonging to Ahmed’s employer and friend Abdulaziz al-Jifri, who had given him permission to speak. It was evening, and in the room next door men could be heard laughing and chatting as they drank tea and chewed khat, the narcotic leaf Yemenis use to relax.

“We took the bodies under the trees,” Ahmed continued in a quiet voice. “One was from my tribe. He had just joined Al Qaeda, and that was his first night sleeping with them.” He paused, and I caught a hint of defensiveness, perhaps also of anger, in his eyes. He seemed reluctant to stray from his narrative, but it was clear that he felt the bombing was an injustice. “We knew they were Qaeda, but they were young, and they hadn’t done anything, and they were locals,” he said. “They came and went at checkpoints, and the government didn’t seem to care. So we dealt with them normally.. . .

“Later I took the bodies to the graveyard,” he went on to say. “Then I talked with Fahd’s cousin about what we should do about him.”

Within an hour, Ahmed said, the discussions expanded, and Ali al-Asowad, the aging sheik of the Abdullah tribe, was summoned from his house. The sun was rising over the arid brown hills around Rafadh and soon almost 100 people were sitting under the spreading boughs of an acacia tree for an emergency tribal meeting.

Dozens of people spoke. Some were angry. Most people in the valley were related to the dead men or knew them. The victims had scarcely stood out in Rafadh, where everyone carried weapons and hatred of the Yemeni government was nothing unusual. What did it matter that they hated America and called themselves Qaeda? Some of the tribesmen also spoke in defense of Fahd al-Quso, who moved to the area in 2007. His grandfather had a house there, so he had a right to the tribe’s protection. But others stood up and shouted angrily that Quso had put the whole tribe in needless danger by basing himself in their village; more American bombs might be coming soon.

The people of Rafadh had decisions to make, ones that might soon ramify across all of Yemen’s remote mountains and deserts and even half a world away in the Pentagon. What did Al Qaeda mean to them? Was it worth protecting? A bargaining chip to be used against a neglectful government? Or just an invitation to needless violence?

SANA RESEMBLES A FORTRESS, not just in its architecture but in its geography. It is set on a high plateau, surrounded by arid, craggy mountains. At its heart is the Old City, a thicket of unearthly medieval towers and banded spires that stands out sharply in the dry desert air. This was the entire city until a few decades ago, its high walls locked every evening at dusk. Today Sana is a far more sprawling place, with Internet cafes and swarms of beat-up taxis and a sprinkling of adventure tourists. The Old City gates are mostly gone now, and although men still carry the traditional daggers known as jambiyasin their belts, they also wear blazers, often with cheap designer logos on their sleeves. Like other Arab capitals, it is full of policemen, and there are occasional checkpoints manned by bored-looking soldiers in camouflage uniforms.

But Yemen is different. Beneath the familiar Arab iconography, like pictures of the president that hang in every shop, there is a wildness about the place, a feeling that things might come apart at any moment. A narcotic haze descends on Yemen every afternoon, as men stuff their mouths with glossy khat leaves until their cheeks bulge and their eyes glaze over. Police officers sit down and ignore their posts, a green dribble running down their chins. Taxi drivers get lost and drive in circles, babbling into their cellphones. But if not for the opiate of khat, some say, all of Yemen – not just those areas of the south and north already smoldering with discontent – would explode into rebellion.

One morning in Sana, I discovered a crowd of people protesting in the stone courtyard outside the cabinet building. Many had shackle scars on their wrists and ankles. They came from an area called Jaashin, about 100 miles south of the capital. But some of them, I found, did not even know that Jaashin was in the Republic of Yemen. Their only real ruler was the local sheik, Muhammad Ahmed Mansour, who is, it turns out, a kind of latter-day Marquis de Sade. Mansour is also a poet, who earns extra license for his cruelties by writing florid odes to Yemen’s president. Some pilgrims from Jaashin said they were imprisoned, shackled and beaten by the sheik – who maintains his own army and several prisons – after refusing to relinquish their property to him. I asked Ahmed Abdu Abdullah al-Haithami, a bent old farmer in a tattered green jacket, what country he was living in. He looked up at me with imploring eyes. “All I know is that God rules above, and the sheik rules here below,” he said. All of this, I later learned, was documented by Yemeni lawyers, who have been working on behalf of the people of Jaashin for years to little effect. As one lawyer, Khaled al-Alansi, put it to me, “If you can’t fight sheik Mansour, how can you possibly fight Al Qaeda?”

Two thousand years ago, the area east of Sana held one of the earth’s most prosperous kingdoms, a lush agricultural region of spices and fruits, fed by irrigation canals from a vast man-made dam. The Romans called Yemen “Arabia Felix,” or Happy Arabia. Today, the eastern region is an arid wasteland. Most people scrape by on less than $2 a day, even though they live atop Yemen’s oil and gas fields. There are few ways to make a living other than smuggling, goat-herding and kidnapping. The region is also, chronically, a war zone. Tribal feuds have always been part of life here, but in recent years they have grown so common and so deadly that as much as a quarter of the population cannot go to school or work for fear of being killed. The feuds often devolve into battles with bands of raiders mowing down their rivals with machine-gun fire or launching mortars into a neighboring village. No one knows how many people die in these wars, but Khaled Fattah, a sociologist who has studied Yemen’s tribes for years, told me that hundreds of victims a year is a conservative estimate.

Every time I drive out of Sana I get an ominous sense of going backward in time to a more lawless era. As the city’s towers fade in the distance, the houses drop away into level desert and occasional piles of construction rubble. The traffic thins out and consists mostly of pickup trucks carrying tribesmen with patterned cloth kaffiyehs tied around their heads. You pass the first of several checkpoints, where skinny soldiers in ill-fitting uniforms warily circle the car, looking for weapons or kidnapping victims. You pass towering, desolate mountains of black and brown igneous rock. Once you’re out of Sana province, there are virtually no signs of the Yemeni state. Every able-bodied man seems to carry an AK-47 rifle over his shoulder; it’s not uncommon to see rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. Only the oil and gas fields, hidden behind wire fences and vigilantly watched over by the Yemeni military, seem to merit the government’s attention.

Last year I expected to see at least a few government soldiers when I visited the ancient city of Shibam in Hadramawt, the vast eastern province where Osama bin Laden’s father was born. A few months earlier, four South Korean tourists were blown up by a suicide bomber as they admired the view of Shibam from across the valley. I was a little nervous. “Don’t worry,” my guide said, patting my shoulder as we walked up to the ridge where the Koreans died. “Ever since the bombing they have put this place on high security.” But when we got to the top of the ridge there was not a single soldier or policeman to be seen. We gazed out over the valley in silence. A sign stood nearby, showing a pair of binoculars and the words in English “Discover Islam.” As we began to leave, my guide smiled broadly and gestured at the sign. “The Koreans – they discovered Islam,” he said, giggling at his joke.

Even in the capital, law and order often mean less than they do in other Arab countries. One afternoon I was having tea with Abdulaziz al-Jifri when a shot rang out nearby. I thought nothing of it; it might have been a firecracker or someone testing a gun. We were in the safest area of the city, a neighborhood called Hadda, where rich Yemenis and foreign diplomats have built an enclave in recent decades. But Jifri got up from the cushion where he was sitting to go see what happened. He came back 15 minutes later with a look of surprise on his face. A friend of the family, a wealthy tribal figure, had been shot dead a block away. The victim, Jifri explained, was walking up to the gate of his home when someone apparently shot him once in the head. There were no witnesses and no one even bothered to call the police, who are so corrupt and incompetent that most people view them as useless.

“There is no law in Yemen,” Jifri said, shaking his head. We went on drinking tea and talking politics.

By then, I had spent at least a dozen afternoons at Jifri’s house. He was a unique figure: educated in Britain and Saudi Arabia, he was designated by his father – a wealthy businessman with political connections – as a liaison to the tribes in Shabwa and Marib, two of the main areas where Al Qaeda is said to find sanctuary. He is tall and handsome, with large, mischievous brown eyes and a knack for setting a room on fire with laughter. His family are sayyids, or descendants of the prophet Muhammad, and that gave them a special status in the caste like social hierarchy that prevailed until Yemen’s republican revolution in 1962. Even now, the Jifris are trusted and respected like few other clans in rural Yemen.

Jifri became my link to rural Yemen. There was no way for me to travel to Shabwa or Marib undetected, I was told. So day after day I would sit on a cushion beside him in the family’s rectangular living room as various sheiks and relatives from those provinces arrived to sip tea, chew khat and talk until dark about what was happening among the tribes. It was there that I met Ali Muhammad Ahmed, along with others from the area around Rafadh, in Shabwa province, the valley where the cruise missile struck on Dec. 24. The Jifris themselves have a house in the Rafadh Valley.

Rafadh, several hundred miles southeast of the capital, is in some ways typical of the areas where Al Qaeda found refuge in Yemen. It is set among dry mountains populated by baboons, there are no paved roads and cars must travel laboriously along dirt tracks that wind among the hills. There is no public water supply or electricity and no functioning school. The valley was largely peaceful during the 1970s and ’80s, when the socialist government that ruled South Yemen – a separate country until it united with the north in 1990 – tried to eradicate tribalism. But since then Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has encouraged tribal practices, and the feuds have returned. Rafadh itself has been devastated by a tribal conflict that has raged for years, killing at least a dozen people and wounding many more in an area with only a few hundred inhabitants.

Ahmed played a central role in the feud. In 2006, Ahmed’s father and older brother were gunned down by men posing as customers at the father’s market stall. Afterward, he told me, he drove the bullet-riddled bodies to the nearest police station to ask for justice. The police captain in charge waved him off dismissively, he said, telling him, “You tribes are always causing trouble – deal with it yourself.”

He did. Ahmed gathered five cousins and together they hunted down and shot two men they believe were among the killers and three other men who were sheltering them. The feud briefly threatened to escalate into a broader war. The government promised to mediate but failed to do so, and the feud grew with further kidnappings and clumsy army suppression. Many local people felt the government was largely to blame.

It was then that Fahd al-Quso, the Al Qaeda figure, arrived in the valley. He had roots in the area but, perhaps more important, he was an outlaw to the Yemeni authorities, and that alone earned him a welcome in Rafadh. The United States wanted him in connection with the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, which killed 17 American sailors. The Yemeni police arrested his younger brother, a tactic aimed at pressuring Quso to turn himself in.

“Fahd was a victim in the eyes of the tribes,” Ahmed told me. “They accepted what he said. People distrust the government here, so those who have problems with it will get sympathy.”

Last summer, as Al Qaeda’s Arabian branch began setting off alarms in Washington, Quso became more active, Ahmed told me. “We saw lots of Al Qaeda guys coming and going from his house,” Ahmed said. They tended to keep to themselves, refusing to give rides to others from the village.

