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AT WAR: Soldier Throws Back Taliban Hand Grenade

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

With Reporting by Faiz Lalani

Soldier heroically throws back Taliban grenade. In a tale that sounds like it was taken straight from a Hollywood script, Reuters tells how Rifleman James McKie of the British Army in Afghanistan picked up a live grenade in time and was able to lob it over to protect members of his platoon. The grenade exploded in mid-air, with fragments hitting his right arm and face.

From Reuters:

"I tried to throw it properly, to clear the roof. I didn't want to do it half-arsed and have them throw it back at us or anything like that.

"I remember thinking that if I didn't pull this off, it was going to hurt. But at that stage I was pretty much committed" [said McKie].

In an interview with the BBC's Caroline Wyatt, McKiereveals that fighting against the Taliban has become more intense over the past few weeks because as winter ends and the Taliban are returning to fight, well rested and re-armed.

5:50 PM ET -- Marjah the 'city'? According to Gareth Porter of Inter Press Service, the description of Marjah as a city and key strategic area was part of a U.S. and NATO press campaign to paint the offensive in a favorable and significant light. Marjah is neither a city nor a town, Porter says, but a rural area sparsely populated by farmers. Yet, the mainstream news sources continued to portray it as an urban area without adding qualification or questioning NATO's descriptions.

Porter writes:

Long after other media had stopped characterising Marja as a city, the New York Times was still referring to Marja as "a city of 80,000", in a Feb. 26 dispatch with a Marja dateline.

The decision to hype up Marja as the objective of "Operation Moshtarak" by planting the false impression that it is a good-sized city would not have been made independently by the Marines at Camp Leatherneck.

The offensive in Marjah was billed to the mainstream media as an attack against a major Taliban stronghold. But that, Porter argues, was deceitful, and Marjah was more a "a war of perceptions" than a war of actual strategic gain. The army's counterinsurgency doctrine also seeks to "influence the attitude of key audiences toward counterinsurgents, their operations and the opposing insurgency," raising questions about the mainstream journalistic accounts arising from the frontlines in Afghanistan.

5:40 PM ET -- How McChrystal's civilian-centric strategy means a long-term benefit for NATO. Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations writes in the pages of the International Herald Tribune that General Stanley McChrystal's new strategy weighs local popular support over NATO force protection--a tactic that trades the short-term risk of casualties for the long-term benefit of Afghan confidence in the international forces. Biddle describes how two military convoys he saw pass through the streets in Afghanistan contrasted the traditional approach with McChrystal's new approach.

The convoy that used McChrystal's strategy of being civilian friendly "prevented a dirt-covered bicyclist...[from] taking his story back to the village for conversion into a recruitment tale for the Taliban," as troops chose to wait it out in traffic with other civilians, and thus stoke less resentment, Biddle writes. While the other convoy, which focused more on the safety of troops, tore through traffic in midday Kabul, and "probably left a dozen new recruits for the Taliban among the angry and humiliated Afghans in its wake."

5:10 PM ET -- "Three meals in Afghanistan." In this month's issue of The Walrus magazine, Naheed Mustafa offers an antidote to the war-plagued Afghanistan often portrayed in the media. She "spent hours sitting for meals with families, talking about the country, its past, and its future," exploring the parts of Afghanistan that are little talked about. Glancing into the country's soul, Mustafa says:

Afghans have a term, ishqi watani, that refers to a deep and abiding affinity for one's people, culture, and identity. Essentially, it means an unconditional love of the homeland. But the state -- or at least what we in the West think of as a state -- has never really existed in Afghanistan. There have been attempts to bring reform through monarchy, through secularism and Communism. The country has had kings and presidents. None have matched up well with Afghans' ideas about what it means to be Afghan. Ishqi watani has helped Afghans endure thirty years of war. But it has also kept their gazes fixed upon their battles to preserve, not looking ahead to where they could go.

The piece, "Three Meals in Afghanistan," is filled with anecdotes that tell us about the daily lives of Afghans.

4:40 PM ET -- Two NATO troops killed in Khost. The Associated Press reports that two NATO troops have been killed in a suicide attack in the eastern Afghan province of Khost, which borders Pakistan's raucous tribal areas. No further details are available. The attack came hours after U.S. Secretary of Defense had toured a part of southern Afghanistan to inspect the successes of the recent offensive there.

From The Associated Press:

A resident who lives near the international base, Sayed Gul, told The Associated Press he heard a large explosion just after sunset.

"There was a big shockwave," Gul said. "After that, two helicopters came."

He said he watched both helicopters land in the area of the base and then fly back toward Khost city, the provincial capital.

3:20 PM ET -- Man to head Marjah was convicted of attempted murder. It was reported this weekend that Abdul Zahir, the man appointed to take over Marjah as provincial administrator and to restore good government there, was convicted of attempted murder in Germany. He allegedly stabbed his 18-year-old stepson with a kitchen knife, and was awarded a four year long sentence for the crime.

2:55 PM ET -- Stephen Walt's Costanza moment with Richard Holbrooke. Harvard professor and Foreign Policy blogger Stephen Walt, feels a bit like George Costanza from Seinfeld for missing the chance to come up with a good question for Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the president's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Like the hopeless Costanza, Walt now wishes he had asked Holbrooke a better question: "How would Holbrooke identify or define failure? In other words, what developments or events in Afghanistan and Pakistan would lead him, in his best professional judgment, to advise President Obama that our efforts there were not working and that it was time to disengage?" Holbrooke, who famously equated victory in Afghanistan to the U.S. Supreme Court's test for pornography ("we'll know it when we see it"), has been elusive about defining when the time and circumstances for withdrawal would be right.

