Friday 30 September 2011

Here's something you didn't read earlier

More than two months after it was published - on 17 July - the UK Defence Select Committee report on Operations in Afghanistan has still received almost no publicity.
This is worrying. The committee laboured for months, visiting Afghanistan and holding hearings at which just about every senior officer in the armed forces appeared - not to mention many other witnesses - and yet its conclusions have been greeted with near silence. No newspaper reports, no TV coverage, about the most expensive and extensive military campaign ever mounted by Britain.
The same was true of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on Afghanistan that appeared in August 2009 and received almost no coverage. (You can read my comments on it here.)
Is there something wrong with our parliamentary system? What is the point of these long, extended inquiries if they receive no publicity and no-one takes any notice? And what is wrong with the press? Why are they not holding our lawmakers to account? It's not as if these inquiries are about minor issues. Hundreds of soldiers have died and many hundreds more have been wounded. Here's some figures from the report that you may have missed:
"From the start of operations in Afghanistan in 2001 to 15 June 2011, 371 British military personnel were killed with a further 586 very seriously or seriously wounded. Over 5,000 troops were admitted to the field hospital of whom 1,712 were wounded in action and the remainder had a non battle injury or disease. Some 4,700 personnel were evacuated back to the UK by air."
In case you are interested, amongst other things, the report examines the thinking behind the decision to send British troops into Helmand in 2006, concluding overall that it was a bad idea. In particular the committee was very upset that the Ministry of Defence would not let it see Chiefs of Staff Committee minutes that discussed the deployment to Helmand. Ahh, now I'm beginning to understand....

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Debunking myths about Afghanistan

In case you have absorbed some of the many myths associated with Afghanistan, veteran Guardian reporter Jonathan Steele has drawn up a debunking list of the ten most prevalent. Have the Afghans always beaten foreign armies? Check out the list, extracted from his latest book Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground, Portobello, £25.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

How to go to war and make money

Sidharth Handa (r) receives a Bronze Star in happier days
Case one: Last Friday Sidharth 'Tony' Handa, a former captain in the US Army Reserve, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for soliciting $1.3 million in bribes from contractors involved in US-funded reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and participating in a conspiracy to traffic heroin. It is the largest Army-connected bribery prosecution relating to Afghanistan. Handa, of Charlotte, NC, was also ordered to pay $315,000 in restitution.
“Mr. Handa used his official position assisting the United States’ reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan to line his pockets,” said US Assistant Attorney General Lanny A Breuer. “He promised multi-million dollar contracts to Afghan businessmen in exchange for cash. He was so meticulous about collecting his bribes that he kept track of them on a spreadsheet. We will not tolerate this kind of fraud and abuse. Today’s sentence reflects the disgracefulness of Mr. Handa’s conduct.”
“From the day he stepped foot in Afghanistan, Mr. Handa negotiated a staggering amount of bribes from contractors in a blatant breach of the trust our military put in him. His actions brought shame to our mission, harmed our reconstruction efforts, and defrauded American taxpayers who funded the contracts he looted.”
Handa was stationed in Afghanistan only for the six months from March until November 2008 and served as the liaison to the local governor and engineers on the Kunar Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). He helped award reconstruction project contracts to local contractors through what should have been a competitive bidding process. In fact, almost immediately on arrival in Afghanistan, he began to solicit bribes from contractors seeking large PRT construction projects.
With the help of an Afghan interpreter - who appears not to have been proscuted so far -  Handa asked for 10 percent of the overall contract value, though the actual bribe payment was negotiated based on the contractor’s ability to pay. The total value of bribes contractors agreed to pay amounted to $1,323,000, and Handa and the interpreter collected $315,000, which they split evenly.
After leaving Afghanistan Handa tried to collect over $1 million in bribes that contractors had pledged to pay. A cooperating witness (CW) offered to help Handa collect the money, and through 2010 and early 2011 Handa provided him with details of outstanding bribes. It was at this point that Handa said he knew people in the drug business and he and the CW developed plans to sell kilogram quantities of heroin to Handa’s drug contacts.
However, in April this year he was arrested after a sting operation at a northern Virginia hotel. He was carrying the bribe money, a loaded handgun and a spreadsheet detailing specific bribe amounts paid and outstanding.
Case two: A former member of the US Army employed by a private security firm was arrested at Miami International Airport last week on charges of bribery, fraud and theft of government funds, in connection with the award of a contract to provide services to a US government provincial reconstruction team in Farah, Afghanistan.
Raul Borcuta was arrested when he tried to enter the United States from Europe. Immediately, the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois unsealed a nine-count indictment charging Borcuta and his co-conspirators, Zachery Taylor and Jared Close, with mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy, bribery and theft of government funds.
According to the indictment, Borcuta, 32, defrauded the US government in connection with a contract to provide two up-armoured sport utility vehicles to be used by an Afghan official in the government of Farah Province, Afghanistan, who had received death threats from insurgent groups.
The indictment alleges that Borcuta bribed US Army contracting officials Taylor, 40, and Close, 40, with $10,000 each to award him the contract and to make full payment to Borcuta before the vehicles were delivered. Taylor and Close, formerly US Army staff sergeants assigned to the provincial reconstruction team in Farah, allegedly authorized a payment of approximately $200,000 in US government funds to Borcuta. Borcuta received the money even though he never delivered the vehicles required by the contract.
The case is similar to another case, in Iraq, that I reported on for The Guardian involving a company called Zeroline. In that case, too, the US Army paid millions of dollars in advance for armoured vehicles that were never delivered. Still no news on whether or not those involved will be prosecuted. We are waiting.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Afghanistan's donor dependence

