Aug 31, 2009

Reporters to be rated on the quality of our work, not on our politics

Pentagon Denies Rating Journalists

PR firm did briefs for Afghan mission

By Tom Vanden Brook
USA Today
August 31, 2009

The U.S. military command in Afghanistan plans to terminate its $1.5 million contract with a public relations firm for services that include assessing journalists' work before embedding them with troops, a Pentagon spokesman said Sunday.

Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the top military spokesman in Afghanistan, said he decided to end the contract because it was becoming a ! distraction, Stars and Stripes reported on its website. Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, confirmed Smith's decision and referred questions to commanders in Kabul.

The Rendon Group, a Washington-based public relations firm, provides the military with dossiers on reporters including a section on the "perspective, style and tone" of their work, according to a sample profile.

The attempt to determine a reporter's accuracy erases "the line between government review of the press and censorship," says Ronald Collins of the First Amendment Center, which studies media issues.

"It taxes the mind of reasonable people to think that this information was being collected for any purpose other than to weed out journalists whose accounts differ from the government's," he said.

But Rendon denied it was trying to shape the news.

In a statement on its website, Rendon said it was characterizing stories, not reporters. For example, a reporter's ! story may have been characterized as negative if the event was negativ e, such as a suicide bombing or kidnapping, it said. The information it provided was not intended to be used for accepting or rejecting a journalist's requests, it said.

The Army had rejected two out of 143 reporters who requested embed assignments when the 101st Airborne Division oversaw the Rendon contract, according to Maj. Patrick Seiber of the 101st. Both were rejected for inaccuracy and release of classified information, Seiber said.

Rendon's reports were one of many factors in the decision, he said. And in both cases the news organizations were allowed to embed other journalists.

The 101st left Afghanistan in April and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, the top command for U.S. troops, assumed the contract. Since then no journalist has been denied an embedding assignment in Afghanistan based on their previous coverage under the new command, Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, a military spokeswoman in Kabul, said Sunday.

The information collected by Rendo! n was not used to rate reporters, according to Air Force Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a military spokeswoman. Instead, it serves as background material to help military leaders prepare for interviews.

"The Rendon contract provides several analytic reports, to include characterization of specific topical stories/events as positive, negative or neutral, as well as whether media reporting is an accurate portrayal of the facts as we know them," Mathias said in an e-mail.

Taliban Stepping Up As Karzai Fails

Taliban Ready If Afghan Government Fails, Analyst Warns
August 31, 2009

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Afghanistan's government must fight corruption and quickly deliver services to Afghans, because Taliban militants are filling gaps and winning support to their cause, a top counter-insurgency expert said on Monday.

The Taliban were already running courts, hospitals and even ! an ombudsman in parallel to the government, making a real difference to local people, said David Kilcullen, a senior adviser to U.S. commander General Stanley McChrystal.

"A government that is losing to a counter-insurgency isn't being outfought, it is being out-governed. And that's what's happening in Afghanistan," Kilcullen told Australia's National Press Club.

Afghanistan has been in a state of political limbo since August 20 presidential elections, with partial results so far placing President Hamid Karzai in the lead, but not by enough to avoid a second round against his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah. But the election, which the Taliban failed to disrupt with rocket attacks, has been marred by allegations of fraud with around a third of the votes counted.

Kilcullen, an Australian military officer and adviser to past U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said Karzai's government was failing to maintain a rapport with local people, who were now! turning to the Taliban for court judgments, education and even fair t axation assessment.

A network of 15 Sharia courts in the Taliban-dominated south spent relatively little time on hardline Islamic issues, as Westerners usually believed, but instead focussed 95 percent of effort on civil issues, like land and inheritance disputes.

Local people would laugh at the idea that they could go to the police if a bike or goat was stolen, Kilcullen said, while the Taliban had even set up an ombudsman's office near the southern militant stronghold of Kandahar to hear complaints.

"It's a direct challenge to the international security forces," he said.

"If the Taliban do something that offends you, you go to the ombudsman and you complain, and they hear the case. Sometimes they fire or even execute Taliban commanders for breaking the code of conduct."

Kilcullen said hard fighting in Afghanistan would likely last another two years, after which insurgents would hopefully believe it was better to negotiate than continue combat ! with international and government forces.

That would be followed by a three-year transition to effective Afghan government and five-year overwatch period involving international forces as back-up, he said.

Aug 30, 2009

Pakistan: NOT our Ally

U.S. Accuses Pakistan of Altering American-Made Missiles
The accusation reporteldy stems from U.S. detection of a suspicious missile test on April 23 which was never announced by Pakistan and appeared to give it a new offensive weapon.
Sunday, August 30, 2009

The United States has accused Pakistan of illegally modifying American-made missiles to expand its ability to hit land-based targets in what could be a direct threat to India, the New York Times reported.

The accusation triggers a new round of U.S.-Pakistani tensions amid concern over the country's weapons development. It stems from U.S. detection of a suspicious missile test on April 23 which was never announced by Pakistan and appeared to give it a new offensive weapon.

Military and intelligence officials told the Times they suspect the Harpoon antiship missiles the U.S. sold Pakistan in the '80s had been modified, which would be a violation of the Arms Control Export Act.

"There's a concerted effort to get these guys to slow down," a senior administration official told the Times. "Their energies are misdirected."

A senior Pakistani official called the accusation by the U.S. "incorrect," saying that the missile tested was developed by Pakistan, just as it had modified North Korean designs to build weapons capable of striking India.

The move could also trigger an arms race with India that the U.S. has tried to end.

"The focus of our concern is that this is a potential unauthorized modification of a maritime antiship defensive capability to an offensive land-attack missile," another senior administration official told the Times. "When we have concerns, we act aggressively," the official added.

Aug 29, 2009

McChrystal Agreement w/Karzai Hinders Troops

Growing Dissatisfaction Among The Troops

Special Report With Bret Baier (FNC), 6:00 P.M.
Aug 28, 2009

SHANNON BREAM: The U.S. military says an American service member was killed today in a bomb blast in Afghanistan, making August the deadliest month for U.S. forces since the war began.

National security correspondent Jennifer Griffin reports on growing dissatisfaction among the troops with one of the rules they have to live and possibly die by.

JENNIFER GRIFFIN: Not only did U.S. forces in Afghanistan inherit an enemy they cannot see, but now these troops are finding they’re required to hand over insurgents to Afghan authorities within 96 hours or release them, according to a restrictive rule agreed to by NATO member states and inherited by Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

According to one top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, quote, “It is a big limitation. In COIN [counterinsurgency operations] not being able to detain individuals to conduct interrogations and follow on exploitation is very restrictive. Something that we didn’t have to worry about in Iraq.”

MAJ. GEN. ROBERT SCALES (RET.) [Fox News Military Analyst]:This 96-hour NATO rule is driving the troops nuts. They call it the revolving door problem. And it goes like this: They’ll capture a prisoner and they have 96 hours to turn him over to the Afghan authorities.

GRIFFIN: Marines in Southern Helmand Province are balking and in some cases, Fox has learned, are stalling or refusing to send helicopters to pick up a detainee, knowing he will be released.

SCALES:The problem with that, particularly in the south, is that often it’s a 24-hour effort just to get a prisoner by helicopter to the Afghan authorities. In addition to that, the troops don’t have enough time to interrogate these prisoners when they follow the rules. And so what happens all too often is they’ll take a prisoner who knows something and they’ll put him on a helicopter and watch the information fly away. It’s absolutely outrageous.

GRIFFIN: A Marine spokesman in Afghanistan adds, quote, “The routine logistics of transporting people and materiel are extremely challenging. So the time-sensitive requirement for moving detainees adds another challenge to a situation that’s already pretty tough.”

McChrystal’s strategy review will be released by the Pentagon next week, but I’m told it does not demand the 96-hour rule be changed, even though it hampers U.S. troops’ ability to fight and win.

At the Pentagon, Jennifer Griffin, Fox News.

Aug 23, 2009

Plenty of Marines: Where's the Afghan Gov ?

Marines Fight Taliban With Little Aid From Afghans

August 23, 2009

KHAN NESHIN, Afghanistan — American Marines secured this desolate village in southern Afghanistan nearly two months ago, and last week they were fortifying bases, on duty at checkpoints and patrolling in full body armor in 120-degree heat. Despite those efforts, only a few hundred Afghans were persuaded to come out here and vote for president on Thursday.

In a region the Taliban have lorded over for six years, and where they remain a menacing presence, American officers say their troops alone are not enough to reassure Afghans. Something is missing that has left even the recently appointed district governor feeling dismayed. “I don’t get any support from the government,” said the governor, Massoud Ahmad Rassouli Balouch.

Governor Massoud has no body of advisers to help run the area, no doctors to provide health care, no teachers, no professionals to do much of anything. About all he says he does have are police officers who steal and a small group of Afghan soldiers who say they are here for “vacation.”

