Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The War in Afghanistan

It is time, in my opinion, to get out of Afghanistan. The country is too poorly developed and has too many crooked politicians for America to spend billions and loss of life. The war is sending home those that survive physical wounds with severe emotional ones. We cannot be in the business of nation building. We have enough problems at home where the cost of the war could be used to help alleviate the problems here.
I keep hearing that we should fight terrorism where ever it is. What about Somalia? The Sudan? Yemen? Where we send troops the jihadist will follow. Let's secure our border and let our battle weary soldiers come home. They have fought honorably and deserve it to be over. theblogmeister

By Saeed Shah | McClatchy Newspapers
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — U.S. forces lost 22 soldiers in Afghanistan, mostly to roadside bombs, since Friday, marking a bloody step-up in the insurgency as a major U.S.-led offensive seeks to capture the spiritual homeland of the Taliban movement in Kandahar.

The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan said it's gaining ground against the insurgents, but violence is rising across the country, including in areas that were considered relatively safe.

Five more U.S. soldiers were killed Tuesday, while three Afghan workers for the British charity Oxfam were killed by a roadside bomb in Badakhshan, which had been one of the safer places in the country.

The coalition says that casualties are rising as they push against the strongholds of the Taliban in the south and the allied Haqqani network in the east. The majority of casualties — some 60 percent — this year and in 2009 came from improvised explosive devices planted on roads and paths.

U.S. and Afghan forces are expected to begin shortly an offensive in Zhari and Panjwai, southwest of Kandahar city, the last part of operation "Hamkari," to secure and stabilize Kandahar province. Mullah Omar started the Taliban movement in this area in 1994, and it conquered much of the country in the two years that followed.

Of the 22 American losses since Friday, 17 were the result of IEDs, according to figures provided by the ISAF. In that period, only one non-American coalition soldier was killed.

"It has all been in the south and the east, where most of the kinetic activity is at the moment," said Katie Kendrick, a spokeswoman for the ISAF in Kabul, referring to the fatalities.

The U.S. accounted for 55 of the 76 coalition deaths in August, which topped a painful summer for coalition forces, with 102 foreign soldiers killed in Afghanistan in June and a further 88 in July, according to the website iCasualties, which tracks losses in Afghanistan.

Kandahar is the spiritual home of the Taliban, from where Mullah Omar had ruled until Afghan and U.S. forces toppled him from power in 2001. The province is considered to be the primary goal of the Taliban, but until this year, analysts think that coalition forces didn't commit sufficient troops to the area.

While the other major operation in the south of Afghanistan this year — targeting the town of Marjah in Helmand province — had a defined and spectacular start, the Kandahar "mission" is more dispersed and less defined.

The coalition and Afghan forces say they've improved security in Kandahar city, though it remains a dangerous place, and gained control over most of the Arghandab valley to the north of the city. The next goal of the push, expected to start within days, in the south are the Taliban-controlled districts of Zhari and Panjwai, where there is little Afghan government presence.

"Zhari and Panjwai are the last pieces of this problem set," said a senior ISAF officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak on the record. "Today we own about 10 percent of those areas."

The coalition is under pressure to demonstrate progress in Afghanistan ahead of President Barack Obama's deadline of July 2011 to begin the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan. Obama in a Tuesday evening address is to declare an end to the seven-year combat mission in Iraq

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Returning Home by William Welch for USA Today

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Jeremy Harrison sees the warning signs in the Iraq war veterans who walk through his office door every day — flashbacks, inability to relax or relate, restless nights and more.

He recognizes them as symptoms of combat stress because he's trained to, as a counselor at the small storefront Vet Center here run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He recognizes them as well because he, too, has faced readjustment in the year since he returned from Iraq, where he served as a sergeant in an engineering company that helped capture Baghdad in 2003.

"Sometimes these sessions are helpful to me," Harrison says, taking a break from counseling some of the nation's newest combat veterans. "Because I deal with a lot of the same problems."

As the United States nears the two-year mark in its military presence in Iraq still fighting a violent insurgency, it is also coming to grips with one of the products of war at home: a new generation of veterans, some of them scarred in ways seen and unseen. While military hospitals mend the physical wounds, the VA is attempting to focus its massive health and benefits bureaucracy on the long-term needs of combat veterans after they leave military service. Some suffer from wounds of flesh and bone, others of emotions and psyche.

