Embedded in Northern Afghanistan: The Resurgence of the Taliban – Vice News Published on Nov 6, 2015


In late September, the Taliban launched an offensive against Kunduz, a provincial capital in northern Afghanistan, capturing key buildings and freeing hundreds of prisoners from the city’s jail.

American planes targeted Taliban positions, but at the beginning of October, a hospital run by medical charity Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) was hit, killing 22 hospital staff and patients, with many seriously injured. The Pentagon later admitted that the strike was a mistake.

Gaining exclusive access to the Taliban, VICE News filmmaker Nagieb Khaja spoke to fighters that briefly took control of Kunduz — the first major city to fall to the group since it was ousted from power in 2001.

Watch “Robert Grenier: The VICE News Interview” – http://bit.ly/1KTO5aw

The Resurgence of the Taliban (Trailer)- Vice News Published on Nov 2, 2015


In late September, the Taliban launched an offensive against Kunduz, a provincial capital in northern Afghanistan, capturing key buildings and freeing hundreds of prisoners from the city’s jail.

The offensive sparked a fierce battle between the militants and government forces, supported by US airstrikes. After several days of fighting, Afghan troops recaptured the city, and took down the Taliban’s flag from the central square.

American planes targeted Taliban positions, but at the beginning of October, a hospital run by medical charity Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) was hit, killing 22 hospital staff and patients, with many seriously injured. The Pentagon later admitted that the strike was a mistake.

Gaining exclusive access to the Taliban, VICE News filmmaker Nagieb Khaja spoke to fighters that briefly took control of Kunduz — the first major city to fall to the group since it was ousted from power in 2001.

Watch “Robert Grenier: The VICE News Interview” – http://bit.ly/1KTO5aw

America’s Fading Footprint in the Middle East – By Yaroslav Trofimov Oct. 9, 2015 1:32 p.m. ET


As Russia bombs and Iran plots, the U.S. role is shrinking—and the region’s major players are looking for new ways to advance their own interests

U.S. Army soldiers board a helicopter as they leave after the end of their one-year deployment in Kunar province, eastern Afghanistan, in March 2012.

U.S. Army soldiers board a helicopter as they leave after the end of their one-year deployment in Kunar province, eastern Afghanistan, in March 2012. Photo: Erik De Castro/Reuters

Despised by some, admired by others, the U.S. has been the Middle East’s principal power for decades, providing its allies with guidance and protection.

Now, however, with Russia and Iran thrusting themselves boldly into the region’s affairs, that special role seems to be melting away. As seasoned politicians and diplomats survey the mayhem, they struggle to recall a moment when America counted for so little in the Middle East—and when it was held in such contempt, by friend and foe alike.

“It’s the lowest ebb since World War II for U.S. influence and engagement in the region,” said Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat who served as the Obamaadministration’s ambassador to Afghanistan and before that as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Pakistan.

From shepherding Israel toward peace with its Arab neighbors to rolling back Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and halting the contagion of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the U.S. has long been at the core of the Middle East’s security system. Its military might secured critical trade routes and the bulk of the world’s oil supply. Today, the void created by U.S. withdrawal is being filled by the very powers that American policy has long sought to contain.

“If you look at the heart of the Middle East, where the U.S. once was, we are now gone—and in our place, we have Iran, Iran’s Shiite proxies, Islamic State and the Russians,” added Mr. Crocker, now dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. “What had been a time and place of U.S. ascendancy we have ceded to our adversaries.”

Article continues:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/americas-fading-footprint-in-the-middle-east-1444411954

 

The Greatest Threat to America – By Paul D. Shinkman Aug 2015


American flags burn in a flag retirement ceremony on Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014, at Phil Moore Park in Bowling Green, Ky. Matthew Vance of Troop 108 collected about 80 flags to retire as his Eagle Scout project.

In the modern world, dangers against Americans abound.

U.S. decision-makers are confronted with myriad complex issues, including the Islamic State group and “lone-wolf” terrorists, China, cyber attacks from unknown hackers, al-Qaida, cyber attacks from known hackers, Iran, domestic budget cuts, North Korea, climate change, drug cartels straddling its borders, and Russia’s continued ability to reduce the North American continent to a radioactive crisp.

The job of commander-in-chief has perhaps never been more difficult, and public disagreement among the president’s top advisers gives the appearance to those outside the White House Situation Room that top U.S. national security infrastructure doesn’t know where to start.

