November 11 2008
Staff Sergeant Brendan Kearns went through urban combat training six months ago with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, preparing for a planned return to Iraq. In January, his brigade is heading to Afghanistan instead.
While Iraq has long dominated headlines, Afghanistan will demand more immediate attention, as President-elect Barack Obama becomes the first commander-in-chief since Richard M. Nixon in 1969 to take charge during wartime.
Intensifying violence is ramping up U.S. involvement, costing money and lives when America faces a record budget deficit and the public is weary of war. Backing off may allow al-Qaeda and the Taliban to return to power.
“The most pressing problem for the next president will be the Afghan-Pakistan conundrum,” says retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, lead author of the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
“A resurgent Taliban threatens stability and perhaps survival of the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s a nightmare scenario, and we may have reached a tipping point where the Taliban is winning.”
The Bush administration is reviewing its military and humanitarian strategy in Afghanistan and will offer recommendations to Obama’s transition team before he takes office Jan. 20.
On the campaign trail, the Illinois senator vowed to refocus attention there while pulling out most of the 152,000 troops in Iraq within 16 months. That’s becoming increasingly possible as deadly attacks have dropped dramatically since 2007, when President George W. Bush sent 30,000 additional U.S. troops.
The surge — along with the so-called Sunni awakening, in which tribes turned against al-Qaeda and formed U.S.-funded, government-allied militias — is credited with stabilizing the country. The Iraqi and U.S. governments have tentatively agreed on a phased withdrawal of American combat forces by 2011, subject to conditions.
Obama, 47, has said a “responsible drawdown” from Iraq would allow the U.S. to upgrade military equipment, pay for veterans’ care and redirect expenditures — which currently top $10 billion a month — to Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden and top al-Qaeda leaders are believed to be operating along the porous border with Pakistan.
Deciding what the U.S. can afford to spend is complicated by the $700 billion the Treasury is using to rescue the financial system, which may push the federal budget deficit next year to more than $1 trillion, following a record $455 billion this year.
“I know there’s a lot of economic problems in the U.S.,” says Kearns, 40, who’s based at Fort Drum, New York, and has served in both wars. “But the military at this point doesn’t need its budgets cut. With seven years of war, there’s a lot of wear and tear on equipment and personnel.”
Meanwhile, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated, with a reconstituted and emboldened Taliban mounting more attacks on American forces. Neighboring, nuclear-armed Pakistan — threatened by domestic extremists, assassination attempts and a financial crisis — hasn’t been able to control border security in its autonomous tribal areas where militants take shelter.
General David McKiernan, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has asked for 20,000 more American troops next year; the 3,500-person 3rd Brigade Combat Team deploying in January from Fort Drum will be the tip of that spear.
The view of U.S., European and United Nations officials is that more foreign soldiers won’t be enough to save Afghanistan. The country needs a sustained international effort to shrink opium production, build roads and establish basic utilities including running water and electricity. The Afghan government, widely criticized as weak, corrupt and inefficient, needs to better deliver services and secure its territory.
Obama will face a balancing act with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which commands a force in Afghanistan that uses 13,000 of the 31,000 American troops now in the country. European leaders have made clear they aren’t keen on sending more soldiers into a widening war.
Still, there’s no doubt Afghanistan needs better security. In Iraq, there are 800,000 local, U.S. and international forces. In Afghanistan, there are at most 210,000 combined troops, and many of the Afghans lack training and equipment.
Clear, Hold, Build
“Classic counterinsurgency strategy is `Clear, Hold and Build’: You clear enemy forces, you hold the area, generally with the host nation’s security forces, and then you build a better society,” Nagl says. “In Afghanistan we have not had enough forces to hold and have not put proper emphasis on build. We’ve cleared the same towns over and over and over.”
Every time U.S. forces leave a village they have cleared without Afghan soldiers to take their place, “the Taliban comes back and they shoot people who worked with us in the head,” he says. “After the second or third time that happens, there aren’t enough people left to work with us.”
Analysts say the best solution would be to greatly expand the Afghan army, supported by U.S. military advisers, and enlist militias into something like the “Sons of Iraq,” which turned enemy forces into associates.
What worked in Iraq may not work in Afghanistan, however, where the terrain is rougher, the country poorer, corruption more visible and the insurgency more complicated because of hundreds of tribes — many living in autonomous territories along the Pakistan border.
Obama has consistently said that if Pakistan fails to act against militants on its soil, he would support unilateral military strikes — something the Bush administration has already begun. In the past two months, Pakistan has accused the U.S. of launching 15 missile strikes in the Waziristan tribal area along its Afghan border, and late last month Islamabad lodged a formal protest.
Soldiers at Fort Drum say if they had the ear of the president-elect, they would tell him that while military involvement in Afghanistan is necessary, it isn’t sufficient.
“We need to focus on the basics: infrastructure, food, building roads and security,” says Captain Matthew Burnette, 29, who commands a Howitzer unit headed back to Afghanistan as Obama takes office. “If the three villages you’re working in are happy, they talk to each other, they talk to us, and the Taliban can’t take hold again.”