These injured and disabled men and women represent the most grievously wounded group of returning combat veterans since the Vietnam War, which officially ended in 1975. Of more than 5 million veterans treated at VA facilities last year, from counseling centers like this one to big hospitals, 48,733 were from the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many of the most common wounds aren't seen until soldiers return home. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is an often-debilitating mental condition that can produce a range of unwanted emotional responses to the trauma of combat. It can emerge weeks, months or years later. If left untreated, it can severely affect the lives not only of veterans, but their families as well.

Of the 244,054 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan already discharged from service, 12,422 have been in VA counseling centers for readjustment problems and symptoms associated with PTSD. Comparisons to past wars are difficult because emotional problems were often ignored or written off as "combat fatigue" or "shell shock." PTSD wasn't even an official diagnosis, accepted by the medical profession, until after Vietnam.

There is greater recognition of the mental-health consequences of combat now, and much research has been done in the past 25 years. The VA has a program that attempts to address them and supports extensive research. Harrison is one of 50 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars hired by the VA as counselors for their fellow veterans.

'It takes you back there'

Post-traumatic stress was defined in 1980, partly based on the experiences of soldiers and victims of war. It produces a wide range of symptoms in men and women who have experienced a traumatic event that provoked intense fear, helplessness or horror.
The events are sometimes re-experienced later through intrusive memories, nightmares, hallucinations or flashbacks, usually triggered by anything that symbolizes or resembles the trauma. Troubled sleep, irritability, anger, poor concentration, hypervigilance and exaggerated responses are often symptoms.

Individuals may feel depression, detachment or estrangement, guilt, intense anxiety and panic, and other negative emotions. They often feel they have little in common with civilian peers; issues that concern friends and family seem trivial after combat.

Harrison says they may even hit their partners during nightmares and never know it.

Many Iraq veterans have returned home to find the aftermath of combat presents them with new challenges:

• Jesus Bocanegra was an Army infantry scout for units that pursued Saddam Hussein in his hometown of Tikrit. After he returned home to McAllen, Texas, it took him six months to find a job.

He was diagnosed with PTSD and is waiting for the VA to process his disability claim. He goes to the local Vet Center but is unable to relate to the Vietnam-era counselors.

"I had real bad flashbacks. I couldn't control them," Bocanegra, 23, says. "I saw the murder of children, women. It was just horrible for anyone to experience."

Bocanegra recalls calling in Apache helicopter strikes on a house by the Tigris River where he had seen crates of enemy ammunition carried in. When the gunfire ended, there was silence.

But then children's cries and screams drifted from the destroyed home, he says. "I didn't know there were kids there," he says. "Those screams are the most horrible thing you can hear."

At home in the Rio Grande Valley, on the Mexico border, he says young people have no concept of what he's experienced. His readjustment has been difficult: His friends threw a homecoming party for him, and he got arrested for drunken driving on the way home.

"The Army is the gateway to get away from poverty here," Bocanegra says. "You go to the Army and expect to be better off, but the best job you can get (back home) is flipping burgers. ... What am I supposed to do now? How are you going to live?"

• Lt. Julian Goodrum, an Army reservist from Knoxville, Tenn., is being treated for PTSD with therapy and anti-anxiety drugs at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He checked himself into a civilian psychiatric hospital after he was turned away from a military clinic, where he had sought attention for his mental problems at Fort Knox, Ky. He's facing a court-martial for being AWOL while in the civilian facility.

Goodrum, 34, was a transportation platoon leader in Iraq, running convoys of supplies from Kuwait into Iraq during the invasion. He returned to the USA in the summer of 2003 and experienced isolation, depression, an inability to sleep and racing thoughts.

"It just accumulated until it overwhelmed me. I was having a breakdown and trying to get assistance," he says. "The smell of diesel would trigger things for me. Loud noises, crowds, heavy traffic give me a hard time now. I have a lot of panic. ... You feel like you're choking."

• Sean Huze, a Marine corporal awaiting discharge at Camp Lejeune, N.C., doesn't have PTSD but says everyone who saw combat suffers from at least some combat stress. He says the unrelenting insurgent threat in Iraq gives no opportunity to relax, and combat numbs the senses and emotions.