2:40 PM ET -- Kucinich's resolution. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) will introduce a resolution into the House of Representatives that will require a three-hour long debate on the Afghan war. With the "privileged resolution," Kucinich hopes to force debate about the escalation of the war. The passage of the resolution would require President Obama to withdraw from Afghanistan in 30 days. While the Kucinich initiative has seventeen co-sponsors, the majority of liberal Democrats interviewed by The Nation were hesitant to support the measure.

2:05 PM ET -- British soldiers died in Afghanistan due to lack of proper equipment, coroner says. The first British female soldier killed in Afghanistan on June 17, 2008 died because of a shortage vehicles and inadequate training, according to the coroner's report, reports the Guardian. Corporal Sarah Bryant along with three other reservists were riding in their Snatch Land Rover when the vehicle rolled over an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), killing the four. The lightly armored, unstable Snatch Land Rovers were originally brought into operation in Northern Ireland, and were deemed unfit for operation in Afghanistan. Despite the fact that "the commander of the four soldiers had requested a replacement for their Snatch Land Rover," the British Army had to deny the equipment because of a general shortage.

2:00 PM ET -- Hezb-e-Islami turns against Taliban, kills over 50 fighters. When Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami fighters found themselves surrounded by the Taliban on Saturday, they turned to Afghan authorities for reinforcements, pledging to join the government's side in a moment of distress, Time reports. In the end, Hezb-e-Islami militants killed more than 50 Taliban fighters and 19 civilians in the northern province of Baghlan. Hekmatyar's men were previously in an alliance with the Taliban and committed to defeating NATO and the Afghan government. But as the date for Hamid Karzai's spring reconciliation jirga approaches, Hekmatyar's defection could prove to be a positive development for the U.S.-led Afghan war. "Several weeks ago, Hekmatyar's son-in-law, who resides mostly in Islamabad, met secretly in the Maldives with a Karzai envoy, but Pakistani sources say the talks yielded nothing," writes Tim McGirk for Time. Michael Crowley's recent piece in The New Republic, mentioned earlier, labeled Hekmatyar a crude but pragmatic warlord, whose defection would shift the balance in Afghanistan in NATO's favor.

12:30 PM ET -- Punjabi Taliban behind Lahore suicide bombing. Yesterday, a suicide bomber targeted a building housing counter-terrorism operatives in Lahore. The bombing killed 13 people and wounded over 80 in Pakistan's second largest city. The News reports that the attack is thought to have been carried out by the "Punjabi Taliban," also known as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Investigators speculate that Monday's bombing is in response to the killing of Qari Zafar, acting Amir of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan on February 24, 2010.

Punjabi extremist groups had previously been focused on militant activity against Indian troops in Kashmir. But recently, they have joined Pashtun Taliban fighters in Waziristan to help fight the Pakistani Army. The Punjabis, based in eastern Pakistan, are the country's largest ethnic group, while the Pashtuns, who live in both Afghanistan and western Pakistan, are a smaller minority.

From The News:

Subsequent investigations had shown the attackers were the Punjabi Taliban belonging to at least three sectarian-cum-Jihadi groups, which are working in tandem with the Pushtun-dominated South Waziristan-based Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan [TTP] to carry out joint terrorist attacks. The investigators had reported that some banned militant-cum-sectarian groups in the Punjab are gaining strength after having joined hands with the TTP.

12:15 PM ET -- Karzai to visit Islamabad. According to Xinhua News Agency, Afghan President Hamid Karzai will travel to Islamabad on Wednesday to meet with his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, to discuss a variety of topics, including terrorism, Afghan refugee repatriation, and the extradition of Mullah Baradar, who was captured in Karachi in February. Karzai is also expected to formally ask for Pakistan's assistance in talks with the Taliban. The visit comes as Pakistan has expressed a willingness to play a greater role in Afghanistan, with its army chief Ashfaq Kayani suggesting that Pakistan could help train Afghan troops.

11:00 AM ET -- New Afghan strategy leaves Zabul province with less security. The governor of Zabul province, located north of Kandahar and bordering Pakistan, warns that the recent reduction in NATO troops from his province could leave open "the main gateway for the Taliban." The Washington Post's Joshua Partlow writes that the troop withdrawal in Zabul has allowed about 2,000 Taliban fighters to travel across the province at will. The move by NATO to lessen troop numbers there and to focus more on Marjah and other regions reflects a new strategy that targets densely populated civilian centers, but which comes at the cost of leaving rural areas without enough security.

10:50 AM -- Dealing with the devil. Michael Crowley, writing in the latest issue of The New Republic, describes the latest Faustian bargain the Obama administration may have to make to secure peace in Afghanistan. Crowley profiles Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Afghan warlord and leader of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (Gulbuddin's Islamic Party), who holds the key to swaying the balance of power in the Afghan war. As leader of one of the three main insurgent groups--the other two being Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura Taliban and the Haqqani Network--Hekmatyar, whose sole objective seems to be to gain power, could decide to join Karzai's reconciliation talks scheduled for this spring. By doing so, he could potentially draw in other Pashtun militants to join Karzai's initiative. But dealing with a man who Soviet soldiers feared would skin them alive, and who considered the U.S. his enemy even while it supported his insurgency in the 1980s, will be a little like making a deal with the devil.

10:30 AM -- Ahmadinejad to visit Afghanistan Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will visit Kabul on Wednesday to meet Hamid Karzai, Agence France Presse reports. On his first visit to Afghanistan since his controversial re-election, Ahmadinejad is expected to discuss the security situation in the war-torn country. The U.S. and Iran, who otherwise have different regional agendas, both seek to keep the Taliban from returning to power in Kabul.