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KABUL — At least one in seven Afghan soldiers walked off the job during the first six months of this year, according to statistics compiled by NATO that show an increase in desertion.
Between January and June, more than 24,000 soldiers walked off the job, more than twice as many as in the same period last year, according to the NATO statistics. In June alone, more than 5,000 soldiers deserted, nearly 3 percent of the 170,000-strong force.
Some Afghan officials say the figures point to the vulnerability of a long-standing Afghan policy that prohibits punishment of deserters. The rule, issued under a decree by President Hamid Karzai, was aimed to encourage recruiting and allow for some flexibility during harvest time, when the number of desertions spikes.
“I am personally in favor of removing that amnesty,” said Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, the chief of staff of the Afghan army. “We cannot turn a blind eye on the individuals who are doing something wrong.’’
As recently as September 2009, more Afghan soldiers had been quitting than joining the army, but that trend had been reversed by aggressive recruiting, salary increases and guarantees of regular leave.
Afghan and coalition military officials said they believe they can continue to make progress toward expanding the army to about 200,000 soldiers, despite the recent increase in desertions. But they acknowledged that it will be important for Afghanistan to reduce the dropout rate as the number of U.S. soldiers in the country begins to decline and as more of the security burden begins to shift toward the Afghan army.
“The army has got to figure out how to get their attrition down,” said Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who oversees NATO’s efforts to build up the Afghan security forces.
The attrition statistics since 2010 were provided by NATO’s training command in Kabul in response to a request by The Washington Post. The Afghan ministry of defense keeps its own statistics on attrition that are generally slightly lower than NATO’s but hew to the same trends. The Afghan government’s tallies include soldiers who return after being gone long enough to be considered deserters; NATO’s stats at this time do not.
Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said he doubted that dropouts would be a problem as Afghan forces took more responsibility in coming years.
“We have accelerated in a way which we have never accelerated before,” Wardak said in an interview last month, referring to the growth of the army. “In the beginning everybody was having doubt that we will not have recruits. But till today . . . there has been no problem with recruitment at all.”
Afghan and coalition officials said the soldiers who leave often complain about poor living conditions or commanders who do not allow a regular vacation schedule.
But Afghan and U.S. military officials also said poor leadership is a main reason soldiers desert the ranks. Those commanders who are corrupt or fail to ensure proper pay, food or vacation for their subordinates have higher attrition. These problems have been around for years, however, and coalition officials did not offer specific reasons for the rising attrition this year.
“We’re not seeing any linkage to the amount of fighting they’re doing,” said one U.S. military official who works with Afghan security forces. “It really boils down to leadership.”
Four months ago, Enayatullah, a 35-year-old soldier based in Kabul, traded in his $350-a-month salary to flip burgers at a high school cafeteria. Trained as a wrestler, he had been a member of a unit whose soldiers played for the army’s sports teams. When a new commander arrived and cut the daily food stipend and sent the soldiers on more missions to Wardak province, which is far more dangerous than Kabul, Enayatullah grew disgruntled. He quit, along with eight of his friends and fellow soldiers, he said.
“He made us all very disappointed,” Enayatullah said of the new commander. “I was happy with my profession. If they offered us what we had before, then we would be happy to go back.”
At one point this summer, the pace of desertions climbed to an annualized rate of 35 percent, though it has since declined.
NATO’s training command has developed an extensive plan to attempt to lower attrition further, saying an acceptable goal would be 1.4 percent per month — or about 17 percent a year. July’s attrition rate was 2.2 percent.
“If we’re in the same situation in 3.5 years” — when Afghans are scheduled to be in charge of their security — “then we have a problem,” said Canadian Maj. Gen. D. Michael Day, a deputy commander in NATO’s training mission in Kabul.
KABUL, Afghanistan — A military helicopter crashed in eastern Afghanistan, killing 31 U.S. special operation troops and seven Afghan commandos, the country’s president said Saturday. An American official said it was apparently shot down, in the deadliest single incident for American forces in the decade-long war.
The Taliban claimed they downed the helicopter with rocket fire while it was taking part in a raid on a house where insurgents were gathered in the province of Wardak late Friday. It said wreckage of the craft was strewn at the scene.
NATO confirmed the overnight crash took place and that there “was enemy activity in the area.” But it said it was still investigating the cause and conducting a recovery operation at the site. It did not release details or casualty figures.
“We are in the process of accessing the facts,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Justin Brockhoff, a NATO spokesman.
But a senior U.S. administration official in Washington said it was apparently shot down by insurgents. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the crash is still being investigated.
