Facing a tight withdrawal deadline and tough terrain, the U.S. military has destroyed more than 170 million pounds worth of vehicles and other military equipment as it rushes to wind down its role in the Afghanistan war by the end of 2014.
The massive disposal effort, which U.S. military officials call unprecedented, has unfolded largely out of sight amid an ongoing debate inside the Pentagon about what to do with the heaps of equipment that won’t be returning home. Military planners have determined that they will not ship back more than $7 billion worth of equipment — about 20 percent of what the U.S. military has in Afghanistan — because it is no longer needed or would be too costly to ship back home.
That has left the Pentagon in a quandary about what to do with the items. Bequeathing a large share to the Afghan government would be challenging because of complicated rules governing equipment donations to other countries, and there is concern that Afghanistan’s fledgling forces would be unable to maintain it. Some gear may be sold or donated to allied nations, but few are likely to be able to retrieve it from the war zone.
Within hours of opening an office for peace talks in the Gulf emirate of Qatar, Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan launched a deadly ambush on an American convoy, and the Afghan government separately broke off talks on military cooperation with the United States.
It was at best a rocky prelude to peace talks with the Taliban, which have collapsed repeatedly in the past. American officials have long pushed for such talks, believing them crucial to stabilizing Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Western forces next year.
Earlier on Tuesday, the American military had formally handed over control of security in all of Afghanistan to Afghan forces, a development that was followed hours later with the three sides announcing that peace talks would begin at the new Taliban offices in Doha, Qatar.
US troops in Afghanistan will end “most” combat operations this spring, US President Barack Obama and Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai have agreed.
American forces are expected to switch to a support role, slightly earlier than originally scheduled, as Afghan troops take the security lead.
The two leaders also backed the holding of talks between the Afghan government and Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar.
Most of the 66,000 US troops in Afghanistan are due to leave in 2014.
“Starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission - training, advising, assisting Afghan forces,” Mr Obama said in remarks at the White House on Friday, as Mr Karzai stood alongside.
More: US Troops Will End ‘Most’ Afghanistan Combat This Spring
The female police officer who killed a U.S. contractor in Kabul on Monday is an Iranian national, an Afghan government official said Tuesday.
Sediq Seddiqi, an Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman, said the Afghan police officer is an Iranian citizen who met her Afghan husband in Iran. After they eventually went to live in Afghanistan, he managed to help her illegally obtain Afghan citizenship.
The United States has long been concerned about Iranian terror-related activity against U.S. targets. But Seddiqi said he doesn’t have evidence to link the attacker to militant groups carrying out acts of terror. She was arrested and was questioned, he said.
It was the latest in a number of so-called insider attacks by Afghan soldiers and police officers, or attackers dressed like them. More than 50 people have been killed in Afghanistan in similar attacks this year, which the Afghan government calls acts of terrorism.
Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan’s key opium producing region has declined 40% over the past four years as coalition and government forces have secured key towns and villages and the Afghan government has ramped up eradication.
This year farmers grew poppy on about 143,000 acres in Helmand province, down from its peak of nearly 256,000 acres in 2008, according to Regional Command Southwest.
“In all countries we see links between cultivation and security,” said Angela Me, an analyst at the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. “The areas that are more secure are where we had less opium.”
Since insurgents are supported by drug revenues, the decline in poppy cultivation has cut into the Taliban’s ability to launch operations, according to Regional Command Southwest.
The Afghan government and the U.S. signed a deal Sunday governing night raids by American troops, resolving an issue that had threatened to derail a larger pact governing a U.S. presence in the country for decades to come.
The raids were a constant source of tension between Kabul and Washington. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called repeatedly to stop the raids, saying that they are provocative when carried out by foreign troops. The U.S. military has said such operations are essential for capturing Taliban and al-Qaida commanders.
A resolution of this dispute is a key step toward finalizing a long-term “strategic partnership” to govern U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the majority of combat forces leave in 2014. The long-term pact is seen as important for assuring the Afghan people that they will not be abandoned by their international allies.
The Afghan Defense Ministry went into a near-total lockdown on Tuesday after the discovery of 10 suicide vests and the arrest of more than a dozen Afghan soldiers suspected of plotting to attack the ministry and blow up commuter buses for government employees, Afghan and Western officials said.