A report from the US Government Accountability Office on Afghanistan's Donor Dependence  notes that the US and other funders have provided 90 per cent of Afghanistan's public expenditures from 2006-2010. The US alone has allocated over $72 billion to its mission in Afghanistan. To put this in context, in 2010, for example, the Kabul government's entire domestic revenues - raised mostly through customs revenues and property taxes - amounted to just $1.6 billion.
With the 2014 target date for the withdrawal of US troops now only three years away, these figures raise huge questions about how the government in Kabul will fund its own security forces, who use up the lion's share of this donor income.
The report shows that Afghanistan's total public expenditure more than doubled between 2006-2010, from $5.5 billion to $14.3 billion, but that almost 80 per cent was off-budget ie donor funded. Of this, just under half (45%) was security related. Ninety per cent of all security spending was provided by the US.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Massive increase in Coalition night raids

Night raids, one of the most divisive and resented tactics used by Coalition forces in Afghanistan, have skyrocketed in use, increasing five-fold between February 2009 and December 2010, according to a new report from the Open Society Foundations and The Liaison Office (an independent Afghan NGO).
This is the second report published by OSI and the Liaison Office. The first, published in February 2010, can be found here.
The new report, The Cost of Kill/Capture: Impact of the Night Raid Surge on Afghan Civilians, notes that military forces conducted an average of 19 raids a night in the three months between December 2010 and February 2011. The trend is continuing according to the report's authors and may even be increasing, with reports of up to 40 raids a night on occasion. It adds that the raids have created a massive backlash and that ISAF commanders have refused to alter their policy, although there have been some changes to procedures that have reduced property damage and led to more respectful treatment of women.
However, the report notes: "although civilian casualties have been reduced significantly, they still occur, many as a result of mistaken interpretations of 'hostile intent'." 
The report recommends that ISAF and US forces should cease raids that do not discriminate between combatants and civilians, ensure such raids are not used as substitutes for criminal proceedings or other methods of intelligence gathering and that commanders should consider alternative methods of detention wherever possible.

Monday 12 September 2011

New Afghan local police units failing - HRW

Members of the newly formed Afghan Local Police
Human Rights Watch has produced a report on the growth of armed groups in Afghanistan, following the creation of the Afghan Local Police last summer. Just don't call it a Militia: Impunity, Militias, and the “Afghan Local Police" notes that "militias of all varieties have participated in murderous tribal vendettas, targeted killings, smuggling and extortion. Rapes of women, girls, and boys have been frequent." Elements of the new ALP seem to be going the same way.
The ALP was created, funded and armed by the US to supplement national security forces, particularly in remote parts of the country. Predictably, it has not quite gone that way. Such local groups quickly become attached to local warlords and power brokers and some are soon drawn into criminality or settling old scores. Nor is this the first attempt to create such a force. Already since 2001 we have had the Afghan National Auxiliary Police, Afghan Social Outreach Program forces, Community Defense Forces, Community Defense Initiative/Local Defense Initiative forcees and the Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure units.
All are based on the doctrine set out in the US Army manual on Tactics in Counter Insurgency, published in 2009. While those promoting the new ALP units argue that they have begun to deliver improvements to local security, HRW says that in the provinces it investigated there are serious problems. It recommends that irregular armed groups should be disbanded and that allegations of abuse should be investigated. An external complaints body should be created to monitor the ALP and recruits should be more closely vetted. 
All worthy stuff, but will these kind of measures be any more successful than the militias themselves? I doubt it very much.

Taliban propaganda goes from strength to strength

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has published a very good article by Bashir Ahmad Gwakh on the Taliban's internet strategy.  "Over the past decade, the Taliban has dramatically groomed its public relations skills", he says. "It possesses several Internet domains, which host official content and have backup domains in case of an attack on the main website. Taliban members also use e-mail on a daily basis to communicate with journalists."
Gwakh's article includes comments from Abdul Sattar Maiwandi, described as the web editor of a Taliban website, who tells him that the Taliban has an official media committee and a professional production studio called al-Shahamat, set up to produce videos. "From there, the films are distributed on Taliban websites, passed from mobile phone to mobile phone, and reach broader audiences through other outlets, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube", Gwakh says.
The Taliban uses several Twitter accounts, including @alemarahweb, which is in English and followed by around 5,500 people and rising; and @alsomood, which is mostly in Arabic. Around 450 people follow Mustafa Ahmadi, who runs the official Facebook page for the Taliban. Ahmadi also adminsters the fan page for Mullah Mohammad Omar Mujahid, the Taliban leader, which is followed by around 200 people.
Gwakh laments the fact that the Coalition forces in Afghanistan do not seem to take Taliban propaganda seriously, even though it is a vital part of their war effort. I concur with him. Three years ago I was asked to comment on the extent of Taliban propaganda and ways of confronting it. I pointed out the way the Taliban circulated video by phone and the failure to combat their messaging. My comments were ignored. Three years on and nothing much has happened except that the Taliban's messages are much more coherent, more Afghans have access to social media and very few Afghans understand what foreign forces are doing in their country.