The toll would surpass the worst single day loss of life for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001 – the June 28, 2005 downing of a military helicopter in eastern Kunar province. In that incident, 16 Navy SEALs and Army special operations troops were killed when their craft was shot down while on a mission to rescue four SEALs under attack by the Taliban. Three of the SEALs being rescued were also killed and the fourth wounded. It was the highest one-day death toll for the Navy Special Warfare personnel since World War II.
With its steep mountain ranges, providing shelter for militants armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, eastern Afghanistan is hazardous terrain for military aircraft. Large, slow-moving air transport carriers like the CH-47 Chinook are particularly vulnerable, often forced to ease their way through sheer valleys where insurgents can achieve more level lines of fire from mountainsides.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday gave the first public word of the new crash, saying in a statement that “a NATO helicopter crashed last night in Wardak province” and that 31 American special operations troops were killed. He expressed his condolences to President Barack Obama.
The helicopter was a twin-rotor Chinook, said an official at NATO headquarters in Brussels. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was receiving his information from an Afghan officer in Kabul.
The crash took place in the Sayd Abad district of Wardak province, said a provincial government spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid. The volatile region borders the province of Kabul where the Afghan capital is located and is known for its strong Taliban presence.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement that Taliban fighters downed the helicopter during a “heavy raid” in Sayd Abad. He said NATO attacked a house in Sayd Abad where insurgent fighters were gathering Friday night. During the battle, the fighters shot down the helicopter, killing 31 Americans and seven Afghans, he said, adding that eight insurgents were killed in the fight.
There have been at least 17 coalition and Afghan aircraft crashes in Afghanistan this year.
Most of the crashes were attributed to pilot errors, weather conditions or mechanical failures. However, the coalition has confirmed that at least one CH-47F Chinook helicopter was hit by a rocket propelled grenade on July 25. Two coalition crew members were injured in that attack.
Meanwhile, in the southern Helmand province, an Afghan government official said Saturday that NATO troops attacked a house and inadvertently killed eight members of a family, including women and children.
NATO said that Taliban fighters fired rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire at coalition troops during a patrol Friday in the Nad Ali district.
“Coalition forces responded with small arms fire and as the incident continued, an air strike was employed against the insurgent position,” said Brockhoff. He added that NATO sent a delegation to meet with local leaders and investigate the incident.
Nad Ali district police chief Shadi Khan said civilians died in the bombardment but that it was unknown how many insurgents were killed.
Helmand, a Taliban stronghold, is the deadliest province in Afghanistan for international troops.
NATO has come under harsh criticism in the past for accidentally killing civilians during operations against suspected insurgents. However, civilian death tallies by the United Nations show the insurgency is responsible for most war casualties involving noncombatants.
In south Afghanistan, NATO said two coalition service member were killed, one on Friday and another on Saturday. The international alliance did not release further details.
With the casualties from the helicopter crash, the deaths bring to 365 the number of coalition troops killed this year in Afghanistan and 42 this month.
By John Hanrahan
Antiwar activists repeatedly stage dramatic acts of civil disobedience in the United States but are almost entirely ignored by mainstream print and broadcast news organizations. During the Vietnam era, press coverage of the fighting and opposition to it at home helped turn public opinion against the war. This time around lack of homefront coverage may be helping keep military involvement continue on and on.
In the past two years, protests of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, killer drones, torture, nuclear weapons and other war-related issues have been carried out at nuclear weapons silos and production facilities, military bases, unmanned drone facilities, major defense contractors’ headquarters and offices, the Nevada Nuclear Test site, nuclear weapons design laboratories, military recruiting centers, the U.S. Capitol, the White House, federal buildings in various states, the U.S. Strategic Air Command, and numerous other war-oriented sites across the country.
The protests don’t begin to approach the level of those during the Vietnam war or in the early years of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars – but that’s not a reason to ignore them. The fact is, protest is much more widespread than citizens might gauge from coverage in newspapers and television, which seldom report antiwar actions regardless of how significant or newsworthy they may be. As we briefly observed in a previous article: By ignoring antiwar protests almost totally, editors are treating opposition to the ongoing war in Afghanistan much as they handled the run-up to the war in Iraq: They are missing an important story and contributing to the perception that there is no visible opposition to the U.S. wars and ever-growing military budgets, even as polls show overwhelming support for early U.S. military withdrawal.