"There is no 'front,' " Huze says. "You go back to the rear, at the Army base in Mosul, and you go in to get your chow, and the chow hall blows up."

Huze, 30, says the horror often isn't felt until later. "I saw a dead child, probably 3 or 4 years old, lying on the road in Nasiriyah," he says. "It moved me less than if I saw a dead dog at the time. I didn't care. Then you come back, if you are fortunate enough, and hold your own child, and you think of the dead child you didn't care about. ... You think about how little you cared at the time, and that hurts."

Smells bring back the horror. "A barbecue pit — throw a steak on the grill, and it smells a lot like searing flesh," he says. "You go to get your car worked on, and if anyone is welding, the smell of the burning metal is no different than burning caused by rounds fired at it. It takes you back there instantly."

• Allen Walsh, an Army reservist, came back to Tucson 45 pounds lighter and with an injured wrist. He was unable to get his old job back teaching at a truck-driving school. He started his own business instead, a mobile barbecue service. He's been waiting nearly a year on a disability claim with the VA.

Walsh, 36, spent much of the war in Kuwait, attached to a Marine unit providing force protection and chemical decontamination. He says he has experienced PTSD, which he attributes to the constant threat of attack and demand for instant life-or-death decisions.

"It seemed like every day you were always pointing your weapon at somebody. It's something I have to live with," he says.

At home, he found he couldn't sleep more than three or four hours a night. When the nightmares began, he started smoking cigarettes. He'd find himself shaking and quick-tempered.

"Any little noise and I'd jump out of bed and run around the house with a gun," he says. "I'd wake up at night with cold sweats."

'A safe environment'

A recent Defense Department study of combat troops returning from Iraq found that soldiers and Marines who need counseling the most are least likely to seek it because of the stigma of mental health care in the military.

One in six troops questioned in the study admitted to symptoms of severe depression, PTSD or other problems. Of those, six in 10 felt their commanders would treat them differently and fellow troops would lose confidence if they acknowledged their problems.

A report this month by the Government Accountability Office said the VA "is a world leader in PTSD treatment." But it said the department "does not have sufficient capacity to meet the needs of new combat veterans while still providing for veterans of past wars." It said the department hasn't met its own goals for PTSD clinical care and education, even as it anticipates "greater numbers of veterans with PTSD seeking VA services."

Harrison, who was a school counselor and Army Reservist from Wheeling, W.Va., before being called to active duty in January 2003, thinks cases of PTSD may be even more common than the military's one-in-six estimate.

He is on the leading edge of the effort to help these veterans back home. Harrison and other counselors invite Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to stop in to talk. Often, that leads to counseling sessions and regular weekly group therapy. If appropriate, they refer the veterans to VA doctors for drug therapies such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.

"First of all, I let them talk. I want to find out all their problems," he says. "Then I assure them they're not alone. It's OK."

Fifty counselors from the latest war is a small number, considering the VA operates 206 counseling centers across the country. Their strategy is to talk with veterans about readjustment before they have problems, or before small problems become big ones. The VA also has staff at 136 U.S. military bases now, including five people at Walter Reed, where many of the most grievously injured are sent.

The toughest part of helping veterans, Harrison says, is getting them to overcome fears of being stigmatized and to step into a Vet Center. "They think they can handle the situation themselves," he says.

Vet Centers provide help for broader issues of readjustment back to civilian life, including finding a job, alcohol and drug abuse counseling, sexual trauma counseling, spouse and family counseling, and mental or emotional problems that fall short of PTSD.

More than 80% of the staff are veterans, and 60% served in combat zones, says Al Batres, head of the VA's readjustment counseling service. "We're oriented toward peer counseling, and we provide a safe environment for soldiers who have been traumatized," he says.

"A Vietnam veteran myself, it would have been so great if we'd had this kind of outreach," says Johnny Bragg, director of the Vet Center where Harrison works. "If you can get with the guys who come back fresh ... and actually work with their trauma and issues, hopefully over the years you won't see the long-term PTSD."

In all cases, the veteran has to be the one who wants to talk before counselors can help. "Once they come through the door, they usually come back," Harrison says. "For them, this is the only chance to talk to somebody, because their families don't understand, their friends don't understand. That's the big thing. They can't talk to anyone. They can't relate to anyone."