It all raises serious questions about what the American mission is in southern Afghanistan — to secure the area, or to administer it — and about how long Afghans will tolerate foreign troops if they do not begin to see real benefits from their own government soon. American commanders say there is a narrow window to win over local people from the guerrillas.

Securing the region is overwhelming enough. The Marines have just enough forces to clear out small pockets like Khan Neshin. And despite the Americans’ presence, Afghan officials said 290 people voted here last week at what is the only polling place in a region the size of Connecticut. Some officers were stunned even that many voted, given the reports of widespread intimidation.

Even with the new operation in Helmand Province, which involves the Marines here and more than 3,000 others as part of President Obama’s troop deployments, the military lacks the troop strength even to try to secure some significant population centers and guerrilla strongholds in central and southern Helmand.

And they do not have nearly enough forces to provide the kinds of services throughout the region that would make a meaningful difference in Afghans’ lives, which, in any case, is a job American commanders would rather leave for the Afghan government.

Meanwhile, Afghans in Khan Neshin, the Marines’ southernmost outpost in Helmand Province, are coming to the Americans with requests for medical care, repairs of clogged irrigation canals and the reopening of schools.

“Without the Afghan government, we will not be successful,” said Capt. Korvin Kraics, the battalion’s lawyer, who is in Khan Neshin. “You need local-level bureaucracy to defeat the insurgency. Without the stability that brings, the Taliban can continue to maintain control.”

Local administration is a problem throughout Afghanistan, and many rural areas suffer from corrupt local officials — if they have officials at all. But southern Helmand has long been one of the most ungovernable regions, a vast, inhospitable desert dominated by opium traffickers and the Taliban.

It not clear what promises of support from the Afghan government the Americans had, or whether they undertook the mission knowing that the backing necessary to complete it, at least in southern Helmand, might not arrive soon — if at all. The Americans in Khan Neshin doubt that the Afghan government promised much of anything.

Governor Massoud said he personally admired the Marines here, from the Second Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, but he said many people “just don’t want them here.”

He estimated that two of every three local residents supported the Taliban, mostly because they make a living growing poppy for the drug trade, which the Taliban control. Others support them for religious reasons or because they object to foreign forces.

Not least, people understand that the Taliban have not disappeared, but simply fallen back to Garmsir, 40 miles north, and will almost surely try to return.

Lt. Col. Tim Grattan, the battalion commander, said the local residents’ ambivalence reflected fears of what could happen to anyone who sided with the Marines, an apprehension stoked by past operations that sent troops in only for short periods.

“They are on the fence,” Colonel Grattan said. “They want to go with a winner. They want to see if we stay around and will be able to protect them from the Taliban and any repercussions.”

As for follow-up assistance, Colonel Grattan said the Afghan national government “has been ineffective to date.”

The shortfall in Afghan government support is important not only in terms of defining the Marines’ mission here, but also because it crimps their operations.

The Marines, unlike units in some other regions, answer to a NATO-led command and are under orders to defer to Afghan military and civilian officials, even if there are none nearby.

For instance, Marines must release detainees after 96 hours or turn them over to Afghan forces for prosecution, even if the nearest prosecutors or judges are 80 miles away. Some detainees who the Marines say are plainly implicated in attacks using improvised explosive devices or mortars have been released.

The problems are compounded by a shortage of American troops, despite the recent reinforcements. The Marine battalion, which deployed with less than 40 percent of its troops, can regularly patrol only a small portion of its 6,000-square-mile area.

To do even that they have stretched: three-fifths of the Marines are stationed at checkpoints and a handful of austere outposts ringing Khan Neshin, living without air-conditioning or refrigerated water.

That leaves no regular troop presence across the vast southernmost reaches of Helmand. On the Pakistani border the town of Baramcha — a major smuggling hub and Taliban stronghold — remains untouched by regular military units. American and Afghan officials say Baramcha’s influence radiates through southern Helmand, undermining Marine and British military units elsewhere. “It’s the worst place in Afghanistan,” Governor Massoud said.

If the Afghan national government can provide more resources and security forces — and the Marines add more men — then the United States may be able to leave in two to three years, Colonel Grattan said.

Without that, he said, it could take much longer. For now, little help is materializing.

Frustrated, Governor Massoud said his “government is weak and cannot provide agricultural officials, school officials, prosecutors and judges.”

He said he was promised 120 police officers, but only 50 showed up. He said many were untrustworthy and poorly trained men who stole from the people, a description many of the Americans agree with. No more than 10 percent appear to have attended a police academy, they say. “Many are just men from the streets,” the governor said.

The Afghan National Army contingent appears sharper — even if only one-sixth the size that Governor Massoud said he was promised — but the soldiers have resisted some missions because they say they were sent not to fight, but to recuperate.

“We came here to rest, then we are going somewhere else,” said Lt. Javed Jabar Khail, commander of the 31-man unit. The Marines say they hope the next batch of Afghan soldiers will not be expecting a holiday.

In the meantime, at the local bazaar, just outside the Marines’ base, the foreign troop presence remains a hard sell.

When one man, Abdul Hanan, complained that “more people are dying,” First Lt. Jake Weldon told him that the Taliban “take away your schools, they take away your hospitals; we bring those things.”

Mr. Hanan remained doubtful. Some people have fled the area, fearful of violence since the Marines have arrived. He asked, “So you want to build us a hospital or school, but if nobody is here, what do we do?”

Aug 22, 2009

The DoD Never Learns...More Contractors than Troops

Afghanistan Contractors Outnumber Troops

Despite Surge in U.S. Deployments, More Civilians Are Posted in War Zone; Reliance Echoes the Controversy in Iraq

By August Cole
Wall Street Journal
August 22, 2009

(pict is of hockey rink in Camp Kandahar)

Even as U.S. troops surge to new highs in Afghanistan they are outnumbered by military contractors working alongside them, according to a Defense Department census due to be distributed to Congress -- illustrating how hard it is for the U.S. to wean itself from the large numbers of war-zone contractors that proved controversial in Iraq.

The number of military contractors in Afghanistan rose to almost 74,000 by June 30, far outnumbering the roughly 58,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground at that point. As the military force in Afghanistan grows further, to a planned 68,000 by the end of the year, the Defense Department expects the ranks of contractors to increase more.

The military requires contractors for essential functions ranging from supplying food and laundry services to guarding convoys and even military bases -- functions that were once performed by military personnel but have been outsourced so a slimmed-down military can focus more on battle-related tasks.

The Obama administration has sought to reduce its reliance on military contractors, worried that the Pentagon was ceding too much power to outside companies, failing to rein in costs and not achieving desired results.

President Obama has repeatedly called defense contractors to task since taking office. "In Iraq, too much money has been paid out for services that were never performed, buildings that were never completed, companies that skimmed off the top," he said during a March speech.

In April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced plans to hire 30,000 civilian officials during to cut the percentage of contractors in the Pentagon's own work force, and last month he told an audience of soldiers that contractor use overseas needed better controls.

Military contractors' personnel for a time outnumbered U.S. troops in Iraq. The large contractor force was accompanied by issues ranging from questionable costs billed to the government to shooting of civilians by armed security guards. A September 2007 shooting incident involving Blackwater Worldwide guards working for the U.S. State Department, in which 17 Iraqis were killed, forced the U.S. to aggressively rework oversight of security firms.

Yet in Afghanistan as in Iraq, the Pentagon has found that the military has shrunk so much since the Cold War ended that it isn't big enough to sustain operations without using companies to directly support military operations.

"Because of the surge, we're trying to get ahead of the troops," said Gary Motsek, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Program Support, who helps oversee the Pentagon's battlefield contractor efforts. "So we're pushing contractors in place, doing it as fast as we can, and trying to be responsible about it."

The heavy reliance on contractors in Afghanistan signals that a situation that defense planners once considered temporary has become a standard fixture of U.S. military operations.

"For a sustained fight like our current commitments, the U.S. military can't go to war without contractors on the battlefield," said Steven Arnold, a former Army general and retired executive at logistics specialists Ecolog USA and KBR Inc., military contractors formerly owned by H alliburton Co. He added, "For that matter, neither can NATO."

That poses a challenge for military planners who must keep tabs on tens of thousands of people who are crucial to their operations yet are civilians outside the chain of command.

In Congress, there's a particular concern about security contractors who might upset diplomatic and military relationships. "We've had incidents when force has been used, we believe, improperly against citizens by contractors," said Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. "This creates huge problems, obviously, for those who have been injured or killed and their families, but it also creates huge problems for us and our policies in Afghanistan."

In Iraq, as of June 30 there were 119,706 military contractors, down 10% from three months earlier and smaller than the number of U.S. troops, which stood at approximately 132,000. But as the Pentagon has been drawing down contractor! s in Iraq, their ranks have been growing in Afghanistan -- rising by 9% over that same three-month period to 73,968. More than two-thirds of those are local, which reflects the desire to employ Afghans as part of the counterinsurgency there.