But the tribesmen of Rafadh continued to shelter Quso and his men and not just because of their shared hatred of the government. Quso had offered to supply teachers for the village school. Local families knew he was with Al Qaeda but welcomed the news for a simple reason: there were no teachers in the school at all. “The people were saying, ‘We would rather have our kids get an Al Qaeda education than be illiterate,’ ” Jifri told me. After hearing about Quso’s offer, Jifri went to officials in Sana and delivered a blunt message: “Right now you have one Al Qaeda guy in Rafadh, tomorrow you will have 700.”

Initially, Jifri said, the government refused to provide teachers, saying any town that was willing to accept help from Al Qaeda was beneath contempt. Finally, they relented.

“The government agreed to send 6 teachers,” Jifri told me. “Fahd brought 16.”

WHEN PEOPLE TALK about the government in Yemen, they really mean one man: Ali Abdullah Saleh. Despite the country’s many political parties – Islamist, Socialist, Arab nationalist – the country is run almost entirely by Saleh, and he runs it exactly like a sheik: using his own tribe as a power base and constantly making deals to head off his rivals. Saleh came to power in 1978; pictures of him at the time show a skinny young man in a military cap that looks too big for him, his eyes covered by aviator sunglasses.

At the time, most of Yemen was still just emerging from isolation. In 1962 a group of military officers, inspired and aided by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, overthrew the xenophobic religious dynasty that, from its northern base, ruled much of Yemen for centuries. Some of the young officers hoped to modernize Yemen and make it more like other Arab countries. In the mid-1970s one Yemeni president, Ibrahim al-Hamdi, tried to tame the powerful tribal sheiks, extend the state’s power throughout the country and unify with South Yemen, which emerged from British occupation in 1967. Yemeni intellectuals still talk about Hamdi with nostalgia. But the sheiks and their Saudi backers were not pleased. In October 1977, Hamdi was found riddled with bullets in his Sana home. The killers had thrown the bodies of murdered French prostitutes beside him to blacken his legacy.

Saleh was not a man to make such mistakes. He fought in a tribal army as a teenager and then made his way up through the ranks of the military, impressing superiors with his ruthlessness and charm. He became a tank commander – a crucial skill at a time when tanks were a new and essential weapon. When Hamdi’s successor, Ahmad al-Ghashmi, was blown up by a bomb hidden in a briefcase, Saleh was a compromise replacement. No one expected him to last long.

Three decades later, Saleh retains a stiff, military bearing, with a strong jaw and glinting eyes. In person he conveys an impression of fierce pride and gruffness and the natural defensiveness of a man from a small tribe who fought his way up with no more than an elementary-school education. When I interviewed him in 2008, he seemed impatient and almost angry. His eyes darted around the room as he fired off commands to his aides in a guttural voice. He bridled at questions about the American role in Yemen. “Arrogant,” he said, staring at me, then adding disdainfully in English, “Cowboys.”

SOME SAY SALEH has lasted so long because, unlike his predecessors, he knew not to take on the tribes directly. “Saleh survived by mastering the tribal game as no one else had,” Khaled Fattah, the tribal expert, said. He did so in two ways. First, he coddled the big tribal sheiks, bringing them into the capital and building them large homes. He created a patronage network that grew substantially after Yemen began pumping oil in the 1980s, paying large sums to sheiks, military leaders, political figures and anyone who might pose a threat to his power. Much of Yemen’s budget now goes into corruption and kickbacks – worth billions of dollars – that fuel this network, according to diplomats, analysts and oil-industry figures in Sana.

Second, Saleh adopted what some Yemenis call “the policy of management through conflicts.” If a tribe was causing trouble, he would begin building up its rivals as a counterweight. If a political party became threatening, he would do the same thing, sometimes even creating a cloned version of the same party with people on the government payroll. “The government plays divide and rule with us,” Arfaj bin Hadban, a tribal sheik from Jawf province, north of Sana, said. “If one tribe will not do what he wants, he gets the neighbors to pressure it. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s weapons, sometimes it’s employment for the tribesmen.”

But in a sense, the key to Saleh’s long rule – and to much of Yemen’s modern history – lies just to the north in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom squats atop Yemen on the map like a domineering older brother with a rebellious sibling. Starting in 1962, the Saudi royal family viewed Yemenis’ democratic aspirations with alarm and began paying hefty stipends to tribal sheiks throughout the country to reinforce its influence. Later, the Saudis began spreading their hard-line strand of Islam throughout the country, with help from some like-minded Yemenis. Hundreds of religious schools sprang up teaching Salafism, the puritanical sect that denounces all other sects as heresy. (The Saudi variant is usually called Wahhabism.) This was bound to be divisive in Yemen, where a third or more of the population were Zaydis, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

As the influence of the Salafists grew, Saleh formed close ties to jihadists and radical clerics like Abdul Majid al-Zindani, who is listed by the U.S. Treasury Department as a “specially designated global terrorist.” Saleh had a political motive: Salafists are mostly quiescent and preach obedience to the ruler (even if they call for violent jihad in other lands). That was an appealing trait in Yemen’s complex social mosaic, where rivalries based on class, region, religious sect and lineage are endemic. But Saleh also knew that he needed the Saudis, who are widely believed to have arranged his accession in the first place.

When I met him, Saleh seemed enraged that anyone should dare to criticize his methods. “We have unified the country and brought stability,” he told me. That is true. Saleh orchestrated the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, and he has remained in power for 32 years. But even as he spoke, in June 2008, those achievements seemed to be unraveling. Zaydi rebels from the north – angered by Saleh’s support for the Salafists – were gaining ground. In the south, a groundswell of economic discontent was rising and later became an open secessionist movement. The fact that Saleh is now trying to arrange for his son Ahmed Saleh to succeed him as president has alienated many tribal leaders and other allies, narrowing Saleh’s power base. In the past year, as Al Qaeda began to mount more frequent attacks, he turned to some old friends for help, only to see them abandon him.

One night in January 2009, Tareq al-Fadhli, a 42-year-old aristocrat from south Yemen, received a phone call from Saleh. Fadhli wasn’t surprised: the Yemeni president is famously impulsive and has a habit of calling people late at night with urgent ideas or demands that are sometimes forgotten by daylight. But this one was unusual. Saleh wanted to convene all the old jihadis who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Fadhli told me.

“He wanted us to make a dialogue with the new generation of Al Qaeda,” Fadhli said. “He said he wanted to arrange to send them abroad to Saudi Arabia and Somalia, and in return he would release the ones who were in prison.” The released prisoners would stay in Yemen.

It was a bold idea, to put it mildly. Saudi Arabia is Yemen’s most important ally and had waged bloody battles to rid itself of homegrown jihadi fighters. But Al Qaeda, once a manageable problem, seemed to be running out of control in Yemen, and America was putting on the pressure. Saleh was desperate to find a way to rid himself of the militants, preferably without calling in American airstrikes or doing anything else that would alienate the radical clerics on whose political support he counted.

Fadhli, who has mournful eyes and a distinguished face, was a natural intermediary and an old ally. As a young man, he fought for three years in Afghanistan, leaving only after he was wounded at Jalalabad. He had formed a close friendship with Osama bin Laden, whom he still remembers fondly. Later, when the socialists of southern Yemen rebelled in 1994, Fadhli formed a brigade of jihadists at the central government’s request and helped put down the rebels. His friend bin Laden helped out, providing millions of dollars’ worth of arms and hundreds of fighters who were hungry for another chance to kill godless socialists.

After that, the former jihadis split. Fadhli, like many others, went back to civilian life, becoming a landowner in the south and an adviser to Saleh. He said goodbye to bin Laden in Sudan in 1994 and has not seen him since. But some veterans continued to preach jihad and to train in Afghanistan with Al Qaeda, which began to call for the overthrow of secular Arab regimes.

The first real sign that the jihadis were a source of trouble at home came in 2000 with the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in the Yemeni port town of Aden on the southern coast. Seventeen American sailors were killed. A year later, after the Sept. 11 attacks, Saleh recognized that a major shift had taken place. Fearing that the United States might invade Yemen, he flew to Washington and pledged his support. At home, his security forces rounded up hundreds of former jihadists and jailed them en masse without charge. In November 2002, the C.I.A. used a Predator drone to kill Abu Ali al-Harithi, then the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen, as he was driving in the desert east of Sana.

Saleh knew his collaboration with the United States could make the jihadis turn on him. He was furious after American officials leaked word of their role in the Harithi assassination. Later, Saleh repeatedly denied the Americans permission to kill Al Qaeda leaders during Yemen’s 2006 presidential election because he feared the strikes might harm his electoral prospects, according to one high-ranking Yemeni official. Saleh had struggled for years to find a compromise between the radicals and the Americans. He created an Islamic “dialogue” program to bring jihadists under the umbrella of the state, then abandoned it after several of its graduates returned to terrorism. Popular sympathy for the jihadist cause was still high, and in February 2006 Saleh suffered a deep embarrassment when 23 prisoners, many of them in Al Qaeda, escaped from a maximum-security prison in Sana. The authorities offered a preposterous explanation: the men tunneled out of their cell with spoons and table legs and emerged in the bathroom of a neighboring mosque. The truth, the high-ranking official told me, was that officers in the Political Security Organization arranged the escape. “You have to remember, these officers used to escort people from Sana to Pakistan during the Afghan jihad,” he said. “People made relationships, and that doesn’t change so easily.”

By 2007, it was clear that a new and more dangerous generation of Al Qaeda militants was emerging. Unlike their predecessors, these men aimed openly to overthrow the Yemeni state and refused all dialogue with it. Many later claimed that they suffered torture in Yemeni prisons during long terms – usually without formal charges. Some of them had gone to Iraq and returned with valuable battlefield skills. The attacks grew bloodier and more frequent: a suicide bombing in July 2007 killed eight Spanish tourists; there were attacks on oil pipelines. In September 2008, suicide bombers in two cars struck the U.S. Embassy in Sana in a meticulously planned operation that left 10 Yemenis and all 6 attackers dead.

Saleh tried to win the militants over through intermediaries. Nasser al-Bahri, a 35-year-old former driver for bin Laden, told me that he tried reaching out to the new militants. They refused, and he soon discovered he was on a “death list” of accused traitors. Several other former jihadists told me the same thing. “I try to talk to these people,” said Ali Muhammad al-Kurdi, another militant Islamist who fought in Afghanistan. “They tell me, ‘You are an agent.’ ” Some of the older jihadists advised Saleh to immunize the state from attacks by Islamizing it. He briefly deployed a morality-police brigade, modeled on the notorious cane-wielding mutawa in Saudi Arabia. The attacks continued.

Finally, in January of last year, Tareq al-Fadhli received his late-night phone call from the president. Saleh said he would release 130 Al Qaeda sympathizers right away as a good-will gesture and asked Fadhli to arrange the rest.