February 15, 2001
U.N. drug control officers said the Taliban religious militia has nearly wiped out opium production in Afghanistan — once the world’s largest producer — since banning poppy cultivation last summer.
A 12-member team from the U.N. Drug Control Program spent two weeks searching most of the nation’s largest opium-producing areas and found so few poppies that they do not expect any opium to come out of Afghanistan this year.
“We are not just guessing. We have seen the proof in the fields,” said Bernard Frahi, regional director for the U.N. program in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He laid out photographs of vast tracts of land cultivated with wheat alongside pictures of the same fields taken a year earlier — a sea of blood-red poppies.
A State Department official said Thursday all the information the United States has received so far indicates the poppy crop had decreased, but he did not believe it was eliminated.
Last year, Afghanistan produced nearly 4,000 tons of opium, about 75 percent of the world’s supply, U.N. officials said. Opium — the milky substance drained from the poppy plant — is converted into heroin and sold in Europe and North America. The 1999 output was a world record for opium production, the United Nations said — more than all other countries combined, including the “Golden Triangle,” where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet.
Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s supreme leader, banned poppy growing before the November planting season and augmented it with a religious edict making it contrary to the tenets of Islam.
The Taliban, which has imposed a strict brand of Islam in the 95 percent of Afghanistan it controls, has set fire to heroin laboratories and jailed farmers until they agreed to destroy their poppy crops.
The U.N. surveyors, who completed their search this week, crisscrossed Helmand, Kandahar, Urzgan and Nangarhar provinces and parts of two others — areas responsible for 86 percent of the opium produced in Afghanistan last year, Frahi said in an interview Wednesday. They covered 80 percent of the land in those provinces that last year had been awash in poppies.
This year they found poppies growing on barely an acre here and there, Frahi said. The rest — about 175,000 acres — was clean.
“We have to look at the situation with careful optimism,” said Sandro Tucci of the U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention in Vienna, Austria.
He said indications are that no poppies were planted this season and that, as a result, there hasn’t been any production of opium — but that officials would keep checking.
The State Department counternarcotics official said the department would make its own estimate of the poppy crop. Information received so far suggests there will be a decrease, but how much is not yet clear, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We do not think by any stretch of the imagination that poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has been eliminated. But we, like the rest of the world, welcome positive news.”
The Drug Enforcement Administration declined to comment.
No U.S. government official can enter Afghanistan because of security concerns stemming from the presence of suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Poppies are harvested in March and April, which is why the survey was done now. Tucci said it would have been impossible for the poppies to have been harvested already.
The areas searched by the U.N. surveyors are the most fertile lands under Taliban control. Other areas, though they are somewhat fertile, have not traditionally been poppy growing areas and farmers are struggling to raise any crops at all because of severe drought. The rest of the land held by the Taliban is mountainous or desert, where poppies could not grow.
Karim Rahimi, the U.N. drug control liaison in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province, said farmers were growing wheat or onions in fields where they once grew poppies.
“It is amazing, really, when you see the fields that last year were filled with poppies and this year there is wheat,” he said.
The Taliban enforced the ban by threatening to arrest village elders and mullahs who allowed poppies to be grown. Taliban soldiers patrolled in trucks armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers. About 1,000 people in Nangarhar who tried to defy the ban were arrested and jailed until they agreed to destroy their crops.
Signs throughout Nangarhar warn against drug production and use, some calling it an “illicit phenomenon.” Another reads: “Be drug free, be happy.”
Last year, poppies grew on 12,600 acres of land in Nangarhar province. According to the U.N. survey, poppies were planted on only 17 acres there this season and all were destroyed by the Taliban.
“The Taliban have done their work very seriously,” Frahi said.
But the ban has badly hurt farmers in one of the world’s poorest countries, shattered by two decades of war and devastated by drought.
Ahmed Rehman, who shares less than three acres in Nangarhar with his three brothers, said the opium he produced last year on part of the land brought him $1,100.
This year, he says, he will be lucky to get $300 for the onions and cattle feed he planted on the entire parcel.
“Life is very bad for me this year,” he said. “Last year I was able to buy meat and wheat and now this year there is nothing.”
But Rehman said he never considered defying the ban.
“The Taliban were patrolling all the time. Of course I was afraid. I did not want to go to jail and lose my freedom and my dignity,” he said, gesturing with dirt-caked hands.
Shams-ul-Haq Sayed, an officer of the Taliban drug control office in Jalalabad, said farmers need international aid.
“This year was the most important for us because growing poppies was part of their culture, and the first years are always the most difficult,” he said.
Tucci said discussions are under way on how to help the farmers.
Western diplomats in Pakistan have suggested the Taliban is simply trying to drive up the price of opium they have stockpiled. The State Department official also said Afghanistan could do more by destroying drug stockpiles and heroin labs and arresting producers and traffickers.
Frahi dismissed that as “nonsense” and said it is drug traffickers and shopkeepers who have stockpiles. Two pounds of opium worth $35 last year are now worth as much as $360, he said.
Mullah Amir Mohammed Haqqani, the Taliban’s top drug official in Nangarhar, said the ban would remain regardless of whether the Taliban received aid or international recognition.