Thursday 8 September 2011

$2 billion costs of US civilian uplift in Afghanistan

When the US decided to expand its civilian presence in Afghanistan in 2009, it had little idea of how much it would cost. Now a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has been able to answer that question.
In increasing the number of US civilians from 320 in early 2009 to 1,040 by June this year, the US has spent nearly $2 billion. It costs US taxpayers between $410,000 and $570,000 to deploy one civilian employee to Afghanistan for one year and those costs will undoubtedly rise. Remarkably this is the first time any US agency has worked out how much it costs to keep civilian staff in country. 

Monday 5 September 2011

Let's make up and be friends

Younis al-Mauritani
Pakistan's Inter Services Public Relations announced today the capture of three al-Qaeda members from the suburbs of Quetta, capital of Baluchistan and home to the Taliban's Quetta Shura leadership council. The most senior was Younis al-Mauritani, described in the ISPR press release as being "mainly responsible for planning and conduct of international operations", adding that he had been "personally tasked by Osama bin Laden to focus on hitting targets of economical importance in United States of America, Europe and Australia."
It said he was planning to target US economic interests including gas/oil pipelines, power generating dams and strike ships or oil tankers by using explosive-laden speed boats in international waters.
Some background on al-Mauritani can be found in this article, coincidentally published in today's edition of Spiegel Online.
ISPR also mentioned that the operation to arrest al-Mauritani - along with Abdul Ghaffar al-Shami (aka Bachar Chama) and Messara al-Shami (Mujahid Amino) - was "planned and conducted with technical assistance of United States intelligence agencies with whom Inter Services Intelligence has a strong, historic intelligence relationship".
True, but in recent months that relationship has been in tatters and is still an open wound. Giving the Pakistanis live information on important al-Qaeda suspects and allowing them to make all the running in the arrests would be a nice gesture, just to show that there are no hard feelings. Wouldn't it?

Friday 2 September 2011

Thoughts on Afghanistan's endgame by Pak elite

Pakistan's policy elite believe their state has two overriding objectives in the endgame in Afghanistan, according to a new report published jointly by Pakistan's Jinnah Institute the the United States Institute of Peace.
The first is to ensure that any settlement does not lead to instability in Pakistan, particularly amongst Pashtuns; second, to ensure that the Afghan government is not antagonistic towards Pakistan and does not allow its territory to be used against Pakistani state interests - presumably a reference to alleged Indian interference in Baluchistan.
These two objectives translate into three outcomes for the government, say the authors; first the need for stability; second, a government in Kabul that adequately represents Pashtuns and - as far as some of those questioned were concerned - includes participation by Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network; and third, a limit on India's activities in Afghanistan to ensure it is restricted to development work.
The report is based on interviews with 53 senior Pakistani figures, many of them former ambassadors or senior Army officers - all named - together with a sprinkling of journalists and academics.
Many of those questioned thought that US strategy in Afghanistan to be inconsistent and counter-productive to Pakistan's interests. "The most scathing criticism was targeted at the political component of the strategy, which is largely seen to be subservient to the military surge. Not many among the participants were optimistic about the prospects of the surge. While there was recognition that operations over the past year have degraded the Taliban’s capacity, virtually no one was convinced that this would force the main Taliban factions to negotiate on America’s terms", says the report.
Many participants recognised a dilemma for Pakistan over US policy in the region. While they argued that the US military presence exacerbated tensions and led to instability, they also felt an early US withdrawal would lead to added instability in Afghanistan. Most thought it was in Pakistan's interests for reconciliation talks to take place as quickly as possible, although they recognised that there could be no return to Taliban rule in the whole of Afghanistan. Good material in this report which casts light on a subject that is seldom aired.

Thursday 1 September 2011

Very, very, very big numbers.

If you want to read where all those dollars (31 billion of them) were wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan, here is the link to the Commission on Wartime Contracting's final report to Congress. The report found that the US military has over-relied on contractors - 260,000 of them in total, sometimes outnumbering the number of regular military forces - and was "unable to provide effective management and oversight" over the $206 billion it took to pay them. Think of very big numbers, then double them lots of times and that gives you an idea of how much has gone down the Swannee.
The report also notes that between October 2001 and July 2011, 2,429 contractors were reported by their employers to have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were 6,131 U.S. military fatalities during the same period.