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.
Baradar capture angered Karzai; Was Pakistan trying to disrupt peace talks? An aide close to Afghan President Hamid Karzai told the Associated Press that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar--the number two Taliban leader who was arrested in Karachi last month--was actually in secret negotiations with the Afghan government. His capture reportedly infuriated Karzai, who an aide described as "very angry" over the arrest. Baradar had agreed to participate in peace negotiations, which are to be held later this month.
This revelation may confirm speculation that Pakistan arrested Baradar in order to exert greater influence over the scheduled peace negotiations. Ever since Karzai became the country's president after the toppling of the Taliban, the Afghan and Pakistani governments have been publicly and privately at odds.
4:30 PM ET -- Obama admin torn over Taliban reconciliation policy. Gareth Porter of the Inter Press Service believes that the Obama administration is divided over the question of reconciliation talks with the Taliban. While the president told his war cabinet that the recent successes in Marjah were sufficient to begin talks with the Taliban, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and NATO commander Stanley McChrystal all oppose negotiations at the moment. They would rather wait until the offensive in Kandahar--planned for this summer--succeeds, and then begin the process of reconciliation. The New York Times reported that the Gates and Clinton position was the prevailing one, meaning that the U.S. would not encourage talks until the offensive in Kandahar was over. While President Obama seemingly favors of diplomatic engagement over military action, Porter wonders "whether he is willing to stand up to pressures from opponents of such an initiative or will retreat once again to avoid any confrontation with the military [as he did over the withdrawal schedule for Iraq.]"
3:45 PM ET -- Family of dead pro-American policeman threaten suicide attacks against NATO. The story of a night raid gone wrong in Afghanistan's Paktia province highlights how civilian casualties can cost NATO local support, even from among its staunchest local allies. According to The London Times, on February 12, 2010, unidentified gunmen--thought to be associated with either the CIA or the Afghan intelligence directorate--raided a policeman's house in the village of Khataba, killing the policeman, his brother, two pregnant women, and a teenage girl. At first, NATO had claimed the civilians died during a gun battle between insurgents and government-allied forces. But an investigation by The London Times found NATO's statements to be false. The police commander who died was reportedly pro-American and his brother was a district attorney. The victims' families have "vowed to carry out suicide attacks unless the perpetrators are brought to justice." Understandably upset, the family rejected blood money as compensation, and demanded that the men responsible be killed. The incident underscores the impact that civilian deaths can have on Afghans' opinions of NATO--a fact that NATO commander Stanley McChrystal emphasized when he unveiled his new guidelines for combat.
3:50 PM ET -- Blackwater is still eligible to receive government money. Spencer Ackerman of The Washington Independent asks: "Will Blackwater still be eligible to make money off the government even after its employees killed civilians in Iraq, shot at them in Afghanistan, set up a shell company to win an Army subcontract and stole guns intended for the Afghan police from a U.S. military depot near Kabul?" After DynCorp challenged the infamous private security firm Blackwater's eligibility to receive a Pentagon contract to train Afghan policemen, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) agreed that Xe Services (Blackwater's new name) did not indeed qualify for the contract. However, the GAO's ruling had nothing to do with Blackwater's sullied record, but rather with the scope of the contract awarded. Unless it is debarred by the Defense or State Departments, Blackwater will remain eligible to receive government contracts. It seems that, yes, Blackwater will continue to "make money off the government."
3:30 PM ET -- 5 myths about Afghanistan. Brookings fellows Michael O'Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan, the head of an Afghan NGO, had an op-ed in this Sunday's The Washington Post that tackled five myths about the war in Afghanistan: 1) Afghans always hate and defeat their invaders; 2) the situation in Afghanistan is much more difficult than the one in Iraq; 3) the U.S. military should not nation-build; 4) we should negotiate with the Taliban; and finally, there is no exit strategy. O'Hanlon and Sherjan try to undermine all five myths, arguing that victory is possible and that negotiations with the Taliban are futile. Though, Michael Cohen at democracyarsenal.org calls their points "strawmen" arguments that can be easily picked apart. Cohen scathingly remarks: "When I read stuff like this [in reference to the claim that Afghans do actually support the U.S. presence] it makes me think there should be a rule that when any policy analyst uses polling data from Afghanistan - and doesn't differentiate by region - they should be forced to stand in a corner. . . or at least should be forced to stop commenting on Afghanistan."
