U.S. military increases presence in Pakistan. As U.S. troops struggle to secure Afghanistan, U.S. Special Forces have apparently beefed up their presence in Pakistan in a 'largely unseen' counterinsurgency role, Reuters reports. The elite troops are officially said to be only helping with training the Pakistani military, but they "play a bigger role than has been widely disclosed in helping Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps, such as surveying and coordinating projects aimed at winning 'hearts and minds' and preventing Taliban fighters from returning to areas once they have been pushed out," Reuters says.
In February, a bomb attack killed 3 Special Ops "civilian specialists" in northwest Pakistan, exposing how U.S. troops sometimes venture out into the conflict zone. The presence of U.S. military officials is a toxic issue in Pakistan, where there is great opposition to the American presence in the region.
The Pentagon is seeking to create a new $10 million program that aims to win the hearts and minds of Pakistanis in the country's northwest. The program, modeled after similar ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, will give the trainers funds to spend quickly on civilian and humanitarian matters in Pakistan's tribal belt, where the Taliban insurgency rages.
6:15 PM ET -- Traub skeptical about Afghanistan. Foreign Policy columnist James Traub offers a balanced assessment of Afghanistan, seeing that both "optimistic" Americans and "pessimistic" Afghans have convincing arguments for their predictions of Afghanistan's future. "Americans are, of course, inveterate optimists, addicted to their own version of the mission civilisatrice," while "Afghans, of course, are inured to, and conditioned by, failure," he says. His ultimate conclusion is that history--citing Vietnam and Iraq--gives us enough reason to doubt positive developments, but the evidence suggests that "tender shoots of governance have broken through Afghanistan's ancient crust." Much remains to be done, of course, but can it be accomplished under Hamid Karzai (with whom Traub has been involved in a war of words)? He's skeptical that things can better if Karzai remains in power.
5:30 PM ET -- Kyrgyzstan interim government will keep U.S. air base open. On Friday, we mentioned how the ousting of Kyrgyz President Bakiyev could complicate things for the U.S. in Afghanistan. Some speculated that the new government might force the U.S. to renegotiate a contract for the Manas air base, a crucial transit point for U.S. troops into Afghanistan and the only U.S. air base in Central Asia outside of Afghanistan. Others even claimed that the new government, under Russian influence, might kick the U.S. out, following Uzbekistan's lead, which closed an air base in 2005. But the Associated Press haslearned that the interim government leader, Roza Otunbayeva, will automatically extend the lease on Manas air base.
5:00 PM ET -- News outlets contradict Pakistani military. On Saturday, the Pakistani military claimed it killed 55 Taliban militants in an air strike in Khyber, a region in Pakistan's tribal areas. But various news outlets are contradicting the army's official statement that most of the people who died were militants. Reuters spoke with villagers who said that "there were no militants," and that the villagers had "opposed [the Taliban] openly." Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reports that most of the victims of the deadly air strike on Saturday were retired or serving soldiers in the army's Frontier Corps. Residents have demanded a full inquiry into the incident, and some have even called for a "court martial of those who were behind this loss."
Saturday's incident highlights the confusion that plagues the war effort on both the Afghan and Pakistani sides. Attacks by NATO and Pakistani troops often result in civilian casualties--sometimes the result of collateral damage, and at other times the result of faulty intelligence.
2:30 PM ET -- The fate of the Kandahar offensive. Karzai might delay--or even cancel--the planned NATO offensive in Kandahar, scheduled to begin in early June, reports the London Times. The offensive, the largest since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, is considered crucial by Western officials to defeating the Taliban. At a shura (or council meeting) with 1,500 tribal elders and leaders, Karzai asked "Are you happy or unhappy for the operation to be carried out?", and heard the elders shout back, "We are not happy." He then promised to not allow the operation to be carried out until he had their support. NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal reportedly looked apprehensive as he sat behind Karzai and heard his comments.
Karzai has come under increasing fire lately for his erratic comments and behaviour. But, as Fareed Zakaria wrote in Newsweek, the U.S. has few alternatives to Karzai, even as the Afghan president continues to defy the U.S. He told the tribal elders that "rescued [himself] from foreigners' orders", deflecting criticism against himself by pointing the finger at the international community and "foreigners."
1:30 PM ET -- Zakaria on Karzai. Stop undercutting Karzai! says Fareez Zakaria in his latest column in Newsweek. If President Obama wants to succeed in Afghanistan, then he must work with Karzai, because, in a country "destroyed by 30 years of war, with a tribal culture and a literacy rate that's among the lowest on earth," he is America's only option. Despite his many flaws and the corruption plaguing the Afghan government, Karzai is the elected president--and the "most credible" pro-America Pushtun politician in the country, Zakaria says.
The Obama administration's public sparring with Karzai--with threats to revoke his invitation to the White House--has only undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, argues Zakaria. "Venting is not foreign policy." Zakaria pleads that criticism of Karzai should be kept private.
11:30 AM ET -- Taliban threatens to kill French journalists. According to CNN, the Taliban militants who captured two French journalists are threatening to kill them unless the French government meets their demands. The Taliban have submitted a list of detainees to the government of France, asking France to free them in exchange for the release of the two French hostages.
The Taliban also demanded that a French television channel air the pleas of the hostages. France 3 Television eventually aired the footage, but blurred the faces of the hostages. The video is available online.
11:00 AM ET -- Marjah is still insecure after offensive. The Los Angeles Times reports that insecurity is a major concern in Marjah, two months after U.S. and Afghan soldiers launched a military campaign to defeat the Taliban presence there. While 2,000 U.S. troops remain in Marjah to provide security, the Taliban continue to disrupt life by planting roadside bombs and by visiting the homes of Afghan civilians at night in order to intimidate them.
From the LA Times:
Villagers interviewed separately told of feeling hemmed in by insurgents and their homemade bombs, six weeks after the main fighting of the offensive ended.
"No one can move about freely. There is no security," said Marjah tribal elder Sultan Mohammad Shah, 64. "The Taliban are killing and beating people, and no one knows what is going on the next block over because they cannot go anywhere."
He and others said promised government services have been slow to materialize. "If the situation remains like this, people will leave Marja," Shah said.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports that Marines are leading a campaign to rid Marjah of poppy crops. The new program consists of paying farmers to plow under their fields--so as to prevent poppy cultivation--and having Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials raid poppy collection sites. The DEA is playing an expanded role in Afghanistan, working with Afghan counter-narcotics officials to tackle the country's heroin trafficking industry.