[READ: Meet the New Joint Chiefs of Staff]

July saw top officials from across the government asked publicly what they believed served as the greatest threat facing the U.S. Their responses gave insight into the most closely guarded meetings within the executive branch where the commander-in-chief and his top lieutenants cannot settle for anything less than accurately anticipating the future. It’s a job the U.S. has never quite perfected, and it is perhaps more difficult now than ever.

“You’re hearing a cacophony of views, because it’s almost unpredictable,” says Barry Pavel, a former senior national security adviser to presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and longtime Pentagon policy official. He cites, for example, the “fantastical scenario” a decade ago that the Russian military would act belligerently and march on a foreign country. What may have been considered a fringe forecast turns out to have been pretty accurate.

“It does reflect that there’s no single overriding existential threat to the U.S. as there was during the Cold War,” says Samuel “Sandy” Berger, the national security adviser to President Bill Clinton until 2001. And during that time, the U.S. and the Soviet Union each knew roughly how many missiles the other had. “It was an easy framework to think about.”

So how to prepare for a far more complex world? It became a favored question of Sen. Joe Manchin last month. The West Virginia Democrat exploited a time of almost unprecedented turnover among the Joint Chiefs of Staff to grill the nation’s new top officers about what they fear most.

“My assessment today, senator, is that Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security,” came a snappy answer from Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, in his nomination hearing. His characteristic clarity surprised some, who figured the infantry commander who earned his combat chops in Iraq and Afghanistan might prioritize Islamic extremism or the cauldron of violence that now serves as much of the Middle East.

“In Russia, we have a nuclear power,” the general responded to Manchin’s request for further details. “We have one that not only has capability to violate sovereignty of our allies to do things that are inconsistent with our national interests, but they’re in the process of doing so.”

Article continues:

http://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2015/08/07/the-greatest-threat-to-america?int=a14709

Taliban Leader Reports Threaten Peace Talks |by Michael Pizzi July 29, 2015 7:45PM ET


Some see saboteur’s hand in timing of news, which could delegitimize Taliban representatives at talks

Analysts urged caution with the announcement; rumors of Omar’s death have surfaced several times in recent years, usually traced back to unnamed Afghan officials and always denied by Taliban leadership. The one-eyed insurgent leader has not been seen in public since the 2001 invasion sent him fleeing into Pakistan, which has long been accused of sheltering him along with other Taliban members. Since then, Mullah Omar has released only written statements — the latest just five days ago — never appearing in videos or offering other proof of life.

But Wednesday marked the first time Afghanistan offered “official” confirmation, and White House spokesman Eric Schultz said the U.S. believed that the reports this time around were “credible.” And while Taliban officials initially denied Omar’s death prior to Sediqi’s comments — at which time the official line form Kabul was that it was “investigating reports — Taliban officials could not be reached for comment later in the day.

Regardless of the report’s veracity, experts on the Taliban insurgency struggled to explain the timing of Kabul’s announcement, which they said would certainly complicate the peace effort. Omar’s death would raise questions about who authorized Taliban representatives to sit down with Kabul officials. On July 15, the group even released a statement supposedly drafted by Omar that signaled his approval of the process.

Analysts believe the Taliban leadership’s decision to negotiate with Kabul has fractured an already diffuse insurgency. If those involved in the talks are acting without Omar’s blessing, it could further undermine the process.

 

Article continues:

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/7/29/reports-of-dead-taliban-leader-could-send-shockwaves-across-afghanistan.html

The Fraud of War – By Julia Harte MAY 5 2015 3:45 AM


U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have stolen tens of millions through bribery, theft, and rigged contracts.

U.S. soldiers of Alpha company, 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment, walk through a check point in Zafraniya neighbourhood, southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, September 6, 2007.

U.S. soldiers of Alpha company, 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment, walk through a check point in Zafraniya neighbourhood, southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, September 6, 2007.

U.S. Army Specialist Stephanie Charboneau sat at the center of a complex trucking network in Forward Operating Base Fenty near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that distributed daily tens of thousands of gallons of what troops called “liquid gold”: the refined petroleum that fueled the international coalition’s vehicles, planes, and generators.