Fadhli told me that he formed a committee of former jihadis and began traveling through the areas where Al Qaeda has found sanctuary – Marib, Shabwa, Jawf and Abyan provinces. “The tribal sheiks cooperated with us everywhere,” Fadhli told me. “Whenever we found Qaeda members, we told them: ‘The government wants you to turn yourself in, but it’s O.K. We will guarantee your safety.’ “

In the end, 20 people on the government’s 60-most-wanted list agreed to stop fighting, Fadhli said. But the mediators never made any progress with Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch, or his top deputies.

A few months after the failed negotiation, in April 2009, Fadhli defected from the government, joining the southern secessionist movement. He told me that he was tired of hearing Saleh offer tempting deals to Al Qaeda while refusing to even talk to the leaders in the south, whose movement – rooted in claims of economic discrimination – is populist, secular and nonviolent.

Meanwhile, the United States grew increasingly concerned about Al Qaeda’s growth in Yemen and about Saleh’s tendency to see it as a family problem, solvable through dialogue. Veteran jihadists were said to be coming to Yemen from Afghanistan and Somalia. Last summer, Gen. David H. Petraeus, then the overall commander of American military forces in the Middle East, visited Sana, and the number of American military trainers working with Yemen’s counterterrorism forces quietly grew. In the fall, a select group of American officials met with Saleh and showed him irrefutable evidence that Al Qaeda was aiming at him and his relatives, who dominate Yemen’s military and intelligence services. That seems to have abruptly changed Saleh’s attitude, American diplomats told me. The Yemenis began to mount more aggressive ground raids on Al Qaeda targets, in coordination with the airstrikes that began in December.

But the strikes and raids were a short-term tactic. The real problem was that Yemen, with its mind-boggling corruption, its multiple insurgencies, its disappearing oil and water and its deepening poverty, is sure to descend further into chaos if something does not change. Everyone has acknowledged this, including President Obama and a growing chorus of terrorism analysts. So far, the calls for action have yielded nothing. I spoke to a number of American officials in Washington and to a variety of diplomats at the embassy in Sana. They all told me the same thing: no one has a real strategy for Yemen, in part because there are so few people who have any real expertise about the country. No American diplomats travel to the provinces where Al Qaeda has found sanctuary. Even the Yemeni government has great difficulty reaching these places; often they have no idea whether airstrikes or bombing runs have hit their targets, because they dare not show up to check until days afterward.

Officially, American policy in Yemen is twofold: using airstrikes and raids to help the Yemeni military knock out Al Qaeda cells, while increasing development and humanitarian aid to address the root causes of radicalism. In late June, the White House announced it was more than tripling its humanitarian assistance, to $42.5 million. But the numbers are still small given Yemen’s need. And diplomats concede that they have not figured out how to address the central issues of poor governance, corruption and the economy. “There is a huge amount of diplomacy that needs to be done and is not being done,” Edmund J. Hull, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2001 to 2004, said when I met him in Washington. “It makes me uneasy to hear that we’re not getting out to those remote areas. One way or another, we have ceded the initiative to Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda is calling the shots.”

AL QAEDA HAS a clear Yemen strategy. On Jan. 23, 2009, the group released a high-quality video clip on the Internet showing four men sitting on a floor, with a clean white curtain and a flag behind them. One of them was Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the group’s leader, wearing a white turban, and one was Qassim al-Raymi, its military commander, clad in fatigues and a red-and-white kaffiyeh. Sitting alongside them were two new Qaeda commanders, both former detainees from the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay.

The video was a setback for President Obama, who had been inaugurated days earlier and had made a high-profile pledge to close Guantánamo – where nearly half the remaining inmates were Yemenis – within a year. But the real news was Al Qaeda’s announcement that same month that it was merging its Saudi and Yemeni branches into a single unit: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The new group incorporated a number of fighters from Saudi Arabia, where the government had cracked down fiercely on terrorist networks. It proclaimed a broad ambition: to serve as a base for attacks throughout the region and to replace the infidel governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia with a single theocratic state.

At the heart of this new effort was an unlikely leader. Wuhayshi is a tiny man, less than five feet tall. In videotapes he sits motionless, his pinched face blank, his small eyes expressionless. Raymi, the group’s burly military commander, speaks passionately, his hands knifing through the air, his eyes full of righteous anger. By contrast, Wuhayshi seems almost catatonic.

Yet Al Qaeda men treat him with deep veneration. “When they see him, they kiss him on the forehead, like a great sheik,” said Abdulelah Hider Shaea, a Yemeni journalist who interviewed Wuhayshi and other Al Qaeda leaders before the video’s release. “They all love and respect him.” Shaea, who was blindfolded and driven out to a remote area for his interview, said Wuhayshi was laconic but quick-witted, with flashes of sarcastic humor and a remarkable ability to adduce Koranic verses to back up anything he said. Wuhayshi’s authority seems to derive mostly from his long proximity to bin Laden, whom he served for six years as a private secretary in Afghanistan. “During bombing raids, everyone else would scatter, but he would stay by bin Laden’s side,” Shaea said, echoing a story other Al Qaeda members told him about their leader. The founders seem to have been impressed: bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a statement in November 2008 formally recognizing Wuhayshi as the emir, or prince, of Al Qaeda in the region.

Shaea and others who have studied him say Wuhayshi appears to be modeling himself on bin Laden, who has always been more cerebral guide than day-to-day commander. Wuhayshi left Afghanistan in late 2001 and was arrested by Iranian authorities; they handed him over two years later to Yemen, which jailed him without charge. Little is known about his early life in Abyan province in southern Yemen. Personality aside, he seems to have much in common with Raymi, his fiery military commander. Both men come from ordinary families, studied at religious schools and fought in Afghanistan, according to Shaea and other Yemeni journalists. Both served time afterward in Yemeni prisons. And both were among the 23 militants who escaped from the central Sana prison in February 2006.

The two men have also followed bin Laden’s example in building an ever-more-sophisticated propaganda arm for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, including frequent video and audio tapes and an Internet magazine, Sada al-Malahim (The Echo of Battles), that appears every two months or so. The magazine makes for bizarre reading, by turns chilling and poignant. The first page of one recent issue showed a colorful 1950s-style stock image of a hand that was mixing fluid in a chemical beaker, alongside a hand grenade and the headline “Year of the Assassination.” The authors are clearly familiar with the style of Western magazine journalism, and many articles are framed as regular features like View From the Inside and The Leader’s Editorial. There are didactic items, with headlines like “Shariah Is the Solution” and “Practical Steps Toward the Liberation of Palestine.” But some of the articles are almost whimsical (“A Mujahid’s Thoughts”), and there are sharp satires (“The Saudi Media on Mars”). Much of the content has an earnest, proselytizing tone, a bit like the ads that Western corporations publish to trumpet their civic responsibility. One recent article, for example, was titled “Inside View: Why We’re Fighting in the Arabian Peninsula.”

Since it first appeared in early 2008, the magazine has grown steadily more polished, and the quality of its Koranic scholarship has improved, said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University who has spent years tracking Al Qaeda in the region. Its content has mirrored the influx of Saudi militants into the group, including Said Ali al-Shihri, a former Guantánamo detainee who is now the deputy emir of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Perhaps the magazine’s most frequent target for abuse is Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who directs Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism efforts and has become heavily involved with Yemen’s struggle with Al Qaeda. In August, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula came close to assassinating bin Nayef when a Saudi suicide bomber posing as a repentant member of the group was allowed into the prince’s Jedda home and detonated a bomb. Bin Nayef was only lightly injured. Afterward, Sada al-Malahim published a lengthy defense of the tactic under the headline “War Is Deception,” citing Koranic verses that approve of deceit as a tool in times of war.

The target audience for all this rhetoric is a bit of a mystery: Internet access is rare in Yemen, especially in the areas where Al Qaeda operates. There is evidence that the group may be aiming to win over members of the military or even the political elite (not an implausible goal, given the depth of sympathy for jihadism in Yemen). As for the broader public, one hint came in a video the group released last summer. The 18-minute video, “The Battle of Marib,” about a successful battle with the Yemeni military, pointedly emphasized the accuracy of Al Qaeda’s casualty count. The narrator, Qassim al-Raymi, mocks the government for failing to acknowledge that seven soldiers were captured. The video then cuts to a government press conference, in which a spokesman stumbles badly in response to questions from journalists and refuses – just as Raymi said- to acknowledge the soldiers’ capture. The video then returns to Raymi, who, facing the camera almost gloatingly, delivers his message: “I call upon all Muslims to take their information from clear and correct sources, like the jihadi Web sites on the Internet.”

It is far from clear how Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in remote and desperately under developed areas, turns out such a slick product. Shaea, the Yemeni journalist who interviewed Al Qaeda’s top leaders, told me he also met four members of the group’s media arm in a room that was set up like a studio, with computers and other equipment. “You could tell they were rich and well educated,” he said. “Some did not look like Arabs. They did not speak, so I wondered if they even spoke Arabic.”

If Wuhayshi and Raymi want to recreate the original Al Qaeda in Yemen, they also seem to have learned from its mistakes. Starting in 2009, the group used its Internet magazine and intermittent videos to make increasingly passionate appeals to the people of Yemen – and especially to its tribes. The magazine echoed populist discontent about government corruption, unemployment and unfair distribution of revenue from Yemen’s oil, much of which comes from the very areas where Al Qaeda is active. The articles often show a deep understanding of local concerns; one issue in 2008 included an anguished complaint about the government’s mishandled response to a flood in the eastern province of Hadramawt.

Al Qaeda’s Afghanistan-based leadership reinforced the tribal message in early 2009, when Zawahiri issued an audiotape addressed to “the noble and defiant tribes of Yemen,” urging them to rise up against Saleh’s government. “Don’t be less than your brothers in the defiant Pashtun and Baluch tribes,” he said. “Don’t be helpers of Ali Abdullah Saleh. . . . Support your brothers the mujahedeen.” At the same time, the group strove to marry members to tribal women and mediate tribal disputes.

The reason for all this was simple: a global reaction was developing against militants acting in the name of Al Qaeda, largely because of their extreme and often indiscriminate violence. In Iraq, the local Al Qaeda branch alienated tribes that provided crucial support for them in Anbar province, paving the way for the American-backed “awakening movement” that threw them out. Wuhayshi and his men clearly wanted to prevent that from happening in Yemen.

So far the most masterful piece of propaganda by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is still the “Battle of Marib” video. In it, Raymi tells the story of the Yemeni military’s effort to destroy an Al Qaeda cell and capture Aidh al-Shabwani, a young militant with a lame leg whom one government official described to me as “a sort of local Robin Hood figure.” The raid was a humiliating failure. The army lost several tanks and armored vehicles to the guerrillas, who knew the local orange groves and deserts well. The Al Qaeda men took possession of a weapons convoy and captured seven soldiers, who were later released.