Monday, August 30, 2010

US Must Alter Strategy by David Nakamura and Joshua Partlow

Top Karzai aide says U.S. must alter its strategy

An Afghan soldier, right, and a security officer stand over the body of a Taliban fighter who was killed when U.S. and Afghan forces repelled attacks on two U.S. bases in eastern Afghanistan. Twenty-one insurgents, some disguised in U.S. uniforms, were killed, NATO officials said. Network NewsX Profile

KABUL - Afghan President Hamid Karzai's chief of staff said Saturday that he is not sure the government is "on a path to success" in securing the country against the Taliban and that it could fail altogether if the United States does not significantly alter its strategy in fighting the nine-year-old war.

In a rare extended interview, Mohammad Umer Daudzai, who usually plays a behind-the-scenes role at the presidential palace, said he was speaking out because media reports of worsening U.S.-Afghan relations are "taking up a lot of our time" and have had a damaging effect on the fight against a growing insurgency.

On Saturday morning, Taliban insurgents disguised as American soldiers attacked two U.S. bases in eastern Afghanistan and managed to breach the perimeter of one base before being repelled. The simultaneous assaults on Forward Operating Base Salerno and nearby Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost province ended with 21 insurgents killed but no U.S. deaths, NATO officials said.

While stressing that the Karzai government is committed to a significant NATO troop presence, Daudzai called on the international forces to stop invasive night raids on residents' homes and to distance their soldiers from "the daily life of the people," a sharp divergence from Gen. David H. Petraeus's strategy of having soldiers embedded in communities. The coalition policies have undermined Karzai's authority and Afghan sovereignty, Daudzai said, and led to "blame games" between the two sides.

In a meeting with Petraeus last week, Daudzai said that he was blunt with the U.S. military commander.

"I said, 'General Petraeus, winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans is not the job of a soldier. That's the job of an Afghan,' " Daudzai said.

Daudzai described Karzai as "concerned" and committed to changing the U.S. approach to the war.

"He's putting those conditions there, that if we do not review, then we will be on the path toward losing," he said. "We need to review our strategy, our code of conduct, so that Afghans believe that this is a sovereign state and President Karzai is the ultimate decision maker in this country. We are in the last stage, the last chance of winning this war. So we cannot afford to spend a lot of time on accusations and counter-accusations."

Daudzai's statements come in the wake of media reports that many of Karzai's aides have long been secretly paid by the CIA. That revelation has raised questions about the duplicity of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, where U.S. officials are pushing Karzai to crack down on corruption among his aides, some of whom may be collecting regular salaries from the CIA.

The Karzai administration pushed back strongly last week against growing U.S. pressure. On Monday, presidential spokesman Waheed Omer said that corruption in connection with international contracts for Afghan companies was a bigger problem than any wrongdoing within the government.

But U.S. officials have grown increasingly alarmed about Karzai's lack of progress in reforming his government, and many think official corruption has become the greatest obstacle to winning over Afghans from the Taliban. Last week, Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar, a deputy attorney general, was fired from his job, telling the New York Times that it was because he had refused to block corruption investigations of top Afghan officials.

Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Afghanistan's national security adviser, said that Faqiryar, at 72, was too old by law to hold his post. "His existence is illegal," Spanta said.

On Saturday, Daudzai disputed the allegations that Karzai aides were on the CIA payroll, stating flatly that none of the 500 palace employees is taking money from any foreign intelligence agency.

"I know nobody is paid here by the CIA," he said. "Of course, people are paid by the United States. The whole government is paid, one way or the other, by the United States. That's different. I'm saying none of the 500 are paid by CIA. None."

Such allegations directly imperil U.S. and Afghan forces in the field, Daudzai added, because the Taliban use the media reports to suggest that the Karzai administration is a "puppet" government that is not looking out for the public interest.

"This is what Taliban is preaching, in villages, to Afghan youth," he said. "They say, 'Who is President Karzai? He is a puppet of the United States, and everybody around him is paid by the CIA. So there is no government; it's an occupied country, and let's go and fight them.' "

Some Karzai aides have said privately that the president and his administration have begun to lose hope in NATO's ability to win the war and that Karzai thinks a drastic change in policy is necessary to regain momentum.

The aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly, said Karzai is particularly angry with the international community's unwillingness to get tough on Pakistan. Karzai has begun talking directly with Pakistan about ways to potentially broker reconciliation with less hard-line elements of the Taliban because, one aide said, he is desperate to end the bloodshed.

Daudzai said that anonymous aides do not speak for the president and that Karzai is not calling for a drawing down of U.S. or international forces. To the contrary, Daudzai said, the president thinks that NATO forces should remain at current levels for at least two more years, beyond the July 2011 timeline President Obama has suggested that the drawing down could begin.

What Karzai wants, rather, is for Western forces to take a less-active role in engaging with residents, leaving such interaction to Afghan army, police and government officials.

"We want, as part of that review, for the international forces to gradually take distance from the daily life of people," Daudzai said. "Because people are getting tired with the way they are behaved with."

Daudzai described a recent evening when he headed home from the palace only to be caught in a time-consuming traffic check by international troops.

"That's not their job. . . . That's the Afghan police job," he said. "Or in the rush hour, going into the market with these heavy cars, not letting anybody overtake them. Or on the main highways, they go on the wrong day. Like, for instance, on New Year's Day, everybody goes out for a picnic, then you see a huge NATO convoy comes on that day and blocks the whole road.

"This is what we mean by taking distance from their lives."

The Afghan War is About Pakistan and India: Fred Kaplan

U.S. soldiers in AfghanistanDexter Filkins' article from Pakistan in the Aug. 23 New York Times raises anew the question that has long haunted even many supporters of the U.S. war in Afghanistan: Have we gotten ourselves into something that's way over our heads?

There are reports that a much-celebrated triumph of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation in combating jihadist terrorism—the joint arrest, earlier this year, of a top Taliban leader in Karachi—was, in fact, a ruse.

It turns out that the arrested Taliban leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, had been engaged in secret peace talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Pakistani security agents used the CIA to help them track down Baradar precisely because they wanted to shut down any peace initiative that didn't involve Pakistan.

In the weeks after Baradar's arrest, Filkins reports, the security forces detained as many as 22 other Taliban leaders, as a result of which the peace talks ended. Filkins quotes a Pakistani security official as saying, "We picked up Baradar and the others because they were trying to make a deal without us."

This official also told Filkins that they warned the detained Taliban leaders not to conduct any more talks with the Afghan government without Pakistan's permission. A "former Western diplomat with long experience in the region" confirmed to Filkins that the ISI—Pakistan's intelligence service—sent a warning to its Taliban protégés. "The message from the ISI," he said, "was: 'No flirting.' "

So here's the situation: All the top U.S. officials, from President Barack Obama and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down, have said that winning this war will ultimately require making a deal with "reconcilable" members of the Taliban; yet our main ally in this war—whose assistance is necessary for victory by any definition—has been arresting any Taliban members who try their hand at reconciling.

Back when he was commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus once asked, "How does this thing end?" He must be asking the same question, with a considerably deeper furrow in his brow, now that he's the commander in Afghanistan.

And Iraq was the proverbial cakewalk compared with Afghanistan. The difference isn't merely that Iraqi insurgents could be co-opted because of the threat from foreign jihadists (whereas the Afghan Taliban are homegrown), or that Iraq's sectarian divisions are basically among Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd (whereas Afghanistan's schisms are multiple and tribal), or that Iraq is a fairly modern, literate nation (whereas much of Afghanistan is nearly medieval).

The main difference—and the difference that's at the core of the Pakistan problem—is that the Iraq war was mainly about Iraq, whereas the Afghanistan war is mainly about Pakistan, and Pakistan's worries are mainly about India.

Pakistani leaders, as is well known, have been reluctant to devote much effort to combating Taliban fighters on the western border with Afghanistan because, in their eyes, the main threat and mortal enemy is the country across their eastern border—India.

As Barnett Rubin, an expert on the region and a professor at New York University, put it in a Foreign Affairs article three years ago:

Pakistan's military establishment has always approached the various wars in and around Afghanistan as a function of its main institutional and national security interests: first and foremost, balancing India, a country with vastly more people and resources, whose elites, at least in Pakistani eyes, do not fully accept the legitimacy of Pakistan's existence