Although arrests are indicative of only a small portion of antiwar activity, a case-by-case compilation by prominent civil liberties attorney Bill Quigley shows more than 2,600 arrests nationwide for various protests on progressive issues from 2009 until late May of this year, with nearly 1,400 of them coming in antiwar-related actions‚ almost all of which stem from protests involving nonviolent civil disobedience. Quigley derived most of his information from the newsletter The Nuclear Resister , which for several years has tracked arrests of anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons activists nationwide as much as it can, given the lack of press coverage.
In the last seven months alone, there have been more than 550 documented arrests of antiwar protesters and some important court trials which, while often receiving local coverage, seldom find their way into major news organizations’ reports.
“Although we haven’t recently had the gigantic demonstrations of those Vietnam War years,” Quigley told Nieman Watchdog, “in my experience, what you have today is a lot of smaller, passionate and persistent activities going on all over the country. A lot of peaceful protests and civil disobedience. The mainstream press doesn’t cover that.” Quigley is a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and associate legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Regarding the arrest figures he compiled, Quigley said they “certainly underestimate the number actually arrested” because so many of them go unreported in the press. This, he said, is in contrast to the media standard for covering overseas dissent, which is to “focus so intently on arrests of protestors in other countries.”
Some of the more noteworthy protests in the last two years have been carried out by activists from the religious-based Disarm Now Plowsharesmovement, which began in 1980 when antiwar priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan and six others were convicted on an array of state felony and misdemeanor charges after they hammered on nuclear warhead nose cones and poured blood onto documents and files at the General Electric Nuclear Missile Re-entry Division facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
The pattern of the national media is to ignore courtroom trials also, regardless of their drama, leaving them to local news reports or websites.
One example: In a Tacoma, Washington federal courtroom in March, an 84-year-old Society of the Sacred Heart nun, Anne Montgomery, 82-year-old Jesuit priest Bill Bichsel, and three other activists over the age of 60 – another Jesuit priest and two women – were sentenced to jail terms. Montgomery, it should be noted, was one of the Plowshares Eight some 30 years earlier. Their sentences ranged from six to fifteen months, plus one-year supervised release. Their crime: attempting to “symbolically disarm” the Trident II missiles stored in the Strategic Weapons Facility-Pacific (SWFPAC) at the U.S. Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, 20 miles from Seattle.
According to their own account, the five defendants, all affiliated with Disarm Now Plowshares, at 2 A.M. on All-Souls Day in November 2009 “used bolt cutters to break through a [perimeter] chain-link fence in an area where Trident submarine nuclear warheads are stored.” They then walked almost four miles into the base and cut through one double-layered chain link fence and then another barbed wire fence and alarm wires, “ignoring a sign warning that deadly force was authorized against intruders.” They had entered a bunker area that protesters said housed “the largest nuclear weapon stockpile in the United States” – reportedly more than 2,300 warheads, or almost one-fourth of the entire U.S. arsenal. They said their action was designed “to call attention to the illegality and immorality of the existence of the first-strike Trident weapons system.” After putting up banners and scattering blood and sunflower seeds, and hammering symbolically on a road and fences, “they prayed until they were arrested,” thrown to the ground, handcuffed and hooded. They said they were then questioned by base security, the FBI and the NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service).
In a joint statement after their arrests, they further explained their motivation: “As U.S. citizens we are responsible under the Nuremberg Principles for this threat of first-strike terrorism hanging over the community of nations, rich and poor.” Before their sentencing on trespassing and property destruction charges, each of the defendants spoke and‚ “focused on the personal responsibility they feel to disarm nuclear weapons, and their desire to prevent pain, suffering, and death‚” for “those deprived by our wars and military budget of a human way of life.” The judge, noting the defendants’ “lack of remorse,” called their protest “a form of anarchy” that could lead to a “breakdown in the social order.” Some 250 supporters of the group had turned out for a pre-sentencing rally featuring song and prayer.
You would think this story‚ with its angle of a nun, priests and lay people of an advanced age penetrating a high-security nuclear weapons installation, is what we used to call news. It is as least as newsworthy for the national media as, say, a congressman texting sexually suggestive pictures of himself to women, Sarah Palin’s latest gaffe, or the Canadian and U.S. travels of the newly-married duke and duchess of Cambridge. But while there were articles about the arrests in the Bremerton and Longview, Washington, newspapers, we have found no national news media coverage of this and similar significant incidents of civil disobedience or of the subsequent trial.