The video’s most striking feature is its anxious plea to tribesmen to resist payments and pressure from the Yemeni government and its Saudi and American backers. It starts off with an acknowledgment that the raid took place because of a “betrayal” by local tribal leaders. Then Raymi intones: “How shameful it is that some sheiks allow themselves to become soldiers and slaves of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is himself but a slave to Saudi riyals and American dollars. I say to these sheiks: be careful that you don’t become a piece of chewing gum that a person enjoys for a short time and then throws away.” After Raymi and another narrator describe the Al Qaeda victory, the second narrator offers a more refined formulation, noting that the seven soldiers’ lives were spared: “If you don’t support the mujahedeen, then at least don’t stand against them.” Since then, the group has released a stream of statements and videos outlining its basic objectives: to recruit more followers, overthrow Saleh and use Yemen as a base to attack the Saudi monarchy and build an Islamic caliphate.

AFTER THE DAWN cruise-missile strike on Rafadh, the open-air tribal meeting reached a conclusion. The elders decided that Quso and his Al Qaeda gang had become a threat to the tribes. Two deadly missiles had struck in less than a week; more might be coming. Tribal hospitality was one thing, and it was a shame that the five young men were killed. But the presence of Quso and his recruits was endangering everyone. They had to go. The elders deputized Ahmed and a fellow tribesman to evict them.

Ahmed told me he sat in his pickup truck with Quso and spoke to him firmly: “Are you satisfied? All of the people here have been living in the mountains, in the trees, for a week. Now we want you out, and don’t come back unless you’re alone.” The Al Qaeda man said nothing. He seemed subdued and appeared to understand that he could not challenge the tribe’s decision.

Ahmed drove Quso out of the valley on a bumpy dirt track. As they drove, Quso contacted other Al Qaeda members in the area, and they picked them up one by one. Before long there were 11 men piled into the truck. Ahmed said he left them on the nearest main road and returned to his valley. A few days later, Quso came back. This time he was alone. As of mid-February, he still was living alone in his grandfather’s house, according to Jifri, who visited him there.

Not everyone has reacted to the airstrikes this way. In the neighboring province of Abyan, an airstrike killed dozens of people, most of them women and children, according to local witnesses. The civilian death toll created a groundswell of anger at the Yemeni government and the United States that was a boon to Al Qaeda recruiters, several local people told me. Ali al-Shal, an opposition member of the Yemeni Parliament who is from a village close to where the Abyan airstrikes took place, told me it was too dangerous for him to visit afterward. Ultimately he was able to visit, but only once and only by drawing on his family connections with local tribal figures. “There was not much sympathy for Al Qaeda before, but the strike has created a lot of sympathy,” he said.

IN RECENT WEEKS, Al Qaeda has sounded more confident than ever, issuing threats and calls to arms, along with publishing its Internet magazine and introducing an English-language online magazine called Inspire. In May, a botched air raid led to the death of a tribal leader in Marib who was negotiating on the government’s behalf with a local Al Qaeda leader, infuriating the local tribes and further eroding President Saleh’s credibility. On June 19, four heavily armed men stormed the fortified headquarters of the Political Security Organization in the southern port city of Aden, freeing prisoners suspected of being Al Qaeda members and escaping unharmed.

Before leaving Yemen, I traveled to Aden. Near the dilapidated oil refinery built by the British, I found the Quso family home, in a row of simple stone and concrete bungalows. Fahd’s father, Muhammad al-Quso, was just walking up to the door as I arrived. He was an old man with a deeply lined face, dressed in a red-and-white futa and headdress. He walked with a cane. Inside the house he sat down heavily in an armchair and told the story of his son’s life. It was a biography that matched many others in Yemen.

Fahd was born in 1975, his father said, and grew up alongside four brothers and six sisters. He was a happy child and a good student at the local elementary school, called al-Saafir. But his parents wanted him to have some religion, so when he was 14 they sent him – along with some of his friends from the neighborhood – to a school up north called Dar al-Hadith. The school is famous as one of the first Wahhabi institutions in Yemen; John Walker Lindh was reportedly among the future jihadists who studied there. After he came home, he studied welding at the local technical school. But he decided not to work at the refinery, as his father had. When I asked about the accusations that his son took part in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, he winced and said he didn’t believe it. He complained that the authorities had jailed him, and then later, after freeing him, jailed his brother-in-law for no reason. Finally, I asked Muhammad whether his son was a member of Al Qaeda, as the authorities claimed.

“No,” he said, “I don’t believe this.” He was silent for a long time, staring at the closed door of the house, which was illuminated at its edges by a bright rectangle of afternoon sunlight. Then he spoke again.

“He is a mujahid,” he said, or holy warrior. “He is fighting those who occupy Arab lands. He is fighting unbelievers.”


Afghanistan’s Nation Building
Editorial, Tuesday, July 20, 2010

VICE PRESIDENT Biden insisted again on Sunday that “we’re not engaged in nation-building” in Afghanistan. How, then, to explain the gathering in Kabul of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and 40 other foreign ministers for the Kabul Conference on Tuesday — the goal of which is to adopt detailed plans for the Afghan government to expand its authority, fight corruption and take over social and economic programs from foreign agencies? In fact the government of Hamid Karzai is undertaking a major new effort to gain control over the country, as well as the fight against the Taliban. Its success or failure will do much to determine the outcome of the Obama administration’s strategy — whatever that might be called.

The author of this not-nation-building plan is not Mr. Karzai, who has shown little inclination for such projects, but Ashraf Ghani, his former finance minister and opponent in last year’s presidential election. Mr. Ghani, a highly capable former World Bank official, has been working with the government to produce proposals and timetables for such essential tasks as strengthening the judiciary and increasing the effectiveness of government ministries. He hopes donor governments will respond by agreeing to channel 50 percent of aid through the Kabul bureaucracy within two years — compared with about 20 percent now. It’s a goal worth supporting: Mr. Ghani has already demonstrated, through initiatives like the National Solidarity Program, that Afghan-managed development can succeed.

Mr. Karzai, for his part, is expected to outline a timeframe for Afghanistan’s police and army to take responsibility for security by the end of 2014, allowing foreign combat forces to withdraw. That timetable looks too ambitious to many Afghans and Western military experts. But it does provide a glimpse of the reality behind the Obama administration’s pledge to begin withdrawing troops 12 months from now — a commitment that has done much to undermine the counterinsurgency campaign the president approved.

To his credit, in his interview with ABC News, Mr. Biden modified his previous declaration that “you are going to see a whole lot” of U.S. forces leaving in 2011, saying “it could be as few as a couple thousand troops” from among the 100,000 soon to be deployed. He also said “there is no daylight” between his position and that of the administration’s new Afghanistan commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus; we hope that means that the persistent civil-military bickering that preceded the abrupt departure of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has ceased. Gen. Petraeus stressed in testimony to Congress last month that any withdrawal would have to be “conditions-based” — or linked to the ability of the Afghan government and army to take over. In other words, not-nation-building better work.


Why some Afghanistan opium farmers turn from poppies to saffron

A farmer works in a poppy field in Marjah, Afghanistan, March 19. Afghanistan opium farmers are looking to make the switch from poppies to saffron. Dusan Vranic/AP

Christian Science Monitor
By Tom A. Peter, Correspondent / June 10, 2010

Herat, Afghanistan – Eight years after getting out of the poppy business, Hajji Ibrahim says he doesn’t miss it. The farmer here in western Afghanistan used to employ 10 guards to protect his land from roving addicts and warlords. Harvesting the poppies was so strenuous that, though women often help with such work, he says those in his family could not help. Still, it was difficult to find a crop that produced returns like poppies.After the fall of the Taliban forced him to find other options, however, he planted a small, 300- square-meter (3/4 of acre) patch of saffron. It was easy to cultivate, so women could tend to it, and it was 20 percent more profitable than poppies.

“As I balanced all the pros and cons of growing saffron or poppies, there were many benefits for saffron – mostly, it is not against Islamic law,” says Mr. Ibrahim, who now devotes a sizable 30,000 square meters (7.4 acres) of his land to saffron.

With at least 80 percent of Afghanistan’s workforce involved in agriculture, policymakers have long focused on rehabilitating the farming sector to provide profitable options other than poppies, which fuel the country’s opium trade. The United States has touted wheat as an alternative crop, but with a market price three times lower than opium, few farmers care to make the switch.

Saffron sells high on the international market and can be grown on otherwise unused fields. But it is nowhere near the perfect substitute for opium – farmers have struggled to effectively process and market saffron well enough to be competitive in the international market.

As a result, Ibrahim says that before more of his neighbors devote their fields to saffron, they will have to see that it is a reliable source of income. That will not happen without better processing facilities.

$2,000 per kilogram

In Herat, where a dry climate makes it one of the best saffron-growing regions in Afghanistan, currently 300 hectares of farmland are devoted to the purple flower – a number that should grow by about 100 hectares per year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Though that’s less than one percent of the region’s active agricultural land, US officials say saffron is one of the three most important crops in the province, the others being wheat and grapes.

The plant is the most expensive spice in the world by weight and can sell for $2,000 to $3,000 per kilogram, whereas most of the food grown in the region is consumed by farmers or sold at local markets for a modest profit.

Saffron has the potential to generate $100 million of income a year for Herat alone if the region can devote 5,000 to 7,000 hectares of farmland to the flower, says M. Hashim Astami, an independent saffron and natural resource expert in Herat.

Saffron also grows on land that is traditionally too dry for other crops, so it would not replace anything currently being cultivated in the region or reduce food production. On top of that, the growing season is in October and November when other plants do not need water, so canals are full and there is ample water to irrigate the saffron fields.

This year, the US will contribute by supplying farmers with 50 tons of saffron seeds to increase the reach of the crop.

Searching for buyers

Still, Mr. Astami worries that farmers are producing saffron faster than companies can be established to process and market it.

“Saffron production, processing, and marketing should grow together,” he says. “But production has increased very fast, processing has increased very slow, and marketing is very weak.”

In the 1990s in Peru, US efforts to encourage farmers to stop producing coca leaves (for the illegal cocaine market) and replace them with cocoa beans (for chocolate) initially failed because coca farmers were taught only how to grow alternative crops, but did little connect them with the niche markets that brought the best prices. That crop replacement program in Peru has since become successful.

Without proper processing, saffron loses its distinctive coloring and taste. Harmful bacteria can also take root in the plant. Consequently, a poorly rendered batch of the crop sells at about 40 percent below market rates – if at all.

Few people inside Afghanistan use saffron, so if farmers cannot produce a product that is viable in the international marketplace, they may not be able to sell it at all. Last year, a number of farmers experienced this problem, which dealt a blow to the appeal of growing saffron, says Sayed Wahidullah Aqil, the provincial management adviser for the US Department of Agriculture in Herat.