Many contractors in Afghanistan are likely to face combat-like conditions, particularly those manning far-flung outposts, and are exposed to possible militant attacks -- blurring the line between soldier and support staff.

Aug 21, 2009

Hard Choices in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, The Choice Is Ours

By Richard N. Haass
New York Times
August 21, 2009

SPEAKING on Monday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Phoenix, President Obama could not have been more definitive. “We must never forget,” he said of the conflict in Afghanistan. “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity.”

The president did not break new ground so much as reinforce existing policy. Earlier this year, he decided to send an additional 17,000 combat soldiers and 4,000 trainers to Afghanistan, raising American force levels there to more than 60,000. And in March he articulated a broader mission: The United States would now “take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east,” in effect making the United States a full party to Afghanistan’s civil war.

As a result, American soldiers are fighting the Taliban, partly to provide time and space while Afghan forces are better trained and partly to persuade some Taliban that resistance does not pay. Call it armed state-building.

But is Afghanistan a war of necessity? And if not — if in fact it is a war of choice — so what?

Wars of necessity must meet two tests. They involve, first, vital national interests and, second, a lack of viable alternatives to the use of military force to protect those interests. World War II was a war of necessity, as were the Korean War and the Persian Gulf war.

In the wake of 9/11, invading Afghanistan was a war of necessity. The United States needed to act in self-defense to oust the Taliban. There was no viable alternative.

Now, however, with a friendly government in Kabul, is our military presence still a necessity?

Of course, our interests in Afghanistan include making it difficult for Al Qaeda to mount operations from that country and limiting Taliban use of Afghan territory to destabilize neighboring Pakistan. Minimizing the chance of a terrorist attack on American citizens is vital, as is making sure that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

But even if the United States were to succeed in Afghanistan — with “success” defined as bringing into existence an Afghan government strong enough to control most of its territory — terrorists could still operate from there and would put down roots elsewhere. And Pakistan’s future would remain uncertain at best.

Moreover, there are alternatives to current American policy. One would reduce our troops’ ground-combat operations and emphasize drone attacks on terrorists, the training of Afghan police officers and soldiers, development aid and diplomacy to fracture the Taliban.

A more radical alternative would withdraw all United States military forces from Afghanistan and center on regional and global counterterrorism efforts and homeland security initiatives to protect ourselves from threats that might emanate from Afghanistan. Under this option, our policy toward Afghanistan would resemble the approach toward Somalia and other countries where governments are unable or unwilling to take on terrorists and the United States eschews military intervention.

Afghanistan is thus a war of choice — Mr. Obama’s war of choice. In this way, Afghanistan is analogous to Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo and today’s Iraq. Wars of choice are not inherently good or bad. It depends on whether military involvement would probably accomplish more than it would cost and whether employing force is more promising than the alternatives.

Making this assessment in Afghanistan is difficult. The Taliban are resourceful and patient and can use Pakistan as a sanctuary. It is not obvious that Afghans can overcome ethnic and tribal loyalties, corruption and personal rivalries. No matter who is declared the winner, yesterday’s election is almost certain to leave the country even more divided.

The risk of ending our military effort in Afghanistan is that Kabul could be overrun and the government might fall. The risk of the current approach (or even one that involves dispatching another 10,000 or 20,000 American soldiers, as the president appears likely to do) is that it might produce the same result in the end, but at a higher human, military and economic cost.

All of which makes Afghanistan not just a war of choice but a tough choice. My judgment is that American interests are sufficiently important, prospects for achieving limited success are sufficiently high and the risks of alternative policies are sufficiently great to proceed, for now, with Mr. Obama’s measured strategy. But the administration, Congress and the American people (who, recent polls suggest, are turning against the war) must undertake regular, rigorous assessments of whether these efforts are bearing fruit or are likely to. If it appears they are not, the president should roll back the combat role or withdraw militarily.

If Afghanistan were a war of necessity, it would justify any level of effort. It is not and does not. It is not certain that doing more will achieve more. And no one should forget that doing more in Afghanistan lessens our ability to act elsewhere, including North Korea, Iran and Iraq. There needs to be a limit to what the United States does in Afghanistan and how long it is prepared to do it, lest we find ourselves unable to contend with other wars, of choice or of necessity, if and when they arise.

Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of “War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars.”

Aug 20, 2009

The Air Force is Upset ? Truth Hurts!

A "mindless shot?" Read Gen Petraeus's remarks below. HOOAH!!

Beyond Outrageous
CENTCOM Boss Takes Mindless Shot at USAF
August 19, 2009

"Joking" comments of Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of US Central Command, during his presentation at the Marine Corps Association Foundation dinner on July 30 belittled the contributions of the Air Force to the joint force.

In his prepared remarks, Petraeus said: "Then, of course, 25,000 feet above them [soldiers and marines], an Air Force pilot flips aside his ponytail and looks down at them through his cockpit as he flies over. 'Boy,' he radios his wingman, 'It must be tough down there.' "

We reviewed the video to get his actual remarks and found he embellished his "joke," changing the altitude to 30,000 feet and saying, "… an Air Force pilot flips aside his ponytail—I don't know how that got in there; I know they haven't had ponytails in a year or two—and looks down … ."

Petraeus, as leader of CENTCOM, the joint force charged with running operations in Southwest Asia, should have known better than to make such disparaging remarks, even in jest. Certainly, his handlers at CENTCOM finally realized the effect they would have—they excised that part of his remarks from the version on the CENTCOM Web site. (We found the original version—along with the video—still posted on August 19 at the Marine Corps Association Web site.)

In all fairness, early in his actual remarks, Petraeus did offer this joint praise, saying, "The best examples of true importance have been found in our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who have deployed in harm's way."

However, those words do not alleviate the offensiveness—and un-jointness—of his later comments. They are symptomatic of the long-held belief of many ground commanders that airpower is no longer, if it ever was, relevant. (Read Fraudulent Flak from the September 2000 Air Force Magazine.)

Here's the entire section from Petraeus' remarks with the "joke" as given at the dinner:

"Come to think of it, in fact another bedrock element of the Marine Corps is unquestionably having the best recruiting ads on television. [Laughter] But this concept is not just an advertisement. The Marines' sense of toughness permeates the Corps' lore as well as its reality. To recall an illustrative story, a soldier is trudging through the muck in the midst of a downpour with a 60-pound rucksack on his back. This is tough, he thinks to himself. Just ahead of him trudges an Army ranger with an 80-pound pack on his back. This is really tough, he thinks. And ahead of him is a Marine with a 90-pound pack on, and he thinks to himself, I love how tough this is. [laughter, applause] Then, of course, 30,000 feet above them, [laughter] 30,000 feet above them an Air Force pilot flips aside his ponytail. [laughter, applause] Now — I'm sorry. I don't know how that got in there,[laughter]I know they haven't had ponytails in a year or two[laughter] and looks down at them through his cockpit as he flies over. "Boy", he radios his wingman, "it must be tough down there." [laughter] Well, TV commercials and all joking aside, we've all seen that Marines truly and consistently live up to their reputation."

Low Vote = A Taliban Victory. A Low Vote So Far

Turnout Appears Low as Afghans Vote for President

Filed at 5:41 a.m. ET

KABUL (AP) -- Taliban threats appeared to dampen voter turnout in the militant south Thursday as Afghans chose the next president for their deeply troubled country. Insurgents launched scattered rocket, suicide and bomb attacks that closed some polling sites.

Low turnout in the south would harm President Hamid Karzai's re-election chances and boost the standing of his top challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. Turnout in the north appeared to be high, a good sign for Abdullah.

International officials have predicted an imperfect election -- Afghanistan's second-ever direct presidential vote -- but expressed hope that Afghans would accept it as legitimate, a key component of President Barack Obama's war strategy. Taliban militants, though, pledged to disrupt the vote and circulated threats that those who cast ballots will be punished.

A voting official in Kandahar, the south's largest city and the Taliban's spiritual birthplace, said voting appeared to be 40 percent lower than during the country's 2004 presidential election. The official asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to release turnout figures. Associated Press journalists reported low turnouts in Kabul compared with longer lines seen in the 2004 vote.

Scattered reports of violence trickled in from around the country. Security companies in the capital reported at least five blasts, and Kabul police exchanged fire for more than an hour with a group of armed men; two suicide bombers died in the clash, police said. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed that five gunmen were fighting with police.

Karzai, dressed in his traditional purple-and-green-striped robe, voted at 7 a.m. at a Kabul high school. He dipped his index finger in indelible ink -- a fraud prevention measure -- and held it up for the cameras. Presidential palace officials released a rare photo of Karzai's wife casting her vote.

"I request that the Afghan people come out and vote, so through their ballot Afghanistan will be more secure, more peaceful" Karzai said. "Vote. No violence."
Karzai, who has held power since the Taliban was ousted in late 2001 by a U.S.-led invasion, is favored to finish first among 36 official candidates, although a late surge by Abdullah could force a runoff if no one wins more than 50 percent.
Preliminary results were expected to be announced in Kabul on Saturday.