A prominent sign in the base read: “The Army Won’t Go If The Fuel Don’t Flow.” But Charboneau, 31, a mother of two from Washington state, felt alienated after a supervisor’s harsh rebuke. Her work was a dreary routine of recording fuel deliveries in a computer and escorting trucks past a gate. But it was soon to take a dark turn into high-value crime.

She began an affair with a civilian, Jonathan Hightower, who worked for a Pentagon contractor that distributed fuel from Fenty, and one day in March 2010 he told her about “this thing going on” at other U.S. military bases around Afghanistan, she recalled in a recent telephone interview.

Troops were selling the U.S. military’s fuel to Afghan locals on the side, and pocketing the proceeds. When Hightower suggested they start doing the same, Charboneau said, she agreed.

In so doing, Charboneau contributed to thefts by U.S. military personnel of at least $15 million worth of fuel since the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. And eventually she became one of at least 115 enlisted personnel and military officers convicted since 2005 of committing theft, bribery, and contract-rigging crimes valued at $52 million during their deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a comprehensive tally of court records by the Center for Public Integrity.

Many of these crimes grew out of shortcomings in the military’s management of the deployments that experts say are still present: a heavy dependence on cash transactions, a hasty award process for high-value contracts, loose and harried oversight within the ranks, and a regional culture of corruption that proved seductive to the Americans troops transplanted there.

Charboneau, whose Facebook posts reveal a bright-eyed woman with a shoulder tattoo and a huge grin, snuggling with pets and celebrating the 2015 New Year with her children in Seattle Seahawks jerseys, now sits in Carswell federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, serving a seven-year sentence for her crime.

Additional crimes by military personnel are still under investigation, and some court records remain partly under seal. The magnitude of additional losses from fraud, waste, and abuse by contractors, civilians, and allied foreign troops in Afghanistan has never been tallied, but officials probing such crimes say the total is in the billions of dollars. And those who investigate and prosecute military wrongdoing say the convictions so far constitute a small portion of the crimes they think were committed by U.S. military personnel in the two countries.

Former Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen, who served as the principal watchdog for wrongdoing in Iraq from 2004 to 2013, said he suspected “the fraud … among U.S. military personnel and contractors was much higher” than what he and his colleagues were able to prosecute. John F. Sopko, his contemporary counterpart in Afghanistan, said his agency has probably uncovered less than half of the fraud committed by members of the military in Afghanistan.

U.S. soldiers inspect damage to their armored vehicle after an near the village of Eber in Logar province, Afghanistan, on Sept. 26, 2009.
U.S. soldiers inspect damage to their armored vehicle near the village of Eber in Logar province, Afghanistan, on Sept. 26, 2009.
Photo by Nikola Solic/Reuters

As of February, he said he had 327 active investigations still under way, involving 31 members of the military. “You don’t appreciate how much money is being stolen in Afghanistan until you go over there,” said Sopko, who says price-fixing and other forms of financial corruption are rampant in Afghanistan.

These and other experts, as well as some of those who have pleaded guilty to criminal wrongdoing, point to some recurrent patterns in the corrupt activity, which in turn illustrate the special challenges created when a sizable military force is deployed abroad. Sometimes ill-trained military personnel were forced to handle or oversee large cash transactions, in a region where casual corruption in financial dealings—bribes, kickbacks, and petty theft—was commonplace. Commanding officers, they add, were typically so distracted by urgent war challenges that they could not carefully check for missing fuel or contractor kickbacks.

So far, officers account for approximately four-fifths of the value of the fraud committed by military personnel in Iraq, while in Afghanistan, the ratio was flipped, with enlistees accounting for roughly the same portion, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s tally. The reasons for the difference are unclear. But Sopko said he expects more officers to be investigated for misconduct in Afghanistan as the U.S. military mission there continues, so the ratio could change.

Troops who had little or no prior criminal history, like Charboneau, say the circumstances of their deployments made stealing with impunity look easy, and so they made decisions that to their surprise eventually brought them prison sentences ranging from three months to more than 17 years. Many, like Charboneau, were savvy about the military’s way of doing things—her mother, her first husband, and her second husband were service members, according to a statement her lawyer, Dennis Hartley, filed on Jan. 30, 2014, before her sentencing.

They say that they knew of other military personnel who also broke the law, but without getting caught. Hightower convinced her to steal fuel from Fenty, Charboneau said, by pointing out that the troops at nearby bases “aren’t getting caught, so you shouldn’t have to worry about it.”