2:20 PM ET -- Pakistan must rethink its strategy Pakistan's own follies could lead to the isolation it so fears, argues Sameer Lalwani in Foreign Policy. For years, the Pakistanis have leveraged their control of NATO supply routes and influence over militants to bargain for weapons and aid from the U.S. But Lalwani warns that factors Pakistan's military brass has not yet considered will undermine the extensive role the Pakistanis hope to have in Afghanistan. China's increased investments in Afghanistan (which amount to $3 billion) and new trade and supply routes--through Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan--will open up other options for Afghanistan. Although most of Afghanistan's non-lethal goods currently travel through Pakistan's port city of Karachi, the planned trade routes would make Afghanistan less dependent on Pakistan. This, coupled with China's dwindling patience for Pakistan's support for the Taliban, could tip the regional balance of power away from Pakistan, leaving in it a far less enviable place.
2:00 PM ET -- UN allows foreign staff to return According to Reuters, foreign U.N. staffers are now permitted to return to Afghanistan. The U.N. had evacuated its foreign staff from the country after Taliban gunmen stormed a U.N. guesthouse in Kabul and killed 5 foreigners last November. At the time, about 340 foreign staff had left as a result of security concerns. Although some staff have returned, the U.N.'s mission in Afghanistan faces a staff shortage, with a vacancy rate of 30-40 percent.
1:15 PM ET -- ISI chief recommends closing Afghanistan-Pakistan border Speaking to British think tank Royal United Services Institute, the head of Pakistan's intelligence services (the ISI) called for NATO to help stop cross-border flow between Afghanistan and Pakistan, reports The Daily Telegraph. Major General Athar Abbas asked that NATO and Afghan officials increase the number of checkpoints on the Afghan side; Pakistan currently has 821 army checkpoints while the Afghans have 121 checkpoints. The porous border was "hampering [Pakistan's] campaign to crush the Taliban," said Abbas.
12:30 PM ET -- Pakistan to end military operations. The Pakistani military will end operations in South Waziristan, where it had waged a major campaign against the Pakistani Taliban, Dawn reports. Pakistan's top general, Ashfaq Kayani, informed the country's President that the area was now ready to be handed over to civilian authorities. According to Kayani, over 4,000 "militants and terrorists" were captured by Pakistani forces during the operation.
11:20 AM ET -- Ambassador Holbrooke speaks to CNN. The U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, appeared on Fareed Zakaria's GPS this past Sunday. Charged with coordinating U.S. strategy and policy in the region, Holbrooke was optimistic about U.S. success in Afghanistan, noting that he believed that Pakistan's cooperation had changed the balance. Holbrooke told Zakaria that U.S. pressure on Pakistan since the Obama administration came to power has positively impacted the region.
10:50 AM ET -- Lawless in Kandahar. Keith Richburg of The Washington Post reports from Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he observes that the government has little actual authority, crime is rampant, and the Taliban are resurgent. Kandahar city and its surrounding areas have been patrolled by around 3,000 Canadian troops for the past few years, though the Taliban exerts considerable influence "mainly in the shadows and exercises indirect control through intimidation." Of the 17 districts that comprise Kandahar province, the government only controls 5, a human rights activist told Richburg. Following the offensive in next door Helmand province, which ended in February, NATO hopes to militarily reassert control in the area this summer.
10:30 AM ET -- Weekend bombs attacks in Kandahar kill 35. A series of bomb attacks in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar have left over 35 dead, reports the Associated Press. The attacks were a warning to NATO troops in the region that the Taliban could still operate, according to Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi. As NATO's top general in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, plans a major offensive against the Taliban in Kandahar province, Ahmadi said the Taliban used the attacks to warn McChrystal that "still [NATO] are not able to stop us [the Taliban.]" Kandahar city, which was the capital of the Taliban regime, is the base of the insurgency in Afghanistan.
The attacks underscored the Taliban's continued ability to plan operations and disrupt civilian life.
From the AP:
"They can do what they intend and want, and the government can't control the situation," said Javed Ahmad, 40, of Kandahar. "We don't feel secure in the presence of all the forces in Afghanistan, and it's terrible for us to live in this kind of situation. We don't feel safe even at home, and we can't walk around."
Among the dead were 13 policemen and 22 civilians, including six women and three children, the interior ministry said. Most of the casualties occurred at the police headquarters and at the wedding hall.
"Last night was like doomsday for all of Kandahar's people," said Mohammad Anwar, a 30-year-old shopkeeper, whose relative lost a son in the attacks. He said residents blamed the United States and international forces for not battling the militants strongly enough.