AT WAR: New Command Structure In Helmand

05/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We are blogging the latest news about America's war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Email us at AfPak [at] Follow Nico on Twitter; follow Nicholas on Twitter. See archives of 'At War' here.

With reporting by Faiz Lalani

Footage of Al Qaeda cave network. As we mentioned yesterday, ABC News has some interesting footage of the extensive Taliban and Al Qaeda cave network in the Bajaur tribal area of Pakistan that was a "final militant holdout." Pakistani security forces touted the recent seizure of the caves a significant victory. As ABC News reported, large amount of military supplies were found, including stockpiles of guns and ammunition, bazookas, artillery shells, rocket propelled grenades, mines and stolen U.S. army uniforms in the network of 150 caves. See a photo of the cave from Reuters here.

5:45 PM ET -- Where is bin Laden? John Blake at CNN wonders aloud: Whatever happened to bin Laden? The leader of Al Qaeda has largely eluded American, Afghan, and Pakistani military and intelligence officers since the invasion of Afghanistan began. Blake interviews Stephen Tanner, author of "Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War against the Taliban," and asks him the same. Tanner believes that Pakistan's intelligence services know bin Laden's whereabouts, but that they are holding on to this information as a trump card. Rogue Pakistani officials are using bin Laden as leverage to convince the U.S. to continue sending aid to Pakistan, he suspects. It's perhaps good that the U.S. hasn't captured him yet; William Martel, a professor of international security studies, thinks his capture would pose more problems than solve any: "Do we read him his rights; do we run him through a military tribunal or civilian courts?" Martel says. "Capturing him would pose more problems than not."

2:45 PM ET -- Media ban saga continues. Last week, contradictory reports from Kabul about a potential ban on live media coverage of insurgent attacks caused an uproar. While Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's spokesman denied that there was a ban, the country's intelligence service declared that such a ban had been put in place. Al Jazeera reports that there are no formal restrictions on live filming, but mentions that journalists have been beaten by security forces for filming incidents in the past.

Richard Holbrooke, the US's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, expressed concern over the ban and said that he would raise the issue with Afghan officials. Meanwhile, the Taliban have also condemned the limits on the press. A Taliban spokesman said that the ban "totally undermines freedom of the press and expression and cannot be justified by any means."

2:20 PM ET -- Another Taliban leader captured. Pakistani Intelligence officials say that have arrested Agha Jan Mohtasim in Karachi, the AP reports. It was unclear when the arrest of the Taliban leader took place.

2:05 PM ET -- Rein in the Special Forces, says former Pentagon analyst. Former Pentagon intelligence professional Marc Garlasco calls on Gen. McChrystal to rein in the U.S. Special Forces, who he argues need to restrict airstrikes. Garlasco contends that Special Forces airstrikes inadvertently cause high civilian casualties, undermining NATO's efforts to win the hearts and minds of Afghans. As chief of high-value targeting during the Iraqi invasion, he saw that there was previously little regard for collateral damage:

We treated civilian deaths like a fire drill: When they happened, it was seen as a media problem to be dealt with, not a sign we might need to change our procedures. Today, however, protecting civilians is taken as seriously as killing the target. When civilians are killed, Afghanistan commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal apologizes on Afghan national television and the military investigates. Casualties in this latest offensive in Marjah were down nearly 30 percent from previous operations as a result.

In 2007, British forces asked the U.S. Special Forces to leave British-controlled parts of Helmand province precisely because their reliance on airstrikes was causing public outrage. Civilian casualty rates peaked in 2008, but since Gen. McChrystal took over as NATO's commander in Afghanistan in June 2009 and adopted a new set of counterinsurgency procedures there has been a 20 percent decline in the number of weapons dropped and civilian casualties are now back to 2007 levels. The new procedures, which try to minimize the use of airstrikes and increase the use of intelligence, mean that "[m]ore unmanned aircraft the air, targets are observed for longer so civilians can be weeded out, and collateral damage estimates." But there is still reason for concern. On Feb. 21, Special Forces ordered an airstrike on what they believed was a convoy of Taliban. It turned out later that the strike had targeted a bus load of civilians, killing at least 27. Garlasco believes that the Special Forces should have been more sparing, and should have conducted a fuller pre-strike analysis.

12:55 PM ET -- Free condoms distributed. In an effort to promote maternal health, mullahs in Afghanistan are working with the Ministry of Health and NGOs to distribute condoms, encourage the use of other contraceptives, and delay time between pregnancies. The World Health Organization journal Bulletin reported that the use of birth control rose to include over 27 percent of women over eight months in three targeted rural areas. ''In a couple of districts, mullahs were taking our condom stocks and selling them during (night) prayers because the clinics were not open after 4 o'clock,'' an aid worker said.

The mullahs and health workers used Quranic quotes to explain the importance of spacing out births by at least two years. Afghan mullahs are able to support family planning measures because Islam does not fundamentally oppose birth control; for example, abortion and vasectomies are permitted in many Muslim countries. Nearly 3,500 religious leaders have been trained and over 2 million condoms have been distributed by Marie Stopes International, a British NGO.

12:30 PM ET -- Google Map of U.S. drone strikes. The New America Foundation has created a Google Map feature documenting the estimated location and number of casualties of each of the 118 reported U.S. drone strikes in northwest Pakistan since 2004. The feature, based on a study by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann's drones database, shows that the drone strikes have killed between 549 and 849 militants, or about two-thirds of the total casualties. Their figures reveal that the "true civilian casualty rate" since 2004 is 32 percent.