The security breach took place in one of the most fortified parts of Kabul, less than a mile from the presidential palace and the headquarters of the American-led coalition. It raised the prospect that the Taliban, which committed a series of high-profile attacks inside Kabul last year, planned to pick up where it left off as winter snows gave way to spring, clearing the high mountain passes and opening the annual fighting season.
Compounding the fears of renewed violence in Kabul was the apparent complicity of Afghan soldiers in the plot. Afghan soldiers and police officers have been killing their colleagues among the international military force here at an alarming rate in recent months — only hidden bombs, the so-called improvised explosive devices, have killed more coalition service members this year.
The latest killings by Afghan security forces came on Monday when three coalition service members were killed in two separate attacks.
Now, it seems, the Afghan security forces may represent a growing threat to their own government.
Details of the latest plot, which officials said was uncovered on Monday, remained sketchy. The Defense Ministry denied any attempted bombings had taken place and said no soldiers had been arrested. The National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, did not offer any immediate comment.
But a Western official said at least 10 suicide vests were discovered in and around the ministry late on Monday afternoon. Most were found in guard sheds around a parking lot, and the belief among Afghan and Western officials is that the plan was to blow up buses carrying ministry employees home, the official said, asking not to be identified so as not to be seen contradicting official statements from the Afghan government.
An Afghan Army officer who handles administrative matters at the ministry also said there were 10 bombers, and that they are believed to have been plotting to blow up buses.
“You have to be cautious when you come here. It is not safe here,” said the officer, who similarly did not want to be identified. The plotters “have links inside the ministry. Otherwise, they could not enter such a highly secured place.”
The Afghan government was “too busy” for International Women’s Day on March 8, so it postponed official acknowledgement until the 11th. It was not a great moment to celebrate, anyway. A week earlier a council of religious scholars — the Ulema Council — published guidance that declared “men are fundamental and women are secondary.” It called for women to travel with mahrams (male escorts), and to avoid mixing with men in offices, markets and educational facilities. The statement also said that beating a woman is only permissible with a “Shariah-compliant reason.”
The Council’s edicts have no legal standing, and were not unprecedented from this conservative body. What was more troubling was that the Office of the President published the statement, and President Hamid Karzai appeared to endorse it, by telling reporters that it was “in accordance with a Sharia view of our country, which all Muslims and Afghans are committed to.” With women activists already anxious about the potential impact of deals with the Taliban, Karzai’s words served as a sobering reminder of his poor track record on women’s rights.
Concerns about the impact of a deal with the Taliban on women’s rights are often dismissed with assertions that Taliban views on women are not so different from many in the government. This statement by the Ulema Council supports that viewpoint, and you’d certainly find a few former warlords nodding in agreement with it in the Cabinet and parliament.
But the conservatives in government have, for the most part, grudgingly accepted the presence of women in political life. The current environment may be hostile to women, but activists have been able to negotiate significant victories. Last year, when conservatives in government tried to take over women’s shelters, women activists fought back and won. In 2010 parliamentarians and activists successfully stymied some egregious articles in a bill to regulate family law for Shia Muslims. The year before that they succeeded in pushing through a law on violence against women which made the crime of rape explicit for the first time. Progress may be slow, but it is steady, and often heroic.
Some who speak regularly to Talibs say they have become more progressive when it comes to things like women’s access to education. One source admits, though, that many Talibs would still oppose the presence of women in the workplace and in politics.
Taliban hostility to women’s presence in public life often came up in work I carried out in 2010, interviewing women living in de facto Taliban controlled areas, and gathering “night letters” - threat letters delivered under cover of darkness. Fatima K., (a pseudonym), lives in a southern province, where she received this letter from the Taliban in February 2010:
“We Taliban warn you to stop working otherwise we will take your life away. We will kill you in such a harsh way that no woman has so far been killed in that manner. This will be a good lesson for those women like you who are working.”
Fatima K. left her job. Others choose to ignore the threats. When Hossai, a 22- year-old Afghan aid worker in the southern city of Kandahar, received threatening phone calls from a man who said he was with the Taliban, she didn’t believe it. The man had told her to stop working with foreigners. But Hossai didn’t want to give up a good job with an American development company, Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI). Within weeks Hossai was dead. On April 13, 2010, a gunman lay in wait for her when she left the office. She was shot multiple times and died the next day.