“Farmers in Afghanistan get their information from their neighbors. If there is a farmer who is cultivating saffron and this year he cannot sell his product, his neighbors will see this and this may decrease their interest in saffron,” he says.

Aside from increasing the quality of saffron, companies must also work to make Afghan saffron more attractive on the international market, which is dominated by Iran.

This has been a focus for people like Basher Ahmad Rashidi, something of a saffron evangelist and project manger at Afghan Saffron, which was established in 2006 and claims to be Afghanistan’s first specialized saffron company.

By training its farmers how to properly process saffron, the company has managed to produce a high-quality product and build a client base in Spain, France, the United Arab Emirates, India, USA, and it is just starting to make headway in the Japanese market.

If farmers and companies can effectively partner, Mr. Rashidi says that saffron has the potential to become a powerful tool for his country’s development.

“It is all linked together,” he says. “When the farmer has good opportunity to generate income then all of Afghanistan has a good chance to grow.”


It Takes an MBA to Raise a Village?

World Beat

by JOHN FEFFER | Tuesday, June 15, 2010

World Beat, FPIF’s weekly ezine

According to the business plan of the 10,000 Women project, an investment of $100 million over five years will create 10,000 female entrepreneurs in the developing world. The money goes to business education – MBAs – for women in the global south who, in turn, are expected to create businesses that employ people and grow the economy.

Forget about “it takes a village to raise a child.” The 10,000 Women approach turns the African proverb on its head. According to this entrepreneurial model, it takes a child (who grows up and gets an MBA) to raise a village.

The notion that a small group of talented people will raise up their community is an old one. The African-American intellectual W.E.B. DuBois, for instance, coined the expression “talented tenth” in a 1903 essay in his volume The Negro Problem. “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men,” DuBois wrote. “The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.”

Here, in raw form, is an appeal to the elite to turn its talents toward bettering the masses. The entrepreneurial model, while comparably elitist, eschews such moralism. In the cloud-cuckoo-land of the market fundamentalist, the MBA-wielding businesswomen pursue their own self-interest and, through the magic of the market, manage to do good by doing well.This “talented tenth” approach can be found in microfinance as well. Outfits like the Grameen Bank and Kiva provide small loans to women who raise goats, families that run very small businesses, small farmers who need fertilizer. These fledgling entrepreneurs don’t attract the interest of established banks, much less international financial institutions. They borrow small sums of money, grow their businesses, and pay back the loans.

As a narrow strategy – getting credit to poor people who need it – microfinance succeeds admirably. But the larger claims that it can serve as a development strategy is at best questionable. The French economist Esther Duflo has worked hard to develop techniques to assess public policies much as medical researchers test drugs: through randomized control trials. Her team published a report on microfinance that concluded that the technique didn’t increase average consumption, improve levels of education, or boost women’s decision-making. “Duflo’s work has convinced her that the absence of a steady job is what is most likely to be preventing a person in poverty from having an easier life,” writes Ian Parker in The New Yorker.

This criticism goes to the heart of the entrepreneurial “talented tenth” approach. Investing in people is a fine slogan. But it ignores the importance of infrastructure (roads, public transportation, fiberoptic cables), a health care system that sustains a population, and a robust public sector that provides secure jobs. It’s not so easy to squeeze money out of donors by showing them a picture of an irrigation system. The “sponsor-an-entrepreneur” strategy is doing for development what the “sponsor-a-child” strategy did for the Christian Children’s Fund.

In many ways, the 10,000 Women project is the flip side of the corporate remuneration scheme. The “talented tenth” of the corporate world receive enormous bonuses for their putative contributions to the firm. These “exceptional men” – and most of them tend to be men, just as they were in the days of DuBois – pull up the performance and the standards of the rest of their colleagues.

Or do they? The 10,000 Women project, it should be noted, is the brainchild of Goldman Sachs. In April, firm representatives faced charges in front of the Senate that they not only helped precipitate the financial meltdown, but deliberately profited by it. In the hot glare of media attention and public outrage, even Republicans deserted the firm. “There is something unseemly about Goldman betting against the housing market at the same time it is selling to its clients mortgage-backed securities of toxic loans,” Susan Collins (R-ME) said.

The $100 million that Goldman Sachs shells out for the 10,000 Women project is a mere pittance compared to the $16.2 billion in corporate bonuses it distributed in January. Goldman Sachs is translating its backwards strategy from the corporate boardroom to the development world. The result may well be some short-term profit. The MBA-armed women will likely make money, just as “fabulous Fab” Fabrice Tourre, the banker at the heart of the scandal, made a lot of money for Goldman Sachs. But will the 10,000 women actually help the common good?

W.E.B. DuBois ultimately repudiated his “talented tenth” essay. In 1948, he wrote: “When I came out of college into the world of work, I realized that it was quite possible that my plan of training a talented tenth might put in control and power, a group of selfish, self-indulgent, well-to-do men, whose basic interest in solving the Negro problem was personal; personal freedom and unhampered enjoyment and use of the world, without any real care, or certainly no arousing care as to what became of the mass of American Negroes, or of the mass of any people.”

I doubt Goldman Sachs will ever repudiate its own “talented tenth” approach. After all, it is woven into the very texture of the firm and the environment within which it operates. But when will the rest of us wean ourselves of the delusion that a talented tenth – be they entrepreneurs or technocrats or pundits – will deliver us from poverty and the other ills of the world?


Only 13.5% of US aid goes through Afghan Government

Only 13.5% of US aid goes through Afghan Government – Call to clean up contracting system
Lalit K Jha – May 21, 2010, Pajhwok News Agency, Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (PAN):  The Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) stressed on Friday the need for cleaning up the contracting system by strengthening oversight accountability.

In general, it is a good system, Major General Arnold Fields (Retired), told Pajhwok Afghan News in an exclusive interview. One would be hard pressed to find other folks in the federal work community to provide the resources the contractors were offering, he said.
At the same time, the system needed to be improved so as to increase its efficiency, the SIGAR chief explained. This is an act that really needs to be cleaned up. I think the way to do that is to bring the contracting community just as we need to bring upon the federal community more on oversight and more on accountability on how this money is being spent.

Fields said the United States had decided to substantially increase routing its aid through the government of Afghanistan, meeting one of Kabuls major demands.

Right now 13.5 percent of the US aid is channeled through the Afghan government. Between now and the end of this fiscal year, the government of the United States plans to increase that figure from 13.5 percent to 40 percent.

So we are doing our share to move this in the right direction, because allowing more funds to be channeled through the Government of Afghanistan, it helps to build confidence and helps to build capacity within the government of Afghanistan, Fields said.

Fields had no idea if the Afghan government had the capacity to handle huge amounts of money, saying there was a process underway to certify some institutions to determine their ability to use the increased flow of money.

Earlier appearing before the House Subcommittee on International Organisations, Human Rights and Oversight, Fields acknowledged corruption was a major problem in Afghanistan. When we look at corruption, we are looking at the whole enchilada.  We’re looking at sides, the American side as well as the Afghan side.

Fields agreed with a recent statement from General Stanley McChrystal, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, that there is too much dependence on contractors.   But there’s a liability to this.  We either build the resources that are now being provided by the contracting community within the defence mechanism and structure, or we continue to depend upon contractors.


The Left’s Silence On Afghanistan


by MICHAEL A. COHEN, June 11, 2010

Earlier this month, the Pentagon released a 152-page report outlining the increasingly grim situation in Afghanistan. The paper highlighted the Afghan government (and its security services) lack of capability; the enduring challenge of endemic corruption and poor governance; and the Taliban insurgency’s ability to maintain influence — often via intimidation — across broad swaths of the country. These challenges have already undermined U.S. military operations in Marjah, and could threaten the upcoming summer offensive planned for Kandahar, the heart of the Taliban insurgency.

The entire U.S. mission in Afghanistan, which is predicated on extending the legitimacy of a flawed Afghan government, bringing good governance to the country’s most insecure regions, and degrading the Taliban insurgency militarily to smooth the path for political negotiations is eerily reminiscent of the flawed American strategy in Vietnam four decades ago.

While no one can be sure how escalation in Afghanistan will turn out, the warning signs are blinking red. Yet the reaction from many of the president’s liberal and left-of-center supporters has been acquiescence and even silence. The Pentagon report — like much of the recent bad news out of Afghanistan — caused barely a ripple on the left. It’s a familiar pattern. The American Prospect, along with Salon, has devoted enormous and laudable energy to covering civil liberties issues related to the U.S. war on terror, but has run only one major article on Afghanistan since Obama’s December speech at West Point.

The Center for American Progress’s Wonk Room blog has not run a headlined story about the war since January. At Talking Points Memo, which is perhaps the most prominent liberal blog, Afghanistan rarely rates a mention. Paul Krugman, a frequent critic of the Iraq War (and President Obama), has not written a column on Afghanistan since the president took office. And The New Republic itself has largely avoided critical consideration of the war. (The Nation and Mother Joneshave been exceptions to this relative silence.)

So why are so many liberal voices muted? Why after so many liberals aggressively asserted themselves in criticizing the foreign policy conduct of the Bush administration — and in particular the war in Iraq — have they ignored the war in Afghanistan? Over the past several weeks I asked a number of prominent progressives why liberals have been so silent about the war in Afghanistan. Several themes emerged.

First, is the obvious information gap. There are fewer reporters in Afghanistan than in Iraq — and little in the way of TV coverage. As a result, it is difficult to get a clear sense of what is happening on the ground and what is working and not working. It is for many liberal publications simply easier to write about the debate over health care reform or other domestic issues. Mark Schmitt, executive editor of The American Prospect told me that it is “tough to produce something well-informed on Afghanistan” because of financial constraints and the challenge in finding knowledgeable writers on the ground to do actual reporting.

Second, in contrast to the war in Iraq, liberals generally support the objectives of the war in Afghanistan — and for a good part of the past seven years have been calling on the U.S. to devote more attention to the war there, rather than Iraq. They recall Afghanistan’s role in the planning of September 11 and are aware of the continued presence of al Qaeda in the region. And many fear that a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan would subject Afghans, and in particular Afghan women, to a return of the human rights abuses that defined previous Taliban rule. That makes even those with serious misgivings about the Obama administration’s strategy more willing to give it the benefit of a doubt.

Third, is the hangover from Iraq. According to Michael W. Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation, progressives “have yet to come to grips with the dominant surge narrative, which suggests that it was largely responsible for turning the tide in Iraq.” Hanna noted the factors that brought stability to Iraq were largely indigenous to Iraqi society and were only partially the result of President Bush’s decision to increase troop levels. But the misunderstood “success” of the surge has led many progressives to now “feel chastened about speaking out against Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan.” Many seem to feel that if they were wrong about escalation in Iraq then, perhaps they are wrong about escalation in Afghanistan today.