The top U.N. official in the country, Kai Eide, acknowledged scattered attacks but said the election "seems to be working well." A U.N. spokesman said there were no early reports of widespread irregularities, though ahead of the vote, the country had been buzzing with rumors of ballot-stuffing, bogus registrations and trafficking in registration cards on behalf of Karzai -- allegations his campaign has denied.
Presidential candidate Ramazan Bashardost, who had 10 percent support in pre-election polls, said he washed off the supposedly indelible ink and called on authorities to "immediately stop this election."

"This is not an election, this is a comedy," Bashardost said.

Militants carried out a string of assaults around the country. In northern Baghlan province, insurgent attacks closed 14 polling sites, and the police chief of Old Baghlan city and several police were killed, said Abdul Malik, the provincial election director.

''Some of the stations are open, with the presence of our personnel, but there is no one coming to vote. I told them to wait until the end of the day before coming back,'' Malik said.

An AP reporter in southern Helmand province said more than 20 rockets had landed in the capital of Lashkar Gah, including one near a line of voters that killed a child.

A blast at a high school in Kabul serving as a polling center wounded an election monitor and briefly shut down voting, an election observer named Ezatullah said. Abdullah Azizi, a 40-year-old teacher, said he was at Abdul Hai Habibi school when the explosion occurred.

''We don't care about these blasts,'' Habibi said after voting reopened. ''The women were afraid when they heard the explosion, but now I'm going to tell them come here.''

Because of Foreign Ministry order that asked news organizations to avoid ''broadcasting any incidence of violence'' during voting, Afghan officials were reluctant to confirm violence.

At a high school in eastern Kabul, election workers were ready at 7 a.m., but no one was there.

Abdul Rahman, 35, who stood outside one polling center, said he and his friends would vote but were waiting to see others do it safely first.

In the Helmand province town of Dahaneh -- a former Taliban stronghold until
U.S. troops invaded this month -- U.S. Marines delivered presidential ballots in two helicopters just after noon.

The next president will lead a nation plagued by armed insurgency, drugs, corruption and a feeble government. Violence has risen sharply in Afghanistan in the last three years, and the U.S. now has more than 60,000 forces in the country close to eight years after the U.S. invasion following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Karzai, a favorite of the Bush administration, won in 2004 with 55.4 percent of the vote, riding into office on a wave of public optimism. As the U.S. shifted resources to the war in Iraq, Afghanistan fell into steep decline, marked by record opium poppy harvests, deepening government corruption and skyrocketing violence.
Karzai has sought to ensure his re-election by striking alliances with regional power brokers, naming as a running mate a Tajik strongman and welcoming home notorious Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Voter turnout in the insurgency-plagued Pashtun south is not only crucial to Karzai's chances but also to public acceptance of the results. Karzai is widely expected to run strong among his fellow Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group that also forms the overwhelming majority of the Taliban.

Abdullah, who is part Tajik, is expected to win much of his votes in the Tajik north, where security is better.

Associated Press reporters Amir Shah, Fisnik Abrashi, Heidi Vogt and Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Noor Khan in Kandahar and Alfred de Montesquiou in Dahaneh contributed to this report.

Afghanistan the Good Fight - USA Today Editorial

As Afghanistan Votes, Americans’ Resolve Fades
Obama sets right goal, but can he sustain the necessary commitment?

USA Today
August 20, 2009

As Afghans go to the polls today, two immediate questions hang in the air. Will Taliban threats to bomb polling places and cut off the fingers of voters keep many away? And will President Hamid Karzai get the 50% needed to avoid a second round runoff?

But the far larger worry is whether U.S. and NATO involvement in Afghanistan, long known as the "graveyard of empires," can still succeed — and whether the United States has the staying power to find out.

Almost eight years after the 9/11 attacks — which spurred the U.S. to invade Afghanistan, wipe out Osama bin Laden's training camps and depose the Taliban government that harbored bin Laden's al-Qaeda terror network — initial success has turned to deteriorating mess.

Attacks by a revitalized Taliban have increased dramatically. In the lead-up to the presidential election, it has staged a series of bombings. Earlier this month, the new U.S. commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said the Taliban has gained the upper hand.

As the Taliban grows bolder, U.S. involvement is deepening and losses are mounting. An extra 21,000 troops were recently added; the total is expected to reach a record 68,000 by the end of this year. Forty-four U.S. troops were killed in July, the most of any month of the war.
Karzai, the nation's U.S.-backed leader since late 2001, does not have control over much of the country. Warlords are making a comeback. Corruption is rampant; so is the opium trade. Women's rights are backsliding, as evidenced by a new law allowing husbands to starve their wives if they refuse to have sex with them. Large swaths of the country are gripped by violence and uncertainty.

President Obama, who inherited this worsening situation, vigorously asserted again this week that the war must be won as matter of self-defense, and he has framed the right objective: to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda" in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, where terrorist leaders and their Taliban allies have regrouped and bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

Beyond committing more troops, the new administration has taken several steps to change course in Afghanistan. Obama appointed veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke to oversee the region and replaced the more conventional top commander, Gen. David McKiernan, with McChrystal, who is seen as more inclined to work on a local level to forge creative on-the-ground solutions. The administration is working with NATO partners to provide better security to villagers, rather than simply hunt down Taliban fighters.

All well and good. Despite the urgency Obama attaches to the mission, however, it still is not clear how many troops will be needed, how long success might take and what, ultimately, it will look like. In the past from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq such lack of clarity and all-out commitment have proved to be a hazardous course. Years of stalemate drain the will to fight, a phenomenon that already appears to be developing in Afghanistan.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 51% of Americans say the war in
Afghanistan isn't worth fighting, and just 24% support sending more troops. European allies are skittish about deeper involvement; even in Britain, a public backlash is growing as casualties mount. Meanwhile, stress on the troops is high after years of war in two countries.

Yet counterinsurgency actions typically take more than a decade to succeed, according to a RAND Corp. report. It is a difficult trap. McChrystal is completing a review, and the sooner, the better.

If the war is to be won, support will have to be revitalized and adequate force committed for whatever strategy emerges. Today's election will be a key test of what needs to be done for the U.S. and NATO to help Afghans build a stable, reasonably representative government that does not harbor terrorists. The Taliban's threat to maim those who vote provides a clarifying moment, in an often murky conflict, about who the bad guys are and what the stakes are.

Perhaps the turnout will mark a repudiation of the Taliban's medieval barbarity. Perhaps the Afghan war, as badly as it has been going, can still be turned around. The question is whether Obama can come up with a strategy that persuades Americans and their allies to commit sufficient time, effort and resources to find out the answer.

Aug 19, 2009

New Poll: Americans Sour on Afghanistan

Poll: Americans sour on Afghan war
Majority in Post-ABC survey now say conflict not worth fighting

By Jennifer Agiesta and Jon Cohen
The Washington Post
updated 8:26 p.m. ET, Wed., Aug 19, 2009

A majority of Americans now see the war in Afghanistan as not worth fighting and just a quarter say more U.S. troops should be sent to the country, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Most have confidence in the ability of the United States to meet its primary goals — defeating the Taliban, facilitating effective economic development and molding an honest and effective Afghan government — but very few say Thursday's elections there are likely to produce such a government.

When it comes to the baseline question, 42 percent of Americans say the U.S. is winning in Afghanistan; about as many, 36 percent, say it is losing the fight.

The new poll comes amid widespread speculation that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, will request more troops for his stepped-up effort to root the Taliban from Afghan towns and villages. That is a position that gets the backing of 24 percent of those polled, while nearly twice as many, 45 percent, want to decrease the number of military forces there. (Most of the remainder say to keep the level about the same.)

In January, before President Obama authorized sending an additional 17,000 troops to the country, public sentiment tilted more strongly toward a troop increase.

Should President Obama embrace his general's call for even more U.S. military forces, he risks alienating some of his staunchest supporters While 60 percent of all Americans approve of how Obama has handled the situation in Afghanistan, his ratings among liberals have slipped and majorities of liberals and Democrats alike now, for the first time, solidly oppose the war and are calling for a reduction in troops.

Little support for troop boost
Overall, seven in 10 Democrats say the war has not been worth its costs, and fewer than one in five support an increase in troop levels. Nearly two-thirds of the most committed Democrats now feel "strongly" that the war was not worth fighting. Among moderate and conservative Democrats, a slim majority say the United States is losing in Afghanistan.

Republicans (70 percent say it is worth fighting) and conservatives (58 percent) remain the war's strongest backers, and the issue provides a rare point of GOP support for Obama's policies. A narrow majority of conservatives approve of Obama's handling of the war (52 percent), as do more than four in 10 Republicans (43 percent).

Among all adults, 51 percent now say the war is not worth fighting, up six points since last month and four points above the previous high, reached in February. Less than half, 47 percent, say the war is worth its costs. Those strongly opposed (41 percent) outweigh strong proponents (31 percent).