Retired Army Reserve Maj. Glenn MacDonald, editor-in-chief of the website MilitaryCorruption.com, said the volume and value of fraud committed by troops in Afghanistan and Iraq seem higher to him than what he recalled as a young soldier in Vietnam in the 1960s. “What you can make out of these [recent] wars is staggering. It’s an opportunity for anybody, even a noncommissioned officer, to become very rich overnight,” MacDonald said.

Many have probably been tempted, he said, because they saw others getting away with the theft of thousands or even millions of dollars.

Pocketing thousands in cash from illicit fuel sales

Military fuel in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a perennial target of theft during the past 14 years of war. In Afghanistan, fuel moved around the country in “jingle trucks,” tankers adorned with kaleidoscopic patterns and metal ornaments. At Fenty, for example, jingle trucks bearing fuel arrived every few days from suppliers in Pakistan, all driven by locals under contracts with the base. Officers at Fenty then distributed it to 32 nearby bases, with the largest ones using up to 2 million gallons of fuel a week.

A U.S. soldier sits in an MRAP vehicle as he prepares for an early morning mission at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Afghanistan on Dec. 19, 2014.
A U.S. soldier sits in an MRAP vehicle as he prepares for an early morning mission at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Afghanistan on Dec. 19, 2014.
Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

To describe the system as loosely controlled might be an understatement: Standard contracts allowed each driver to take seven days to bring the fuel to a destination that might be only a few hours away, according to Army Maj. Jonathan McDougal, who oversaw motor vehicle logistics in northeast Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 from Bagram Airfield. “It was like they planned for something to go wrong with every convoy,” McDougal told the Center for Public Integrity.

Charboneau’s role in the Fenty fuel theft ring was simple. She ordered trucks to transport more fuel than needed, then filed fake records showing the extra fuel had been delivered to a base. After leaving Fenty in a convoy, the extra trucks diverted their loads to prearranged meeting spots, where buyers offloaded the fuel and paid in cash, with the proceeds divided later among Charboneau and her co-conspirators. The scheme worked—for a while—because the fuel storage amounts and truck delivery amounts matched (although of course the bases’ records of delivered fuel did not).

This represented, Charboneau said, “a big gap” in the fuel oversight system. And the rewards were enticing—about $5,000 in net profit from a single extra truckload.

One month after she joined the scheme, according to the government’s sentencing memo, filed on Jan. 15, 2014, in U.S. District Court in Colorado, her supervisor, Sgt. Christopher Weaver, jumped in. She described the widening of the conspiracy in instant messages intended for her sister in Colorado, sent using the screen name “dollface_kc”:

150504_POL_Dollface_KC

Although prosecutor Mark Dubester said in the sentencing memo that Charboneau’s use of the term lmao (Internet slang for “laughing my ass off”) demonstrated that she “saw humor in the situation,” Charboneau said she did not. When she returned to Fenty, she said, Weaver pulled her aside and told her that he knew how everything worked, and while he had not made much money off of the scheme so far, it would be wise of her to keep her mouth shut.

Don’t Blame It on Depression – By Anne Skomorowsky MARCH 29 2015 7:31 PM


That’s not what made the Germanwings co-pilot murder 149 people.

Relatives stand at a monument to honor the victims of Germanwings flight 4U9525 in front of the mountains near the crash site on March 26, 2015, in Le Vernet, France. Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

Because Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz killed himself when he purposefully drove a plane carrying 149 other people into a mountain in the Alps, there has been an assumption that he suffered from “depression”—an assumption strengthened by the discovery of antidepressants in his home and reports that he had been treated in psychiatry and neurology clinics. Many patients and other interested parties are rightly concerned that Lubitz’s murderous behavior will further stigmatize the mentally ill.

It is certainly true that stigma may lead those in need to avoid treatment. When I was a psychiatrist at an HIV clinic, I was baffled by the shame associated with a visit to see me. Patients at the clinic had advanced AIDS, often contracted through IV drug use or sex work, and many had unprotected sex despite their high viral loads. Some were on parole. Many had lost custody of their children. Many lived in notorious single-room occupancy housing and used cocaine daily. But these issues, somehow, were less embarrassing than the suggestion that they be evaluated by a psychiatrist.

For my clinic patients, it was shameful to be mentally ill. But to engage in antisocial behavior as a way of life? Not so bad.