Behind all these factors, however, are the familiar (and very tricky) questions that have bedeviled progressive foreign policy thinkers for years — namely, how do you balance humanitarian aspirations with actual U.S. capabilities and interests, and how and when should the United States utilize military force? Liberals are discovering that it was relatively easy to criticize an unpopular, incompetent war in Iraq and a foreign policy agenda that promiscuously squandered U.S. power and goodwill. But finding a solution for Afghanistan or a national security strategy that moves the country away from the post 9/11 “war on terror” narrative is far more difficult.

In fact, the lack of good alternatives for Afghanistan seems to be a major stumbling block for progressives. Many told me that it was difficult to criticize the president’s strategy without a clear sense of what should be done differently. But for the left to argue that there are still no good alternatives on Afghanistan is an implicit indictment of their own failure to come up with one.

Members of left-leaning, DC-based think tanks and and advocacy organizations like have either tacitly supported the Afghanistan strategy or offered tactical suggestions to improve a policy that some privately believe is irredeemable. These are the groups that should be providing the policy ammunition for liberals to speak more authoritatively on Afghanistan.

The absence of critical discussion among these policy groups was painfully evident when the president convened his first review of Afghanistan in Spring 2009. His civilian national security advisers went along with the military’s single-minded call for a counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy as did almost all of Obama’s liberal supporters. But both groups — not well versed in what a fully resourced counter-insurgency would entail — clearly underestimated the implications of a significant U.S. commitment to a COIN strategy.

“They were caught flat-footed in the face of the COIN public relations campaign, which came from the military, some civilians, and an echo chamber of think tank analysts and bloggers who played a cheerleading role rather than critically examining U.S. interests and policy options in Afghanistan,” said Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

According to Lorelei Kelly, who runs the Afghanistan Congressional Communications Hub, many on the left fear that “they don’t have the credibility to engage in this conversation.” Instead, the progressive national security community has tended to focus on issues like arms control, human rights, economic development, and the environment. Moreover, there is a sense that liberals can’t compete on military issues — either from a reputational standpoint or intellectually. Among those who have not served in the military the reluctance is even more profound.

The liberals’ reluctance to address national security issues more authoritatively could prove costly to both the Obama administration and the country. Politicians must rely, in some measure, on the policy ideas that their own backers can muster, as Republicans were able to do when they took back the White House in 1981 and 2001. But when he took office, President Obama wasn’t able to look to the liberal media and think tanks either for help in figuring out what to do in Afghanistan or for political support in exploring approaches different from what the military was proposing. If the strategy he adopted for Afghanistan falters, Obama may once again find himself with limited options from his base of supporters on how to salvage the conflict. That’s a dangerous prospect and it could affect more than just the war in Afghanistan: it could do real damage to Obama’s presidency and the aspirations of his progressive supporters.


New plan to woo Afghan Taliban could harm villages

Kabul is proposing to reward villages whose Afghan Taliban fighters surrender by disbursing cash through councils that already oversee aid money. Critics say that would make the councils Taliban targets.

Temp Headline Image
Afghan policemen stand guard at a check point of the Peace Jirga tent, near a billboard advertising the three-day conference in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 1. President Hamid Karzai rolled out his program to lure Taliban fighters off the battlefield, when he attended the conference last week. (Musadeq Sadeq/AP)

By Ben Arnoldy, Staff writer
posted June 10, 2010 at 11:47 am EDT

Kabul, Afghanistan —A plan drawn up by the Afghan government and NATO to disarm Taliban fighters is raising concerns that it could imperil one of Afghanistan’s most successful development programs.

The draft document, circulating in Kabul as the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program, envisions delivering aid to home villages of former Taliban fighters. The money would be spent by elected village councils set up under the National Solidarity Program (NSP) – widely seen as one of the few bright spots in Afghan reconstruction.

On Tuesday, US special envoy Richard Holbrooke pressed the Afghan government to finalize a draft plan and get it up and running before a Kabul conference on July 20.

But international aid groups involved in the NSP say that the current draft plan would militarize the civilian program, making themselves and the village councils a target for the Taliban. They warn the plan would diminish participation in the NSP just as it begins to show success boosting Afghan attitudes about their government.

The disarmament plan “might be perceived by the opposition as a hostile measure for recruitment of combatants. Every organization associated with that project will be considered an enemy,” says Laurent Saillard, head of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, a consortium for nongovernmental organizations.

“It would affect one of the few successful programs in the country and reduce further the access to the population,” he adds.

An aid program that delivers

The NSP works by making small grants of around $30,000 to villages across the country and allowing them to choose which projects to pursue. The program, which has reached 70 percent of the country’s villages, is run by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) and funded by international donors including the United States and the World Bank.

Each village is teamed up with an NGO, known as a facilitating partner, that helps run a local election for the council and develop the village’s list of project priorities. It also provides engineering assistance.

In the village of Sakha in northeastern Afghanistan, all 118 families now have electricity for the first time after residents decided to spend their NSP funds on a micro-hydro turbine. The project was finished six months ago for less than $50,000 with the help of Afghan Aid, an international NGO.

Before the election of Sakha’s council, called a shura, the villagers had no leaders. Now the shura has become a point of contact between the Afghan government, NGOs working on development projects, and the villagers. It’s even become a local court of sorts.

“Whenever there is a dispute or a conflict between two or three among the community, first we try to solve that issue in our shura,” says Baz Mohammad, the shura chief. “After NSP, we learned to send applications and requests to organizations and the government … we know where to go to get help.”

Seeking synergy
The Taliban reintegration program envisions giving these councils another task: taking reward money for local Taliban fighters who surrender and spending it to benefit the entire village – including the ex-combatants and their victims. The former fighters might also stand for election to the shuras.

The Karzai government developed the draft plan with the help of NATO specialists under Gen. Phil Jones, the director of the Force Reintegration Cell in Kabul.

Jones says one of the goals was to avoid creating “additional or parallel” government structures. The councils are already trained to take government money and spending it on a prioritized list of projects.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel “where they have already developed a sensible list of projects,” he argues. “One of the red lines for us is not to create existing things.”

The councils would not be asked to “tackle the higher level political questions” involved in reintegrating insurgents, according to the draft document.

Not a done deal
Still, all this sounds worrisome to Mohammad Tariq Ismati, the government’s executive director for the NSP program.

“The NSP is already loaded with a lot of concerns,” including local development and community conflict resolution, he says. “We cannot risk it by adding such a sensitive and politicized process.”

The plan, he says, is trying to turn the NSP into a tool of counterinsurgency by helping stabilize villages and win the residents over to the side of the government. While that’s never been the reason for the NSP, new data suggest it is achieving some of those results.

A donor-funded study led by Harvard University researcher Andrew Beath looked at a random sample of 500 villages, half with NSP and half without. Villages with an NSP project gave slightly higher marks to the Afghan president, provincial and district leaders, and the US military. NSP villages did not see security improve, but the perception of safety went up by four percentage points.

“The process of mobilizing the community and widening the participation of villages is itself contributing to stability and security in localities,” says Mr. Ismati. But “using the NSP as a model for counterinsurgency will put the model at risk.”

He is confident that the draft plan can be changed before it’s finalized. But he is unhappy that the proposal has already created unrest among NGOs such as Afghan Aid that work on NSP projects.

Representatives from the World Bank, which oversees the funding of the NSP, say that using the NSP councils will likely be edited out because of the harm it would do to the program.

“If the facilitating partners [NGOs] are not keen on doing this – and many have ideological problems with it – it’s not going to work,” says Qazi Azmat Isa, a senior rural development specialist with the World Bank in Kabul.

But General Jones gave no indication that the pushback on the idea was likely to sink it. The decision will have to come from the Afghan government.

Plan B?
Few alternatives exist beyond the NSP village councils to receive the reintegration money. Giving it directly to the ex-combatants would give people incentives to join and quit the insurgency for the rewards. At the village level, few other credible leaders exist, and district-level government in Afghanistan is famously corrupt and ineffective.

The plan includes other money to provide jobs around the country through various Afghan government ministries, including new engineering and construction corps and an agricultural conservation corps.

“Young men from the community of fighting age can be given preference to deny recruits for the insurgency,” reads the draft plan. Recruits for the conservation corps would, instead of picking up a gun, be planting trees.

Related stories:


National Public Radio, Morning Edition: Afghan Civilian Programs

National Public Radio, Morning edition, Report on National Solidarity Program



This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I’m Mary Louise Kelly, in for Steve Inskeep.


And I’m Renee Montagne.

When General David Petraeus took over command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan this last weekend, he stressed that the strategy there needs to be executed by one team, military and civilian.

This week, we’re looking at the civilian side of things. And this morning, we turn to Michael Semple, who spoke to us from Islamabad. He’s worked on civilian projects in Afghanistan for more than 20 years, most recently for the European Union and the U.N. Beyond Afghanistan, those civilian efforts are often overshadowed by news of combat and deadly attacks by militants.

I asked Michael Semple if assistance programs were visible to ordinary Afghans.

Mr. MICHAEL SEMPLE (Fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard): It’s certainly visible inside Afghanistan. The Afghans are very much aware. However, I should say the aspirations that the Afghans had at the start of this process, you know, back down in 2001, were sky high. So it’s not so much that it’s invisible. It’s just that however much is thrown in, there’s always a sense, oh, well. It’s not quite what we expected.

MONTAGNE: Let’s talk about one project in particular that seems to be quite effective. It’s called the National Solidarity Program. It involves small reconstruction projects which seem to be really right for many of the areas of Afghanistan.

Mr. SEMPLE: The National Solidarity Program is a very interesting example of the kind of work which has been going on in Afghanistan for the past few years. It is run under the aegis of the Rural Development Ministry here, with participation of a range of international NGO’s. And the way they work is that they go into villages, encourage people to form committees in their villages to try and identify the kind of small-scale reconstruction project that they would like. And then through the project structure, they supply some more seed capital to enable them to get on with implementing their approach. And this is a very, you know, small-scale infrastructure work, for example, tapping hydroelectric power to provide electricity in the villages.

MONTAGNE: And this works because it gets local people involved in doing the actual work and making decisions?

Mr. SEMPLE: Yes. One of the fascinating things about the project is that when you ask people – the Afghans in the villages why they think these are successful, they often say ah-ha, because it’s not a government project -whereas, actually, it is a government project, but it’s a government project which is implemented with a high degree of community participation.

MONTAGNE: To the degree that they’re successful or visible, would the average Afghan distinguish the civilian projects as separate from the U.S. and NATO military campaign? Part of the military’s effort is to do things like build wells and even schools and whatnot.