12:20 PM ET -- Blackwater lies to the Defense Department? The office of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich, has released two letters it sent to Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on February 24, 2010, which reveal that Blackwater created a shell corporation and falsified information to receive Department of Defense subcontracts. Senator Levin has asked the Justice Department to initiate an inquiry to find out if Xe Services LLC (formerly Blackwater) and Raytheon Company issued "false or misleading statements" to obtain a contract from the U.S. Army.

The senator accuses Blackwater of creating a shell corporation, Paravant, to receive a subcontract from Raytheon, which had been awarded a contract to perform weapons training for the Afghan National Army. Blackwater's Vice President for Contracts and Compliance testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that Raytheon had asked it to create Paravant to avoid the stigma of Blackwater's name. When Raytheon subcontracted Paravant for $25 million in 2008, however, Paravant had no employees and no years of experience. But on its proposal, Paravant stated that it had 2,000 personnel overseas, "many years of experience," and had performed prior government contracts--all misleading statements.

By creating Paravant, Blackwater was able to escape the scrutiny of Defense Department officials. The defense contractor has been investigated on repeated occasions for its activities in Iraq, and the State Department has stated that it has lost "confidence [in the company's] credibility and management."

12:05 PM ET -- Profile of former Pakistani spy. The New York Times' Carlotta Gall profiles Colonel Imam (real name Brig. Sultan Amir), an American-trained former Pakistani spy. His close ties to the U.S., where he was trained at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and the Taliban, whom he assisted during the Soviet insurgency and sympathizes with today, symbolize Pakistan's policy in Afghanistan: while officially pro-American, Pakistan is accused of continuing to tacitly support the Taliban. As a vocal advocate for the Taliban, Colonel Imam believes that the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan is destined to fail because of the devolved nature of the insurgency and its religious commitment. He speculates that "[i]n another three to four years, the Americans will be tired." He says Gen. McChrystal's new plan to win over the Afghan people could have worked in 2003 or 2004, but that now it is too late. However, it is revealing that Imam--who only left Mullah Omar's side after the U.S. attacked Afghanistan in retaliation for 9/11--believed that Mullah Omar was open to peace and negotiations with the Afghan government.

11:50 AM ET -- Number of Taliban fighters. Major-General Richard Barrons, the British general in charge of Taliban reintegration efforts, estimates that there are about 36,000 Taliban participating in the Afghan insurgency. He believes that there are 900 Taliban in the leadership, and between 25,000 to 36,000 actual fighters. As head of the "reintegration cell," General Barrons is tasked with trying to understand what motivates the insurgents:

From the London Times:

"Some are ideological full-time jihadis, some are linked to the insurgency for localised reasons, local grievances; some because it's a way to make a living; some because they like to fight; some because their communities are hedging their bets between the Government and the insurgency."

NATO, in collaboration with the Afghan government, hopes to provide incentives such as jobs, training, and money to defecting militants--an initiative that is expected to cost $1 billion over the next five years.

10:30 AM ET -- New command structure in Helmand as focus shifts to Kandahar. The Wall Street Journal reports that the U.S. is putting in place a new command structure in Helmand as it phases out of the combat-intensive operation in Marjah, and shifts focus to Kandahar province, a symbolic and operational stronghold of the Taliban. The new command, Regional Command Southwest, located near Helmand province's capital, Lashkar Gah, will be responsible for all operations in Marjah and the province and will be led by the United States. Previously, Regional Command South, headed by a British general in Kandahar, was responsible for both Helmand and Kandahar, but now the command center will concentrate efforts on the new planned offensive in Kandahar later this summer.

Due to the paucity of foreign troops, the Taliban have made significant inroads into Kandahar City, where they run shadow courts, collect taxes, and intimidate Afghan officials. Until recently, there were only 2,000 NATO troops in Kandahar, one of Afghanistan's largest provinces.

In an Op-Ed in the New York Times yesterday, Joshua Foustcriticized NATO's tactics. In the past, NATO has not placed enough emphasis on post-combat governance, and has vacated after each operation, allowing the Taliban resume functioning as before, he noted. The new command structure in Helmand is perhaps intended to preclude the Taliban from returning there.

Foust writes:

This looks like part of a familiar pattern: troops move into an area, kill anyone firing a machine gun, then move on to the next, bigger target hoping they have left behind a functioning government. It's why many communities in central Helmand have experienced three influxes of NATO forces in three years.

9:45 AM -- Former Gitmo detainee said to be running Taliban resistance. AP reports on former Guantanamo detainee Abdul Qayyum, who has now become a senior leader among the Afghan Taliban and is currently helping organize the campaign against the U.S.-led offensive in Marjah, according to Afghan intelligence officers. Qayyum has also been frequently talked about as a leading candidate to replace the recently captured Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as the Afghan Taliban's second in command.

From the AP:

Qayyum, whose Taliban nom de guerre is Qayyum Zakir, is thought to be running operations from the Pakistani border city of Quetta. A Pakistani newspaper report that he was recently arrested was denied by Abdul Razik, a former governor of Kajaki, Qayyum's home district, which is under extensive Taliban control.

One of the intelligence officials also questioned the report. He said a house Qayyum was in was raided about two weeks ago and three assistants were arrested but he escaped. A week ago he was seen in Pishin, a Pakistani border town about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Quetta, the official said.

"He's smart and he is brutal," said Abdul Razik. "He will withdraw his soldiers to fight another day," he said, referring to the Marjah campaign.

Suggest a correction