Opposition to the Iraq war reached similar levels in the summer of 2004 and deteriorated further, through the 2006 midterm elections, becoming issue No. 1 in many congressional races that year.

By the time support for the Iraq war had fallen below 50 percent, disapproval of President George W. Bush's handling of it had climbed to 55 percent, in contrast to Obama's solid overall approval on dealing with Afghanistan.

Partisan divisions
But there are warning signs for the president.

Among liberals, his rating on handling the war, which he calls one of "necessity," has fallen swiftly, with strong approval cratering by 20 points. Nearly two-thirds of liberals stand against a troop increase, as do about six in 10 Democrats.

On the GOP side, views are more evenly distributed, as Republicans divide about equally in support of an increase, a decrease and no change to troop levels.

Partisan divisions on the handling of the war itself are tempered when it comes to faith in the ability of the United States and its allies to get the job done in Afghanistan. Broad majorities across party lines say they are confident the U.S. will defeat the Taliban and succeed in spurring economic development.

Independents express slightly less confidence on these issues, and less than half of independents (46 percent) say they are confident that the United States can encourage an honest and effective Afghan government. Overall, 55 percent are confident that the United States could help establish an honest and effective government.

Far fewer, 34 percent, say the country's national election will result in an effective government, with just 3 percent "very confident."

Beyond ideological and partisan divisions on the war, women have shifted against the war more sharply than men and are far more apt to say troop levels should be decreased (51 percent) than are men (38 percent). Nearly six in 10 women say the war was not worth fighting, up from just under half last month.

The Washington Post-ABC News poll was conducted by telephone Aug. 13-17 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults including users of both conventional and cellular phones. Results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points; it is higher among subgroups.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

McChrystal - Security - Marines

McChrystal: Marines' Gains In Southern Afghanistan A Model

Exclusive: US top military commander attributes success to lessons learned in Iraq
By Kimberly Johnson, GlobalPost
August 16, 2009

DARVESHAN, Afghanistan — Incremental security gains that U.S. Marines are making in Afghanistan's Helmand province are proving to be a model for successful counterinsurgency, the top military commander here said Friday.

International Security Assistance Force commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal's assessment came after patrolling the bazaar area of Darveshan, the government seat of Helmand's Garmsir district.

McChrystal — who eschewed body armor, donning only his "soft cover" cap — conducted the foot patrol with commanders from 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, as well as Afghan security forces from the army, border patrol and local police. The bazaar was teeming with activity, as merchants sold melons, ice cream and flat bread. Just a year ago, according to Marine and Afghan commanders, heavy fighting between Taliban and ISAF forces in the area had left the bazaar completely empty.

"There are other places happening like this right now but this is the model that ... we want all our forces, the mindset we want them to start with," McChrystal told GlobalPost as he walked through the market. "There is no set model," he clarified. "You can't go at this and say, 'two of this, three of that.'

"If you understand that it's all about people — protecting people and respecting people — then everything else sort of drives from there. All the other decisions against that criteria, they don't become easy but they become much more clearer."

McChrystal said he was last in the area about two years ago. Seeing improvements to this city center gives "the sense of hope," he said. While the commander has in the past called for more troops in Afghanistan, he would not comment on how many more might be needed in this region to push out gains farther south into Helmand.

Gains are a result of lessons learned in Iraq, as well as from taking history into account, he said. "Almost every generation has got to learn it for themselves and this generation happens to have had a lot of experience in the last few years and I think we just keep getting better at it," he said.

The ISAF commander stopped at a stall to speak with a group of men, and to ask what was needed. "We want security," one man said plainly, cautioning that heavy-handed actions by troops would push people to align with the Taliban.

"We are trying very hard," McChrystal responded through a translator. "We are trying to operate more carefully." The man listed other needs of the community including drinking water, a mosque and again, security.

"Everyone says security first. We have to do this together," McChrystal told the group of men.

Marines here say one major challenge the Garmsir district faces is isolation. Take, for example, the narrow canal roads. While recent crop conversion resulted in 80 percent of local crops turning to wheat instead of narcotic-producing poppy this past harvest, the lack of transportation infrastucture makes it difficult to move yields to distant markets.

Establishing cell phone service in the region could lead to a tip line for locals to call with information about IED locations without fear of Taliban reprisals, say Marines.

Many residents fear that troops will not stay, Garmsir district governor Haji Abdullah Jan told McChrystal. Some think the dirt-filled Hesco barriers — widely used for force protection — look temporary, which only underscores their fears, he said.

Troops will stay until Afghan forces are able to take over, McChrystal reassured the governor, adding: "I think that's years, not months."

Aug 18, 2009

Obama's speech in Phoenix

Obama Explains Strategy In Afghanistan
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg
New York Times
August 18, 2009

PHOENIX — President Obama on Monday defended his decision to increase American involvement in Afghanistan, calling it a “a war of necessity” and warning an audience of military veterans that Al Qaeda was still plotting to attack the United States and would not easily be defeated.

With the Pentagon assessing strategy and troop deployments in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama made no specific policy announcements. But he did address the criticism that he would get bogged down in Afghanistan, allowing that war to turn into a second Vietnam.

“We must never forget,” he said. “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which Al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans.

“So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people.”

The speech, to an audience of 5,500 members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and their families, was in pointed contrast to Mr. Obama’s frequent criticism of the war in Iraq as “a war of choice.” The president on Monday repeated his pledge to withdraw all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, saying, “And for America, the Iraq war will end.”

As a commander in chief who has never served in the armed forces, Mr. Obama is still working to establish his bona fides with the military. His predecessor, George W. Bush, typically received wildly enthusiastic receptions from military audiences; Mr. Obama’s speech was interrupted only occasionally by polite applause.

The president drew some of his most enthusiastic applause when he sharply criticized wasteful military spending, declaring: “It’s simple enough. Cut the waste. Save taxpayer dollars. Support the troops.”

And he also took pains to praise a hometown politician, Senator John McCain of Arizona, Mr. Obama’s Republican rival in last year’s presidential campaign. Mr. Obama called Mr. McCain “a great veteran, a great Arizonan and a great American who has shown the courage to stand and fight this waste.”

The only standing ovation came during Mr. Obama’s lone reference to the health care debate, when he said: “One thing that reform won’t change is veterans’ health care. No one is going to take away your benefits. That’s the truth.”

Aug 17, 2009

Why McKiernan was fired

Pentagon Worries Led To Command Change
McKiernan's Ouster Reflected New Realities in Afghanistan - and Washington

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post
August 17, 2009

In mid-March, as a White House assessment of the war in Afghanistan was nearing completion, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met in a secure Pentagon room for their fortnightly video conference with Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Kabul.

There was no formal agenda. McKiernan, a silver-haired former armor officer, began with a brief battlefield update. Then Gates and Mullen began asking about reconstruction and counternarcotics operations. To Mullen, they were straightforward, relevant queries, but he thought McKiernan fumbled them.

Gates and Mullen had been having doubts about McKiernan since the beginning of the year. They regarded him as too languid, too old-school and too removed from Washington. He lacked the charisma and political savvy that Gen. David H. Petraeus brought to the Iraq war.

McKiernan's answers that day were the tipping point for Mullen. Soon after, he discussed the matter with Gates, who had come to the same conclusion.

Mullen traveled to Kabul in April to confront McKiernan. The chairman hoped the commander would opt to save face and retire, but he refused. Not only had he not disobeyed orders, he believed he was doing what Gates and Mullen wanted.

You're going to have to fire me, he told Mullen.

Two weeks later, Gates did. It was the first sacking of a wartime theater commander since President Harry S. Truman dismissed Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951 for opposing his Korean War policy.

The humiliating removal of a four-star general for being too conventional reveals the ferocious intensity Gates and Mullen share over a growing war that will soon enter its ninth year. It also demonstrates their zeal to respond to President Obama's demand for rapid success in a place where foreign armies have failed for centuries.

"There are those who would have waited six more months" in order to have a less abrupt transition, Mullen said in an interview. "I couldn't. I'm losing kids and I couldn't sleep at night. I have an unbounded sense of urgency to get this right."

This account of McKiernan's tenure and departure is drawn from interviews with key participants and several senior officials, both supportive and critical of him, who have direct knowledge of the actions and conversations described. Because it involves a personnel matter, they spoke only on the condition that information provided not be specifically attributed. They are largely in consensus about the sequence of events, but they disagree whether McKiernan's leadership merited his dismissal.

The decision was not discussed at length within the White House but was endorsed by Obama. It reflects a view among senior Pentagon officials that top generals need to be as adept at working Washington as they are the battlefield, that the conflict in Afghanistan requires a leader who can also win the confidence of Congress and the American public.