Days after Hossai’s killing, another young woman working in Kandahar, Nadia N. (a pseudonym), received a letter signed by the Taliban, which threatened her with death:
“We would warn you today on behalf of the Servants of Islam to stop working with infidels. We always know when you are working. If you continue, you will be considered an enemy of Islam and will be killed. In the same way that yesterday we have killed Hossai, whose name was on our list, your name and other women’s names are also our list.”
These letters are reminders that it may not be right to treat the Taliban as just another set of conservatives. Their views on women may overlap with a significant segment of opinion in Afghanistan, but the Taliban are also a force which has become used to imposing their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam with violence and fear.
More than 3,000 detainees held by the U.S. military will be transferred to Afghan control within six months under an agreement signed Friday between the United States and Afghanistan.
While the United States will retain the power to veto any detainee’s release, the prisoner agreement meets a key demand of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government as the two sides try to hammer out the details of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan following the expected end of American combat operations by 2014.
The first batch of about 500 detainees is likely to be transferred within 45 days from the U.S.-run detention center at the Bagram military complex, north of Kabul.
The agreement would apply only to Afghan detainees, said a senior U.S. official involved in the negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks. About 50 non-Afghans - primarily al-Qaida suspects from Pakistan, Arab countries and elsewhere - will remain in U.S. custody at Bagram.
The U.S. will build 11 new units at Bagram to house the detainees, as well as nine units at Pul-e-Charki prison on the outskirts of Kabul.
“At the end of the six-month period, the Afghans will have (full legal) custody of the Afghan prisoners,” the U.S. official said.
The Afghan government would conduct administrative reviews of the detainees’ cases but would have to consult with U.S. authorities before releasing any of them, effectively giving the United States the ability to block a prisoner from going free. Detainees whose cases are disputed will only be freed with the joint approval of the commander of the U.S.-led coalition, Marine Gen. John R. Allen, and Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.
The agreement comes after protracted and at times tense negotiations between U.S. and Afghan officials. Recent media reports have suggested U.S. negotiators threatened to abandon the talks. While U.S. officials didn’t publicly disclose details, it’s widely believed that American negotiators were seeking assurances that detainees transferred to Afghan custody wouldn’t be able to secure their release by bribing local officials.
While U.S. officials called it a breakthrough, serious obstacles continue to stand in the way of the long-term partnership that the United States is seeking to ensure a long-term military role in Afghanistan. They include demands by Karzai that U.S.-led NATO forces end the controversial “night raids” on suspected insurgent hideouts - which coalition officials say have eliminated thousands of Taliban leaders and operatives - and differences over what role U.S. special forces would play after the bulk of American troops withdraw.
Most of the prisoners held at Bagram are suspected Taliban insurgents, and the U.S. also had reportedly been concerned that some detainees might be freed by Karzai in an effort to advance negotiations with the Taliban on a settlement to the decade-long war.
The United States appeared Monday to raise the possibility there may be no long-term strategic agreement with Afghanistan after American troops withdraw in 2014, a move that comes amid heightened tensions over the burning of Qurans by U.S. soldiers.
The sticking point in negotiations over a Strategic Partnership Agreement, which would provide support and aid to Afghanistan, appears to be an end to night raids and speed up a timeline to hand over U.S.-run detention facilities.
No one in Washington or Kabul has publicly said the two countries are at an impasse, though the negotiations have dragged on for nearly a year.
Over the weekend, the United States released a brief statement that for the first time appeared to question whether an agreement could be reached.
“We have always said it was more important to get the right agreement than to get an agreement,” Gavin Sundwall, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, said in a written statement.
Without a strategic partnership, it is unlikely there would be any agreement to extend U.S. troops beyond a 2014 deadline to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai was scheduled to meet Monday with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker to discuss the agreement, said Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi.
Faizi would not comment on speculation of a possible breakdown in talks, saying the Afghan government had received no such formal notification.
Karzai has repeatedly said he wants all prisoners handed over to Afghan control and an end to night raids, requests the U.S. military has previously resisted.
“The United States has repeatedly made clear that it is committed to working with the Afghan government to complete a transition of detention operations in Afghanistan in a manner that is safe and orderly, and in accordance with our international legal obligations,” Sundwall said.
“We will continue to work with the Afghan government to meet this objective, as part of our broader transition efforts.”
The possibility that the United States may not be able to come to an agreement with Afghanistan raises questions about the stability of the country once the U.S. military and other members of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force withdraw.