I think my patients were on to something. Bad behavior—even suicidal behavior—is not the same as depression. It is a truism in psychiatry that depression is underdiagnosed. But as a psychiatrist confronted daily with “problem” patients in the general hospital where I work, I find that depression is also overdiagnosed. Even doctors invoke “depression” to explain anything a reasonable adult wouldn’t do.

US considering slowing exit from Afghanistan – Al Jazeera February 21, 2015 10:19AM ET


In first overseas trip, new Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter says US is “rethinking” it Afghanistan strategy

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at Feb 22, 2015 2.25

Carter, on his first overseas trip since starting the Pentagon job Tuesday, also said the Obama administration is “rethinking” the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan, although he did not elaborate.

No decisions have been made, but President Barack Obama will discuss a range of options for slowing the U.S. military withdrawal when Afghan president Ashraf Ghani visits the White House next month, Carter said at a news conference with Ghani. The presidents also plan to talk about the future of the counterterrorism fight in Afghanistan, he said.

Carter did not say Obama was considering keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, only that the president was rethinking the pace of troop withdrawals for 2015 and 2016.

There are about 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of 100,000 as recently as 2010-11.

While the White House recently acknowledged it was reconsidering the exit plan, Carter’s remarks were the most direct explanation by a Pentagon official amid criticism from opposition Republicans that the Democratic commander in chief is beating a hasty and risky retreat.

Article continues:

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/2/21/pentagon-chief-us-considering-slowing-exit-from-afghanistan.html

Afghanistan’s Team of Rivals – By Mujib Mashal for Al Jazeera America Published on Tuesday, February 17, 2015


 

Can two former political foes overcome a bitter election stalemate to combat the country’s endemic corruption?

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at Feb 18, 2015 2.15

Above: President Ashraf Ghani in his office in Kabul – Photos by Joël van Houdt for Al Jazeera America

KABUL, Afghanistan — It was subtle, but telling: One of the immediate consequences of the new Afghan president taking office was that everyone around him turned into a note taker. Members of the powerful political elite, accustomed to 13 years of casual politics characterized by grand postures and long-winded speeches, all scribble in Ashraf Ghani’s presence. Some, more traveled — such as the already-powerful national security adviser, his cane at his side — write in small, chic notebooks. Others — indolent bureaucrats, MPs with dark pasts, more used to the gun — are obvious amateurs: bulky notebooks, single sheets of white paper. In many of his first meetings with foreign dignitaries, Ghani himself took notes in his small, black, leather notepad.

“If you have a meeting of five minutes with him, he gives you so many tasks — there is so much intensive content — that you need to write down,” said Ajmal Obaid Abidy, the president’s new spokesman his close aide over two campaigns. “And he follows up.”

One evening in January, members of the senate were due for dinner at the presidential palace. Plates of rice with carrots, raisins and pistachios were being rushed from the kitchen. “Oh, people, don’t eat yet. The president hasn’t arrived,” a female senator shouted to colleagues around the table. Ghani, dressed in a dark-gray tunic and a striped-black turban, went around the room and shook hands with the more than 100 guests. As he reached the female senators, he waited for them to initiate the handshake or placed his hands on his chest in respect.

As the plates were cleared, Ghani opened his notebook. He checked his watch and scribbled as the burly head of the Afghan senate began his remarks. The terms of some of the senators had concluded, he said, but they should continue to be provided two policemen apiece for security. Eight members of the senate had been killed over the preceding decade, and threats against the country’s legislators had increased since Parliament ratified the bilateral security pact in December, allowing U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan. The deputy speaker of the senate, to Ghani’s left, occasionally peeked to see what the president was writing.

Article continues:

http://projects.aljazeera.com/2015/02/afghanistan-rivals/

Death Boats to Greece (Part 1/2): Europe Or Die (Episode 2/4) – Vice News Published on Feb 2, 2015


Since 2000, more than 27,000 migrants and refugees have died attempting the perilous journey to Europe. With an unprecedented number of people breaking through its heavily barricaded borders in 2014, the EU continues to fortify its frontiers.

VICE News presents Europe or Die, a new four-part series that documents the efforts of those risking their lives to reach Europe, and the forces tasked to keep them out.

In episode two of our series, VICE News correspondent Milène Larsson travels to the border between Greece and Turkey, where Syrian and Afghan refugees are paying large sums of money to take “death boats” to Greece.