McKiernan is an understated and reticent man; his 37-year career involved more th an two decades of overseas deployments but less than a year at the Pentagon. He did not fawn over visiting lawmakers like Petraeus did in Iraq. He also did not cultivate particularly strong relationships with Afghan leaders. His replacement, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is regarded as a leader in the Petraeus mold: able to nimbly run the troops on the ground as well as the traps in Washington.

"Blame General Petraeus," a senior Defense Department official said. "He redefined during his tour in Iraq what it means to be a commanding general. He broke the mold. The traditional responsibilities were not enough anymore. You had to be adroit at international politics. You had to be a skilled diplomat. You had to be savvy with the press, and you had to be a really sophisticated leader of a large organization. When you judge McKiernan by Petraeus's standards, he looked old-school by comparison."

This change of command is a story of Washington's new approach to the war, on! e that involves not just more troops and reconstruction money but a new kind of military leader to carry out the mission. It is a story of a loyal general who, his superiors believed, was miscast for the role he had been assigned, and his intense replacements, who have been asked to win a losing war with many of the same impediments. It is also a story of the president's top military leaders, who are betting that this one personnel decision, above all others, will set in motion a process that reverses U.S. fortunes in Afghanistan.

* * *

In April 2008, two months before he assumed command in Kabul, McKiernan traveled to Afghanistan for a get-acquainted visit. Within days, he concluded that there were not enough troops to contend with the intensifying Taliban insurge ncy.

At the time, the United States had about 33,000 military personnel in the country, about a third of them assigned to combat operations. The rest were in supporting roles. About 30,000 were ! from the other 42 nations in the NATO-led force, but many had been dep loyed with onerous rules that prevented their involvement in counterinsurgency activities.

Even more worrisome was a lack of other resources needed to win a war: helicopters, transport aircraft, surveillance drones, interpreters, intelligence analysts. Troops in Afghanistan had a fraction of what they required.

"There was a saying when I got there: If you're in Iraq and you need something, you ask for it," McKiernan said in his first interview since being fired. "If you're in Afghanistan and you need it, you figure out how to do without it."

By late last summer, he decided to tell George W. Bush's White House what he knew it did not want to hear: He needed 30,000 more troops. He wanted to send some to the country's east to bolster other U.S. forces, and some to the south to assist overwhelmed British and Canadian units in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

The Bush administration opted not to act on McKiernan's request and instead set out to persuade NATO allies to contribute more troops. With Washington then viewing NATO as the solution -- not the problem -- McKiernan seemed like the right general to help win over the allies. Before coming to Kabul, he had been the top Army commander in Europe, and he had been part of the NATO mission in the Balkans in the 1990s.

He deemed management of the alliance in Afghanistan one of his chief responsibilities. He met with an almost daily stream of visiting delegations from European capitals, and he sought to change some of the more Byzantine troop rules.

But back in Washington, McKiernan was increasingly seen as too deferential to NATO. By November, when it became clear that the Europeans would not be sending more troops, senior officials at the Pentagon wanted him to focus on making better use of the existing NATO forces -- getting them off bases and involved in counterinsurgency operations. Although McKiernan sought to do that, his superiors thought he was not working fast enough. Of particular concern was the division of the country into five regional commands, each afforded broad autonomy to fight as it pleased.

"He was still doing the NATO-speak at a time when Gates and Mullen were over it," a senior military official at the Pentagon said.

It was around that time that Petraeus stepped in as overall commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East. He became one of McKiernan's two bosses, and he quickly assessed the regional-command situation as untenable. He suggested adding a three-star general, one rank down from McKiernan, to take charge of daily military operations -- just as he had done in Iraq. It would free up McKiernan to spend more time on high-level diplomacy with Afghan leaders and NATO members, and it would strip power from the regional commanders.

Gates and Mullen thought it was a good idea, as did two of their most-trusted advisers: McChrystal, who was running Mullen's staff, and Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, who had been Gates's chief military assistant and served as one of thos! e regional commanders. But McKiernan had a different view. He believed that each regional command faced different challenges and that lumping all of the operational responsibility under another layer of bureaucracy would cause tension between the United States and its allies.

* * *

In February, with a new administration in power, Obama ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, giving McKiernan much -- but not all -- of what he wanted. He planned to send most of the new forces to the south, where Taliban attacks were becoming increasingly frequent and potent.

In Washington, doubts about McKiernan were growing among Gates and Mull en and their staffs. McKiernan's plan to integrate civilian and military resources, which Gates had asked him to draw up, did not impress many who read it in the Pentagon. Once again, they faulted McKiernan's perceived deference to NATO. What the document needed, they thought, was sharp thinking from the U.S. military, not a! casserole of inputs from a dozen allies.

But McKiernan did not have a reservoir of senior U.S. officers to help him with such projects. McKiernan faulted the Pentagon for not sending more people to work for him. Mullen and Gates saw it differently: McKiernan could have asked for more, but he didn't, and they were not impressed with some of the people he chose.

By mid-March, it was clear to Gates and Mullen that Obama's Afghanistan strategy, which would be announced later that month, would involve not a retrenchment but an expansion of U.S. efforts. Although the goal had become more focused; to deny al-Qaeda a haven- the plan was to achieve that outcome with a more comprehensive counterinsurgency effort, the likes of which they thought, demanded a new commander.

Across the Potomac, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had hired longtime diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke to focus exclusively on Afghanistan and Pakistan. She tapped Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired three-star general who had served in Afghanistan, to be the new U.S. ambassador to Kabul.

Gates had begun to regard the advice on Afghanistan he was hearing from Rodriguez to be far sharper than what he was receiving from Kabul. Mullen felt the same way about McChrystal. The secretary and the chairman batted the idea around in confidence: What if we sent both of them -- McChrystal as the top commander and Rodriguez as his deputy? Both generals are regarded as skilled practitioners of counterinsurgency strategy, and both played influential roles in internal discussions about Obama's new Afghanistan strategy.

"It was much more about getting them in than getting McKiernan out," Mullen said. "I couldn't afford not to have my A team over there."

They discussed the issue with Petraeus, to whom McKiernan reported. McKiernan had been his boss during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but Petraeus had vaulted above him in recent years, leaving a degree of awkwardness between the two generals. Petraeus agreed with Mullen and Gates, a! nd he urged that a change occur well before the Aug. 20 Afghan preside ntial election.

McKiernan had been expected to stay in Kabul until the summer of 2010. By the time his successor got up to speed and brought over a new team of deputies, it would have been another six months. "I couldn't wait that long," Mullen said.

In years past, senior commanders who were not deemed to be a good fit were gracefully moved to other high-level jobs, or even promoted. But there were no vacant four-star jobs to which McKiernan could be reassigned. He would have to retire - or be fired. It did not matter that McKiernan had not committed a firing offense. The secretary and the chairman had come to believe that the war in Afghanistan required immediate innovation and creative risk-taking, even if it meant drumming out one of the Army's most-senior leaders, a general much beloved among those who served for him.

In mid-April, Mullen made his trip to Afghanistan to remove McKiernan, hoping that he would choose to resign voluntarily.

"I suppose that would have been an easy, painless way out; just to say, 'Well, I've been here for a year and I'm rotating out,'" McKiernan said. "But I told a lot of people that I was staying for two years. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror if I said that."

The day before he left Kabul, McKiernan spoke to several hundred U.S. and NATO troops assembled in the courtyard in front of his office. "I don't want to leave," he told them. "There's work still to be done here. But I'm a soldier and I live in a democracy and I work for political leaders, and when my political leaders tell me it's time to go, I must go."

The line of soldiers waiting to shake his hand continued for 90 minutes.

* * *

In his first two months on the job, McChrystal has moved with alacrity to shift the focus of U.S. and NATO troops from chasing the Taliban to protecting cities and towns, reasoning that expanding areas of population security would have greater impact on the insur! gency than a series of raids. But there is also a recognition in McChr ystal's headquarters that McKiernan had made valuable contributions: The troops he asked for are now central to counterinsurgency operations in southern Afghanistan. McKiernan also set in motion changes in training Afghan security forces that McChrystal plans to continue.

Soon after arriving in Kabul, McChrystal issued a "tactical directive" to all forces under his command: The use of airstrikes on housing compounds, which have caused hundreds of civilian casualties since 2001 and stoked deep anger among Afghans, would be restricted to the most clear and critical cases.

McChrystal said bombs could be dropped only when solid intelligence showed that high-level militants were present or U.S. forces were in imminent danger. He made it clear he would rather allow a few rank & file Taliban fighters to get away than to flatten a house whose occupants might include women and children.

Although McChrystal's directive was not fundamentally different from the one McKiernan issued in September 2008, what was profoundly new was the way McChrystal persuaded those under him to follow it. He spent weeks reiterating its importance at his daily morning videoconference with regional commanders.

McChrystal's relationship with Mullen has resulted in a flow of personnel that eluded McKiernan. The chairman told McChrystal he could poach whomever he needed from the Joint Staff -- a list that now extends to about two dozen senior officers, including some of the military's best-regarded colonels.