Here is another recent example:
This past April in a Las Vegas, Nevada, courtroom, 13 defendants from across the country – two Jesuit priests, two Franciscan priests, a nun from the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, two Catholic Worker members and six other activists – were convicted on state charges of trespassing at nearby Creech Air Force Base two years earlier. Creech is the headquarters of U.S. drone operations from which Predator and Reaper drone surveillance and attacks on Afghanistan and Pakistan are remotely “piloted.” The defendants, in their own words, were arrested while kneeling in prayer and begging for an end to the drone attacks. The judge rejected their “defense of necessity” – that is, as the defendants argued, “when an inherent danger is present…immediate action must be taken, such as breaking a no-trespassing law to uphold a higher law and save life.”
Judge William Jansen, after delaying a verdict in this non-jury trial for almost eight months to take what he said was time to think about the case, ruled that no inherent danger was present, found them guilty and sentenced them to time already served. One of the defendants was much-arrested, long-time Chicago activist Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.
In remarks to the court before sentencing, Kelly told about a recent three-week trip she had taken to Afghanistan where she met with victims of U.S. drone attacks. She spoke in dramatic, graphic details about what she had seen and heard and victims she had met – including a nine-year-old girl “whose arm was amputated” by a drone attack and a man whose wife and five children had been killed by the same attack and “who showed me the photos of his children’s bloodied corpses.” She added: “It’s criminal for the U.S. to spend $2 billion per week for war in Afghanistan that maims, kills and displaces innocent civilians who’ve meant us no harm.”
In what the Las Vegas Sun called “a somewhat unusual trial,” Jansen had allowed the defense to present testimony relating to their “necessity” defense from former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark; Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel and former State Department diplomat; and the aforementioned civil liberties attorney Bill Quigley. In the end, the judge rejected their line of testimony. (In addition to the Las Vegas Sun, Kelly told Nieman Watchdog that local Nevada Public Radio had broadcast stories on the trial but there was no national coverage.) After sentencing the defendants to time served, the judge told them to “go in peace.” Jansen also urged them to use diplomacy, rather than trespassing, in their attempts to get U.S. drone warfare policy changed.
Again, here was a story with several newsworthy elements, including answers to the question of why people such as Kathy Kelly time and again take actions that will surely result in their arrests, that will surely go unpublicized in the national media, that will likely result in jail terms, and yet will not cut one dollar from the Pentagon budgets or stop even one of our country’s growing number of wars and military actions. Publicity is not what motivates these folks, yet the news media’s failure to cover their protests essentially means the press is shielding its readers and viewers from uncomfortable news that raises disturbing and profound questions about our nation’s war-making activities. While the airwaves and print press are full of jingoistic war-makers’ pronouncements, the voices of the peacemakers are shut out.
As Daniel Berrigan, now 90 and living in a Jesuit friary in New York City, observed in the summer of 2010 in an interview with author Deena Guzder for her recently-published book, Divine Rebels: “There’s resistance all the time today, but there’s no media. The media is a total sellout. You’re not going to know the earth is shaking if nobody reports it, but there are still plenty of people who are trying to read the Gospel and act as if it were true.”
Berrigan, who is also a noted poet, has repeatedly spoken out and protested against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and nuclear weapons. He was arrested – without publicity – for the several-dozenth time on Good Friday 2010. (He told Guzder that he had been arrested more times than he could count but “fewer than I should have been.”) He and a dozen or so other activists were arrested as they were reading out the names of civilians killed in the current U.S. wars as a way of dissuading tourists from going on the aircraft carrier Intrepid, now a floating military museum moored in the Hudson River. Berrigan and his fellow protesters view it as “a symbol of war’s destructiveness.” A Jesuit housemate of Berrigan wrote that the judge hearing the case noted that he himself had opposed the Vietnam War and had been a Berrigan supporter back then – and went on to dismiss charges against all the defendants. A good little story in and of itself.
KABUL — Gen. David H. Petraeus relinquished his command of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan on Monday, handing the reins to Marine Gen. John Allen as the United States and its allies begin to withdraw troops from the country where they have waged war for nearly a decade.
Petraeus ends his tour in Afghanistan without conclusive signs that the counter-insurgency strategy he helped design has turned the tide in the war against the Taliban. The more than 140,000 NATO troops under his command have weakened the insurgency in some of its key strongholds in the south, but other parts of the country remain treacherous, and Taliban leaders still operate with relative impunity from Pakistan.
On Monday morning, three NATO troops were killed in a bombing in eastern Afghanistan. And the Taliban claimed responsibility for killing a senior adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a member of parliament in Kabul on Sunday night.
The Afghan government, meanwhile, has failed to deliver meaningful services into much of the countryside or reduce the corruption that has disillusioned the Afghan people and forced repeated confrontations with its coalition partners.