“It is our decree that there will be no poppy cultivation. It is banned forever in this country,” he said. “Whether we get assistance or not, poppy growing will never be allowed again in our country.
Caspian Region 1993 The Pipeline Debate
The Caspian Sea shelf is considered one of the largest sources of petroleum outside the Persian Gulf and Russia.
September 18, 2001
US ‘planned attack on Taleban’ In July 2001 well before 9/11
The wider objective was to oust the Taleban
By George Arney A former Pakistani diplomat has told the BBC that the US was planning military action against Osama Bin Laden and the Taleban even before last week’s attacks.
Niaz Naik, a former Pakistani Foreign Secretary, was told by senior American officials in mid-July that military action against Afghanistan would go ahead by the middle of October. Mr Naik said US officials told him of the plan at a UN-sponsored international contact group on Afghanistan which took place in Berlin.
Mr Naik told the BBC that at the meeting the US representatives told him that unless Bin Laden was handed over swiftly America would take military action to kill or capture both Bin Laden and the Taleban leader, Mullah Omar.
The wider objective, according to Mr Naik, would be to topple the Taleban regime and install a transitional government of moderate Afghans in its place – possibly under the leadership of the former Afghan King Zahir Shah.
Mr Naik was told that Washington would launch its operation from bases in Tajikistan, where American advisers were already in place. He was told that Uzbekistan would also participate in the operation and that 17,000 Russian troops were on standby.
Mr Naik was told that if the military action went ahead it would take place before the snows started falling in Afghanistan, by the middle of October at the latest.
He said that he was in no doubt that after the World Trade Center bombings this pre-existing US plan had been built upon and would be implemented within two or three weeks.
And he said it was doubtful that Washington would drop its plan even if Bin Laden were to be surrendered immediately by the Taleban.
May 13, 2002,
Afghanistan plans gas pipeline
The pipeline is Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investment project
Afghanistan hopes to strike a deal later this month to build a $2bn pipeline through the country to take gas from energy-rich Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India.
Afghan interim ruler Hamid Karzai is to hold talks with his Pakistani and Turkmenistan counterparts later this month on Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investment project, said Mohammad Alim Razim, minister for Mines and Industries told Reuters.
“The work on the project will start after an agreement is expected to be struck at the coming summit,” Mr Razim said.
The construction of the 850-kilometre pipeline had been previously discussed between Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime, US oil company Unocal and Bridas of Argentina.
The project was abandoned after the US launched missile attacks on Afghanistan in 1999.
US company preferred
Mr Razim said US energy company Unocal was the “lead company” among those that would build the pipeline, which would bring 30bn cubic meters of Turkmen gas to market annually.
Unocal – which led a consortium of companies from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Japan and South Korea – has maintained the project is both economically and technically feasible once Afghan stability was secured.
“Unocal is not involved in any projects (including pipelines) in Afghanistan, nor do we have any plans to become involved, nor are we discussing any such projects,” a spokesman told BBC News Online.
The US company formally withdrew from the consortium in 1998.
“The Afghan side assures all sides about the security of the pipeline and will take all responsibilities for it,” Mr Razim said.
Afghanistan plans to build a road linking Turkmenistan with Pakistan parallel to the pipeline, to supply nearby villages with gas, and also to pump Afghan gas for export, Mr Razim said.
The government would also earn transit fees from the export of gas and oil and hoped to take over ownership of the pipeline after 30 years, he said.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has been surveying routes for transferring local gas from northern Afghan areas to Kabul, and to iron ore mines at the Haji Gak pass further west.
“ADB will announce its conclusion soon,” Mr Razim said.
The pipeline is expected to be built with funds from donor countries for the reconstruction of Afghanistan as well as ADB loans, he said.
May 30 2002,
Afghan pipeline given go-ahead
The leaders hope for future oil profits
The leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan have agreed to construct a $2bn pipeline to bring gas from Central Asia to the sub-continent.
The project was abandoned in 1998 when a consortium led by US energy company Unocal withdrew from the project over fears of being seen to support Afghanistan’s then Taliban government. The President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Nayazov, the chairman of Afghanistan’s interim administration Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf signed a memorandum of understanding in Islamabad on Thursday.
President Musharraf said the 1,500km pipeline would run from Turkmenistan’s Daulatabad gas fields to the Pakistani port city of Gwadar.
The Pakistani leader said once the project is completed, Central Asia’s hydrocarbon resources would be available to the international market, including East Asian and other far eastern countries.
Pakistan has plans to build a liquid-gas plant at the Gwadar port for export purposes.
Call for interest
The three countries have agreed to invite international tenders and guarantee funding before launching the project.
Unocal has repeatedly denied it is interested in returning to Afghanistan despite having conducted the original feasibility study to build the pipeline.
There is also a question mark over stability in Afghanistan, but interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai said peace was prevailing all over the country.
Afghan officials believe the pipeline could yield significant revenues for the impoverished country in the form of transit fees.
The pipeline could eventually supply gas to India.
President Musharraf also said he was committed to a proposed gas pipeline from Iran through Pakistan to India as it was in his country’s economic interest.