Mr. SEMPLE: They certainly do overlap. One of the most interesting distinctions that I find is that even some of those people who were engaged in the insurgency, people with the Taliban movement basically say our chief demand is to see the end of the international troops in Afghanistan. But we hope in the future to be benefiting from and participating in international assistance programs. So even some of the people who are involved in the insurgency make this kind of distinction.

MONTAGNE: Both Americans and Afghans can identify General Petraeus as the face of the U.S. military campaign. I’m wondering if there, in Afghanistan, there is a face for the civilian effort. And I’m thinking here of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who mostly travels with the Afghan press – the local press. He’s not even that interested in the international press. Has he succeeded in being the face of the civilian effort?

Mr. SEMPLE: At the moment it’s clear that the ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, is indeed the face of the civilian effort. And the reason that he is focusing on traveling with the Afghan press is because he’s said it is a strategic priority that the Afghan population should understand the good things that are happening and not entirely focus on the ongoing conflict.

And his thinking there is that if the Afghans have a stake in peace, then there’s a chance that peace might actually work. And I think he’s decided to leave the business of persuading the American public that the intervention of Afghanistan is worthwhile to others. He’s focusing on trying to ensure that they, the Afghans themselves, have a stake in success.

MONTAGNE: Michael Semple spent 20 years working on civilian projects in Afghanistan. He’s now a fellow at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.


Project presentation by Michael Sheridan, July 8, Washington DC

This Thursday, July 8 at 8 pm at the Corner Store Art Center, (address below) there will be a presentation on the development of Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War.

The project’s director, Michael Sheridan, recently returned from Afghanistan and will introduce the project, screen a sample film and answer any questions.

During Michael’s recent trip to Afghanistan he was offered a generous $20,000 dollar matching grant. This fund will go toward the training of Afghan filmmakers who will serve as the film’s production team. Michael returned excited about the pool of talented, courageous and dedicated young Afghan filmmakers and print, radio and photojournalists with whom he can collaborate to capture the village-based stories for Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War.

The need now is to raise the matching $20,000 dollars by the end of July so that the training of Afghan filmmakers can begin in August. The team will then film from within 6 villages for a year to experience from the Afghan perspective the costs and benefits of bottom up versus top down approaches and the impact of local versus foreign ownership of the development process.

Please join us for a stimulating presentation and discussion about an important project addressing pressing issues in Afghanistan and about America’s Afghan war strategy. It is urgent at this time of uncertainty and leadership changes in Afghanistan to call attention to more effective and efficient strategies for creating stability in poor and fragile states.

We hope to see you on Thursday. There will be a $5 donation requested at the door to help cover the host’s expenses. Please email this invite to friends and colleagues and post on any appropriate websites and list serves.

Event Location:
Corner Store Art Center,
900 South Carolina Ave, SE
Washington DC, 20003

Please let us know if you could host an event in your community. Thanks!


Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War – Pitch Reel

Community Supported Film’s Afghan team soon will be making the film Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War (BTKW). BTKW will from the Afghan villager’s perspective look at the impact of outsiders coming into their communities trying to help them.


US Marines – Creating more insurgents or space for development?

What Marja Tells Us of Battles Yet to Come
New York Times, June, 10, 2010

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times. Afghans passed through a Marine checkpoint last month in Marja, where fighting has continued since a highly publicized assault on insurgents in February.

MARJA, Afghanistan — Each day, American foot patrols move through farmers’ fields and irrigated villages. And each day some are ambushed or encounter hidden bombs. The patrols turn into gunfights in withering heat, or efforts to dismantle the bombs or treat the wounded. Casualties accumulate with the passing weeks, for Americans and Afghans alike.

A few months ago, Marja was the focus of a highly publicized assaultto push the Taliban from a stronghold and bring Afghanistan’s densest area of opium production under government control. The fighting remains raw.

What does it mean?

Is the violence a predictable summer fight for an area the Taliban and those who profit from the drug economy do not want to lose; in other words, an unsurprising flare-up that can be turned around? Or will Marja remain bloody for a long time, allowing insurgents to inflict sustained losses on American units and win merely by keeping the fight alive?

As NATO and Afghan forces flow into neighboring Kandahar Province, where for the next many months the latest high-profile effort to undo the Taliban’s hold will unroll, the continuing fighting in Marja can be read as a sign of problems in the American-led surge. It can also be read as something less worrisome: a difficult period in a campaign always expected to be hard.

A prevailing assessment among officers on the ground is this: The outcome is too soon to call.

“Right now it’s gray,” said Maj. Lawrence Lohman, the operations officer for Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, which operates outposts in northern Marja.

Those who deem the Marja offensive a disappointment, or even a failure, point to the daily violence and to the signs that Afghans have been leaving the area, at least temporarily, to avoid the fighting. They also point to Taliban intimidation of residents, a still limited government presence, and the continued reliance of Afghan police officers and soldiers on American supervision and logistics. These, they say, are ill-boding signs.

But the signals are contradictory.

Most of Marja’s civilians returned after moving away ahead of the initial assault. Most of them remain. Compounds that were empty in February are inhabited. Roads once quiet are busy. Fields are thick with crops. Shops in some bazaars have reopened. Afghan units participate visibly in dangerous missions.

Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, the battalion’s commander, noted that some of Marja’s residents had begun providing information on the Taliban, including sharing the names and locations of fighters. Many civilians have been seeking aid and a few have sought contracts for small scale development projects, the early steps in engagement.

“I’ve seen good growth and good progress,” the colonel said. He added: “There is still a lot to be done.”

The Marines point to what they clearly hope is a Helmand pattern, apparent in other districts, including Nawa, where the Taliban were strong and fighting was initially intense. The pattern, they said, is this: With time and resources, the insurgents’ position erodes, villages become secure, and engagement and the Afghan government presence expand.

Pursuing this goal, Marine companies have been sending out constant small patrols. Their presence keeps the Taliban occupied and inflicts losses, the Marines say, and creates the space to allow for development or programs to gain traction. In the short term, it is also a recipe for small-unit violence — fierce and frequent.

“It goes back to the very basics of what we do: gain and maintain contact,” said Col. Randall P. Newman, who commands Marine ground forces in central Helmand Province.

Colonel Newman said he expected skirmishes to decline in frequency in the months ahead. “I don’t think the guys who are shooting now are committed enough to keep doing this a long time,” he said.

More Western troops have died in Helmand Province than in any other, and the sight of medevac helicopters over Marja each day is a reminder that the area has become a center of the province’s bloodshed.

But Helmand is not uniformly violent. There are areas where fighting is regular — Marja, Sangin, Nahr-e-Saraj — and areas where the Taliban had fought hard before being marginalized as a combat force.

Moreover, the rising casualties have complicated causes. Some are related to the combined effects of Taliban resistance and the Marines’ grinding patrol tempo. Others can reasonably be attributed to a shift made last year to rules of engagement that guide American forces.

The shift de-emphasized airstrikes, artillery and mortars. This transferred some of the risk in skirmishes from Afghan civilians to Western combatants. In the past, American patrols in contact often quickly called for and received fire support. Not anymore. Many firefights these days are strictly rifle and machine gun fights.

Understanding the shift is important. It has made engagement times noticeably longer, driving up the troops’ risks and amplifying a perception that Marja, fought with less fire support than what was available to American units in other hotly contested areas, is mired in blood.

That perception has obscured a wider view. Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the British officer commanding NATO forces in Afghanistan’s south, urged patience. “The challenge with this campaign is that it takes time, because it’s in the minds of people, and its people take time to be convinced,” he said.

He also cautioned against drawing conclusions by extrapolating from Marja alone. The operation, he said, opened provincial roads. Six months ago, the provincial governor, Gulab Mangal, could barely travel; now he covers much of the province.

“You’ve got a central Helmand that is linked together, and in economic terms can develop,” General Carter said. “So I think people tend to make the mistake of just thinking about Marja.”

Meanwhile, Marines are wounded by bombs or shot each week. The violence in itself does not mean that the campaign is lost. Fighting is normal to war, a concept sometimes played down in discussions about the United States’ counterinsurgency doctrine, which emphasizes developing relationships with the population and helping government agencies gain credibility and provide services.

Those directly involved caution that a few months of fighting is not necessarily a basis for grim forecasts, especially during the first summer in a former Taliban enclave. American commanders have been voicing frustration nonetheless, as was evident last month in Gen.Stanley A. McChrystal’s description of Marja as “a bleeding ulcer.”

The remark underscores perhaps the clearest conclusion that can be drawn thus far. Even before the last troops of the Obama administration’s surge arrive in Afghanistan, high-level American commanders appear pressed for time, no matter the complexities faced by troops on the ground.


In Afghan region, U.S. spreads the cash to fight the Taliban

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; A01

NAWA, AFGHANISTAN — In this patch of southern Afghanistan, the U.S. strategy to keep the Taliban at bay involves an economic stimulus.

Thousands of men, wielding hoes and standing in knee-deep muck, are getting paid to clean reed-infested irrigation canals. Farmers are receiving seeds and fertilizer for a fraction of their retail cost, and many are riding around on shiny new red tractors. Over the summer, dozens of gravel roads and grain-storage facilities will be constructed — all of it funded by the U.S. government.

Pumping reconstruction dollars into war zones has long been part of the U.S. counterinsurgency playbook, but the carpet bombing of Nawa with cash has resulted in far more money getting into local hands, far more quickly, than in any other part of Afghanistan. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s agriculture program aims to spend upward of $30 million within nine months in this rural district of mud-walled homes and small farms. Other U.S. initiatives aim to bring millions more dollars to the area over the next year.

Because aid is so plentiful in Nawa — seemingly everyone who wants a job has one — many young men have opted to stop serving as the Taliban’s guns for hire. Unlike neighboring Marja, where insurgent attacks remain a daily occurrence, the central parts of Nawa have been largely violence-free the past six months.

But the cash surge has also unleashed unintended and potentially troubling consequences. It is sparking new tension and rivalries within the community, and it is prompting concern that the nearly free seeds and gushing canals will result in more crops than farmers will be able to sell. It is also raising public expectations for handouts that the Afghan government will not be able to sustain once U.S. contributions ebb.

“We’ve blasted Nawa with a phenomenal amount of money in the name of counterinsurgency without fully thinking through the second- and third-order effects,” said Ian Purves, a British development expert who recently completed a year-long assignment as the NATO stabilization adviser in Nawa.

U.S. officials responsible for Afghanistan policy contend that the initiative in Nawa, which is part of a $250 million effort to increase agricultural production across southern Afghanistan, was designed as a short-term jolt to resuscitate the economy and generate lasting employment. They say concerns about overspending are misplaced: After years of shortchanging Afghans on development aid, the officials maintain that they would rather do too much than too little.

“Our goal is to return Nawa to normalcy, to get folks back to their daily lives of farming, and that requires a large effort,” said Rory Donohoe, USAID’s agriculture program manager in Helmand province.