In a morning ceremony outside Petraeus’s Kabul headquarters, however, the military commanders and Afghan officials chose to emphasize positive developments from the past year, when Petraeus has been in charge.
Petraeus, who will return to Washington as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said that coalition forces have wrested momentum from the insurgents in much of Afghanistan, and have taken away Taliban sanctuaries in Kandahar and Helmand.
And with the number of Afghan and coalition forces in the country up by some 80,000, the number of attacks on coalition troops declined in May, June and the first half of July in 2011, compared with the same period in 2010 — “contrary to the forecasts of significant further increases in insurgent attack levels this year,” Petraeus said.
Allen, who had been deputy commander at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, said that he would not ease the intensity of the coalition offensive, even as U.S. and other foreign troops begin to leave and Afghans take over security responsibility in several provinces.
“It is my intention to maintain the momentum of the campaign,” Allen said.
The Afghan defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, took a swipe at those pushing for a faster withdrawal and an end to the long and costly American commitment to Afghanistan.
He said that once in Washington, Petraeus’s “broad intellect, his unmatched experiences, and knowledge of the ground realities will make him a counter-balance to all those short-sighted, politically inspired isolationists and the groups of Beltway bandits.”
“We have to assure our joint enemies that the will of the international community and the Afghan people remain unbroken,” Wardak said. “Any wavering of the resolve or premature drawdown and exit strategy will put in jeopardy all that we have achieved with so much sacrifices.”
The senior U.S. military officials in attendance at the ceremony, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, heaped praise on Petraeus for 37 years of military service.
Mullen called Petraeus “one of the most successful and storied generals of our time.”
“Dave has set the standard for wartime command in the modern era,” Mullen said. “There is no one, no one, in the pantheon of American military leadership who so perfectly symbolizes the scope of the effort of our armed forces.”
A recently released Brown University report entitled “Costs of War” has received national media attention for the startling $3.7 to $4.4 trillion price tag it puts on our current wars. According to the report, this staggering dollar range is an estimate of the total cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars even assuming a prompt withdrawal of all U.S. forces. Any delay would cause the range to skyrocket further.
An estimated $1 trillion of this sum – about 25% of the total cost – comes just from interest accumulated by the U.S. as we inflate our national debt to finance the wars. As war spending continues to mount, congressional leaders have repeatedly stated a commitment to overall deficit reduction, yet cuts to defense in this year’s Republican-led House appropriations process have been minor scratches. Even for those who supported the initial decision to go to war, it should be obvious now that a withdrawal of our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan is at least fiscally overdue.
The Brown study enumerates additional elements of the wars’ full cost. Every year we remain combat-engaged, we continue to lose American lives. The social and economic costs to service members who are killed, left disabled or absent from their families for multiple and extended tours of duty are estimated to be in the hundreds of billions. The national opportunity cost of the wars, in terms of forgone federal investment in education, health care, energy and economic revitalization, can also be added to the overall price tag.
We cannot change the past, but we can bring our troops home now and turn the responsibility for Iraq and Afghanistan over to those nations. By pursuing an orderly but swift withdrawal, we can stop the hemorrhaging of American taxpayer dollars and the tragic losses and painful injuries that too many of our military service families are facing. The time has come to face up the true costs of war and finally put an end to them.
President Obama announced his plan for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan last night. It includes 10,000 troops leaving by the end of 2011, and another 23,000 to leave by fall of 2012. 68,000 will remain in the country following the total 33,000 draw dawn.
Here is General Petraeus’s reaction to the address at a Congressional hearing today:
The New York Times reported yesterday that President Obama is expected to make an announcement on Wednesday evening (June 22, 2011) regarding troop reduction in Afghanistan.
“As he closes in on a decision, another official said, Mr. Obama is considering options that range from a Pentagon-backed proposal to pull out only 5,000 troops this year to an aggressive plan to withdraw within 12 months all 30,000 troops the United States deployed to Afghanistan as part of the surge in December 2009. Under another option, a third official said, Mr. Obama would announce a final date for the withdrawal of all the surge forces sometime in 2012, but leave the timetable for incremental reductions up to commanders in the field — much as he did in drawing down troops after the surge in Iraq.”
It is important to remember, however, that even after withdrawing 30,000 troops, 68,000 will remain in Afghanistan, which is twice the number as when Obama assumed office.
With support for the war in Afghanistan dwindling, increased pressure has been placed on the President to utilize American resources ($120 billion just last year) here rather than abroad.