Wednesday, July 1, 2015

U.S. Project in Afghanistan Looking Very Wobbly

Two stories emanating from Afghanistan in the last two days -- "Afghans Protest After U.S. Forces Carry Out Raid on Strongman" by Mujib Mashal; and "In Afghanistan, Suicide Blast and Angry Crowd Target American Soldiers" by Joseph Goldstein and Ahmad Shakib -- highlight the duplicity of the Obama administration's public declaration that U.S. combat operations have ceased in that country.

The first story describes a raid by U.S. military on a local militia (non-Taliban) leader in Parwan Province, home to the U.S. mega-base Bagram Airfield, to destroy a weapons depot. The raid sparked a significant protest:
KABUL, Afghanistan — Protesters in the northern Afghan province of Parwan blocked the main highway there on Monday after American forces raided the village of a local strongman and blew up a weapons depot belonging to him, officials and residents said. 
The raid on Monday morning demonstrated that American troops in Afghanistan, months after President Obama declared their regular combat mission over, are engaged beyond their publicly stated role of advising the Afghan forces and carrying out targeted counterterrorism operations. 
It also highlighted how, despite a lengthy campaign to disarm illegal militias, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, armed groups that have no apparent ties to Al Qaeda or even the Taliban are still considered by American forces to be a significant threat.
The target of Monday’s raid was Jan Ahmad, a local commander who fought the Soviets and then the Taliban. Hours after the raid, shops in Charikar, the capital of Parwan Province, just north of Kabul, remained closed as Mr. Ahmad’s supporters shouted, “Death to America” and “Death to the enemies of Islam.” They expressed outrage at the manner of the raid, saying it was a matter that the Afghan authorities, not foreign forces, should have handled.
“The protesters burned a lot of tires to show their rage,” said Mahmood Hamidy, 20, who runs a private school in Charikar, “and that, if the issue is not taken seriously, they are ready for violence.”
While the American military described the raid as force protection, former commanders and local elders in the north leveled accusations that the raid had been politically motivated and possibly a settling of scores from last year’s election crisis.
Mr. Ahmad has supported Abdullah Abdullah, who was President Ashraf Ghani’s rival in the bitterly contested presidential runoff. At the height of the crisis, Mr. Ahmad was among a group of commanders who threatened to use force to support a breakaway government led by Mr. Abdullah.
Echoing his calls for restraint during the election crisis, Mr. Abdullah, who is now the chief executive in a power-sharing government with Mr. Ghani, called on the protesters Monday to remain calm as he appointed a fact-finding mission and asked Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander of United States forces in Afghanistan, to provide further information on the raid.
The gist of the story is particularly troubling for the U.S.-backed Ghani-Adbullah government. Militias are stockpiling weapons and gearing up for battle in anticipation of a coming collapse of authority in Kabul, and Ghani is using American troops to beat them down.

The second story, filed yesterday by Goldstein and Shakib, describes a suicide attack on a U.S. military convoy moving through Kabul that ended up in an anti-American protest after it appears troops fired on people trying to come to the assistance of those injured by the blast:
KABUL, Afghanistan — A convoy of American troops survived a huge suicide bomb attack in Kabul on Tuesday afternoon, only to find themselves struggling against a gathering crowd of Afghans who were trying to tend to civilians wounded in the bombing. 
The confusing scene left one American soldier wounded, possibly by a knife, as Afghans shouted, “Death to Americans,” and accused the soldiers of opening fire on them in the frightening seconds after the suicide attack, witnesses said.
The episode hinted at a lingering wellspring of anger against American troops even as the United States’ military presence in Afghanistan is receding. Convoys of heavily armored troop carriers are still spotted routinely in Kabul making shuttle runs between bases and embassies and the airport.
Around 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, in the hot midday hours, a suicide attacker detonated a car bomb amid one such convoy, on Airport Road. The blast did not kill or seriously injure any of the soldiers, but it wounded at least 22 Afghans, including passing motorists and roadside shopkeepers, and killed at least one, officials said.
What happened next is still being pieced together. But at some point, a member of the crowd attacked and most likely stabbed an American soldier who had exited one of the vehicles to form a cordon, witnesses said. A soldier opened fire, although it was unclear whether the shots came before or after the crowd member’s attack. Some witnesses said the American soldiers, along with Afghan security officials who were nearby, had fired only warning shots.
These stories follow a week where there was a suicide attack on the Parliament in Kabul while Afghan lawmakers were trying to confirm a defense minister. The ministry has gone leaderless since the extra-legal Ghani-Abdullah coalition government assumed power from Hamid Karzai last September. Parliament's term has expired; it is in session based on presidential fiat. The Taliban is taking territory in the north.

Joseph Goldstein and Rod Nordland reported last week in "Taliban Strike Afghan Parliament as Lawmakers Meet" that things are dire for the U.S. project in Afghanistan:
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban attacked the Afghan Parliament on Monday [June 22] just as lawmakers were convening for their third attempt to confirm a defense minister, while in northern Afghanistan a second district fell to Taliban insurgents. 
At least two bystanders died in the attack on Parliament and more than two dozen were injured, but government officials said that all members of Parliament had been taken to safety with at most only minor injuries. 
The seizure of the Archi district, which was confirmed by an Afghan Local Police commander, deepened concern that an attack on neighboring Kunduz, the capital of Kunduz Province, was imminent. Archi was the second neighboring district to fall in two days. On Sunday, the Ministry of Defense and other officials confirmed Taliban claims that the Chahar Dara district had fallen to the insurgents that morning.
The Parliament attack was an embarrassment to the government, apparently timed to coincide with the appearance of the acting defense minister, Masoom Stanekzai, in an effort to win confirmation. The attack was initiated just as Mr. Stanekzai and the country’s second vice president, Sarwar Danish, arrived at the hall in southwestern Kabul.
The country has been without a confirmed defense minister for nearly 10 months, since the coalition government of President Ashraf Ghani was inaugurated in September. Mr. Stanekzai was Mr. Ghani’s third choice for the post; his other candidates were rejected by Parliament.
The term of the Afghan Parliament expired Sunday, with no arrangements yet agreed upon between Mr. Ghani and his coalition partners for new elections. Mr. Ghani extended its term in office until new elections are held, although it is unclear whether such a move was constitutional.
As the Ghani-Abdullah government wobbles, the Taliban is softening its image, reaching out to women ("Taliban Are Talking Peace, Though Not With Afghan Government" by Mujib Mashal). One wonders how close the Kabul-based U.S.-dependent government of the former Johns Hopkins professor is to experiencing its own helicopter-on-the-U.S.-embassy-in-Saigon moment.

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