Of particular concern to some development specialists is USAID’s decision to spend the entire $250 million over one year in parts of just two provinces, Helmand and Kandahar. In Nawa, which has a population of about 75,000, that works out to about $400 for every man, woman and child. The country’s per-capita income, by comparison, is about $300 a year.

“This is a massive effort to buy people off so they won’t fight us,” said a U.S. development officer in southern Afghanistan.

The spending here is a preview of what the Obama administration wants to accomplish on a larger scale. USAID’s “burn rate” in Afghanistan — the amount it spends — is about $300 million a month and will probably stay at that level for at least a year.

The White House recently asked Congress for an additional $4.4 billion for reconstruction and development programs in Afghanistan, with the aim of increasing employment and promoting economic growth in areas beset by the insurgency.

Although some of that money will be directed through Afghan government ministries and local aid organizations to fund projects designed and run by Afghans, most of it will go to large, U.S.-based development firms with the ability to hire lots of people and spend lots of money quickly.

Among the programs in the pipeline is a $600 million effort to improve municipal governments across the country and to increase the provision of basic services to urban dwellers. The program is supposed to include extensive day-labor projects to pick up trash and plant trees, and it calls for the contractor to implement “performance-based” budgeting systems within two years, something that most U.S. cities do not have.

USAID also envisions spending $140 million to help settle property disputes. One of the agency’s hoped-for achievements is to train Afghans to appraise and value land.

Some development specialists question whether Afghanistan can absorb the flood of money, or whether a large portion will be lost to corruption, inefficiency and dubious ventures funded to meet Washington-imposed deadlines.

“We’ve turned a fire hose on these guys — and they can’t absorb it,” said a development specialist who has worked as a USAID contractor in Afghanistan for three years. “We’re setting ourselves up for a huge amount of waste and fraud.”

Improving farming
The $250 million agriculture program is the Obama administration’s principal effort to create jobs and improve livelihoods in the two provinces where U.S. troops are concentrating their counterinsurgency mission this year. It was designed to address what senior administration officials, particularly presidential envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, deemed to be scattershot and underfunded initiatives over the first eight years of the war to assist farmers, who make up most of the country’s workforce.

The program aims to make farms more productive, thereby increasing employment and living standards. It would do so by cleaning canals so more water gets to crops, offering subsidized seeds so farmers would be encouraged to switch from growing opium-producing poppies, establishing cooperatives to share tractors and constructing a network of gravel roads so they can take their goods to market.

To forge links between residents and their government, a 42-member community council decides which canals to clean and which roads to improve.

USAID selected International Relief and Development (IRD), an Arlington-based nonprofit development firm, to run the program. To get the work started quickly, the agency gave the company the $250 million as a grant last summer, instead of hiring it under contract to do the work, which would have taken longer.

Grants also involve fewer auditing requirements for USAID, but once awarded they limit the government’s ability to make changes.

The program has been a hit with Nawa residents since the day it began in December, largely because of the plentiful cash-for-work opportunities. Once the day labor began, unemployment disappeared almost overnight.

The initiative has put money in the pocket of almost every working-age male in the district. More than 7,000 residents have been hired for $5 a day to clean the canals, and a similar number of farmers have received vouchers for heavily discounted seeds and fertilizer. Thousands of others have benefited from additional forms of assistance through the program.

“We had nothing here before — only bullets,” said Gul Mohammed, a lanky tenant farmer, as he scooped mud from a narrow canal. He said the day labor is essential to feeding his family because he decided last fall, after a battalion of U.S. Marines arrived in Nawa, not to plant poppies on his 6.5-acre plot.

Now he is growing wheat, which fetches only about a quarter of what he would have made from poppies.

“We are so thankful for this work,” he said. “Without it, we would be going hungry.”

Local infighting
USAID’s decision to involve the community council in the disbursement was intended to help build local governance. It has done that, but it has also generated new frictions in the district.

When the council was formed last fall, the seven principal tribal leaders in the area decided not to participate. They did not want to risk the Taliban’s wrath by siding with the United States and the Afghan government. But now that the council has the ability to influence millions of dollars worth of projects, the leaders want a piece of the action.

The senior elder, Hayatullah Helmandi of the Barakzai tribe, has launched a campaign to discredit the council members, calling them opportunists and drug users. “The Marines should be working with us,” he said.

The infighting has prompted concern among some U.S. officials in the area. “These tensions probably wouldn’t be so severe if there wasn’t as much money involved,” one of them said.

Then there is the question of what to do with all the additional crops grown this year. Purves estimates that the program will increase agricultural production by tens of thousands of tons across central Helmand province.

“What on Earth will happen to that?” he said. “There’s no way all of that can be gotten to market, and even if it could, there simply isn’t a market for that much more food.”

Holbrooke and USAID agriculture experts want to construct cold-storage facilities so the produce can be trucked to markets in other parts of Afghanistan or exported to nearby countries. But that effort will not be completed in time to help farmers with this year’s crop.

The effort to spend the program funds as fast as possible has resulted in some items going to waste, according to people familiar with the effort.

Plastic tunnels to allow farmers to grow crops over the winter were not distributed until February — well after the winter planting season — so many of them simply used the plastic as window sheeting for their mud huts. The metal rods were turned into fences.

The cash-for-work programs are so plentiful and lucrative that some teachers and policemen sought to enroll before U.S. and Afghan officials barred their participation.

Among Nawa residents, the biggest worry is what will happen when the program ends Aug. 31. U.S. officials hope this effort will result in new farm jobs, but nobody thinks it will be enough to employ all of those participating in the day-labor projects. Although USAID is considering a follow-on agriculture program, it is not clear whether the labor component will be as large as it is now.

If not, Afghan officials said their government does not have the resources to make up the difference.

“Those cash-for-work men — half of them used to be Taliban,” said the district governor, Abdul Manaf. “If the Americans stop paying for them to work, they’ll go back to the Taliban.”

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Hopes for Afghan Community Councils to Undermine Taliban

NYT, by CARLOTTA GALL, Published: June 19, 2010

NADALI, Afghanistan — More than 600 men, most of them farmers with weathered faces and rough hands, sat on the ground under an awning, waiting all day to deposit their ballots in plastic boxes. They had braved Taliban threats and road mines to come here to select a district council, part of a plan to strengthen local government in the most unstable parts of Afghanistan.

“The important thing is we are trying to build trust between the people and the government,” said Qari Mukhtar Ahmad, a senior cleric attending the election last month. “This district was under fighting for a long time, but now there is peace and we have to listen to the people and bring them together.”

Peace is a relative term in Nadali, a district in the southern province of Helmand with one of highest levels of roadside bombs per square mile. Government officials still have to fly by helicopter from the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, rather than risk the 20-minute drive.

The district encompasses Marja, a Taliban stronghold where United States Marines have been battling insurgents since February. Marja remains largely ungovernable, but the operation broke the hold of the Taliban in the rest of the district, making it stable enough to try to set up some local representation.

The election here, an exercise in nation-building from the ground up, is part of a pilot program to set up 100 district councils to provide representative government in places where government has largely been absent. But the councils, backed by the British and American governments, also represent a critical element of counterinsurgency strategy: if they succeed, the hope is they will convince people that there is a viable alternative to Taliban rule.

Since the beginning of the year, 35 such councils have begun work in nine provinces, and the American and British governments have pledged financing to establish 100 by July 2011, officials said. The ultimate goal is to have directly elected councils nationwide.

“It is a vital, basic element of administration,” said Christopher Demers, an adviser for theAgency for International Development in Kandahar. “Building a people’s body like this is important, it is giving people an opportunity to speak with the government.”

Military officials in the United States-led coalition have often expressed frustration at the inability of the Afghan government to move quickly into secured areas and start governing. Yet Afghan officials say that it is a lengthy task to build an administration from scratch and gain the trust of a population that has suffered at the hands of predatory officials and repeated military operations by foreign forces in recent years.

In many districts, like Nadali, there is little government presence, often only a district chief and a police chief, both appointed by the central government in Kabul. They have few resources or personnel. Most district chiefs have no official car and an official budget of only $12 a year, the United Nations said last year.

One of the successes of the Afghan government over the past eight years has been the National Solidarity Program, which set up small development councils across the country to undertake small reconstruction projects in every village. Yet it takes six months just to elect and train community councilors and two years to complete a village project, said Wais Ahmad Barmak, deputy minister in the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, who has 30 years experience in community development.

In the most insecure areas, like Helmand, the ministry has had to suspend its work, he said.

In Nadali it has taken a year of visiting villages and persuading people to cooperate with the government to get them to the point of electing the district council, said the district chief, Habibullah Shamlani, a former police academy instructor.

After several gatherings around the district, 600 representatives were selected to come and vote for 45 councilors, all of whom must live in the district, a change from the absentee landlords or tribal chiefs who have traditionally made the decisions.

“This district council should make all the decisions which affect the life of the district,” said Jelani Popal, who leads the local government directorate, an arm of the national government that is running the program. “We will use them for security reasons, like reintegration, they will be very active in deciding about development, but also governance, they can communicate or channel the grievances of the people to the governor and district governor.”

Those who took part in the selection said they were taking the risk because they needed representatives to intercede with the government and the foreign forces on a variety of problems from securing the release of detainees and compensation for war damage to resolving tribal and land disputes and winning development assistance for their areas.

“We hope the government will do something for us if we have this district council and we can share our problems with the higher authorities,” said Feda Muhammad Khan, an elected councilor. “We are fed up with the fighting, and there is a drought, and we are hoping peace will knock on our door.”

One of the main tasks of the council will be to persuade local insurgents to give up the fight and return to a peaceful life in the community, or if not to move away and stop destabilizing the area, Mr. Shamlani, the district chief, said. Already 40 people who were with the Taliban have been persuaded to quit fighting, he said.

“We are working step by step,” he said. “We cannot put too much pressure on the people to reject the Taliban. Gradually now, people have found some courage to point out who are Taliban. If things are sustained the same as now I am hoping by next year we will know who is behind it all.”

The key has been to deliver on promises of assistance and treat the people well, he said. “It takes time; you have to go and talk a lot and spend money,” he said.

But there is already evidence that the Taliban are fighting the councils much as they have resisted other government initiatives.

Some of the participants said they risked assassination if the Taliban in their area discovered that they were cooperating with the government. At least five councilors have been killed and one has been wounded since the four councils were formed in Helmand Province, officials said, presumably by the Taliban.

And the representatives choosing the council here included Taliban members, several participants said. They, too, wanted representation to help win the release of their people who have been detained.

Maj. Abdul Salam, who runs the police criminal department in Nadali, said the fact that 600 representatives showed up was itself a vote of confidence in the process.

“These people are here because they have some hope that the government is gaining strength and they are hoping they can defend themselves,” he said. “But you are right, they are in some danger.”

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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