Before McChrystal left Washington, Gates asked him to deliver an assessment of the war in 60 days. Instead of summoning a team of military strategists to Kabul, McChrystal invited Washington think-tank experts from across the ideological spectrum.

The experts gave McChrystal a 20-page draft report that calls for expanding the Afghan army, changes in the way troops operate and an intensified military effort to root out corruption. There were few revolutionary ideas in the document, but McChrystal may have re ceived something far more important through the process: allies in the U.S. capital, on the political left and right, to talk about the need for more troops in Afghanistan -in advance of his assessment to Gates, which will probably be submitted this month.

"He understands the need to engage Washington, and he's willing do so in a creative way," said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was part of the team.

* * *

When McKiernan returned to Washington to plan his retirement -he eventually submitted a resignation to Gates rather than allow himself to be terminated- he checked into an 11th-floor room at the Embassy Suites in Pentagon City. Dressed in a golf shirt and jeans instead of the green camouflage uniform he wore for decades, he ticked off a list of accomplishments that he maintained were not recognized by his colleagues in the Pentagon, from improving border coordination with the Pakistanis to integrating the operations of Special Forces units.

"There's been a lot of conditions that have been set in Afghanistan over the past year that are going to pay dividends in the next year or two," he said.

He said he wished he had had the same "open checkbook" to recruit senior officers from the Pentagon that has been afforded to McChrystal. And he acknowledged that he should have "done a better job of feeding the beast in Washington," even though he believed that "an operational commander needs to spend the vast majority of his energy and time and efforts focused inside the theater of operations and not on trips to Washington."

On July 15, under a bright blue morning sky, hundreds of soldiers stood at attention on the parade ground at Fort Myer as an announcer intoned: "General David McKiernan is retired."

"If you had asked me 30 days ago if I would be here today at my retirement ceremony, I would have said no - maybe in a bit stronger terms," he told the 300 people who had gathere! d to see him off. "Make no mistake: I was dismayed, disappointed and m ore than a little embarrassed."

The war in Afghanistan, he said, "will not be decided by any one leader -- military or civilian -- from any one nation."

Aug 16, 2009

Brotherhood & Combat - Ethos of the Marines

<Till Death Do Us Part
By Matthew Bogdanos
Washington Post
August 16, 2009

"Any man in combat who lacks comrades who will die for him, or for whom he is willing to die," William Manchester wrote of his time as a Marine in World War II, "is not a man at all. He is truly damned." A century earlier, Robert E. Lee famously remarked that it was good that war "is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it." Neither was glorifying war;they hated its carnage. They were, rather, paying homage to the unique bonds forged in war, especially the one that enables so many to risk their lives, not only for friends but also for those they might have just met or have nothing in common with back home.

This extraordinary feature of combat is depicted in movies in bold, heroic colors, without depth or explanation. Most leaders in the military, however, spend a lifetime trying to understand its complexity. Our pursuit usually starts at Thermopylae, a mountain pass in northern Greece where, in 480 B.C., 300 Spartans faced the entire Persian army. Leonidas, the Spartan king, had a choice: retreat, and live to fight another day, or stand. When the Persian king offered, "We do not want your lives, only your arms," Leonidas answered, "Molon labe" (come and get them). They held out for seven days, fighting until their weapons broke and then, Herodotus says, "with bare hands and teeth." Their spirit lives whenever wounded soldiers ask to return to their units rather than rotate home or sentries rest their chins on the point of a bayonet to stay awake so others sleep safely.

Before going into harm's way, we reflect on this remarkable aspect of combat. Using its history as a source of pride and inspiration, we make this bond part of our ethos. We are humbled to follow, yet hopeful to live up to, those who have gone before -- as at Belleau Wood in 1918. When his men were being cut to pieces by German machine guns, Marine 1st Sgt Dan Daly, already the recipient of two Medals of Honor, charged the guns shouting, "Come on, you sons-of-bitches! Do you want to live forever?" More than just history, this retelling to each new generation becomes a pledge: Although some will die, those who follow will keep the faith by keeping our memory; a promise of immortality that asks instead, "Don't you want to live forever?"

Post-deployment, we are also engaged. Despite countless other tasks after a combat tour and the need to begin preparing for the next mission, we pause to value what has occurred, trying - not always successfully - to reconcile the horrors of combat with the bond created during those horrors. Perhaps it is the dimly perceived recognition that together we are better than any one of us had ever been before - better maybe than we ever would be again. Or the dawning awareness that if we store up enough memories, these might someday be a source of strength, comfort or even our salvation.

Take the simple act of goodbye, of wishing comrades in arms fair winds and following seas. Those who have seen action together are not morbid about it. Just serious. It is, after all, the nature of the profession of arms that goodbyes are frequent and often final. But there is also the recognition that each of us has our own life and family to go back to in the "world." And even if we do "keep in touch," it will never be with the same intensity, never again as pure as it was when I had your! "six," (your six o'clock, your back) and you had mine.

We examine as well the many contradictions of life in a combat zone. Our eyesight and hearing are sharp, our other senses keen. The water always quenches our thirst. The sky is bluer than we thought possible. And we're with the best friends we'll ever have. The good gets better, but the bad gets worse. We always have some minor eye or ear infection, our feet hurt all the time, and sleep is sporadic at best. The heat is sweltering, the cold bone-chilling. We're constantly tense to the breaking point. And lonelier than we ever imagined.

Once you've experienced it, the memory never leaves - even after those fair winds and following seas have taken you as far as they did Sen. Mike Mansfield. After serving two years in the Marines as a teenager, he spent 34 years in Congress (the longest-serving majority leader ever) and 11 years as ambassador to Japan. He died in 2001 at age 98. His tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery bears seven words: "Michael Joseph Mansfield, PVT, US Marine Corps."

Ultimately, because of the business we are in, expected to fight, suffer and die without complaint, we also cultivate this bond to call on when needed. At times, it means being ruthlessly hard, as at Balaclava in 1854. When the "thin red line" of the 93rd Highlanders were all that stood between the Russian onslaught and the British camp, Sir Colin Campbell commanded the regiment he loved, "there is no retreat from here, men, you must die where you stand." At times, it means having compassion, as on Tulagi Island in the South Pacific in 1942. After an all-night attack, Marine Pfc. Edward "Johnny" Ahrens lay quietly in his foxhole. He'd been shot twice in the chest, and blood welled slowly from three deep bayonet wounds. Thirteen dead Japanese soldiers lay nearby; two others were draped over his legs. Legendarily tough Lewis Walt, later assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, gently gathered the dying man in his arms. Ahrens whispered, "Captain, they! tried to come over me last night, but I don't think they made it." Choking back tears, Walt replied softly, "They didn't, Johnny. They didn't."

Being effectively ruthless and genuinely caring are each manifestations of courage. The ability to effect their integration and foster the bond between leader and led can spell the difference between defeat and victory, because wars - fought with weapons - are won by people. Your sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers. We are honored to lead them.


Matthew Bogdanos, a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves who has served tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, is an assistant district attorney for New York City and the author of "Thieves of Baghdad."

Aug 15, 2009

Not Men, Not Women - Just Marines !

Female Marine Unit Plays Critical Role Developing Links To Afghan Women

By Alfred de Montesquiou, Associated Press
Aug 15, 2009

KHAWJA JAMAL, Afghanistan — Put on body armor, check weapons, cover head and shoulders with a scarf.

That was the drill for female American Marines who set out on patrol this week with a mission to make friends with Afghan women in a war zone by showing respect for Muslim standards of modesty.

The all-female unit of 46 Marines is the military's latest innovation in its rivalry with the Taliban for the populace's loyalty. Afghan women are viewed as good intelligence sources, and more open to the basics of the military's hearts-and-minds effort — hygiene, education and an end to the violence.

"It's part of the effort to show we're sensitive to local culture," said Capt. Jennifer Gregoire, of East Strasburg, Pa.

She leads the Female Engagement Team in the Now Zad Valley of Helmand province, the heartland of the Taliban insurgency.

"If you show your hair, it's kind of like seeing a nude picture here, because women are very covered up," she said.

Women are technically barred from combat units in the Marines, and some infantrymen have been surprised to see them in brightly colored head scarves under their helmets, deployed in the most intense combat zones in the country.

"But...I think they understand that what we're doing is vital to operations and vital to the counterinsurgency program they want to run," said Gregoire.

Female troops were assigned to search women at checkpoints in Iraq, and the experience fed into the Afghan effort, said Cpl. Sarah Furrer, from Colorado Springs, Colo., who served in both war zones.

"I'm not married, and I don't have children, so they think that's awkward because I'm 24," Furrer said of her Iraq experience. But as a result, "we're not so much afraid of engaging the women" in Afghanistan, she said.

"I've found you get great intel from the female population," said Capt. Zachary Martin, who commands the Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, stationed in Now Zad. "The women don't want their men out there conducting jihad and getting killed."

Martin said units have frequently received tips from women about weapons caches or hidden bombs.

But just to find the women is a challenge.

There were none in sight as Gregoire's team entered Khwaja Jamal, a village of mud-brick homes with no electricity or government presence.

While heavily armed Marines fanned out, the four women started by trying to strike up conversations with the few old men and young children who ventured outdoors.

The several hundred villagers grow wheat and opium poppies in the crossfire between Marines and Taliban fighters who are in the woods less than a mile away. "They look at us through binoculars. They'll kill anybody who talks to the Americans," said Abdul Gayom to explain why the villagers were so wary of meeting the patrol.

Aug 14, 2009

Marines on the radio: 2/8's LtCol Cabiniss from Camp Leatherneck

U.S. Marines Fight In Challenging Afghan Terrain

All Things Considered (NPR), 4:10 PM

MELISSA BLOCK: South of Dahaneh where Soraya is, the Marines of the 2-8 Battalion are farther along in the fight. They?ve been there for over a month. They?ve established forward operating bases, working with Afghan security forces and villagers to try to stabilize the area.

We?ve been following the Marines of the 2-8 Battalion since before this deployment, when they were training at their home base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. And now joining us from Marine headquarters Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province is the battalion?s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Christian Cabaniss.

Thanks for being with us.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL CHRISTIAN CABANISS (U.S. Marine Corps): It's great to be here.

BLOCK: And just to clarify, Colonel Cabaniss, your Marines are not involved in the new offensive that Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is describing for us.

CABANISS: No. The Marines in 2-8 are still engaged in the areas that we went into on the 2nd of July.

BLOCK: And what sort of resistance have the Marines where you are been running into lately?

CABANISS: We?ve had fairly significant resistance from pockets of Taliban fighters. It?s hard to say if they?re just really well trained locals or if they?re, perhaps, from somewhere else. But it?s not overwhelming. It is counterinsurgency, you know, small groups will come and attack us. But our main effort still is behind and seizing control of the population away from the Taliban and winning the consent of the local population. Because by doing so, we?re going to have more security than Hesco barriers or body armor will ever get us because once we have the people on our side, the Taliban will no longer be able to move in the area.

BLOCK: You mentioned Hesco barriers just now. These are sandbags?

CABANISS: No. They are metal on the outside, with a case and you fill them with rock. The country of Afghanistan is covered with Hesco. It's how we can build when we move into a new area. The engineers are able to move in and build an operating base for the Marines so they can work out of. And it's difficult in this environment just because we're in the Green Zone. And the only person I think that has got a good appreciation for the Green Zone and have really shown it to the world is Dave Gilkey from NPR. It is just terrain unlike anything else in Afghanistan, very compartmentalized, irrigation canals, green fields, trees, bushes. In many ways, it reminds me of eastern North Carolina. And I think it?s surprising when you see it. It's probably some of the most challenging terrain that, in my mind, the Marines have fought in since World War II.

BLOCK: You mentioned David Gilkey. He's the NPR photographer who was with Echo Company there. And when he filed his reports, he talked about running into a whole lot of IEDs.

Are you still finding that, a lot of roadside bombs?

CABANISS: Yeah. That's the weapon of choice for our enemy. He, obviously, cannot stand and fight us in a large group because that will be a very quick fight and it would be over. So his attempt is to limit our movement. One advantage we have is that we planned to move cross country and stay off the roads because in this country, the roads in our area really don't give us an advantage. And I think that's a mental image that's hard for people to understand because they associate Afghanistan and Iraq so closely. But in our area, 90 percent of our operations plus are foot mobile.

BLOCK: Colonel Cabaniss, what kinds of casualties have you seen in your battalion?

CABANISS: You know, it?s unfortunate. We've had our share of casualties, but they've been kind of balanced between IEDs and direct fire.

BLOCK: And how many Marines have you lost?

CABANISS: I've lost ten Marines so far in the operation.

BLOCK: In a little over a month?


BLOCK: I would think that number would be pretty daunting, Colonel Cabaniss, as you look ahead.

CABANISS: No. I think the Marines of my battalion are some of the most adaptive people in the world. It is a challenging environment, but we get better and better every day. Every casualty is, you know, it?s hard on us because it?s one of our brothers. But I think they carry the spirit of those Marines with them and help them complete the mission because I think that?s the way that we honor our fallen heroes is to complete the mission, to drive the Taliban out of the area, to help bring tangible progress to the people and to create conditions for the units or agencies that follow us so they can continue to take progress to the next level.

BLOCK: Well, Colonel Cabaniss, thanks for talking with us.

CABANISS: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Lieutenant Colonel Christian Cabaniss. He is the commanding officer of the 2-8 Marine Battalion, which we?ve been following this year. He was talking with us from Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan.

Aug 13, 2009

McChrystal's policy jeapordizes Marine lives??

Order to protect Afghans frustrates U.S. troops
Commander’s drive to reduce civilian casualties slows Marines’ progress

The Associated Press
updated 11:24 a.m. ET, Aug 13, 2009

DAHANEH, Afghanistan - The British jet called in by the U.S. Marines had the Taliban position in sight, but the pilot refused to fire, a decision that frustrated Marines on the ground but was in line with new orders by the top U.S. commander to protect civilians.

The Marines themselves didn't attack militants shooting at them from a compound Wednesday during the same battle because women and children were there, an approach meant to avoid civilian casualties at all costs.

"They did that on purpose," sniper platoon leader 1st Lt. Joseph Cull, 28, of Delafield, Wisconsin, said of the Taliban. "They are trying to bait us."

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has made protecting Afghan civilians his top priority. The approach is a shift away from a military mindset whose traditional first response has been to kill as many militants as possible. By holding fire, McChrystal hopes to avoid the massive civilian casualty cases of past months and years and help win over Afghan villagers.

U.S. Marines have been locked in battle with insurgents in Dahaneh in Helmand province after they stormed into the Taliban-held town early Wednesday. Militants have been lobbing rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and heavy machine gun fire at the U.S. troops.

The troops hope to break the Taliban grip in Dahaneh, sever smuggling routes and protect civilians from Taliban reprisals so Afghans can vote here during the Aug. 20 presidential election, which the Taliban have vowed to disrupt.

The Marines locked in on a Taliban position Wednesday in a cave in a nearby mountain, from which militants were firing heavy weapons. The troops called for an airstrike against the position, but the British Harrier jet that responded refused to fire its missiles because British rules of engagement require the pilot himself to identify the target, not just troops on the ground.

'We've got to deal with it'

Each country in the more than 40-nation NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan has its own rules of engagement that apply to specific battle situations, but McChrystal's order to protect civilians applies to all forces in the country.

"Sure, that's frustrating, but we've got to deal with it," said Capt. Zachary Martin, commander of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines.

Some 400 Marines and 100 Afghan troops moved into Dahaneh early Wednesday by helicopter and ground convoy. The troops took heavy fire from insurgents for most of the day, killing up to 10 militants after calling in an airstrike on an insurgent position.

But even that airstrike was carried out with great care.

Militants first started firing from the position about 5 a.m. Ground commanders wanted an airstrike called in on the position to help protect Marines receiving fire. But superior officers wanted to be certain there were no civilians there. Once Martin had established with near certainty that there were not, an airstrike hit the compound — hours after the Marines first received fire.
The Marines say they can avoid civilian casualties with the help of the sophisticated surveillance technology they have. Strict orders have also been issued for the Marines to use proportional response when attacked.

But many of the riflemen voiced frustration at the limited options they were left with when trying to expand control of the town on Wednesday. The orders to hold fire appeared to have slowed their advance in Dahaneh, where after a full day they held only a small foothold outpost.

Intense combat

On Thursday the Marines expected another day of intense combat as they pushed deeper into the town. Insurgents seemed unwilling to fight overnight, when they can't match the Marines' night vision capabilities. But after the sun came up Thursday, the first rounds of fire erupted.

"Right on cue!" shouted Sgt. Ryan Kelsey, of Pittsburgh, Pa., as the first shots rang out.

Elswhere, the U.S. military said Thursday an American service member was killed by enemy fire in southern Afghanistan. No additional details were released.

Also, two separate roadside blasts in southern Afghanistan killed 14 civilians, including three children, underscoring the high price paid by ordinary people in the conflict with the Taliban, officials said.

A blast on a road in the Gereshk district of Helmand province ripped through a vehicle carrying a family on Wednesday, killing 11 people, including two women and nine men, said Daud Ahmadi, the spokesman for the provincial governor.

In neighboring Kandahar province, three children were killed after they started playing with another bomb which they had found on the side of the road west of the provincial capital, police official Mohammad Shah Khan said. The victims were between 8 and 12 years old.

Southern Afghanistan is the center of the Taliban-led insurgency, where thousands of additional U.S. troops were deployed this year to try to reverse the militants' gains and create conditions for next week's presidential election.

Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he's says ordering Afghan security forces to observe a cease-fire on election day. He also demanded Taliban fighters not carry out violence during the vote.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.